"I think I was definitely influenced by African-American comedy a lot. I was really drawn to that and I think it's a natural thing for me to be drawn to because I always found being an ethnic comedian myself, you could relate to someone who's talking from the margins in society. They were talking about everything they've been through from the point of view as a visible minority."
– Sugar Sammy
Guy MacPherson: Bonjour!
Sugar Sammy: (laughs) How you doing?!
GM: Is this Sucre Samuèl?
SS: Yeah, what's up, Guy? It's been too long. Ghee, I'll call you Ghee. Ghee MacPhairson [heavy French accent].
GM: Sure. I was just checking when the last time we talked was. Do you know when it was?
SS: It's gotta be 2010, 2011.
GM: Yup, 2010.
GM: And then 2008 the first time.
SS: Wow. That's crazy. It's been that long? I've just been away. The French side just took off like crazy.
GM: I know! And you were just really starting that then?
SS: Yeah, I just kind of tried it out. I did this one gala set at Juste Pour Rire and the whole province just got behind it and then all of a sudden I was touring for like four years, doing 1400 seats a night four to six nights a week. It just went crazy. I just ended that last year.
GM: The French side, you mean?
SS: Mm-hmm. I did a French tour all across Quebec and I did the same show but the bilingual version just for Montreal. I was just booked every night so I couldn't walk away from that momentum. I was like, I'm doing something different and special and it feels like the fans are really getting behind it so let me see this through and see how far I can take it, and here we are. We're in 2017 and we've been away from each other for seven years.
GM: I was just looking at your website for shows. In two days, you'll be in Paris. By the way, where are you right now?
SS: Right now in Montreal. I'm flying to Paris tonight.
GM: So Paris, then on the 11th Montreal, Montreal again on the 12th. 13th? Surrey.
SS: Yeah, that's crazy. I'm flying out that morning. I fly out that morning, I land, and I get on stage.
GM: All these exotic places. Well, to us Montreal is still exotic. Paris, and then Surrey.
SS: (laughs) Surrey! Well, that's exotic to us.
GM: It's exotic to nobody.
SS: But I'm looking forward to it, man. I haven't been to BC to do a show in a public way – I've done a few corporates out there – but I haven't done a public show in the Vancouver area in a long time, so I'm looking forward to touching base with my audience again.
GM: When did you start performing in Hindi and Punjabi?
SS: I've always been doing those whenever the Indian community wanted to do specialty shows just for the community, I'd always make it a bilingual English/Punjabi show or an English/Hindi show, depending on where it was. The northern part of India, it's English and Punjabi, and the more south you go from that it's Hindi and English. It's been fun to actually be able to do it in different languages and different cultures. It's a great experience.
GM: When you're performing in India and it's a bilingual show, what's the percentage? Is it just a few lines in Hindi and then the rest in English?
SS: You feel it out. If it's a young audience, they probably want to hear a little more English. I usually edit and decide as I'm on stage. I just feel the audience. It's always a dance with the audience. You don't want to just come out there and have a prescripted idea of where to go; you want to be able to have different doors you can open while you're up there.
GM: You're fluent in those languages, but other than just the translations of jokes, what's the biggest challenge going from language to language?
SS: Oh, I don't think it's linguistic as much as it is cultural. It's being able to connect to a new culture or demographic. I would say the Indian audience in Surrey is going to be different than the Indian audience in India so my approach will be different. I think I'll have some similar material – obviously some universal issues – but the way I get into it is probably different. My approach is different. Like when I go to India, I usually start talking about the differences between the India that my parents told me about before they left, and the reality of what it is today, because they haven't been there in forty years. So that gap – that generational, cultural, geographical gap – is where the comedy happens. I guess for an Indian audience in Canada, it'll probably just be generational. And I'll talk about general stuff, too. I'll give them a Canadian point of view, which they'll appreciate, but I'll also talk about the generational gap between my parents and myself, but here, you know? More of what goes on here. So you have to approach every audience in an anthropological way and say, 'Okay, who are they? And how can I build a bridge between myself and them? And what can I learn from them and how do I adapt to them on stage?' You have to have that approach every time.
GM: You're the Margaret Mead of comedy.
SS: (laughs) Okay, I'll take that. That's the first time I've heard that.
GM: So your parents are still around?
SS: My parents are still around, yeah.
GM: And they haven't been to India in forty years?
SS: Well, my dad hasn't been back since the late sixties or early seventies. That I'm 100 percent sure. My mom, last time she was there, was the late eighties/early nineties, around there.
GM: I can see a documentary in the making of you taking them back to India.
SS: My God. It would be a lot of silence probably. (laughs) It would be the most boring documentary ever.
SS: Because they'll probably be shocked at how it's changed. It's going to be the shortest documentary: 'Okay, let's go home. I want to go to bed. I want my couch. I want my bed. I want my home.'
GM: Do they romanticize the India they remember?
SS: They definitely romanticize it. I mean, it's the equivalent of someone leaving America in the late fifties/early sixties and going somewhere else and saying, 'In America, people don't just jump into bed with each other; we have dates and you have to go and ask the dad if it's okay to take his little girl out, and you've got to bring her back by a certain time, we go to a drive-in, we have milkshakes.' And you're like, 'Oh, okay.' And you go there and it's completely different. Miley Cyrus is on TV and the Kardashians are every little girl's idols.
GM: And you're going, 'Where's the Big Bopper?'
SS: Exactly, exactly! So that's kind of what we get in terms of the sales pitch for India. Then I went there and it was completely different. So that definitely became a part of my act when I was there. They got a big kick out of that.
GM: Do you like it there? Is it better than you expected? Or worse? Or just different?
SS: Well, it's definitely different. I mean, it's more modern than they described in certain ways, culturally. I don't think I would be able to live there right now. Economically it definitely hits you as soon as you land that there's a big disparity between the rich and poor and you see it right away. And you see it in a way bigger way than you would in North America. That's a definite shock. And just the density, in terms of the population, is pretty incredible over there. So it's definitely an adaptation. I could live there but I'm pretty happy in Canada. I think Canada right now is one of the best places to be in 2017. Having travelled around, I think it's a more comfortable and safe place to live than a lot of other places.
GM: Especially seeing you in that video in front of 115,000 people, in light of what happened a few days ago in Vegas.
SS: Yeah. I don't think I thought about that once while I was out there. I mean, it could happen; I do think about it. I think if I was doing a show in France, I would think twice before booking it outdoors in such a big, crowded place. I don't know if an outdoor show is the best thing right now.
GM: Why France when this happened in Vegas?
SS: Yeah, it happened in Vegas but it happened in France, too. I'm just giving it as an example.
GM: Oh, yes, because there's a lot of stuff happening in France.
SS: Yeah, exactly. There's a lot of stuff happening everywhere. I think I'd think about that in the UK, I'd think about that in France, I'd think about it in Vegas. You would think about it in Canada but that night I didn't. I kinda trusted my audience. I trusted that nothing would happen. It wasn't a thought, you know?
GM: When was that?
SS: It was 2016.
GM: That had to be a little trippy with that many people.
SS: Yeah, it was great. It was fun.
GM: How many people was it? And how is that even possible?
SS: Yeah, it was crazy. It was outdoors. Downtown Montreal they blocked a bunch of streets.
GM: How do you fit 115,000 people into streets?
SS: It's a big... It's called La Place de Spectacle. It's a whole, big outdoor area. It's a very wide street that's made for outdoor shows. The jazz festival happens there. Stevie Wonder played there. The Jacksons played there. All those guys do free shows. I mean, obviously I think sponsors pay for it. But that's one of our big outdoor venues in Montreal for shows. There are always free shows there. They always bring in some big names to do free shows there, and that's where I did my finale for my big Quebecois tour in 2016. It started in 2012. I sold 372,000 tickets for it and then as a farewell, I did this one big finale where I invited everybody to come out one more time and see it for the last time. And that was the end of that.
GM: Can a group that size all focus?
SS: Well, they did that night. That was good. You have to make sure you bring it and you have to make sure you're ready to play to the back of the room or the back...
GM: The back of the town.
SS: Yeah, exactly. It went on for like four blocks but there were outdoor screens as well, obviously. There were screens all over the area so some people watched from a couple blocks down or five blocks down. It was pretty massive.
GM: More and more comedians are playing arenas. Where does this rank in the number of people at a comedy show at one time?
SS: This one was free. But I've heard of – or I've actually seen footage of – this German comedian who played a mega-stadium. It was the equivalent of their Wembley. It was like 70,000 tickets that he sold. I think that's kind of impressive in its own way. I mean, I don't know if I would play that big an audience, or even a quarter of that size, for a paying audience. I thought it was a fun free show for everybody who couldn't come out for four years. The city got behind it, the province got behind it, but not everybody could afford tickets to a show. Not everybody could afford to pay sixty bucks or seventy bucks for a show so this was fun for everybody who couldn't make it out for the last four years, whether it be scheduling or something like that. It was something cool where everybody got a chance to see it.
GM: You should have charged everyone a dollar just so you could say it was a paying audience.
SS: (laughs) I was fine. I was fine with that. I don't know what the logistics of that would be. It would probably be called Beg to get a loonie from everyone.
GM: You'd still make $115,000.
SS: I'd make change and stuff. No, this was great. It was such a fun experience and it was a great way to do it. I don't think I'd play stadiums. I mean, you know, never say never, unless I get to a point where I have no choice. But to me, with this show that I've done, I had the choice to play stadiums or play 1400 seats four to six times a week and I picked four to six times a week, doing more shows for less people at a time just so I could connect with everyone. I always find I want to give the best experience to my audience and I feel like for me that's where I'm comfortable: 1400 seats. I've gone up to like 1800 or 2000 but I don't like going way beyond that.
GM: Funny you should say that. Two days ago I was having coffee with Graham Clark. You remember Graham.
SS: Yeah! How's he doing?
GM: He's doing great.
SS: Oh, good.
GM: We were talking about, I think, Kevin Hart, or somebody like that, playing these mammoth venues. I said, Why wouldn't a comedian, if they're rich enough, take up residency in a city for a month and play this medium-sized theatre every day five days a week for four weeks? Then you'd get to know the town and you wouldn't have to be travelling all the time.
SS: Yeah, I agree. I probably would love to do that more but I'm sure, like with Kevin Hart, it looks like he has a way busier schedule than anyone I've ever seen when you follow him on Instagram. He's got movies to do and other stuff to take care of. But I think for me, that sounds very nice to be able to take residency. That's what I'm doing in Paris. I'm there again [for] two months and I'm taking up residency there. I've done that a couple times in the last year. I like that idea of taking in a city. And again, being anthropological; studying a culture takes more than just a day or a week. Some of it takes settling in and taking it all in and being immersed in it.
GM: When are you doing that in France?
SS: I'm going back in November. November-December I'm taking residency again in a theatre called L'Alhambra. It's a 600-seat theatre. I'll be there three times a week.
GM: When you do your act in other countries, people like a comedian to relate somehow, other than a superficial 'I flew in yesterday and here's what I've noticed.' You've got to know something about the country, I assume. Meaning, it's got to be a little different from your show when you play in another country.
SS: Yeah, you have to go deeper. For me, I spent a lot of time there just jumping on open mics and jumping in on different comedy clubs just feeling it out first and then just sticking around for a few months and really just writing and bringing it on stage. I built a show that way for France. It was built specifically for them. It took me a little while but once I got it going, it really caught on over there.
GM: There are open mics in France?
SS: Yeah, who knew? But they have a whole industry there that's booming. They have a big theatre-based industry. Once you get up there and start building a name, people come to theatre shows a lot and they like to see comedy in theatres. But they have a comedy club business that's doing pretty well. And they have one-nighters everywhere and they have a couple comedy clubs. So that definitely serves a good purpose for comedians when you're there. I really enjoy that. Actually, I feel like it's like the birth of standup there right now. The last, I'd say, five years it really started becoming the norm.
GM: But you have to wear clown makeup and do mime, don't you?
SS: No, that's the old France. Some guys still do that but now it's changing. (laughs) With all of this access to standup now internationally with things like Netflix and YouTube and all kinds of other digital platforms, I think it's becoming pretty much the norm and everyone's adhering to it and France hasn't been any different.
GM: Gad Elmaleh was a big star there and now he wants to conquer North America, and you're going the other way.
SS: Yeah, it's a cultural exchange.
GM: (laughs) You're staying at his house and he's staying at yours?
SS: Yeah, why not? It'd be a better deal for me, probably, if I stayed at his and he stayed at mine.
GM: In all the countries you've played, do any stand out as being particularly surprising going up against your expectations?
SS: I feel like every place I've played, people, when they come out to a comedy show, they're there to have a great time. I think in France you have to shake them up a little. They're a little bit in their own cocoon, in their own bubble, and they're a little bit shy to either laugh at the wrong thing or say the wrong thing. That's one of their cultural particularities. They try to make sure they come across as classy and elegant and smart and educated. And they're always very self-aware of that. So you have to kind of break that barrier before you start making them laugh honestly. It takes five or six minutes at least and then you got them. I think once you can play to a French audience, you can play to pretty much any one. It's a tougher audience to break. But I feel with everywhere, it's hard to be surprised. The one time I was very surprised last year, I played for a francophone, 100 percent French audience in Toronto. It was insane. Toronto, you always think of it as they think they've seen it all and they think they're better than the rest of Canada and they're not impressed by anything, but the French audience there went insane. It felt like they really missed francophone culture and francophone comedy when I went there and they really had an appetite for it and showed me a lot of love. It was pretty surprising but in a good way.
GM: I've seen clips of you performing in French. I don't understand what you're saying, but the style seems the same. Whatever language you're in, it's still Sugar Sammy.
SS: Yeah, it's still Sugar Sammy. It's still standup. That's the one thing, I didn't want to compromise on who I was and how I approached my standup. The only thing I wanted to do was adapt the material culturally but not the style.
GM: Every comic starting out starts out for a reason – because they've seen performers they really like and admire. Who were the people you were watching before started? And maybe even emulating for a little bit, as young comics often emulate their heroes.
SS: Geez, I think probably Eddie Murphy. If anybody doesn't see that influence in me on stage, I mean, I think I notice it every day. I'm such a big fan of Delirious. I think it's the reason I started doing standup. And as a kid I think I watched it over and over. I learned delivery and rhythm and pausing just by really immersing myself and watching that special over and over. So I think Eddie Murphy has to be top on my list.
GM: And you wear his leather jacket.
SS: I don't wear his leather jacket; I have my own. And it's black; it's not red.
GM: You don't have the leather pants.
SS: I don't have the leather pants. I decided not to go that route. I have black jeans and black leather. I kind of went the Elvis '68 special route but without the full leather. I thought that's a little too much. I think you gotta be in your twenties to pull that off. I think I've said goodbye to a full leather suit a long time ago.
GM: How old are you now? Or do you not like to say?
SS: I don't mind. I'm 41.
GM: You look the same.
SS: (laughs) I have a good lady taking care of me. She keeps me young.
GM: Good for you. Did you discover other comics along the way that you really took to before or after Eddie Murphy?
SS: Sure. I think I was definitely influenced by African-American comedy a lot. I was really drawn to that and I think it's a natural thing for me to be drawn to because I always found being an ethnic comedian myself, you could relate to someone who's talking from the margins in society. They were talking about everything they've been through from the point of view as a visible minority. So I think that was easy for me to relate to. But as I grew, I was drawn to others as well. I like comics who push boundaries. I like comics who look like they're going to get in trouble any second up there on stage. So I'm definitely drawn to that. I don't think there's any guy my age who didn't like Andrew Dice Clay for at least a couple years. And later on I started really appreciating that British sense of humour that was a little bit wrong, stuff like Ricky Gervais. I mean, every time he hosts something, I definitely want to watch it because I know he's going to offend someone and there's going to be a malaise in the room, there's going to be some discomfort up there. I really love that. And I really like Sacha Baron Cohen. I used to stay home to watch The Ali G Show when it was on HBO Canada. I think I refused to go out on Friday nights just to make sure I caught it and I didn't miss it. I wanted to catch every second of it. So for me, those are the kinds of comics that I've always been drawn to. But the older you get, you appreciate the cleaner comics and you appreciate the technique, as well. Even sometimes it's not your cup of tea, you appreciate the craft and the skill. You look at someone like Seinfeld and he's still such a pro and he still keeps getting better than he was. He was always great but he keeps getting better with age. You start looking at guys like that and you're like, That's the type of career, that's the type of path I want, as well. Your heroes evolve and change and you keep adding on to that pallet.
GM: You're not an offensive comic, but you're a little cheeky.
SS: Yeah, I think so. But I appreciate those kind of comics. I like to address the elephant in the room and bring on issues that are taboo sometimes. I've been doing that a lot the last few years. I do it in France, I do it in Quebec. I'm pushing further and further than I did seven years ago, but I still think I was cheeky seven years ago, but I think I keep challenging myself and that's pretty good.
GM: What do you talk about on stage these days? I know to be able to take it different places in the world, your act needs to be pretty universal. What are your themes? What's on your mind?
SS: It does have to be universal but a lot of times you feel like you want to do something different than you did last time the audience saw you. I talk about what's going on in my life now. I talk about how the last year of my life, half of it was spent in France and the other half in North America. I start talking about those differences between the two cultures and what I've been through. I talk about what's going on, obviously, politically in America right now – the difference, demographically, between them and us, and politically. That's definitely on my mind. That's something I talk about. And my life's changed. I have a long-term girlfriend now. I've been with her for four years. We live together. So I talk about her a lot. I talk about my family, also, and how they've adapted to that change in my life and how they're taking it. So I think that's fun. I talk about growing a little bit, growing older and having different experiences and having not just growth emotionally but growth in terms of getting to know other cultures and travelling the world a little more and having a pretty global point of view compared to even seven years ago.
GM: Is your girlfriend from Montreal?
SS: She's actually from Toronto. But don't hate her. She's from Toronto but she's been living in Montreal for seven years and we've been together for four.
GM: So she's better than you, is what you're saying.
SS: She thinks she's better than me, and she probably is. Because she's Torontonian. No, she's actually wonderful. Yeah, she's awesome.
GM: Nice talking with you again. I'll let you go.
SS: Yeah, nice talking with you, as well. I hope I get to see you.