Sugar Sammy’s multilingual comedy

Subtitle
14 min readDec 13, 2023

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Standup comedian Sugar Sammy (Photo by Charles William Pelletier / Creative Commons)

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Patrick Cox: The French version of America’s Got Talent is called La France a un incroyable talent: “France has an unbelievable talent.” Similar title, similar format: performers, live audience and a panel of judges which includes an entertainment industry insider, a singer or two and a comedian — someone who dishes out monstrous insults but gets away with it, usually, because they’re funny and charming. In this French show, that comedian is Samir Khullar. He doesn’t hold back.

He tells this Swiss singer, “We all know Switzerland is a neutral country but that’s a declaration of war.”

And he asks this singer — who’s fully grown, looks like he’s in his late 20s:“Do you still live at home with your parents?” “Yes” says the singer. “Yeah, I know,” says Samir.

Samir Khullar has been a repeat judge: He’s been on the show for 6 seasons now. French audiences love him, but he’s not French. He is Canadian, from Québec, best known there as a standup comedian. He’s a star in several countries, in several languages. His name? Sugar Sammy.

From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: stories about languages and people who speak them. Today a conversation about the languages that Sugar Sammy speaks and the riotous comedy he makes out of them.

Patrick Cox: Here’s a classic Sugar Sammy riff.

Sugar Sammy: I saw a fast food Indian place called Curry in a Hurry. That’s crazy. Like, how fast do you need this food? That food is not meant to be made that fast. They open up a drive-through, how’s that gonna work? “Okay, just splash it on me. Come on, just splash it! I’ll turn around, sprinkle it on me man. Put it on the roll and roll around in it. The meter is running.” White guy’s laughing. That’s racist.

Patrick Cox: I think you can hear that Sugar Sammy has that ability that the best comedians do of being able to bring up edgy ideas, make people uncomfortable, and then reassure them, kind of. Anyway, that’s his English standup. In his French show, he pokes just as much fun at French speakers, Francophones, as he does at English speakers, Anglophones. When I was in Montreal to meet him — it was a few years back — there’d been a big scandal over the word, “pasta.”

In Québec, which is officially a French-speaking province of Canada, there is a government agency called office québécois de la langue française — the Québec Office of the French Language — which seeks to ensure that people speak French in workplaces, and that business signs are in French, that kind of thing. People who don’t like these guys call them the language police.

So anyway, the office québécois de la langue française sent a letter to a fancy Italian restaurant in Montreal, warning the owners that they should use French words on their menu, not Italian words. No more “antipasti.” No more “calamari.” And definitely no more “pasta.” Cue outcry. Cue resignation of the director of the office québécois de la langue française. Cue mockery directed at overzealous bureaucrats. And cue a new “gate” word: Pastagate.

For Sugar Sammy, Pastagate was irresistible. In the wake of it, he appeared at an awards ceremony on one of Québec’s French-language channels. He was one of the people announcing the nominations, together with none other than then-premier of the province of Québec, Pauline Marois. She’s a Québec nationalist, a strong supporter of French language protections. Up on stage on live TV, Sugar Sammy wasn’t going to let that pass without doing some simultaneous translation into English.

Announcer: Les nominations sont…

Sugar Sammy: And the nominees are…

Patrick Cox: Then as looks as the premier as he translates those words into French.

Sugar Sammy: Ça veut dire “les nominations sont.”

Patrick Cox: And she plays along, in English then in French.

Pauline Marois: Shut up! Ça veut dire “Tais toi.”

Patrick Cox: That appearance won Sugar Sammy a load of new fans among both French and English speakers in Québec. And pretty soon, he was performing four different types of stand-up: a show in French, one in English. He calls that The Illegal English Edition. He also had a spin-off of the English show called The Indian Edition.That’s mainly English but there’s also Hindi and Punjabi thrown in, and some French. And then there’s the version of his show that I think he’s most proud of. It’s called You’re Gonna Rire. Rire — if only I could pronounce it correctly — means laugh. It’s a bilingual 50/50 French and English standup. People at the time told Sugar Sammy that that linguistic format would never succeed, that he had to pick either French or English but not do both at the same show. It turned out to be a huge success. And he’s still doing it.

Sugar Sammy was born in Montreal to parents who’d immigrated from India. He told me that at home and especially at school, he’d always played the funny rebellious guy.

Sugar Sammy: I’d host all the talent shows at school, and when we’d have school trips, the teachers would let me go to the front of the bus to entertain the kids. I would host those shows in French but I do probably my entertaining in English whenever I could, just because I went to French school, it was pretty much the rules. You’d have to do everything in French.

Patrick Cox: But you would constantly want to flip back to English?

Sugar Sammy: And just because it wasn’t allowed, you know? As soon as you’re not allowed as a kid, you want to do it. And I guess that’s what I’ve become as an adult, you know? Whenever people tell you that you can’t really talk about it, you can’t do it in this language or you can’t do a bilingual show, I always feel like, well, why not?

Patrick Cox: Well, tell me a little bit about the bilingual show because that was based on people telling you, what — you wouldn’t be able to sell it out?

Sugar Sammy: Well, not just not sell it out. But you wouldn’t be able to pull it off in Montreal, because you know, everybody thinks there are two solitudes.

Patrick Cox: Explain two solitudes to our American audience.

Sugar Sammy: Basically, Québec is a province inside of Canada. Canada is the country to the north of you.

Patrick Cox: That’s where all the comedians come from.

Sugar Sammy: And the two languages, we speak two languages in Québec. Officially one language, which is French. But in Montreal in particular, there’s a big Anglophone and bilingual constituency. And it was for years thought that Anglophones don’t really watch anything that’s French culture, and vice versa, which was certain extent was true, but I knew there was a demographic in Montreal that did consume in both languages. And for years, people thought no way, there’s TV shows for the French, the radio stations for the French or a star system for the French. And there’s the same thing for the English, so there’s no way you’ll pull it off. And I always thought that other people that I know who are like me who are able to function in both languages and live in French and English on a daily basis without even thinking about it. So I decided to put the show together and try to mix both sides. You mix the French and the English and you get a great hit. It worked out and I was happy it did.

Sugar Sammy: Ça va? What’s your name brother?

Audience member: Jean-Sébastien.

Sugar Sammy: Jean-Sébastien. You took two names. Like, “I’m gonna take two.” Jean-Sébastien, what you do brother?

Audience member: Moi, je vais à l’école.

Sugar Sammy: “Moi, je vais à l’école.” I love how I asked you in English. You’re like, f — it. I’m gonna answer in French.

Sugar Sammy: I had a feeling that there were plenty of people who wanted to, you know, hang out in the same room with people from the other side of the tracks, and enjoy something for once. It was fun. It became a party of different cultures and different languages coming together.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, absolutely. And the idea that it should be done across the two linguistic solitudes is quite meaningful, especially at a time when language tensions have risen again, in recent months.

Sugar Sammy: Yeah, the best thing you could do is make fun of it. You know, the whole Pastagate thing has taken it to another level, internationally for us as well. We were on CNN, we were on BBC, and people were talking about Pastagate, and I wasn’t too sure how we were seen. So I thought might as well make a couple of jokes. I had a tweet about it the other day as well, where I said, “Listen, I’m at a restaurant downtown. Does anybody know the French word for macaroni?” It’s “macaroni.” I think it’s almost like the elephant in the room. You’ve got to talk about it as soon as you can, because as soon as you do you liberate everybody else. You just want that freedom of laughing about the things that bother us, that are eating at us. I think that’s therapeutic for all of us, including the comedian. I feel like if you can make people laugh about it, then it’s sort of therapy for you as well.

Patrick Cox: Just a quick interruption here to tell you about the Subtitle newsletter. Did you know that we’ll pop something into your inbox, if you sign up, every two or three weeks? It’s a quick and fun read. There are language-themed stories that are in the news. You’ll see what’s coming up in future podcasts, you’ll hear about other podcasts that we’re listening to and we think you’ll like. And there’s some goofy lingo stuff as well. You can sign up here.

Announcer: Mesdames et messieurs, Sugar Sammy!

Patrick Cox: Sugar Sammy has brought his stand-up show — sometimes the French one, but usually the English one — to more than 40 countries including in the land of his parents’ birth: India. I asked him about his Indian-Canadian background. Does his ethnicity make it easier for him, more acceptable, to poke fun at his fellow Canadians? Especially the white ones?

Sugar Sammy: Well, I think the key to it — it’s not just being a visible minority, that doesn’t give you license to get away with everything. I think the key is, you’ve got to make sure that when you talk about something that you have inside knowledge. You’ve got to be an expert about it. You got to be an insider, meaning when I talk about these cultures, when I talk about these languages, when I talk about these situations, I’ve actually lived them. I’ve actually been a part of them. So your target — you nail that down. Then people connect with it, and people who are involved that you’re talking about realize that you did live this experience and you do have a friend that you know you hung out with, or you did go out with a girl who was French because we can tell with the situation that you’re bringing. When it’s just a generalization, then you’re making caricatures on stage and that’s when it gets offensive — and that’s when you can’t get away with it. Whether you’re white or black, or a visible minority or not on stage, you’ve got to be very specific. And you’ve got to have done your research. Your research has to be you have to live those moments and talk about those. And when it’s authentic and genuine people can tell.

Patrick Cox: Okay, so you’re doing French you’re doing English. And now also Punjabi, and Hindi. I mean, you must get different audience responses among your different audiences. And I wonder if that affects how you deliver your lines — and the nature of the comedy itself?

Sugar Sammy: Well, I think, for me, the language is just a means of communication. The adjustment happens culturally, meaning that if I go to India, I’ll adjust my act in terms of giving them a real point of view: I’m an Indian from North America. Here’s what I see, this is how I see India. That’s how I would approach it. And this is the India I was sold by my parents. And it’s completely different now. And I have to go tell my parents that they made a big mistake, that it’s no longer that pure India that they thought it was. So that’s the angle you have to find. What’s my point of view with this culture? So when I go into, let’s say the smaller towns in Québec, I’m a big city Montrealer, that’s the point of view I come in with. I go, “Well, look, I’m from the big city. Here’s what I see walking into your town. And this is how I feel right now.” So as soon as you put that out on the table, I think they go, Alright, he’s authentic. he’s genuine. He’s not just coming here to pander. I actually make fun of it. I go, “Listen, I know it’s a small town. Just wondering, is this the type of town where you got a sheriff and a deputy?” Just asking those kinds of questions on stage makes them go, “Okay, it’s a big city kid who’s a little bit lost. Let’s let’s help him out. And let’s have fun with him tonight.” You just gotta adjust that way. So I’m always going to adjust to different situations in different demographics. But linguistically, everybody loves to laugh, and the structure of standup will stay the same.

Patrick Cox: That’s very interesting. I mean, you hear so often are people who maybe not stand up — I don’t know of other people who do stand up in different languages — but certainly people who write, people who communicate in one form or another, do find that they do adjust. And certainly among many bilingual people, there’s that there’s the perception that they think differently, even if linguists tell us they don’t, from one language to another.

Sugar Sammy: Well, the thing with me is, because all of these languages, I basically learned them simultaneously, it doesn’t change the nature of who I am when I write in these languages. I still have that point of view, which is Sam Khullar, growing up a Montrealer, a Canadian, who grew up speaking Hindi, Punjabi, English and French at the same time. So when I write it’s still me. If I had to write in Spanish and I had to learn Spanish, then I probably have a lot of work to do because it’s a language I’m not used to. It’s a culture I’m not used to, then I’d say, “Okay, here we go. Now, I gotta make a big adjustment.” But because I grew up speaking those four languages naturally, and they were part of my development process as a kid, I feel like they’re just it’s second nature. It’s almost shorthand now.

Patrick Cox: Tell us about the four shows in four nights, all linguistically different from one another that you’re doing later on this month?

Sugar Sammy: Yeah, I felt like my workload wasn’t big enough. So I thought that I’d do four nights. I was already doing the bilingual show and the French show here in Québec anyways. So we put those back on sale for that week and it was great. And then I knew there was a small constituency of Anglophones who didn’t speak any French and who wanted to come to the shows, and said, “Listen, I don’t speak any French. I don’t understand any French.” It’s a very small percentage. “Is there going to be an 100% English show?” So I said, “Okay, I’ll do one night.” It sold out within like a week or something, that was one of the quick ones to go. So we’re doing that for the for the unilingual Anglophones. We got one for the unilingual Francophones, a bilingual one, and of course now one for the Indian population in Montreal who speak English, French, Hindi and Punjabi. So we’ll do something fun for them as well.

Patrick Cox: So on that one, are you actually going to like flip between four different languages?

Sugar Sammy: Yeah, I mean, it’ll be all organic, like I did with the bilingual show, it’ll just flow from one to the other. And I’ll have specific material for the Indians here.

Patrick Cox: Tell me a little bit about that kind of material. I mean, what what is specific to the Indian experience of Québec that is maybe different from other parts of North America?

Sugar Sammy: Well, first of all, it’s seeing things that you don’t see anywhere else. Like, you’ll see a Sikh Punjabi guy in Montreal, speaking French to another Sikh Punjabi guy from across the street, yelling things out in Québécois French to each other. Only in Québec would you see that, so that situation makes for great comedy. Also, probably the most metrosexual Sikhs I’ve ever seen in my life, are living in Montreal right now. Dressed to the T, everything matches: they got velvet blazers, they’ve got a Diesel turban. You’re like, Okay, I got to talk about this, you know? I mean, just those experiences, having that. And pointing that out, I think, is definitely something that audiences here appreciate.

Patrick Cox: And when you when you do a show in the United States, what do you tell them about where you come from?

Sugar Sammy: Well, I make fun of them a lot. I talk about being the Canadian neighbor, and then the way I see the US and we see America, so you’ll get that right away. And I talk about a bunch of things, you know like the food, the experience, the over-the-top patriotism Their obsession with hip hop, which Canadians are okay with but it’s not something that we love — you know, the hip hop culture, and their TV shows. So everywhere I go, I always bring my unique point of view and say, “Okay, well, this is where I’m from, and this is what I see.” And I think that’s, that’s what people like, they like that observation. A lot of times you’ll go into a place and people say, “Wow, you’ve pointed out stuff that’s been around for decades, and we haven’t even noticed because it’s become like wallpaper, but you actually see it.” I see it for the first time. And what’s wallpaper to some people becomes a foreground to someone who’s seen it for the first time with fresh eyes. And that’s the fun part.

Patrick Cox: Sugar Sammy, perhaps coming to a city near you. If you go to his website, which I’ll post in the show notes you can see where he’ll be touring. He’ll be in various US cities pretty much throughout 2024, and he has more dates booked right into 2025. That’s so far into the future that it’s like sci-fi.

Thanks to Allison Shao, who writes Subtitle’s newsletter and manages our social media accounts. Thanks also to Jackie Mow, and to the gatekeeper of Studio N.O.L.A. And thanks to you, the listener. If you have the inclination, please leave us a review wherever you listen.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. It’s worth checking out all of the Hub & Spoke podcasts. Here’s one of them: Rumble Strip, which tells extraordinary stories about ordinary people — or in the words of its host, Erica Heilman, good conversation that takes its time. The episode to start is probably “Finn and the Bell.” I haven’t heard a heartbreaking story like this told so movingly and respectfully. It won a Peabody Award no less.

That’s it for this time. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back sometime in January, not quite sure when. Happy New Year!

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Subtitle

A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod