Sugar Sammy can make you laugh in four languages
…and that’s four more than a lot of comedians.
Though his bio and Wikipedia page label him as a “Canadian comedian,” Samir Khullar is likely the closest thing we have to a truly global comedian. Fluent in four languages (English, French, Punjabi, and Hindi), and born to Indian parents in Montreal, while also having lived in Paris and toured the world several times over, the comedian better known as “Sugar Sammy” has a truly world-wide audience. His calendar is booked solid through 2019. The New York Times called him a “Quebec comedian…happy to offend in any language.” He’s both prolific and hilarious.
I’ve loved listening to the bits posted on Spotify because they’re all examples of crowd work, interacting, and joking with, audience members on the spot. He has a deft eye for finding details others might miss, and making something funny of it, instantly.
This week, Sugar Sammy will be at the Parlor in Bellevue, Thursday through Saturday night, playing five shows total. I spoke with him by phone last week about his tour, the spontaneity of crowd work, and what he has planned for the rest of the year (spoiler: lots of comedy and lots of shows all over the world).
I was wondering if you could talk about how you got into comedy, or how you turned your story into such a great and prolific comedy career.
Well I mean I’ve always wanted to be a comedian. It wasn’t something that I picked later on in life. I think it was something that I’d always be interested in as a kid. And fascinated with the profession of being a comedian. I’d watch comedians with such admiration. I was hoping one day that I could be, not knowing that it was a realistic, a realistic career choice at all. But you know, still having it in the back of my mind and trying to pursue it. Maybe just dipping my feet into it from time to time. And then eventually going in full time. So I always knew as a kid that, that’s, that was my real passion. I’d always be drawn to it. I’d always watched and for, you know, cow jokes or figure out a way to be in front of an audience whether it was in school or anywhere else, to try to make sure I could do this somehow. Even it wasn’t as a profession it would be as a hobby.
But I was listening to some of your clips that you put or that were on Spotify and I don’t think I ever heard crowd work that’s as funny as yours. So how did you develop that skill? It was just hilarious all these things that I would have never expected that came off like right on the fly, it sounded like.
Yeah, I mean I think just the exercise of it, I think, always made me a better writer. Just getting better at crowd work made me a better writer in general. And in Canada, one of the things that’s very different in terms of our industry in Canada compared to the states, is the function and the job of the host in comedy clubs is pretty you there. Almost even-scale with the headliner. And it’s the same in the UK. In the UK a lot of times when I perform at The Comedy Store you have the host and four comedians doing 20 minutes each and everybody was at the same level. And the host was the most important part of the show. It’s one of those skills that you’re encouraged to develop when you’re up there hosting so much because a lot of headliners in Canada when they’re not headlining clubs, they’ll host, they’ll pick up the hosting gig because it pays well and it’s a very important job. It also just keeps refining your skill as a performer up there. And you get to try a lot of new material and you get to come up with so much stuff on the fly.
So I think just touring the world and doing that, being a part of that stable of comedians who are performing in the clubs in the UK and in Canada that probably made me better at crowd work when I got to become a headliner. I think a lot of the best comedians and some of the crowd work that I’ve seen historically, I mean there are definitely exceptions: You look at guys like Todd Barry, who is American, but a lot of them are from Canada and from the UK, you know?
What I liked about listening to your crowd work bits, and I’m going to see it live when you’re at the Parlor next week, is that it’s a much different feel than, say, hearing someone tell the same joke for the fiftieth time, because they’re trying to perfect telling a joke for a comedy special later, or something. The spontaneity is exciting.
Yeah. Well it’s a good way for me to also stay engaged with my audience because a lot of times a comedian will perform and you’re on autopilot mode. And for me it’s always like it’s important to make sure that every audience that comes out is special. Every show is special. A lot of my fans come out to multiple shows whenever I’m touring. They’ll come out, you know in Canada I’ve had people come up to the, come see the same tour. They’ve been by, they’ve been to my show over 20 times because they know it’s gonna be different every night. And for me it’s also a part of the excitement is being up there on stage and you know, I know I have my material but it’s finding that new thing that night that’s going to excite me. That’s going to make me laugh. That’s going to make me work a little bit harder and get me out of my comfort zone. I think that’s as exciting for me as it is for the audience.
I never treat it as a performance where there’s a distance between myself and the audience. I always talk to the audience. It’s always like I’m having a conversation with 400 friends, you know?
So when you treat it that way it becomes more of a personal show for you and for the audience. And I love that connection. Connecting with the audience and really having a real connection rather than just being up there and go okay, I’m just going to phone it in. Here’s my show. I know how it is. I know where the beats are. I know where people are supposed to laugh. I want to come up and go okay, let me talk to this audience and let me get to know them. And let me get to have everybody get to know each other, you know, introduce everybody. So a lot of people, when I do crowd work, they get to know certain people in the audience and what makes them tick and things that that are on their minds.
So to me that’s fun creating those human connections. I think sometimes you know in the arts especially, I think that’s the reason why artists do this is to really feel something that’s, that special and that deep and that almost primal with an audience. That’s exciting, I think.
Right. I don’t want to say anyone is getting ripped off or anything, but there’s something kind of disappointing, albeit well after the fact, of going to see a touring comedian do their show in a club, and then, six months later, the Netflix special comes out and it’s basically the same show.
Yeah, I mean to me I think that’s the most important is when you don’t treat the audience like they’re guinea pigs for something bigger, for something special that you’re going to do later on. That’s the show, you know?
They’re important. They’re the main event. I mean they’ve shown up and they’ve taken their time to see me on a Saturday night, buy two tickets, parking, dinner, babysitter, whatever it took. And their time, their precious time to come out. I owe them that experience. I owe them that connection. I’m not just up there going well let me just put this together and sort of wing it and try to figure out my next special. No, that’s the show. The most important thing that night is to give them my best.
You’re on this US tour that’s wrapping up shortly, I think the shows near me, in Bellevue, are at the end, or close to the end of the tour. What’s next for Sugar Sammy after that?
Well I’m wrapping up this US tour. Then I have France coming up. I have my residency in Paris. I have two months of shows in Paris, so three times a week, April and May. All April and May. And that’s in a 600 seat theater called L’Alhambra. So, that’s all online.
And then I’m going to Morocco and Lebanon. That’ll be announced very soon. It should be announced within the next week. And then I’m going to be doing a Canadian tour this fall. So big Canadian theaters this fall and then again a French tour this fall as well. And then, yeah, so that’s what’s coming up in the next year.
That’s quite a busy year you have!
Oh yeah, I love working. Give me a stage and an audience and I’ll go up there.
How many shows do you do in a year?
Well we go … I did seven in Atlanta last week. I did five in New York the week before. I’m doing one in D.C. this week. I’m doing five in Seattle next week. And when I get back home, I’m doing a corporate show on the 20th. But it varies, you know. I’d probably say it’s got to be a few hundred. It’s got to be at least a couple hundred shows a year.
It must be exhausting, especially doing two shows on Friday and Saturday nights.
In Atlanta I did three last Saturday. I did a 6:00 o’clock, 8:00 o’clock and 10:00 o’clock.
And it was fun because by the time I’d gotten to the 10:00 o’clock show I wasn’t sure about certain jokes and I’m like did I already do it or not? Your brain starts playing tricks on you. But it became fun for myself as well, it was a challenge. It’s good to keep your brain active, you know?
I’ll end on this. One thing I really admire is how you built your career largely by being funny on stage every night, all over the world. I mean that you’re doing really well and selling out venues, but people are going because they’ve heard you’re really funny from a friend, not because they’ve seen you on a TV show, or something, at least here in the US. How would you tell someone to take a chance on your comedy, like go to a show for the first time to see you live?
Oh, I would say it’s going to be a great night. It’s a big party. It’s a fun party on stage. They’re gonna laugh. They’re gonna have a great time. They’re going to have a collective experience. And you know, we’re gonna have fun. It’s going to be a little bit dangerous, but you’re gonna come out lighter than you left.