Sugar Sammy reps Quebec's emerging diversity

MONTREAL — The hottest ticket in Quebec so far this year is for a show by a local comic whose first language is Punjabi, but who cracks wise in English and French, and delights in making fun of Quebecois nationalists.

When Sugar Sammy — born Samir Khullar in the multiculti neighborhood of Cote des Neiges in Montreal — first started talking about doing a bilingual show, folks in the industry here told him he was nuts. Montreal remains a divided city culturally: English Montrealers rarely go to French-language shows, and Francophones are drawn to local French-language culture.

But Sammy believed his Show Franglais would work, and he decided to produce You’re Gonna Rire via his production own company, SugarNation. In 2011, Evenko, the concert promoter owned by the Montreal Canadiens, came onboard. Turns out Sammy was right to believe in the concept.

Since debuting at the 1,300-seat Olympia Theater in downtown Montreal in late February, the funnyman has sold out 45 shows, peddling 55,000 tickets along the way. The neat twist is that the audience on most nights is evenly split between English- and French-speaking Montrealers, and the crowd always features a wide array of ethnicities.

“Why bilingual?” he asks right at the start of the show. “Because we’re in Montreal baby!”

That might seem like an inoffensive enough statement, but there are still some Franco Montrealers who don’t like the notion that this is a bilingual city, and they fear it’s becoming too English.

While Sammy is an equal-opportunity wisecracker, there’s no question he saves his most cutting remarks for Quebec nationalists, the folks still hoping the province will separate from Canada and make its way as an independent nation.

“It’s not a popular thing to say you’re a federalist or that it’s a good thing to learn English,” Sammy says. “Then you see this guy coming in who’s giving you a real picture of what Quebec is like.”

Sammy is what locals call “a child of Bill 101,” a law brought in by the nationalist Parti Quebecois government in the late ’70s that required immigrants to go to a French-speaking school. Before that, most went to English schools. Sugar Sammy hails from an immigrant family and speaks four languages — Punjabi, Hindi, French and English — which gives him the confidence to speak his mind politically as a kind of poster boy for the new Quebec.

Sammy plans to tour the rest of the province with a French-only version of the show in the fall, and then make a cross-Canada road trip with an English show. He’s also developing an English-Hindi-Punjabi show he’d like to perform in Canada, the U.S. and even India.

The comic has fielded no shortage of calls from film and TV producers since You’re Gonna Rire took off, and says he is set to announce a TV series and film project shortly.

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