Sugar Sammy roasts the French and they love it

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Having discovered Sugar Sammy in November 2018 and being pleasantly surprised I felt the urge to write a blog post (Who the hell is Sugar Sammy). I have since been following him on social media and when he announced his next tour I was eager to meet him face to face.

He has performed over 1600 shows in 31 countries, was awarded best show by Le Parisien in 2018 and became a judge on ‘La France a un incroyable talent’ that same year. Co-writer and star of the sitcom ‘Ces gars-là’ and selected for an Apple ad campaign, this Indian/Canadian comic has a track record many would admire. His success is the result of his own personal journey. We met with Sugar Sammy during his European tour to discuss his show, his take on comedy and the observations he’s made along the way.

Tell us about your show
I’m performing every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Alhambra, a 600-seat theatre at Place de la République. The show is basically a cultural roast of France and especially Paris. I’ve spent the last two and half years here, viewing it the first time as an outsider. It really is a roast and I do take it quite far. I’d say it’s an honest and severe critique, coming from a Canadian‘s point of view. It’s not me being friendly or nice, I’m making fun of Parisians and shaking them up. I don’t think they’re used to it! They’re used to Québécois comedians coming here and telling them how great they are. I thought I’d change it up a little and haze them for a few months.

Your audience seems fair game, taking it all on the chin…
Yes, it’s about creating the right atmosphere and tone; letting everyone know we’re here to have fun together on the night. «I’m going to make fun of you, roast you a little, but it’s going to be like an evening with your best friend.» And I do this everywhere. I just finished my US tour which was basically a Canadian roasting the Americans for an hour and a half. This is what I find fun. But you really have to do your research as a comedian if you’re going to roast a culture. You can’t just throw out sweeping generalizations, otherwise it’ll become such a caricature and the audience will understandably be offended, but when it’s on point, people tend to appreciate it. That’s one of the comments I hear when I meet people after the show, “How did you get to know us so well?» I think a lot is sitting down, asking the right questions… And immersion. I’ve immersed myself as a local.

You say you’ve immersed yourself. Do you live here?
Yes, I’m in Paris six to eight months of the year. I’m still a resident of Canada because I don’t want to pay the French taxes. (You know there’s a problem with the tax system in your country when your tax haven is Canada. Fellow Canadians will understand.)

When you’re here that long you tend to notice little details more and more that make their way into the show, but not just that, every time I leave and come back, I see it again with fresh eyes. I keep adding things in.

Sex, religion, politics. You touch on everything and anything, how do you refrain from crossing that line?
Usually, if I don’t get someone at the start of the show, I’m sure I’ll have them on board by the end. I feel that once I have them in a room, I’ll get them. I try to keep to foolproof material that can’t go wrong, even when it’s dangerous. That’s the type of material I like writing. When it feels like it might go wrong, there’s something explosive that could come out of it, but people will come out laughing. It’s kind of like being on a roller coaster: you know you’re going to feel a sensation of danger, but you also know you’ll be safe at the end of it. That’s kind of how I feel.

Photograph : Justine Lephay.

Surely you need to test that material.
Right! I’ll test it at open mics, and little café theatres to really hone it before I bring it on stage. I’ll always test new stuff at open mics, that’s how I built the show – a bunch of open mics, hundreds of them put together is what built this show. Even then, I keep perfecting and throwing in something new.

The most recent development in France since your last tour is the Gilets Jaunes movement. Will the subject appear on stage?
Of course! You have to talk about it, you can’t avoid it. As a comedian, if you avoid topics like this, you’re not only doing a disservice to the art form but also to your audience. I’ll do it in every show; talk about what’s going on outside. People want to hear about it, in a manner where it’s a relief. I’ll touch on any tensions that exist in society, whether it’s religious, racial or political tension. I won’t shy away from it. Even how things are done here, the red tape it takes to get through anything. I went to the Préfecture to get my visa done, I thought it would take an hour max. Forget that. Anything you expect to take an hour will take a couple of days. Don’t plan more than one thing a day. I’ve never seen any country do business like this and continue to survive. That in itself is the talent that the French have.

You mention practicing your material, the show doesn’t come across as scripted, a large part of it is improvised. Where does your improv skillset come from?
This is part of North American culture. Being a compere is an important job and I had to do it a lot. Because I had that skillset I grew as a host in the USA, Canada and England to correlated headlining. For me, the improv is the most exciting part of my show. I know my show, I know my material, but being able to create new material on the fly and get that writer’s brain working in emergency mode, getting creative in unique moments, is what gets me excited, engaged and makes it certain I don’t go into autopilot.

It’s easy for comedians to fall into autopilot mode, and you see it a lot. I don’t want that for me, nor for my audience. I want to have as much fun as the audience and I think it shows. Creating those magic moments, that’s what I live for. I never started this for money. If you’re doing stand-up for money it takes a long time and it’s the biggest gamble in the world; nothing is guaranteed – far from it. It’s always about creating the magic every night, that’s the orgasm.

Improv is a whole different art form. I salute those who do only improv. I have my material to fall back on when things don’t work, I’ll weave in and out of material. It’s a mix of prepared and improv that makes the show interactive. There has to be an underlying theme or energy to the show. Like a musician, you’ll see a musician has their set song list, but you can see they have the most fun when they’re on the side jamming.

So, when we see you improvising, we know you’re have fun.
Yeah, I’m having fun or looking to have a good time. It’s me straying from the material and looking out there for a good time. I love that, it’s my favourite part. We tape every show and it’ll be fun for my audience, even if not at the show they’ll enjoy it online. I only put stuff that is never going to happen again, hundreds of unique moments.

You’ve now performed in 31 countries, how do you adapt for each local audience?
I’ll arrive days before, take notes and observe, from the airport to the hotel, then talk to the locals. They’ll say yes, or yes but take a look at this. Then I’ll test it on a new circle of friends; add the material that is universal and improvise to see if I’m wrong. There is always an element of trial and error.

How long is that trial and error period?
It’s ongoing, even here in France. I’ve been performing for two years and it’s going very well, but I’m always going to change and add new things. It’s work in progress, never done. You’ve never finished a show. Ever. You’re always striving, but can never achieve the perfect show. It’s the attempt to, the journey. That’s what is the perfect show. I’ve had shows where I’ve improvised 90%. I once did a show in Ottawa to 280 seats. I started off talking to the person in the first row and then did the rounds, talking to almost everyone in the audience. When I looked at the time, a hour and fifteen minutes had passed and I’d barely touched my material. And they loved it, I loved it. That’s the perfect show. However, no material… so maybe not perfect. You’re never fully satisfied, which is a good thing. It pushes you to be better every time.

You attract an audience from all walks of life. What differences have you noticed among different nationalities?
The French are reserved, they don’t like standing out, they like to blend in and be judged from afar. They don’t like to run the risk of being ridiculed, which I think is culturally inherent from schooling. The Americans love participating, it’s the freedom they have to be themselves. Whenever I go to the States and throw a question out there I’ll get 5, 6 or 7 people right away, whereas here it can be a struggle to get one person early on, until it loosens up.

The Canadians are somewhere in between, but the Brits… Let me tell you, when I perform in England I notice one thing, everyone in the audience thinks they are smarter than you, funnier than you and should be up there instead of you. They’ll get drunk and try to take over the show. If you don’t have the perfect response, they’ll eat you up like vultures, they’ll team up and kill you on stage. You have to be more prepared than usual when performing in England.

Have they ever caught you out on stage?
In the beginning, sure. I remember one time in England, I was becoming so mean with the audience that I thought to myself «Geez, I need to go to Canada, spend some time with my mom and become a human being again! » I was so savage and vicious once; I remember the audience loved it, but this poor girl was destroyed after she tried to heckle me. She did deserve some of it, just not at the level I gave.

It’s safe to say your career is a success. What advice would you give someone starting out ?
I’m not complaining, that’s for sure. My advice would be, it’s never going to be easy. It’s a lot of work. It’s almost like people look at what you do and think to themselves, this isn’t hard, you put a few things together and there we go. But you know what it takes, all those details, creating something. In the background, you’re always working, 24/7, it’s your own business. Get ready when you become an artist, you’re not employed by anyone; there’s no boss, no one is telling you what you do. You are in charge of every single part of it, and if you do it right, you’re not only going to work on the creative side but on all the other things around it, so make sure you’re ready! Take it seriously and be ready to dedicate all your time and effort to it. Tough it out, because there will be tough times, lots of tough times. You’re going to suffer, but man, once you pass that threshold and it becomes a full-time thing, there’s nothing more rewarding.

Sugar Sammy is currently performing every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night in Paris at the Alhambra until June 1st 2019.
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