Photo by Nabila Mahdjoubi
“I like going against the current. It’s a lonely place, but you have your own lane.”
In this episode of the Numinus podcast, Dr. Joe speaks with comedian Sugar Sammy, one of the hottest comedians on the international circuit. Sam has performed over 1700 shows, in 32 countries, in English, French, Hindi, and Pubjabi. He grew up and started his career in Montreal, craftily poking fun at the cultural and linguistic tensions in Quebec. In recent years, he has broken through in the rest of Canada, the US and, more recently, France, where he was recently named “the new king of comedy.” His comedy blends cool charisma, sharp wit, and immense cultural sensitivity to deliver laughs in an impressive diversity of environments. Sam is also surprisingly humble, down-to-earth, and well-adjusted, especially for a comedian. He is doing a cross-Canada tour at the end of this summer and then heading back to France for his starring role in season 2 of La France a un incroyable talent (the French version of America’s Got Talent).
Their conversation covered:
- His hometown and how it shaped his comedy
- His process for creating new material
- How he builds the arc of his performances and manages interactions with the audience
- Cultural differences he has observed across Canada, the US, and France
- How he manages controversy and social media backlash
- On staying sane in the entertainment industry
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Here are some highlights from the interview:
On Comedy Across Cultures
When I hear you talk about how you grew up in a multicultural neighborhood, and you speak four languages, English, French, Punjabi, and Hindi, I think, ‘Not every kid growing up in Cote Des Neiges is an internationally renowned comedian.’
So there’s more to your success than just your cultural background.
I think one of the reasons my shows worked internationally is because I was always very passionate about writing a show that spoke to people. I want them to say, ‘Wow. That’s interesting that this guy has gotten to know us this well.’
And that’s what I get in France now because I built a whole show just for France. It’s basically a roast of France, a cultural roast to France. And the way I did it was I spent time there and I actually immersed myself in the culture. And very quickly identified what makes us different, what makes them interesting.
I know a lot of people who’ve come from Quebec and who’ve gone to France. And the reason why they didn’t make it in France is because they took their Quebec show and they transported it word for word to France and said, ‘Oh. This should work.’ It didn’t because the style was different, the language was different, the culture was different. And it was almost like watching someone–you know let’s say you’re Canadian and you’re listening to someone talk about the laws and the cultural traditions of New Zealand.
You’re like fine. It’s interesting. But am I going to go see this comedian over someone who has really adapted their comedy to me, talking to me. They’re not talking about themselves. They’re talking about me.
So you’re actually taking the time to say, ‘Hey look. I’m making the show about you guys. I’m not making it about myself.’ And I think that’s the mistake a lot of comedians make.
They’re like, ‘No, I want this to be about me.’ I’m like, ‘No. I want this to be about the crowd. I want this to be about the audience.’
Companies will make that mistake too. They’ll bring a product that’s foreign to a new country and their marketing and the product will just be exactly the way it was back home.
But the successful companies are the ones who go, ‘Okay. Well this is us. This is them. Now how we make this work abroad? How do we speak to them?’
So I saw this headline, I think in a French magazine, that said something like ‘the funniest Frenchman is Quebecois.’
It took me leaving Quebec to be labeled Quebecois [laughs].
The other thing that I see at the end of your video clips on your website is that there are people giving their testimonials about your show. And more than once the audience members will say, “It’s precise.” You’re really hitting the mark with these cultural references.
And that’s unusual to be able to do that in more than one context. So how do you do that?
Well I think it’s homework. A lot of it is really doing the homework and taking the time and being patient and having that luxury of saying, ‘Okay. Well I’m just gonna go there write, test out material every day, see what works and what doesn’t.’ It’s almost like you’ve got to master your subject. It’s like you’re writing a thesis about them.
And so you have to really do your research, and then cut out the fat and get to the heart of your subject matter. And I think that’s what resonates.
Once you get all that information, you’ve got to take what you need and you’ve got to take the precise stuff. So like sometimes I’ll just test it on people from that country. ‘So what do you think about this?’ And sometimes they’ll say, ‘A lot of people have said that already.’ So I don’t want to touch it.
Then maybe the next thing, they’ll say, ‘Oh. This is so true. No one has ever said that though before.’ Sometimes the things that we take for granted, someone else is able to identify about us.
If a comedian came in from abroad and started talking about the construction in Montreal, we’ve heard it a million times.
But if they were able to identify something that we’ve taken for granted for years and then were able to pinpoint it precisely, we’d be like, ‘Oh, this guy really did his research.’ Or if they were able to really get the gist of what’s going on with Bill 21, which is, you know, the bill to ban religious symbols in certain contexts, you’d be like, ‘Okay. How do you know this?’ ‘Oh. I’ve been here for like three weeks. I’ve been reading up on it, watching your news and talking to people on the ground. You need all of that.
You need the information from some sort of news outlet or the Internet or whatever. But then you also need to be on the ground and ask people and talk to them. And really get what’s at the heart of it.
On Managing Success
What advice would you have for someone that wants to be successful in a career–could be in show business–but also doesn’t want to go crazy?
I think you have to work on yourself, before you get to that level.
And make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Really ground yourself in your real life you know. And do it for the right reasons, especially in this business. If you’re doing it for the fame and the money, this can be a long, long road because the percentage of people who actually make a living doing this is so minute.
You have to be very patient. I mean this is my twenty-third year of doing comedy, and for the first ten, I didn’t make any money. You have got to love the process, and there are no shortcuts. People always want the shortcut for everything. Everything. Working out. Diet. Exercise. Give me the shortcut.
What’s going to save you is building it long term and building it for real and building a real foundation in your life and in your work. So work hard. Be consistent. And always make sure you’re giving your best.
Because it’ll lead to great things.