Sugar Sammy: Racy but Sweet
When it comes to desi standup comics, the scenario is not unlike the four-minute mile. For the longest time it was believed that the human physiology was not capable of running a mile in four minutes—that is, until Roger Bannister bust this myth in 1954 when he did just that. Since then, many have managed to run the mile in four minutes and even less.
And so it was: in the eighties, when we watched and admired the kings of comedy such as Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, the standup comedy world seemed off limits to the stereotypical Indian American. One was raunchy and loud; the other introverted and studious. The only conceivable place Indian Americans could have had in this world was at the receiving end of the jokes.
Well, well, well! Look who’s delivering the punches now! It’s desis like Russell Peters, Dan Nainan, Paul Varghese, Rajiv Satyal, Rasika Mathur, Vidur Kapur, Vijai Nathan, Mark Saldana, ... the list goes on, with new names cropping up every time you turn around. It’s as if suddenly a barrier—if only a self-imposed one—broke sometime in the 90s, when the second gen desis realized, we can be funny, too, after all.
Yet only a few (such as Russell Peters, to name one) have earned a following that is much broader than the diaspora fans. And hot on the tail of Peters comes another promising star on the mainstream comedy circuit: Sugar Sammy, or Sam Khullar. Like Peters, Sammy, too, is Indo Canadian and a Punjabi who is carving a way for himself in the funny business. It doesn’t hurt that the guy performs in four languages (English, French, Punjabi and Hindi).
With his dashing looks and a physical presence that is at once, both relaxed as well as prone to contortion, Sammy seems to have a natural ease about his comic material. Unlike many standups who seem to rely on their material more than their natural style, Sammy’s material works because of him. His jokes may be tame compared to his role models Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, but be warned, they can be considered quite racy for an Indian family setting.
During a recent performance in Atlanta, the comedian sat down with Khabar to chat about his work, goals, and why he loves romantic comedies.
What do your parents think of you becoming a stand-up comedian?
They don’t know [that I am a standup comic]. They think I am a doctor at a medical convention in Atlanta. How wide is your circulation?
No, actually, in the beginning, my dad wasn’t too sure. Not necessarily because of the image thing, but mostly he was concerned if I was going to be okay. My dad owned a store and he had this delivery guy. I guess he must have told him about me wanting to become a stand-up comic—and he told my dad, ‘Stand-up comedians make millions! Robin Williams, Chris Rock, all of them.’ That slowly started turning it around for [my father]. He watches stand-up all the time, like Lewis Black. He always tells me not to be safe, to be edgy, and go the extra mile.
I heard that you had wanted to be a stand-up comedian ever since you were a child after you watched an R-rated Eddie Murphy concert on video with your family. Tell me about that.
Well, we went out to the Indian movie store and used to rent all the Indian movies. You know, the ones that were bootleg and came on the VHS—one tape with three movies on it. We rented those, all Indian movies. I asked my mom, “Why do we always rent Indian movies?” I bothered her enough that she let me take an American movie. It was between Back to the Future or Eddie Murphy’s Delirious. After [choosing and watching Delirious], I knew I wanted to be stand-up comedian.
You get help from your family for your material. How does that work?
They are my first line of defense because the actual process is [hard]—writing the material, workshopping it, trying it out at open mic nights, and perfecting it. But before that, I actually run [my material] on them. My brother and sister, when I am missing something, they take it to another level. They are always like, “you should say this after” or “say this instead.” My parents help with a lot of my Punjabi and Hindi material—they help me adapt it to the desi crowd.
How do you translate it?
Most of the time I keep it half and half. If there are certain things I can’t translate or adapt, I keep it the way it’s written.
Now, you are pretty flirtatious with your female audience. Has it ever backfired on you?
Oh, yeah. If it does, I just move on. It’s like a dance, so if they aren’t into it, I take it somewhere else.
Have you gotten dates out of that?
Oh, I have gotten relationships out of that. To be honest, the stage is really an outlet. I am not really like that at all. If I like a girl, I am pretty shy. Being on stage is who I want to be, and off-stage, I am just me. And I couldn’t be that stage guy all the time.
In some countries you have been treated like a rock star. What has that experience been like?
It’s crazy and exciting because now we are selling out 1500 seats per show. But, people know my vibe. I don’t have an entourage, unless I need security—which is usually in South Africa, the Middle East, and some parts of Canada. I try to be as approachable and regular as possible. To be a comedian, you can’t start living that life because no one will be able to relate to me. Like, “You know what it’s like to have your Ferrari break down?” No one, maybe one guy, could relate to me. My research is everyday life so people can relate to my comedy and be like, “That’s me.” I try to keep as grounded as possible.
You are transitioning from Sugar Sammy to Sam Khullar. Why?
I wanted people to know, and because I get asked all the time. I am growing [professionally], and eventually, I am going to get married, have kids, and no one will want to see a 45-year-old comedian named “Sugar Sammy.” I am also transitioning into the television and music scene.
Where did Sugar Sammy originate?
I was that name in college. I was doing my comedy on the side and I became the biggest party promoter in Montreal. All these girls started calling me Sugar Sammy, and so I called my company “Sugar Sammy presents?.” I kind of already had an audience to follow me into comedy.
What are you doing in television?
I have a couple of things in development in television right now, and there is an HBO special on June 13th (HBO Canada). It will air in the States later. I have gotten a lot of offers as my name gets bigger, but it’s stuff I don’t want to do. That is why I also don’t spend my money: so I can say no to things I don’t want to do and just live off my savings. I don’t want to do the convenience store guy or “ the accent” because I feel my audience will be like, ‘What is he doing?’ ‘Why is he doing this?’ Not that I am ashamed, but we are not that anymore, and if I keep playing these roles, then we just fuel that stereotype. I really like Kal Penn, who was on House, did his comedy with Harold and Kumar, and is just an intelligent guy. But you know, I really want to do a romantic comedy. I love romantic comedies.
What are some of your favorites?
Oh, French Kiss with Meg Ryan, My Best Friend’s Wedding—I love those; they make me feel good, especially after a breakup. (Some laughter) Don’t laugh at me!
Besides Eddie Murphy, who are the other comedians you look up to?
Oh, Eddie [Murphy] is my top, but Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock?. I am very grounded in African-American comedy. It got me into comedy because it’s raw, unafraid. They go after truths that are hurtful, but it’s what everyone is thinking. Then I got into British comedy. I love Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen—who plays Ali G and Borat. My material is starting to fuse a lot of the black comedy and British comedy.
Any final goals?
No final goal. I love what I do, and I am not using it to get anywhere. I want longevity, and I want my audience to follow me and appreciate that I made no moral compromises in the end.
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