Samir Khullar, the smarmy, potty-mouthed comedian who goes by Sugar Sammy, has a joke about the NDP in his new show. “Their slogan was ‘Working Together,’ ” he says, referring to the party’s unexpected breakthrough in Quebec in the last federal election, “but once they won it became ‘Holy S–t What Do We Do Now?’ ” The delivery, however, is hardly straightforward. He says the first part in English, the slogan and the bit about winning in French, then goes back to English for the punchline. He deliberately says the slogan with the tortured accent of an anglophone trying to speak French—“trah-vay-on en-som-bluh”—a not-very-subtle poke at the NDP’s earnest attempts to make the party appear more bilingual after its landslide win.
If you are a French person who doesn’t understand English, or if you’re an English person who doesn’t understand Quebec’s official language, then you’ll want to skip You’re Gonna Rire, Khullar’s new one-man show. Cheekily described as “50.5 per cent English, 49.5 per cent French” (another historical reference, this one to the 1995 referendum results), You’re Gonna Rire is thought to be the first bilingual stand-up comedy production in Canada.
There is a joke to be made about an Indian guy bridging the two solitudes—and yes, Khullar has one. But it certainly says something about Quebec, where English has long been seen as a threat, that You’re Gonna Rire has already sold out its 27-date run. “Five years ago this wouldn’t have happened,” Khullar said in an interview at Vallier, a francophone watering hole in Old Montreal. “When we get 1,000 positive comments, we don’t care about the three negative. Of course, it only takes one guy with a gun.”
Or a Quebec media type with a Twitter account. Julie Snyder, a television producer and wife of Quebecor president Pierre Karl Péladeau, tweeted her indignation that Khullar would dare do a show in “franglais.” Yet a bilingual show has challenges beyond a potential linguistic backlash; it means finding the cultural sweet spot where both French and English audiences can laugh at the same joke. There can be cultural pitfalls. “French audiences are fine if you make fun of, say, fat people, but not if you single one fat person out,” says comedian Mike Ward, who performs in both languages (though he has not done a show in both simultaneously). “In English, it’s the other way around. They’re okay if you make fun of a person, but not a group.”
If Khullar manages to get both English and French to laugh at his profane riffs on race, sex and Céline Dion, the 29,000 or so people who have already bought tickets might leave the show smarter than when they arrived. “You could argue that audience members are using more of their brains, or at least using different parts of their brains,” says Jyotsna Vaid, a McGill-trained psychology professor who has studied the effects of bilingual humour on the brain.
By telling his unprintable joke about Dion hubby René Angelil in two languages, Khullar is tickling the part of the brain that interprets things like double meanings, puns, irony and other comedic staples. “Being bilingual opens up a whole new dimension of what can be made amusing,” Vaid says. “You have a whole new category both in what is funny and how it’s funny. It makes you more adept cognitively.”
Suffice to say, Khullar is less cerebral about his show. “It’s not about catering to French or English. It’s more about appealing to people who understand both and don’t give a f–k,” he says. “I’m not going to sit down and make sure that each line is in a different language. It’s fluid, it’s organic.”
Khullar has done a few small, mostly unannounced shows around the province to test the material. It includes trying out a Céline Dion joke that lawyers will vet before it makes it to the stage. He says he can’t wait to slay other cultural and political sacred cows in both official languages at the same time. “If there’s a backlash, you know, I can always move to Alberta,” he jokes.