For his first major show in front of a French-Canadian audience this past July, Montreal comedian Samir Khullar started off with a joke about how a not-insignificant portion of Québécois are the product of incest. Then he segued into a ditty about referendums—“There’s two sorts of Québécois for me. There’s those who are educated, cultivated and well brought up. Then there are those who voted yes”—and mused that in a separate Quebec he would be enslaved by people “poorer and less educated than me,” who would employ him to “check the mail once a month to see if the welfare cheque came.”
Then he asked: “Just out of interest, is there security in the building?”
He needn’t have worried. Khullar received a standing ovation for his caustic 10-minute Just for Laughs set. He became a near-overnight sensation in Quebec; just weeks later, he even garnered a long, gushing front-page profile in the nationalist Le Devoir.
For Khullar, who goes by Sugar Sammy, the accolades streaming from Quebec are a little late in coming. He’s already considered an up-and-coming comedy star outside the province. The 33-year-old “Sugar”—the name is a holdover from his days as a party promoter at McGill University—has filmed his own HBO special, which began airing in July, toured some 30 countries, and opened for the likes of Dave Chappelle and Damon Wayans. He performed 200 shows this year, and the Hollywood Reporter recently named him one of the top rising comedians from around the world. Yet, until he jokingly admonished the supposedly inbred, closed-minded ways of Quebecers—en français, bien sûr—he likely wouldn’t have been recognized on the streets of the very province where he grew up.
A self-described “child of Bill 101,” Khullar is the eldest of three children born to first-generation Indian immigrants. Like all children of immigrants, he was forced to attend French school, which he did in the immigrant-rich district of Côte-des-Neiges in Montreal, and he speaks fluent French as a result. His show about Quebec, he says, was born out of the recent debate over “reasonable accommodations,” a government-sponsored travelling gong show where Quebecers voiced sometimes shocking sentiments about immigration.
Behind his jokes about silly separatists and permissive joie de vivre, he says, is a hard truth: no matter how much they might try, immigrants will forever be considered les autres by at least part of the Quebec population. “It’s a very self-preserved culture,” Khullar said recently in an interview. “They are a bit closed to the world. They have their own star system, their own shows, their own musicians. They watch the Canadiens and complain about [former Canadiens captain Saku] Koivu not speaking French.”
At the same time, Khullar heaps praise on Quebec, and Montreal in particular, for being modern, safe and oddly inclusive, perhaps despite itself. When referring to Quebecers he is as likely to use “we” as “they.” He has kind things to say about Bill 101 and criticizes Quebec’s English population for being ignorant of les Québécois—the very people that are beginning to laugh at his jokes.
In short, he sounds as conflicted as your average thirtysomething multilingual comedian son of Indian immigrants (who, by the way, still lives with his parents). “It’s a constant tug of war,” he says. “That’s the situation I’m in. It’s ‘we’ when everything is going well, but I become a ‘they’ when s–t’s not going too well.”
Certainly, things are going well for Khullar beyond Quebec. His shtick—a frankly perverted, equal opportunity trash-talker in a V-neck T-shirt and silver blazer—plays incredibly well, even in languages other than English and French. He recently completed a tour of India, where he performed in Punjabi and Hindi. (Jokes about oral sex apparently play well in those languages, too.) He splits his time between Montreal and Los Angeles, where there are murmurs of television offers. “I want to be a global brand,” he says, nonchalantly as can be.
Khullar’s infamous 10-minute take on Quebecers will air later this month on TVA, the province’s highest-rated channel. Then he will find out if Quebecers can really take a joke. Khullar is confident they—or is that “we”?—can. As he says during his bit, “I’m making fun of you, but at least it’s in French.”