At the Olympia
In Montreal on Friday
When Sugar Sammy arrives on stage, he clearly understands the cardinal rule of stand-up comedy: appear confident. The man owns the stage, strutting across it with the kind of ease one might expect from a comedian who has inspired such enthusiasm from his hometown of Montreal, a city thought of as divided along linguistic lines. Sugar Sammy, born Sam Khullar, had concocted the idea of a bilingual comedy routine that would run one night only. It sold out so quickly that it has expanded into shows that run well into April.
Sammy also understands what audiences have come to expect from stand-up: They want someone to express the sentiments they would like to utter at the office or on the subway home from work, but can't because such statements are deemed politically or socially incorrect. Lenny Bruce's act was all about speaking aloud the verboten. And more recently, the most successful modern stand-up acts -Jackie Mason, Chris Rock and Margaret Cho among them - have been about lambasting the stereotypes of their own ethnic or racial tribes.
Given its multicultural, bilingual status, that makes Montreal fertile ground for material. But rather than deride, Sammy takes genuine pleasure in his city's complex cultural make-up: Where else, he asks, can you hear someone utter a single sentence made up of English, French and Greek? Sammy is undeniably funny, and he knows how to rouse a crowd, but at times his biggest risk is that of veering into the obvious. Among the stereotypes he dredges up are that Muslims tend to intermarry, Indians want their children to grow up to be doctors and Québécois women are easy. But critics be damned—Friday night's audience didn't seem to mind, roaring their approval at every one liner.
If Sammy's set did have an arc, it would be that things got riskier as the show culminated. Among his final round of musings came one on the gender divide, specifically marriage. That contract, he suggested, involved a wife having dinner ready at the end of the day in exchange for oral sex: "You feed me and I feed you," he said. The women in the audience didn't seem offended.
Hanging over Sammy's show is the question that haunts virtually all stand-up acts. Is evoking every racial, ethnic, religious, sexual and gender stereotype imaginable effectively prodding our collective id, effectively reducing those very stereotypes to the rubble they should rightly be? Or is Sammy simply pandering to a xenophobic, lowest common denominator?
In Sammy's case, I'd have to say there's much more of the former rather than the latter. Being the son of Indian immigrants and schooled in French, one can only imagine that he's known the sting of being an outsider himself. And that gives him possible license to take shots at virtually anyone he pleases -which, of course, he does.
Sugar Sammy: You're gonna rire - Le Show Franglais is playing at the Olympia through Apr. 28.