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Indo-Canadian comic aims his wit at Quebeckers' foibles

It sounds like a bad joke: An Indo-Canadian comic walks into a room full of francophone Quebeckers and starts making fun of sovereignty, welfare cheques and Jacques Parizeau.

"There are two kinds of Quebeckers," he says. "Quebeckers who are educated, cultivated, well brought up. And then there are those who voted Yes."

Funny? It may not sound like it. But hearing it from the mouth of Samir Khullar, the French-speaking audience bursts out laughing. Then they give him a standing ovation at the end of the performance.

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"I thought they were getting up to attack me," Mr. Khullar, who goes by the name Sugar Sammy, quips about his monologue last summer. "I was surprised."

On Sunday, the Montreal-born son of immigrant Indian parents is vying for the ultimate benediction from Quebec's cultural establishment: He's nominated for discovery of the year at the annual Olivier awards for Quebec humour. Mr. Khullar has become a comedy darling in his home province - and it says as much about language politics of Quebec as it does about Mr. Khullar's talent.

In fact, recognition in Quebec has been slow in coming. Mr. Khullar is already a success in English Canada and in demand around the world. He recorded his own special for HBO, was named one of the 10 rising comics to watch by The Hollywood Reporter, and has performed to audiences in the past year in South Africa, Egypt, Australia and Kuwait.

But it took Bill 101 to make Mr. Khullar a hit in Quebec.

Mr. Khullar delivers his routines in flawless French, the result of being streamed into French school along with all the immigrant children in his multicultural neighbourhood of Côte-des-Neiges in Montreal. At the time, the lack of choice wasn't a big hit in the Khullar household.

But today, the thirtysomething comic acknowledges it's given him his chance at succeeding on home turf.

"I'm a child of Bill 101," he says. "I'm happy I went to French school, because my French wouldn't have been this good. The more languages I speak, the more people I reach."

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He doesn't stop at Canada's two official languages. He also does stand-up in Hindi and Punjabi, managing to be funny in four languages.

If French gave Mr. Khullar an entry into Quebec's crowded comedy field, he hasn't used his admission to pull his punches. His gag about sovereignty was part of a withering routine delivered at Montreal's Just for Laughs festival last summer. That skit, called Les Québécois, takes on sacred cows like the 1995 referendum on sovereignty - and it's nominated for an Olivier for best skit on Sunday too.

In the routine, Mr. Khullar jokes that former Premier Jacques Parizeau's infamous "money and ethnic votes" speech made him realize how close minorities like himself had come to becoming slaves in an independent Quebec.

"I don't mind being a slave. My ancestors were," he says. "What bothers me about being a slave in Quebec is that there's a good chance my master will be poorer and less educated than I am."

Sugar Sammy may have become Bill 101's comic offspring, but his jokes come from real-life experience. He worked as a scrutineer for the federalist "No" camp on referendum night, and recalls seeing his side come perilously close to losing. He says Mr. Parizeau's comments confirmed his fears that minorities could become "second-class citizens" in an independent Quebec.

"I want to portray what it feels like to be a visible minority in Quebec - it doesn't always feel good," the McGill cultural studies graduate says. "I'm not trying to be righteous. I just want to represent who I am and others like me."

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Mr. Khullar takes shots at everyone, from Frenchmen and Latinos to himself (he still lives at home with his parents, "and they still think I'm a doctor.") And his minority status may also help the message go over more easily to French-speaking audiences.

"If he were an anglo, it would be harder to take. I'm not sure he could get away with saying what he does in English," Louise Richer, director of Quebec's École nationale de l'humour in Montreal, says of Mr. Khullar's edgy comedy. "The fact is, he masters French."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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