Sugar Sammy Diffuses Language Tension With Humour

Photo by Pascale Therien
Photo by Pascale Therien

Did you hear the joke about the multilingual Indian comic that had a small group of Francophones up in arms over English advertisements in the province of Quebec?

Except it’s no joke. It was a deliberate attempt to stir the linguistic debate by Quebec comedian Sugar Sammy.

Born Samir Khullar to parents that immigrated to Montreal from India, Khullar is fluent in English, French, Hindi as well as Punjabi. He says that early in his life he saw how being multilingual could give him an advantage for getting ahead as well as setting him apart from his peers.

“It is a natural part of my act to talk about these language tensions we see. I’ve seen how that tension can divide people, but rather than multilingualism being seen as a disadvantage among a small section of the population, I would rather talk about how it can be such a great advantage to have.”

Khullar performs a French-language show at Moncton’s Capitol Theatre on Tuesday evening.

But late last year, to promote a series of shows that he was undertaking late last year, the comedian, born Samir Khullar, took out a series of advertisements in subway stations throughout Montreal.

The ads featured a picture of the comedian alongside text that said “For Christmas, I’d Like A Complaint From The Office De La Langue Francaise,” referring to the Quebec government watchdog responsible for enforcing French in that province. That watchdog is also responsible for ensuring that any public-facing ads or signage, like those Khullar took out, prominently feature French over any other language.

Khullar knew the ads would spark complaints, and it took less than 48 hours before he had a directive to modify them.

He did; the former English section of the ads replaced with text that read, “Pour Noel, j’ai eu une plainte de l’Office De La Langue Francaise,” which translates to “For Christmas, I received a complaint from the Office De La Langue Francaise.”

Some would argue that Khullar’s advertisements were a stroke of marketing brilliance, but not everyone appreciated the joke. Approximately two weeks later, prior to a performance in Sherbrooke, the comedian received a death threat that necessitated a police presence of a dozen officers before and during the show. Police escorted Khullar out of town at the end of the night.

“The ads wouldn’t have worked had we not gotten a language complaint,” he tells The MusicNerd Chronicles. “That was definitely the angle behind the ads. We were more interested to see how long it would take for the system to work, which, to its credit, ended up working pretty quickly.”

While he says the advertising campaign served as a interesting sociological experiment, he also acknowledges the population that would raise such a stink over protecting the French language is not representative of the majority of the Quebec population.

“I’m a firm believer that we should be promoting the use of multiple languages. I would rather promote the French language in a way that is going to encourage people to want to learn it and spend the time speaking and writing it. If you try to get people on board with using a specific language under a cloud of tension or in a protectionist kind of way, it is going to ultimately turn people off. I’m a big believer in wanting to make sure the French language shines, but I also think it shouldn’t necessarily be done at the expense of trying to make people forget other languages.”

Khullar has sold more than 300,000 tickets to shows in Canada and India alone, but has in fact performed in more than 30 countries around the world.

In May 2013, Sugar Sammy became the first English comedian to post wins at Quebec’s prestigious Olivier comedy awards, winning top prizes for Comedian of the Year as well as for Best Show. He is the first artist chosen by Comedy Central India to tour their country, visiting Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi in March 2013 with his English/Hindi/Punjabi comedy show.

Not bad for a guy who admits he had few ambitions when he was growing up.

“It was between being a hockey player and being a comedian. I began pursuing comedy and hosting talent shows as a CEGEP student. At university, I took classes to learn about the business and marketing and that side of things. I’ve been at comedy for 20 years now, and on a full-time basis since 2004. I feel quite fortunate,” Khullar says.

Khullar says he take immense joy and pride in performing for French audiences outside of “traditional” French areas such as Quebec and France. He says the appreciation shown to him by Francophone audiences in predominantly Anglophone communities always manages to exceed his expectations.

“I love having the opportunity to perform in multiple languages, but it always feels good to reach out to French communities throughout Canada. I always feel a great sense of appreciation from the audience.”

What: Sugar Sammy
When: Tuesday Sept. 29, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 811 Main St., Moncton