22 Minutes' Trent McClellan on creative process, being Black in NL and more
McClellan’s upcoming Winnipeg Comedy Festival special, “First Impressions,” airs July 19 on CBC.
Trent McClellan is a Canadian household name; a standup comedian, writer, podcaster and actor. And whether you've heard him on his podcast, The Generators or seen him on CBC's 22 Minutes and his numerous televised appearances — from Canada Reads, where he was a panelist, to the Just for Laughs, Ha!ifax ComedyFest and Winnipeg Comedy Festival stages — there's no denying that he'll make you howl with his observational comedy.
And if you haven't had a chance to catch his standup comedic genius, go to CBC Gem where you'll see him on the Winnipeg Comedy Festival stage hosting and performing in the special, First Impressions, featuring comedians such as Bryan Hatt, Shelina Merani and more.
Speaking on the phone, here's what McClellan had to say about his special, creative process, experience in Newfoundland and Labrador as a Black man and overall thoughts on comedy.
"I always feel like comedy starts with observing, just being aware all the time, and asking questions," says McClellan.
Comedy never comes from something working out. It comes from frustrations, it comes from curiosity.- Trent McClellan
"That's what comedians do. You just always have your antenna out there feeling for ideas and going, 'Ok, I think that could work on stage and I think that there's something there that I think the strangers will laugh at'. You trust that you think you know what strangers will accept."
The creative process of making a standup show
As someone who prefers a conversational style of joke telling, McClellan explains that he enjoys the transitional kind of approach to standup where the jokes are not just one-offs but segue into one another, much like a conversation.
"The process of building jokes starts with real life situations like getting stuck in traffic or having a horrible customer service experience," adds McClellan, explaining that he then proceeds with making bullet points in his notes, thinking about those for an hour or so and from there deciding if there's enough to chisel away at — or possibly make work with jokes he's already written a few months prior.
"And if it doesn't work, you have to change it."
Going back to the drawing board and understanding why a joke didn't work is imperative for him. Thinking about, "is it the premise or was it too wordy or I think I should move this to here and so now it's kind of like a puzzle."
Once the ideas and funny bits of the jokes are identified, in order to define a working model of the show, McClellan sets out to test them out on the actual stage — explaining that as pieces are moved around, the set of final jokes require repetition in front of as many audiences as possible.
"That means doing it in front of a small crowd, a big crowd, the crowd who's drunk, the crowds that's older, a crowd at twelve o'clock in the afternoon who just takes their lunch — until it works and feels airtight."
If you've watched Jerry Seinfeld's 2017 Netflix movie, Jerry Before Seinfeld, you'd have seen an unusual creative process and all his jokes, dating back to the '70s, written on paper and note cards spread out on the street. You'd also have seen that he tests out his jokes on smaller crowds and once he polishes them, he then proceeds to perform those on a bigger stage in the form of a special.
Trent watched the same film and discovered something — that he can take a page from Jerry Seinfeld's book on testing out his jokes. After watching that movie, Trent says he was inspired and finally had the courage to walk on stage, "because up to that point, every time I'd see standup comedy done, it was on television or live at a show, once or twice, and everything these guys said was hilarious the first time."
"This was my first time getting a peek behind the curtain going, 'Oh, they go to these clubs and just try these ideas that they have and sometimes they don't work and then they have to rework them'. So I was like, 'Well I can do that. I have ideas that I don't know, work or not,' but I got to see how the sausage was made, so to speak."
Making a music-related analogy, he quips: "It would be like you listening to an album, your favorite musician, and you're like, 'Oh my God, those 12 songs are incredible. They're amazing!' Then you get to see the behind the scenes footage of them with 50 songs and arguing in the studio and taking out this part and taking in this part and you realize, 'Oh, this was a grind, this was effort, this was work to get to those 12 songs."
"That's what that movie did for me as a comedian. I was like, 'Oh, there's work involved in trying to get something polished and clever and smart'."
With the name of his WCF special First Impressions, Trent references a few weird and surprising ones people have had of him, such as being compared to The Rock and called "The Rock with less protein."
"And that's one of those daily life things you just, you know, take onstage because it comes to you, so just pull it right from everyday experience," says McClellan.
"The weirdest impression of me, or the most popular one would be that people are very surprised that I'm from Newfoundland and Labrador because I'm this 6'3" Black guy. And people were like, 'So where are you from?' I'm like, 'Newfoundland' and they're like, 'No, seriously?'"
"It's like you have to prove it somehow. I'm like a lawyer building a case, 'All right, exhibit A. All right, here's my birth certificate — I think that should be good on its own'," he says jokingly.
"Ever since I got into comedy, that's something that people have always questioned and wanted to know more about."
A Black man in Newfoundland and Labrador
The reason people didn't believe McClellan that he was from NL is that, even today, the province has very low numbers of Black population. According to the latest 2016 census data, just over two thousand.
"I think, for me, it was pretty unique in a lot of ways because I was raised by my grandparents who were whites," says McClellan, "so in my family, like in just my visual [vicinity] and what I could see every day, I was the only person who looked like me. So not only am I the only Black kid, as far as I can see, I'm also the only one in my family."
"And so I'm looking around like, 'No one's got hair like me. No one's got skin colour like me.' And then, of course, when you walk in the room, you're going to be the centre of attention because it's the '70s in Newfoundland and Labrador."
"I think that translated to me being a comedian down the road, because I think I was used to being the centre of attention. And what is a standup comedian if not the epitome of centre of attention, standing at an elevated stage in a spotlight and you're the only person who gets to speak. That's the epitome of centre of attention."
"I think I was kind of almost societally groomed for it through my childhood, you know, of getting used to that feeling."
I think developing a sense of humour became a defense mechanism to kind of deflect intense situations or attempt to ease tension or feel like I was accepted by being funny.- Trent McClellan
Finding a silver lining, McClellan says that all of those things laid the foundations for him to eventually walk on stage and be a standup comedian.
"Because a lot of people say, 'Oh, my God, I don't know how you guys do it. I'd never be able to stand up there and all that pressure and I was like, 'Well I kind of grew up that way. That would have been like walking into a room in grade three, the same feeling."
He adds that it became normal for him to feel different. "Now when I walk on stage, I feel like I'm in my living room — I feel like there's a sense of comfort to it."
Continuing on the positive streak but acknowledging the paradox, he says: "You don't walk onstage in front of 2,500 people, and people are like, 'Yes. This feels normal.' That's not most people's experience. But you kind of own it, you don't run from it."
Pointing back to time when he was growing up in NL, he adds: "I think when I was younger, I hid from that attention. I was also taller so I'm trying to get smaller, physically, I'm trying to slouch, I'm trying to not stand out, which is, of course, just making me more obvious. And I think as I got older and I grew in confidence, I kind of stepped into myself. I was like, 'I'm going to own this. I gotta own this experience', and it's exactly what you need to do as a comedian, of course."
Discrimination happens in comedy too
Discrimination happens in a lot of work environments and this includes comedy. Whether in different shapes of comments, remarks or a combination of microaggressions — which over the years can add up to the point of insanity — and heckling, it's real and needs to change.
"I feel like microaggressions, and things like that, sometimes it's so hard to even measure. Or how do you prove this? If you're a comedy club booker or you're a festival booker and you decide not to book someone who's got a disability or someone of colour, how would someone prove that that's why they didn't get booked? It's just such a hard thing to prove. I'm not saying it's not the case. I'm just saying it's hard to prove. So people find it really, really difficult."
"I remember years ago when I first started standup, I was a few months in and I went to this workshop at a Yuk Yuk's Comedy Club — that's where a veteran headliner would tell you about the road and how to write jokes and how the business works — and this person looked at me and said, 'You know, you're a Black guy in Alberta [where McClellan later moved], you're gonna have a rough time because there can be a lot of racism — when you go to small towns and different things.' And I was like, 'Well, okay.'"
"So three years went by. I put my head down, I went to work and I started to get things as a standup. I started to get festivals and get some success and then, that same standup said, 'Yeah, you know why he got all that stuff right.'"
"So in one way, this guy presented it as it was gonna be an anchor and a detriment to my career. And then, once I started to achieve things, the same comedian said, 'Well, yeah that's because you have an advantage because you're Black.'"
I realized then, I can't live in that world because people's perception of me is going to change with the weather. And so I have to just focus on myself, be like, 'Am I the best comedian I can be? Am I doing everything I can do?' That's the only thing I can control because the other stuff will drive you absolutely insane right away.- Trent McClellan
He's been around a few comedy "rodeos" to know that all you can count on is your determination: "I need to just be as good as I possibly can be and try to be undeniable. Try and be like, 'Man, that guy's just funny'. And even then, you still don't get booked in things. I had to kind of just go into myself and focus on what I can control. That's how I survived it. That's how I managed to get up everyday and be a comedian myself."
His message to new comedians who are starting out echoes in the same vain: "You got to really love being a comedian because if you're in this for any other reason — like you want popularity or some level of fame or money or whatever — all those things are going to break your heart."
"Because if you base your self-esteem and self-worth on all these outside validations, you're going to end up in rubble because that will come and go."
Tackling difficult conversations wrapped in comedy
Many standup comedians use comedy to raise awareness and initiate difficult conversations especially in times when things like anti-Black racism are at the forefront.
I think comedy can give you some pretty rough medicine. But, in a candy form.- Trent McClellan
"You need to actually put it in a nice wrapper and a nice presentation for people to make it palpable. I think that's a great thing, that over the years, people like Dave Chapelle have done: they've taken major issues, wrapped it in comedy and now it's something that people discuss outside of the show itself."
McClellan says that he had a lot of fun during the night of his Winnipeg Comedy Festival special with so many people on the show that had unique perspectives.
When you're working with great comedians and you watch a great performance, you're always a better comedian for having been in the room.- Trent McClellan
"It's one of those moments where I have had that kind of ability to pause and go like, 'Wow, how grateful am I to just be part of this thing?' The festival is a first class festival and they treat you so well and I just feel so grateful to be a part of all of it."
Watch Trent McClellan's Winnipeg Comedy Festival special called "First Impressions" on CBC Gem, featuring Bryan Hatt, Shelina Merani, Chanty Marostica, Leland Klassen, Natalie Norman, Simon King and Tom Papa.