Interview: Ben MacLean

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Canadian comedy has a long history of excellence—Mike Myers made his name in Wayne’s World, Jim Carrey is a legend for his role in the Truman Show and Tom Green was the shock jock on the Tom Green Show. Among the new crop of up-and-comers, one talent on the rise is Ben MacLean, a native Nova Scotian who is based in Berlin. He is not typically Canadian—he doesn’t say ‘eh’ and isn’t always polite, but he does hand out Avril Lavigne gift box sets to audience members at his comedy shows, reminds people Lacrosse is Canada’s national sport and wears t-shirts with geese on them. “Americans, they are our neighbours, they are on our front doorstep,” he said recently in Frankfurt. “75% of Canadians live 200 km to the US border, so when the wind is blowing the right way, you can smell the ignorance coming in.”

Having done his rounds in the Berlin comedy scene, MacLean has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Yuk Yuk’s. Next up, he is performing this Saturday as part of a Canada Day comedy show in Berlin. He took some time to chat about what it was like growing up on the eastcoast, how he gets some of his best jokes on airplanes and why he loved dating a Tupperware salesman.

Local Suicide: How and when did you first get into comedy?

Ben MacLean: I had wanted to try comedy for a long time, so in 2013 I did a weekend stand-up course in London, which I got as a Christmas gift from my boyfriend at the time. At the end of the workshop, each student did five minutes in a small club. I was hooked! Being up there trying to win people over with my own ideas was unlike anything I’d ever done, and I loved the camaraderie among the comedians, too. I waited a year and a half before starting to perform more seriously but thanks to that first time I knew it was something I just had to do.

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Were you funny as a kid?

I was never the class clown, if that’s what you mean. I was the serious nerd who would sit back quietly and piece together a snarky comeback to strike at the right moment. And I think that’s actually a good personality trait as a comedian. I like that people think of me as a “nice” comedian, but as with a lot of introverted people, when I’m politely staying below the radar I’m observing (and usually judging, let’s be honest). It’s a good way to come up with new bits.

I think I was definitely funny in the sense of being quirky, though. I was always involved in community theatre and—surprise, surprise—musicals. When I think about it, I guess I have always been a bit of a drama queen. How else do you explain that I threw a tantrum at age five because my mom wouldn’t buy me the tape “True Blue” by Madonna? I was an attention whore from early on, I suppose.

You claim to be a proud Nova Scotian, which is eastern Canada. What does that mean to you?

I love where I live (Berlin) and I love where I’m from.  I don’t care if other provinces can claim Céline Dion and Shania Twain, we gave the world Anne Murray, so we have like serious street cred. Some of the best Canadian comedy has its roots in Nova Scotia, too, like “This Hour Has 22 Minutes.”

Beyond that, I’m a proud Nova Scotian because when I think of home, I think of my big family. I’m the youngest of seven kids and what always amazes me is that we still all talk to each other! And I think it’s because we laugh a lot and don’t take ourselves too seriously. Maybe we’re a little white trashy at times (please don’t ask my mom to pronounce exotic words like “fajita”) but above all people back home have a big heart and know that humour is a great survival mechanism.

And if people ever give me a hard time about being from Nova Scotia, I just remember that things could always be worse: I could be from Newfoundland.

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Where do you get your material from?

Most of my material comes from real-life situations: dating horror stories, situations at work, my kooky but lovable parents. Sometimes I’m like, “Okay, universe: I don’t need any more material! Seriously, stop!” My new job with an airline is a great source of inspiration because each day I deal with hundreds of people and all their quirks. But sometimes the inspiration is closer to home. For example, I once dated a guy who “came out” to me as a Tupperware salesman. He built up the suspense to that announcement in such a way that I thought he was going to tell me had murdered someone. Turns out the truth was even more horrifying. But I’m still grateful for all the kitchen accessories I got to keep when we broke up.

What are the best and worst parts of being a standup comedian?

For years, I had a 9 to 5 job where I did a lot of public speaking but the words coming out of my mouth weren’t my own. Now when I say something on stage and people react positively, it’s so much more gratifying because I’m being authentic. That’s incredibly rewarding and addictive.

Among the worst things about comedy is the schedule, especially if you have a regular job to pay the bills. To make progress with your technique, you should be out there every night of the week putting yourself through that roller coaster of emotions on stage. Truth be told, though, I’m a morning person. I love performing, but late in the evening, God intended for me to be at home under my duvet watching “Murder, She Wrote.” I keep wishing someone would move the open mics to breakfast time. Oh, and another bad part of being a comedian is the never-ending self-doubt. That’s also a bit of a downer.

What has been some of your most memorable (and forgettable) gigs?

I’ve been fortunate to have some really awesome opportunities over the past couple years. I was asked to co-host the Mr. Los Angeles Leather competition in 2016, which was a blast. That community means a lot to me as we gay men experience so much pressure to absorb into the mainstream. Performing last year in front of my family at Yuk Yuk’s, the professional comedy club in Halifax, was also a huge thrill. Despite the fact that my parents are almost 80, I didn’t hold back on my material. And I haven’t been written out of the will (as far as I know).

One tough experience was a big competition I took part in last year in the U.K. I was so grateful to reach the semi-finals of the “So You Think You’re Funny?” contest during the Edinburgh Fringe. It was the biggest moment of my life as a comedian so far but when the moment came to take the stage, I grabbed the mic from the stand and it literally fell apart in my hands. Turns out the equipment was a lot more delicate than the lint brush I had been using to rehearse for months in front of my bathroom mirror!

What can we look forward to at your forthcoming set on Canada Day in Berlin?

The show will be a great opportunity to share some of my best material but also insider jokes for Canadians and Canada fans that I’ve been keeping under my hat. I’ll poke fun at the country I love but also this city and country I’ve chosen to call home. Don’t think you’re getting off easy, Germans!

Oh, and I might be bringing on stage one of Canada’s top female recording artists of all time. To see what I mean, come on the 1st!

Ben MacLean performs on Saturday, July 1 at BRLO Brwhouse, Schöneberger Strasse 16, at 7 p.m. as part of Canada Day 2017. The event is free and open to the public.