Podcasters Tranna Wintour & Thomas Leblanc on Chosen Family, COVID curfews and landing Alanis

The Montreal comedians connect the dots between pop culture obsessions and the need for new possibilities on their CBC podcast

The podcast pivot is well underway for talent on both sides of the mic. Everyone from Julie Andrews to Demi Moore have launched podcasts since COVID-19 locked down most of the planet. For actors, authors and musicians dropping new releases and in-depth audio interviews is now an essential way to connect with fans.

CBC’s Chosen Family has the advantage of having done 37 episodes over two seasons since January 2017. So when the pandemic killed the performing arts world in Montreal (and everywhere else), queer comedians Thomas Leblanc and Tranna Wintour signed up for a third run, which launched on February 11.

The podcast mixes the BFFs-hanging-out format with probing, long-form interviews. Leblanc and Wintour are regular collaborators, known in Montreal for turning pop-star fandom into comic cabarets. And with Chosen Family they are able to examine their entertainment obsessions more deeply – sometimes directly with the source.

Past episodes have featured interviews with filmmaker Xavier Dolan, RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bob the Drag Queen, comedian Margaret Cho, author Alicia Elliott and poet Eileen Myles, among others. The pair have also chatted with people they aren’t inclined to agree with, like American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis, who’s been cancelled a few times on social media.

Chosen Family is an insightful and funny exploration of the pop cultural moment, and the ways art connects people and influences our worldview. Though the title is a nod to the intense non-biological ties queer people often form, it isn’t so much a central topic of discussion as it is a framework for how Leblanc and Wintour choose who they interview and how they frame the discussions.

The pandemic has only intensified that need to make connections, especially with many non-solitary creative outlets on lockdown.

“That’s really the question around the season,” explains Wintour in a joint phone interview with Leblanc. “How do we recreate that feeling of being around a table with people we care about when we can’t actually do that?”

With season three in full swing, NOW caught up with the duo to chat about imagining life after COVID, chosen family stories in mainstream movies and TV, and their most coveted – and elusive – interview subject.

What’s Montreal like right now?

Tranna Wintour: We’re literally under a curfew. We have to all be home by 8 pm. Most of us were already home by 8 pm every night before the curfew, but there’s something psychological about having a curfew that is not fun at all. We’re already feeling so confined being home day in, day out. If it’s 8:30 pm, you can’t even go out and get a bag of Doritos.

Thomas Leblanc: I found the Lady Gaga Oreos on UberEats and they were $8. And I was so bored that I almost ordered them. It would have been like $20.

I don’t know if you’ve experienced a spring day in Montreal, but there’s this explosion of horny people, people wanting to celebrate and people wanting to party so I just cannot imagine the pent up energy. We’re so used to releasing all of this energy in the spring/summer. I’m very curious to see how that’s going to go. It seems like the virus is targeting everything that makes Montreal interesting or fun: singing, comedy, live shows, being together, sex, partying – none of this is happening.

How do you feel like COVID will change Montreal?

TL: Montreal being a festival city, the main question is what’s going to happen to our big events, from the comedy festival and the Jazz Fest to Osheaga. Will they survive? How will they come back? Will there be any shows this summer?

TW: It’s really hard to envision what the permanent changes will be. It’s also getting harder and harder to feel like there is going to be an other side waiting for us. But I’m also a pessimist. One thing that does give me hope is that when you look at the handful of places in the world that have managed to get a handle on [the pandemic] – like Australia and New Zealand – there has been an immediate return to the arts and people wanting to be together. That gives me hope because my biggest fear is that the biggest change will happen within each of us. I don’t see this happening, but my biggest fear is that we’ll all just be so destroyed by this experience that we won’t even know how to be with one another in a group.

The podcast is something you both already had on the go. Has it become a creative outlet and a way to rally community or audience?

TW: Nothing can really replace the live performing arts, but I do think that through this podcast and the kinds of conversations that we get to have, it feels like there’s some connectivity in my life that I’m grateful for. Our guests are all over the place: [Saturday Night Live cast member] Bowen Yang who is in New York, Jessica Lanyadoo, this brilliant astrologer who was in the Bay Area, and we spoke to [dance music star] Róisín Murphy, who is in the UK.

TL: The big question [in the podcast] is how do we build a community around art, with queer people, but not only? In a way, the pandemic made that question even more vital and even more interesting to tackle with guests.

In your interview with playwright and queer activist Sarah Schulman about the AIDS epidemic, you were able connect that theme with what’s going on now with the COVID-19 pandemic.

TW: One of the things that Sarah Schulman mentioned is something that has been coming up more and more in conversations with friends. During the AIDS epidemic and during different moments of difficulty within our communities, and the world at large, we’ve at least always been able to gather to get through it. There’s so much joy and power to be had just in gathering around the table with people that you love, even during the hardest moments. We don’t even have that. It’s making the coping so difficult.

How has the main idea of Chosen Family evolved over three seasons?

TL: I’m someone, just from my family history, where chosen family has always been central. I don’t have siblings. My parents are separated. From a very young age, I had a chosen family. Last June was also a big turning point, seeing the more political side of activism and art together and how that’s necessary and changing and how I can do better. There’s a super power that being a part of a chosen family provides. In making the show, there’s a feeling and knowing that we’re connected to all the guests. We want to have a connection and we want to be really interested.

Being a comedian involves drawing on personal stories so it feels like seamless to transition to doing interviews where you can really get personal.

TL: I can’t really do small talk. I will ask you about your childhood trauma within the first five minutes of our conversation starting.

Is that how you became friends?

TW: Pretty much. I do think that within my nature there is a certain emotional intensity and I feel that need to go deep with people. That’s how I feel the most comfortable with people. There’s a real feeling of safety and a feeling of being seen when I meet someone, even for the first time. I feel like this is someone that I don’t have to hide from as much as I normally hide or protect myself. That just feels good. I hope that we’ve been able to offer our guests this feeling of “you can trust us and we’re going to take care of your story” because we really care about it on a personal level.

I just watched the movie Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar, which is about this super intense platonic relationship between two women. It reminded me of Frances Ha, this sweeping New York romance-like movie but it’s about friendship between two women. Is there anything right now in pop culture that you feel captures the particular kind of intensity of friendship or chosen family?

TL: When I try to explain what a chosen family is, people sometimes are like, “that’s just friendship.” Friendship is when you don’t have your family to fall back on. It’s okay to have your family to fall back on and also have a chosen family. It’s not one or the other. And a lot of people have both.

But my answer to your question would definitely be It’s A Sin, the UK show [on Amazon Prime Video]. It’s pure chosen family. Some people will enjoy it and will like it and for other people it will just change their lives. I’m in the second category. Seeing this group of young people in their 20s, I identified so much with being younger and carefree and something really horrible happened and how you deal with this; but also, having no real understanding of what it meant to be 25 in the 80s.

TW: You were describing that [in Barb & Star], in some ways, it feels like their friendship is deeper than what we’ve understood friendship to be – maybe it’s an equivalent to romantic love. And I see that also with the show Pen15, which has been one of my biggest obsessions in the last year. It’s about really deep and beautiful friendship between these two 13-year-old girls starting with seventh grade, who are played by the women who created the show and are also best friends in real life.

In the pandemic, there has been such a disregard for people who live alone and people who are not necessarily living in the conventional idea of family. It’s been almost criminal to see that neglect towards people like myself – single and live alone. It’s always been a source of frustration to see the way that our culture, especially through media, has always elevated romantic love as being the be all end all. There’s always been, not a complete disregard, but an undervaluing of friendship, which can really be just as equally powerful as a great romantic love. I’m excited by shows that really go there and really show the depth of love that can exist in a friendship.

Do you feel like there’s been a shift in the culture that is influencing the way we think about friendship?

TW: We’re seeing a radical reexamination of structures. I think there might be a correlation to the way that people are reimagining gender and the rejection of this rigid gender binary that we’ve all been so entrenched in for so long, and has ultimately been really harmful and limiting. We’re in a moment in the culture right now where we’re wanting to see new possibilities and we want to imagine new possibilities. In film and television, if there is more of these sort of unconventional relationships that are taking the forefront, it might be related to our need for new possibilities.

I like how you brought up rejecting binaries in your Margaret Cho interview, given she’s somebody that’s been doing comedy for decades. I watched all her stand-up movies and never really thought about her that way.

TL: We’re seeing all this celebration of representation and diversity, which is great, but sometimes I wish we remember that there were artists making work but who were not getting the same level of recognition or getting the same visibility in the media. People have been making relevant work and relevant queer work for centuries. I wish we had a little bit more perspective when we celebrate the first person doing this or the first person doing that. We’re all standing on the shoulders of other people who’ve done that work generations before us.

I’ve only heard one episode from the new season. Any exciting or interesting moments we can look forward to from season three?

TW: We are working really hard to get Alanis Morissette, and I’m not afraid to put that out in the universe because I need it to happen. We booked her for December, but then it got moved and now it’s been moved again indefinitely. Our booker is confident that it will happen. But that is my biggest dream interview slash conversation. It’s a moment that I need to have in my life.

What do you most want to ask her?

TW: That’s a great question. My god. Jagged Little Pill was my first album when I was a kid and unlike many people, I stuck with Alanis throughout her entire career. Her music has really been the soundtrack to my life. Especially when I was a kid, I really looked up to her as being like a kind of older sister figure. It’s not even so much about what I specifically want to learn from her. It’s more this need that I feel to be in her presence, even if it’s just for 30 minutes. She and her work have meant so much to me. It’s just this thing that I need to experience. And that needs to be satisfied.

TL: I don’t think that people know how much they need that conversation between Alanis Morissette and Tranna.

TW: I don’t you know if you remember this, but it’s going to be like when Barbra Streisand went on The Rosie O’Donnell Show. That’s what that moment will be.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


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