You have never truly split a gut until you have heard Canadian comedian Ron James perform. Perhaps it’s his witty, satirical prose capturing the many nuances that make up each distinct part of Canadian culture. Yet whatever the discourse, hearing Ron perform ignites a visual story in all its hilarity right before your eyes. TM chats with Ron James on his unexpected career in stand up, his love for the Maritimes and how a chance meeting with actor/comedian John Leguizamo helped pave the way.
TM: You have strong ties to the Maritimes. You grew up in Nova Scotia and went to Acadia University. What is different between performing comedy here compared to the rest of Canada?
James: It’s a different show than I brought to Atlantic Canada the last time. I am able to channel the personalities of the Maritimes a little easier than I can elsewhere. For instance, last time I was on the Rebecca Cohn stage for about twenty minutes, I channeled the Nova Scotia south shore accent that had been percolating in the back of my head for a while. So you’re able to riff in that respect. If I am in Cape Breton I can riff about the times we used to spend in Ingonish and up around the Cabot Trail when I was a youngster. It’s rife with memory. I am born to lobster blood as I said in one of my specials.
TM: Tell us a bit about your renowned live specials that you have been doing for years?
James: My first live special I wrote myself. I customize them around the regions. I started with “Road Between My Ears”, which was a look at the road that I had been on. Then the next one was “Quest for the West”, which was about Saskatchewan and Alberta and the Centennial Year. Then it was “West Coast Wild”, about my travels in BC. Next was “Back home”, which was on Atlantic Canada, and my fifth one was “Manitoba Bound”. Those were the first five, and then I had the five years of my television show “The Ron James Show”.
Now this new special is called “True North” and it’s going to be a look at Canada in its 150th year. Where we’ve been, where we are and where were going. It’s about change. Muhammad Ali said a great thing, and pardon me for quoting an American at Canada’s 150th. But he said, “A man who views the world at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted 30 years of his life”. What I try to do in this new special is draw parallels between a nation’s development and a people’s development.
TM: You create so much of your own comedy. What does that process generally entail?
James: What’s important to me, and once again I owe deference to the Maritimes for this, is I was always surrounded by great storytellers! I like the way words trip off the tongue and tickle the ear as well as the funny bone. I think there is deference to the spoken word. I spend a great deal of time trying to construct a comedy piece. Making sure that it’s got a rhythm; that it’s got a groove. It’s the adhesive to the narrative. To a certain degree, particularly in the television specials, I like there to be a definitive beginning, middle and end.
TM: You are very well read, were you like that as a kid?
James: I am more of a reader then I am a watcher. I can’t remember the last movie I saw. I read what was required of me; I read a lot of Farley Mowat. I got to know Farley in later years; he said a great thing to me. He said, “Ronnie, satire is tough in Canada. We’ve got to much of a deference for authority, you gotta sneak in the back door and be sitting down at the kitchen table before the bastards even know you’re in the house!” You have to be creatively subversive as you tip the apple cart.
TM: Interestingly initially you didn’t start off in stand up comedy?
James: No, I started in Second City. I was in an improv troop. That’s really where I got my degree in comedy. I already had a history degree from Acadia. Life is all about the long haul. I built this career one kilometre at a time, from coast to coast. But there were seventeen years where I was a journeyman actor just like all my peers. We would go got out for auditions; we would either get them or we wouldn’t. I don’t know how I raised two girls on making that living.
I remember I had a phenomenal year as a young man in 1985. I had four commercials on, a pilot, and a couple of movies that did very well. Then for ten years I never made more than 40 grand a year; it was very lean. Then I went to Los Angeles for three years and was broke there. All of us were paddling upstream, but I got some good roles and guest spots. More then anything that’s where I started to find my voice.
I used to write at home and I was trying to piece together the ideal I had of California, watching movies as a kid at the Capitol Theatre in Halifax, and the reality of struggling for a foothold in Los Angeles. We went down to a do a series for Ron Howard’s company, it was cancelled, but it got great reviews. We were in News Week on Tuesday and cancelled on Thursday. By Monday I was chest deep in a hole on Robert Urich’s front yard pulling a tree out.
I was out of work for a year and a half and had a wife and a daughter to support. But it was there that I used to throw my name into a hat on amateur nights at a Ventura Boulevard coffee house (I wasn’t even in stand up). This was when the coffee house scene was just starting. I would go up on stage and read stories about growing up in Nova Scotia. It was a room filled with the disparate foot soldiers in the American dream. They would come up to me, these people I didn’t know, and they said, “Hey man! That’s good stuff.”
Then I put on my one-man show in Toronto called “Up and Down in Shaky Town” when I moved home. I ran into a guy at Second City one day, John Leguizamo, and I invited him to my show. John and his girlfriend came; there were about seven people in the audience on a Saturday night. He came up to me afterwards, and in that great accent he said “Hey man you should do more stories about your grandmother. That s**t comes alive!” I thought, “Wow. How about that?” So what this guy was telling me to do is to embrace the colours and the tapestries of home. So I did.
How do you stay creatively charged? You use so much energy on stage.
James: Red Bull helps. I used to have an espresso; now it’s a Red Bull. It’s amazing what it does. Being up on stage is the life force. Riding the wave of laughs and seeing the people enjoying themselves. I want people leaving my show happy; leaving fulfilled.
When I started twenty years ago I used to have a couple of beers and make a dent in a bottle of scotch. Now I have two Tylenol and make a dent in a bottle of Gatorade. It’s just a matter of being pleased with a job well done. Knowing that you did your best.
I wasn’t a great athlete or a great academic, but I was interested in the world and happened to be blessed with a sense of humor. My folks were really funny; I had friends who had a good sense of humour. But being funny in the kitchen is an exponential leap from being funny there and doing this as a profession. This is a craft. You mature in front of people, you make mistakes, and you never forget your first amateur night! You don’t forget the trajectory. People talk about being famous and all that other crap, and it’s crap. Its the toxic mandate of celebrity culture that unless you’re rich and famous, you suck. When did just getting through a working day and doing your job well without being a weasel lose its virtue?
Ron James is currently performing in the Maritimes for his “Pedal to the Metal” 2016 tour. Learn more at http://www.ronjames.ca.