The Comedy Couch

 RON JAMES - April, 2006.

GUY MACPHERSON: Are you in Toronto?
RON JAMES: I am. I'm in the Big Smoke. I'm originally
from the Maritimes. I spent three years in L.A. and
stuff. I say I live in Toronto but the country's my
home.

GM: Well, you tour a lot. Do you like it or is it just
a necessary evil?
RJ: It's a calling, brother. It's the business. It's a
great living. The theatres are full from Cornerbrook
to Courtney-Comox. You play 800-seaters, you play
2500-seaters and they're full. So as a Canadian
comedian, I feel I'm pretty fortunate. It's just me.
I'm not on a big bill with Just For Laughs with other
comedians. I do a 90-minute show myself.

GM: It's pretty amazing that you can do it this way.
Brent Butt does it, but he's got a hit show on the air
every week.
RJ: Yeah, well I had my theatres full before I had a
television show.

GM: Yeah, how'd you do that?
RJ: I don't know. I think it's got something to do
with product somehow. I think the country and I
discovered each other together. It's been this victory
in baby steps. I think that when people come to see a
standup show, they're coming to see something entirely
different than a television show. Standup lives live.
That's where its primal hum is heard the loudest, in a
room full of wheezing, snorting, laughing folk.

GM: Most comics have to do that in clubs.
RJ: Well, I put my club time in, you know? I was in
the clubs for eight years and I saw the writing on the
wall with that.

GM: What did the writing say?
RJ: It was basically that I'd be working for someone
else for the rest of my days, you know? Club owners
naturally have overhead to run their clubs. And I was
an independent; I was never a Yuk Yuk's comic. There
were only so many independent clubs to play in the
country. And I had ambitions to captain my own ship. I
didn't want to be patronized by club owners
consistently, that I should be grateful for what I
have. Plus, too, I had a family to feed. And like
anybody, I wanted stuff. So my first one-man show, Up
and Down in Shakey Town, I used to book that myself,
you know? Comics would say, 'Geez, how do I get in the
soft seaters?' I'd say, 'Make cold calls in January
and February so you can get a couple of dates in July
and August.' And having been to Los Angeles, too, for
three years - I was down there to do a series in the
early '90s and it was cancelled and I stayed. I did
commercials and guest spots on sitcoms and things.
Then I came to Vancouver and did one of those Ernest
movies, God bless him, before he passed away. I had
just hit the high water mark having agents and the
industry validate my life. So I came back from three
years of driving 'er pretty hard. I wrote that one-man
show that moved me into standup and I had plans the
whole time to move myself into these soft-seaters and
the big rooms. Once I hooked up with Shantero
Productions six years ago, it became this victory in
baby steps. So it's been real good, you know? I'm real
pleased.

GM: Do you think this is something other comics could
do to get away from the clubs?
RJ: I think they had or have ambitions to do that.
It's whether or not you have the discipline or the
focus to get it done. I'm fortunate. I'm working with
a great producer. I'm doing twenty interviews before
tomorrow's over. And then we'll come out to Vancouver
and we'll do media and things. But more than that, you
know, more than the logistics, I think the work
itself, that's what's important. I think you've always
gotta be writing and I always aim for a 40 percent
change-up rate in my material each time I come
through. Any comedian will tell you, when you find a
piece that has legs and is gonna fly for a while, it's
always nice to keep that in your toolkit. But when an
audience is paying 40 bucks to see your show, I think
you've got to give them the kind of experience that
they don't get sitting at home with the channel
selector on their lap. They've got to have that
authentic relationship with themselves and the
comedian and with the night in its entirety. That's
why you've always got to be writing new material. It's
a job; it's not something that you can coast on tribal
affiliation so your buddies at the back of the room
are always going to laugh at your material. That's a
fool's game. You've got to understand that the
audience is there to be entertained at a quality
professional level.

GM: So there is crossover from show to show.
RJ: Definitely. Of course it does. But it's how you
cross it over. I mean, you're always winnowing away,
right? You're always jettisoning some material in
order to fit the new stuff in. I'm coming up to
writing my fourth 90-minute special. This fourth one
in September I'll be shooting it in Victoria. It's
going to be on B.C. My last one was on Alberta. I was
really pleased with those numbers. CBC had some low
numbers after the strike this year and we came out of
the gates with 940,000. I was very honoured with that.
But to answer your question about the material, it was
a customized show for the most part. It was material
that I couldn't, even if I wanted to go back to the
clubs again, which I don't, I couldn't actually work
on my material about the west in Toronto. But yet when
I did the show at the Jack Singer [Concert Hall] in
Calgary, this 2000-seater, it still had to be
accessible for the country as a whole. So within the
context of that show, there were a few pieces that I
had done before but had not been seen on TV.

GM: So this show on B.C. is going to be a TV special.
RJ: It is. The working title is called A Song for
Salmon Country. But I don't know, maybe that'll change
by the time I get it. With this being my third time
out to BC and having travelled all over the place in
BC... And I keep journals when I travel, too. You'll
find that pieces grow from a phrase, you know? A
phrase will expand into three sentences, and from
there it's into several paragraphs. And from there it
just grows. But I like the way a phrase trips off the
tongue and tickles the ear as well as the funnybone.

GM: I was going to say, you're a real wordsmith. You
should get paid by the word.
RJ: (laughs) I'll keep that in mind.

GM: I know a lot of comics will get up on stage with
just sort of an idea and they can phrase it any way
they want at the time, but some are very meticulous in
the word order and the precision of the word.
RJ: I think precision is one of the major elements
that goes into the alchemy of a joke. Some of my
pieces are very closely structured and written. But
then again, lately I've been throwing it up in the air
and seeing how it lands. Oh yeah, man, it's been a
riot these last couple of tours. With that last
special we shot in Calgary, if there was any note we
had from the network it was, "Just have fun." I know
that seems pretty simple, but when I went back for my
tour of the east coast - I did 25 dates across
Atlantic Canada through the fall and early winter - I
had an old pal show up in the audience from my
university days and he said, "Geez, Ron, it's just
like we were back on the floor at Acadia with the bong
again and you were riffing." Not to say... It's a
double espresso now before the show. But it's nice to
know that after 26 years the energy is back to the
purity of that place where it started, which was just
having fun, where it was just riffing. And that's
really the pocket that you want to find yourself in.

GM: Us it difficult with such a structured act to make
it sound so fresh?
RJ: I think that's where my years as an actor come in,
you know? I mean, I was an actor for 17 years.
Although I certainly wasn't an award-winning thespian.
I did hone my craft like most journeymen actors do in
Canada, man. You're trying to get your message across
in a 30-second commercial ad. You do thirty takes and
it's gotta be concise whether you're doing commercials
on TV or voiceovers or guest spots or the occasional
film role. It all coalesced into my show. You can't
negate 26 years of being in the comedy trenches. You
learn shit.

GM: How long have you been doing standup?
RJ: I got my first cheque for standup in January of
'95.

GM: What led you there after being an actor for so
long?
RJ: Well, it was a calling. Because I was always meant
to be a comedian, you know? I could always work a
kitchen and work a classroom and subsequently a lounge
here and there in university days. I was on mainstage
at Second City in the heady days of SCTV and stuff
when the standard to aspire to was on TV all the time.
There was always an idea that this is the way it's
supposed to be done. Not from the SCTV guys, mind you,
but within the political context of my cast, you know?
That there was a way of doing things; that Second City
had a template and almost a comedic mandate, if you
will.  And I was always running against the grain with
that. It wasn't until I got back from California, my
three years down there, and wrote my first one-man
show, that I started stepping into the world of my own
comedic voice. But it was something that you just had
to do. I'm sure any comedian who is half proficient at
his profession will tell you that... Well, it
validates the journey, man. It's a great opportunity
to make sense of the chaos we're all walking through,
right? My show covers everything from going to church
with my grandmother while she wears that fur hat on
her head that's still got the fox head on it and those
beady, jeezly eyes made in the bowels of hell that are
always gawking at you in church, or whether I'm lost
today in Future Shop way out of my depth, wandering
the aisles of consumer excess. Your stories become
their stories and the specific becomes universal.

GM: Every show that you do...
RJ: ... is different.

GM: Does it start out with a theme? Or do you realize
what that is after or while you're writing it?
RJ: It's six of one, half a dozen of the other. I'll
write these pieces and there's notepads with
scribblings on them and foolscap, and then it'll go
into the computer but you gotta make sure that you
don't put it from the foolscap into the computer too
soon. If you put that ingredient into the computer too
soon it becomes too structured and rigid. What's
important is how it's linked with the segues, you
know? The segues are the thematic structure that holds
the audience's mind to the line.

GM: Yours are so smooth that you go, "Hey, how did we
end up over here?"
RJ: Exactly. And that's the magic of it. And that's
what I like. That's where I've found myself lately,
taking a tangent in the forest, if you'll pardon the
metaphor. I'll usually say, "Sometimes I take a
tangent in my shows but hold on. Just bear with me. I
always take a compass reading. You think you might be
lost, but lo and behold the sun has revealed a path.
We're on our way to the meadow again and no one's been
eaten." This old British vaudevillian passed away a
couple of years ago at the age of 93. And they said,
"Any comments on 90 years in the business?" I think
he'd been in the business since his old man was
dwarf-tossing him in Liverpool. And he said, "Yeah,
comedy is the longest apprenticeship in the world."
And it's true. The minute you think you've got it
figured out, you're fucked. That's why you have to
come to the work with a sense of humility. And as well
as humility, you've got to come to it with respect and
understand that there's a professional standard that
you have to aspire to. And just because you're
standing in front of a microphone talking and people
are in the audience doesn't mean that they're supposed
to laugh. You've gotta be funny.

GM: Sure, otherwise they won't come back.
RJ: But I like simple things, too. People always ask
me, "What comedians do you watch?" I don't spend a lot
of time watching comedians. And I never did as a kid.
I'd rather be out playing ground hockey or wandering
the woods.

GM: But did you have any kind of influences? You're
style is unique.
RJ: That's a good question. Like anybody, I guess,
when I was a young teenager the early albums of George
Carlin came out before he was just a cranky bastard.
Those albums were really funny. And I listened to Bill
Cosby and stuff. I liked Monty Python. Later on in
life when I began watching HBO I was really impressed
with early Dennis Miller. And I saw Chris Rock's show,
No Fear, at Massey Hall here in Toronto two years ago,
which was just exhilarating. It was just so great. It
was just so funny and so good. I know guys that can
quote acts of famous comics and other comics verbatim
and shit, I can never do that, man. I can't remember a
joke unless it's mine to save my life. I'm not one of
those sort of comedy nerds, either, who stand in the
corner at the back of the club quoting other guys'
bits. I think you're only fooling yourself if you're
doing that. You should probably be home writing your
own stuff.

GM: Where do you get to try out your material now?
RJ: It goes from the page to the stage, man.

GM: After you book a tour you'll try it on stage?
RJ: I go to my office everyday - I have an office
outside my house - and I write.

GM: And when you want to see if it actually works...?
RJ: When I write it, I remember it.

GM: But how do you know if it works? Isn't the
audience the ultimate judge?
RJ: You know.

GM: So you just know?
RJ: Yeah.

GM: So you'll say, "I've got this show now and I'm
going to go on tour" and you've never performed it
before?
RJ: Well, listen, I won't perform an entire two-hour
show new. I mean, they even practiced the landing at
Normandy, for Christ sake. You'd be a tool to
(laughs). Jesus, man! But that's why I shoot for 40
percent. I've got a chunk of material now on food
hysteria and whether or not the press fuels the
hysteria or not. Sometimes I think the information is
just as dangerous as the disease. So you'll work this
piece. It's seven-to-ten pages on this and you'll keep
pounding away at it. And one night, a piece within
that context might not fly as well as a couple of the
other subjects, you know? One night the salmon piece
might fly better than the red meat piece. Or the
organic apple piece might fly better. But within the
context of a 90-minute show everything usually works
to a certain degree. And if something doesn't work and
it falls flat, believe it or not I think the audience
enjoys that from time to time because it validates
your vulnerability, you know? It all depends on how
you call yourself on it. But like I said before, with
a deference for the spoken word married to a physical
presentation, I think the audience realizes they're
getting more bang for their buck. But to get back to
what that vaudevillian said, the longest
apprenticeship in the world and you're always
learning, you know I can't bear to watch my early
performances on Just For Laughs because I was going
like a man with an hour to live. And I never enjoyed
them, you know? This last special I found this nice
groove and it's almost like, "Hey, man, after ten
years of doing this, it's absolutely where I belong."
You know? Where you really feel at home.

GM: More comfortable?
RJ: Well, just at home. That marvelous moment between
the back curtain and the stage when the audience is
coming in and you've listened to them get in their
seat and your show music is playing some of my
favourite tunes from Steve Earle or Willie or Johnny
or Fogerty, you know? My music. I know Van Morrison's
Wild Night is Calling is going to be the third song I
hear before the show starts. There's anticipation that
steps through the metaphysical veneer from behind the
curtain into the world of the stage, and just know
that, that's home. I just love it there. I like my
back yard and my youngsters, too, you know.

GM: What kind of life do you have away from the bright
lights of show biz?
RJ: Just like anybody else. Putting one foot in front
of the other, hoping the wind'll be at your back and
the sun'll be on your face. I struggle with life like
everybody else does, you know? Some days are tough and
some days are a breeze.

GM: You got any hobbies?
RJ: Sure. I fish a great deal when I can and I'm an
avid runner. I'm signed up for the New York marathon
in the fall. I like to run. I run in every city I'm
in. That's why I'm pumped to come to the west coast
because I stay out there in North Van at the Holiday
Inn out there and just straight up you've got that
mountain trail. ... So I run. And Calgary's a great
city for running, as is Kelowna and Vancouver, of
course. I run and I read a lot. And we've got a decent
garden in the back yard. Anything that involves the
outdoors and smelling the smells of the big wide open,
that's where I am. I like a good fishing trip each
year. I went to Alaska last year and got some Chinook
salmon. I was playing White Horse. And this year I got
a corporate gig in Newfoundland in June and I'm sure
you don't know but the Arctic char are running in
Labrador City. I think I'm the only comedian in the
country who works his tour around the migratory
patterns of Arctic char.

GM: It's a good life you have... You were on Conan.
RJ: I did, man! I was on the Conan show?

GM: Are you the quintessential Canadian comic? This is
what Americans think of Canada when they see you?
RJ: I think that was definitely the theme of the week.
There were other comedians who certainly had another
opinion of that. But I submitted my material and I
know that Mike put in a good word for me.

GM: Mike?
RJ: Meyers. I gave Mike his star on the Walk of Fame
in Toronto a couple of years ago. We've been pals for
years. But I know that he wouldn't have given me a
recommendation if he didn't think I could deliver. And
I know that they wouldn't have hired me if they didn't
think that I was the guy. And as it turned out I was.
I had a great set and they invited me to come down and
play New York clubs if I wanted to and things like
that. Hey, man, that's pretty cool. But it was a week
of frenzy in Toronto, you know? I was getting phone
calls from people I hadn't seen since 1983: "Can you
get me a ticket?" I said, "Geez, man, I can get you a
kidney quicker." I said, "Relax, it's a television
show." Jesus, the appetite to be at the centre of the
celebrity buzz is beyond me.

GM: So did you go down to New York?
RJ: I didn't, actually, no. I suppose I should have
gone down to play a club but let me tell you, if I can
put 2500 people in a theatre here and have them
laughing... I mean, 2500 people laughing here when
it's cold sounds exactly the same as 2500 laughing
there if it's warm. But more than likely it'd be 35
people, if that, at a club in Manhattan. Look, I'm no
fool. I know how much I'd have to jettison of my act in
order to accommodate the American palette. But what was
interesting about the Conan thing was they really
loved what I did. They didn't say, "Boy, are you ever
Canadian." You know what they said? "Boy, you're
really funny. You remind me of Billy Connolly." I
thought, good, let me take that to the bank, then,
will you? I'll take that to the bank and the next time
I'm turning some lonesome corner of the great
out-there, driving through a primal blizzard a yeti
wouldn't fucking well wander, to try to get to the
gig, I'll know that I'm on the right road. I just
happen to think that there's an exotic allure to this
country that a lot of folks don't give credit for
because it lacks the status of empire that pop culture
has in America. America can export its pop culture to
the four corners of the world thereby validating their
stories that much more. I mean, their mythology is the
mythology of the 20th century. And show business is
the great exporter of that. The money's jim dandy, but
there's 1.7 million people laughing at Brent [Butt]'s
show and good on him. I don't think the stories we
tell here are any less valid than somebody going on
about Tom Cruise's marriage to Katie Holmes in
America. I find a lot of American comedy is derivative
of pop culture anyway. I'd much rather try to wrap my
head around the way people walk through their world. I
mean, sure, I spend some time debunking celebrity
culture, the hollow promise of fame and fortune and
all that crap. You gotta wear the hat that fits you,
brother.

GM: So true. If you can have a nice career here in
Canada...
RJ: But look, if I have the opportunity to be in an
American film again or a television show, that doesn't
mean I'm knocking it, man; it just means that I know
where my voice is.

GM: Without compromising.
RJ: I worked hard on not compromising it, you know? I
remember a lot of guys would say, 'That's not going to
play in Iowa.' What the fuck do I care? I don't want
to go to Iowa. Why is somebody in bib overalls
standing in a corn field any more important than buddy
standing over an ice-fishing hole around a corner in
Gitchy-Gumi in February? They're not! They're still
people laughing. And the mandate of our profession is
to make people laugh wherever you're doing it. I'm
sure there's some poor bastard in Peru wondering how
he's going to break into Bolivia because that's where
the sweet seats are. I don't know. I'm just trying to
draw an analogy. But I know that as a Canadian
comedian in a country of 30 million people, you've got
to be prepared to put the miles beneath your wheels.
And that's why I'll play the small rooms of 700 as
well as the big rooms of 25. Because there's something
to be gained from every turn in the road.

GM: You're bringing it to the people, not just the big
cities.
RJ: There you go. You know, Bob Dylan played high
school gymnasiums, didn't he?

GM: I don't know.
RJ: I think he did. Mind you, I'm not saying I'm
Dylan. I'm just saying as fellow travellers. Here's
something: I play these funky old vaudeville halls.
There's a great old room in Winnipeg called the Walker
[Theatre], which is the Burton Cummings Theatre now.
There's a theatre in St. John, New Brunswick, called
the Imperial. There's the Winter Garden in Toronto.
And the old Sanderson Centre in Brantford. ... It's
vaudeville, man! Since the 1890s. Since before talkies
came in. And you know that there were cats travelling
the circuit, this bread and butter circuit, looking
for those three square daily. That's what they wanted:
they wanted a gig and three meals a day and a place to
work. Some of these guys were travelling with seals
that did arithmetic, for Christ sake! Or a suitcase
full of cats and rats. There's one guy that used to
have an act at friggin' Winter Garden Theatre in
Toronto that had rats riding cats. And they'd do a
show upstairs at the Elgin and then go up and down and
do two shows. There were singers, there were tap
dancers, there were comedians. They were just people
doing what they do.

GM: It's a fine tradition.
RJ: It is. You're just part of a tradition. It's a
trade. And I think that there's solace in that, you
know? And if my notoriety at this level has the
opportunity to springboard me to a series again some
day or film work, bonus! Bonus. But I know for those
90 minutes to two hours that I'm on stage I'm given
the humble opportunity to line the planets up and make
sense of the world I walk through. And that's pretty
well the best bonus. And finally to be able to make a
steady living. A good living. To have a vacation each
year, bring your family somewhere each season, to own
your own home, to have a little bit of comfort.
Because for the first 15 years of my career I was
always one missed mortgage payment away from shitting
in a shoebox beneath the overpass, you know? But it's
the hours you gotta put in. It's important. That's why
people in their 40s or 50s who've been in the game for
25, 30 years can't suffer this overnight success
that's perpetuated by Canadian Idol, American Idol, or
any of these gimme gimme now reality shows. Everybody
wants to be rich and famous. When did just getting
through another working day without being a weasly
prick lose its virtue? I think that in our line of
work it's important to remember that just being given
a chance to do what you want is a treat, man.

GM: And making that chance happen.
RJ: Well, I think you have to do that, you know? I
don't think anybody's going to do it for you. I'm no
Anthony Robbins acolyte by any stretch of the
imagination. I like a couple of pints of Kilkenny and
a single malt after my day's done just as much as the
next fella, but I just like it. It's fun, you know?
And then the next day you'll be having a coffee at the
local coffee shop and a couple of Mounties will come
in. This happened to me in Cranbrook: A couple
Mounties came in and they quoted my jokes from the
show the night before then before I pulled out they
said, "Watch the big horned sheeps. They're in rut and
they'll attack your car." I thought, "Geez, you don't
get those warnings everyday, do you?" I was up in
Atikokan in northern Ontario and I put this in the
show, actually. Someone stepped backstage after the
gig and handed me a brown paper bag dripping blood.
And I put my hand in and it was a 7.5-pound sirloin
tip moose roast. I said, "Gee, you know you've made it
in Canadian show biz when the locals are paying you in
butchered game." But I know this sounds like Ron
James' own version of Red Green, perhaps, that rural
heartline that seems to run through the Canadian
psyche, and it's true, it's a good thing, I think, for
an urban country where 80 percent of us live in
cities, I still think that there's a deference for the
rural and a simpler way of walking through the world.

GM: And so many people come from the rural.
RJ: Yeah, they do. Definitely. Maybe it's a harkening
back to some halcyon day of, I don't know, summertime
wind. I think that's why Neil Young's new album is so
great. I got that feeling through the whole thing. Did
you see the movie? [Neil Young: Heart of Gold]

GM: No.
RJ: Oh, geez, man. Treat yourself. Go see that. I
think it's as good as The Last Waltz if not better.
Anyway, I know that within the circles of show biz,
like the bubbly pinheads on Entertainment Tonight are
so focused on and driven by the fame thing. It's all
that fame stuff.

GM: Whoever's on TV.
RJ: Yeah, I guess, isn't it, eh? That's it, isn't it?
I guess it's important to be on TV. That's why I do my
specials and maybe I'll get another series. I'm
working on one.

GM: You've got eight more of those specials. You can
do every province, right?
RJ: (laughs) Well, we'll see, man. I just might have
to put four provinces together for Atlantic Canada.
You'd have to do Newfoundland by itself, though.
That's one on my list. It's going to be called In
Search of My Father's Country. That's where my
father's from. He's from over there. Of course, I'm
from Nova Scotia. But BC is such an amazing place, you
know? It's five countries in one province. And it's
definitely a province of polarities. I said to someone
earlier, I said, "Geez, you're either chained to a
tree or chopping it down." Or you've got your
aggressive venture capitalists at the Vancouver Stock
Exchange or you've got somebody who's a reincarnation
of a Kwakiutl shaman running a hemp co-op on Texada
Island.

GM: There are the words again!
RJ: There they are again, yeah. Some call it poetry,
others bi-polar. (laughs)

GM: Well, Ron, thank you for this exclusive interview.
I'll let you get to your other 19 interviews.
RJ: No, it's cool. You guys (the Georgia Straight) are
the real deal. I remember last time I was out there,
what did the Georgia Straight call me? "Curmudgeon" I
believe was the word.

GM: Did I say that?
RJ: No, you didn't say it. Somebody else did. And I
take that as a compliment. It's good to have a cranky
old bastard yelling at the youngsters from his lawn,
right? (laughs) I hope you make the show.

GM: I will.
RJ: If you want to come out, give my producers a shout
and I'd love to have you. It's always good to have
somebody under 50 in the audience.


 
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