One of my favourite comedians to come out of Canada is Ron James. His way of weaving words to paint a vivid picture is an experience that has to be taken in live. He has starred in nine one-hour specials, millions have watched his shows, and thousands gather regularly to see him in person. He is coming to Ottawa on Friday February 17, performing at TD Place for a night of unforgettable fun and as part of the Alterna Savings Crackup Festival.
Ahead of his performance, I had the pleasure of talking to Ron James and delved into his life and career. From the early days of university, right up to his latest special.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: After graduating high school, did you really want to be a history teacher?
Ron James: The only reason I wanted to be a history teacher was because… I had no intention of doing a postgraduate degree and I liked history and I couldn’t do anything else. Then I got the acting bug in university.
It wasn’t until I was in high school, about 1977, when I was watching Saturday Night Live and said: “man I really wanna do that.” I also wanted to do standup, but I didn’t have the cojones because I just wasn’t ready so I got into improv first with Second City.
“We were making $350 bucks a week doing 8 improv sets a week and I would say that’s where I learned the fundamentals of the form of comedy and really got my stage legs and stage confidence.”
Being part of the famed Second City in Toronto, how was that experience?
It was great. I still vividly remember one time when I really wanted to get a scene in the show and the others didn’t, and John Candy happened to be sitting in the audience and told us that he really liked that scene and I thought “gee, that’s gotta be in the show.” And it ended up in the show despite the others’ objections. Those were the days. We were making $350 bucks a week doing 8 improv sets a week and I would say that’s where I learned the fundamentals of the form of comedy and really got my stage legs and stage confidence. That being said, it is an absolutely exponential leap from improv to standup and not many people can make the transition.
How did you take your experience of heartbreak in Los Angeles and transform it to your one man show Up & Down in Shaky Town: One Man’s Journey through the California Dream?
After experiencing so many disappointments at auditions, I had to clarify my world. I had to line up the planets and make sense of this journey. I just couldn’t come home and let that be it. And at the time when I got home, my wife said to me; “You know, you should do something different. It’s hard to see you waiting around the house for the phone to ring.”
So shortly after finishing filming Ernest Rides Again, I was sitting around a bunch of people telling them my stories about the American dream growing up, as seen from the eyes of a twelve year old kid who wanted to buy a two man submarine from the back of a DC comic book that was good for up to six feet of water, for 11 bucks. And I told them these stories, and they laughed and laughed… and I started to see the universality of my stories had traction and had a larger life to them. And so I began to write my one man show. I wanted to redefine my life, empower myself and clarify the journey I had taken for three years.
I had to start all over again in Toronto. So I took funny parts of my one man show and strung them into an eight minute act. Then I went to this great little club that is no longer there, called the Laugh Resort. It was right down the street from Second City, where I started everything, ironically. There must be some magnetic pull from Lombard Street seeing as how I started there and ended up there so many years later.
The Laugh Resort was a great little club. Of course it’s torn down now and I think condos have gone up in its place. But it was a great club and had great demographics and a support of great comedians. It had Mark Farrell who wrote for This Hour Has 22 minutes and has 13 Gemini Awards; Tim Steeves, who went on to write for the Rick Mercer Show, and then we would have these great comedians come in like Ray Romano, Louis CK, Ellen Degeneres, and Kevin James. So I was a neophyte comedian and got to hold my own among these greats. It was fantastic.
How has standup affected you personally?
You know standup comedy really saved my life. I don’t know where I’d be if I was waiting for the phone to ring, in order to talk with an agent and then having to wait for another audition. To wait for someone behind a desk… to validate my existence and award me a place in a commercial or guest spot on TV.
I was actually talking about this with my friend Jeremy [Hotz] the other night, telling him that I really think I’ve hit my stride with my [standup] specials. I’m really proud of their consistency and the numbers attest to this… standup has helped me earn a good living and provide for my family.
I realize that I have a responsibility to the audience as well as to myself. You know, if you paid 50 bucks to see me, it’s much more than that. You have to get a sitter, you have to drive there, maybe take friends with you, probably go out to a place to eat; it’s not just my ticket they are paying for. They can sit at home and watch Netflix, they can watch all the standup they want on television, turn on the Comedy Network, turn on HBO and watch all the specials. But it’s not the same… being in an audience is its own entity. It’s a living breathing thing, it’s electric, it’s tangible, it’s visceral and it’s real. It’s authentic and you get an experience that is still pure. If it’s done well the experience is great. That’s why I love it.
What’s it like working live in front of so many people?
The joy of working live, making a living with a stool and a glass of water, for a paying audience, beats anything hands down a thousand times over. When you’re surfing that wave of laughs and you’re working up on the stage seeing that wave come at you and you’re tucked in the belly of it, it’s fantastic. When everything is sliding into the chamber, all the bits are working, you’re cutting and pasting, the mind is sharp, you’re working that room, you are one, it’s symbiotic. It gives me faith that everything is going to work out in the world when your stories become their stories and there’s a unity of purpose. You know, I think it’s the comedian’s job to kind of lighten the load for people.
I always say to my daughters that their old man has made a living telling people about what he doesn’t understand and that’s the world. I don’t understand it and I try to put it together in the language of laughs. It’s the greatest reward that I could possibly imagine.
There was a time in 1997 when I almost declared bankruptcy. That experience, among others, made me realise that it’s about the long haul. My career has been a victory in baby steps, one kilometre at a time.
“I always say to my daughters that their old man has made a living telling people about what he doesn’t understand and that’s the world. I don’t understand it and I try to put it together in the language of laughs. “
What’s next for you?
You know I just finished my ninth special and I’m not sure if it will be my last one or not… there are things that you can’t say on TV. All networks have things you’re not allowed to say.
I had a great joke about Trump that they [CBC] made me cut. The bit was about how Trump said that women who get abortions should be punished, but I beg to differ. The only woman that should be punished is Donald’s mother for not having one.
The joke got a rousing and rapturous response from the audience but they [CBC] said that they were sorry, but it couldn’t go on the show. They wouldn’t put it on my special. That’s how it is sometimes.
But I do have a great team of collaborators. Like Paul Poag and Scott Montgomery; they helped me write my last three specials and that raised the bar for me. A comedian has to learn how to work with others and that’s where I benefited from working with Second City… sometimes improv espoused the view of egalitarianism, thinking about the other rather than thinking about yourself.
I love doing what I do and my main goal moving forward is to keep doing what makes me feel alive.
You can see Ron James perform his kinetically charged show this Friday February 17 at TD Place (1015 Bank St). Doors open at 7 pm, show starts at 8 pm. Tickets cost $49.50 and are available online at www.crackup.ca.