"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."
– Ron James
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 Shaky 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: Is 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? Your 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?
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.
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 Gitchegummi 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 heart line 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]
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.