"I know now for a fact that improv can't hold a candle to doing standup. It's not the same buzz, it just isn't. It feels infantile to me at times. When you see guys who do it really well, great. But improv needs a rewrite."
– Ron James
Guy MacPherson: Is there a certain amount of time you like to wait before hitting a city again?
Ron James: Yeah, usually 18 months to two years. It's like sensible forestry practices, you know. You don't want to go in and clear cut. You want to leave a few trees for when you go back next time. Pardon the logging metaphor. I alway try to touch on some kind of icon for whatever region I'm playing.
GM: You're always quick with the analogy or metaphor.
RJ: That's been the boon of these tours, right? Being able to embrace the mystery of people and place clear across the big wide open and try to find my comedic mileage and what makes each region tick.
GM: You'll do the BC stuff in other regions, won't you?
RJ: Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. From time to time I'll do that. The further east you get, the less folks... Because Canada is defined by its regions, right? But there's a universality to British Columbia, of course, across the country. The Rockies, the Super Natural element. I think that's what resonated for the public with the last special. There was so much emphasis placed on recreation and nature and the ramifications of a changing planet. And BC's pretty enlightened when it comes to that. And it just so happened that that was an element of the zeitgeist that was finding its resonance for the public at that time. So it was good timing.
GM: When you say 18 months to two years, you stagger these out, obviously, so you're not just sitting at home between tours.
RJ: Oh, yeah. No, there's no such thing as sitting at home. I come into the office every day and work. I try to write my special in the summer time after I've been on tour. It's like a journalist in the field. I keep a notepad with me and I'll write new material in my tours and compile them and give it a run on its legs to see how it plays. It's all in its infant stages right then. There's a long gestation period actually for some material. And then some material literally goes right from the page to the stage. I mean this last one I did back home, that I shot in Halifax in October, because I didn't tour ahead of time, ... you open up with 68 or 72 pages in your head hoping you don't blank.
GM: I was wondering about that. A stage actor will sometimes forget a line or just blank.
RJ: Oh, Christ, yeah. But that makes it exciting, too. I like there to be an element of danger in a show so that the audience isn't quite sure where we're going yet at the same time there's a confidence that they invest in you for the entirety of the ride. But for the most part, I labour over [individual words] and things like that. I do write my material. Particularly those passages that need that rhythm. A comedian finds his style over time.
I love the way words paint that picture. I like words that trip off the tongue and tickle the ear as well as the funny bone. I like an audience to get a bit more bang for their buck than just a laugh.
GM: I guess your background in improv helps you if you ever draw a blank.
RJ: Yeah, the years at Second City I suppose gave me stage skills but I'd never be presumptuous enough to... And I know now for a fact that improv can't hold a candle to doing standup. It's not the same buzz, it just isn't. It feels infantile to me at times. When you see guys who do it really well, great. But improv needs a rewrite.
What I discovered with the tribe of standups is that everybody has had this crucible of fire by themselves and there's not a standup on his pins today who hasn't gone through the trenches of amateur night and from there playing different rooms out there by themselves. My brothers and sisters in the standup legions have my utmost respect. But the equation is refreshingly forthright. In a day when the world is increasingly complex and fractured, the equation for standup comedy is simple: get laughs or get off. Then I think you have to set your standards as to what you're getting your laughs with.
I think in deference to the old days of improv and stuff with Second City, there was always a standard there. That name was evocative of a strong tradition of quality. You always had a director telling you, "Don't put that in a scene" or "Take that out". So I was always aware of the process of editing and honing it down to the kernel of the joke. But what's refreshing about standup, which has been my meal ticket for the last 15 years almost, is you don't have to filter your comedic point of view through five other people. There's no safety net. It's just you and the audience and the primal hum. It's just you and the paying public and the visceral hit of the evening. For those 90 minutes to two hours you're on that stage, you're given the opportunity to make sense of the chaos we're all walking through. The plumber and the professor sitting side by side can be laughing at different things in the same joke. Without getting too maudlin about the reward, it's religion of the funny bone. [People come] from different walks of life and genders and money and socio-economic standing and all those things and they're all laughing. What is it about my grandmother wearing a hat that still had the fox head on it when I went to church with her in 1968? Why does that resonate for people? What do people feel about the mystery and the mythology of the country through the seasons?
These are things that are in my set and for some reason or other they resonate and it's as much of a mystery to me as anything. [As soon as] you think you've got it figured out, you're fucked. I think you always have to come to the work with a humility. And that's married to the confidence of the delivery, of course.
GM: Can you comment on the world more in standup than improv?
RJ: I suppose. Improv's great training to make you think on your feet but at the end of the day I want my work to last. There's a longevity to a joke. There's a shelf life to a certain perspective on things that will stay forever, and that's a good feeling. It's alchemy, too, isn't it? I mean, where does it come from? Where do you haul it from? You just go [to your desk in the morning] and you're contracted to write a 90-minute show that's gotta be funny. Where are you going to haul that from? And you do. It just comes from following your bliss and trying to marshal some kind of cynicism into that stew. It eventually finds its legs over time and becomes a comedic point of view, whether it's on people or place or whether it's on growing up, the future or Canadian politics or anything. But my show isn't heavy politically, I wouldn't say. I like to have a pretty eclectic buffet. I like there to be a lot of choice in there over the 90 minutes.
GM: You put in the work. You talk about going to the office every day. Are you like some people – okay, me – who sit around until the deadline nears?
RJ: Listen, man, there's lots to be said for deadlines. Holy geez! That's the whole thing, you know? If the Normandy invasion were up to me, we'd be working the kinks out of it right at the 11th hour. But yeah, there's lots to be said for deadlines. But you gotta come in every day, though. It's a job, right? You gotta do the grunt work. I mean, the performance is the boon. That's what's fun.
GM: I think some comics forget the grunt work and just want the glory.
RJ: Well, I can't speak for how other guys decide to build their material ... but I've got a responsibility. If somebody's paying 42 bucks for a ticket – and the tickets didn't start at that price; we were able to build up to that level. But if somebody's made the effort to buy my ticket and to actually leave the house when there's so much entertainment that can keep them right there in the media room, and to call some friends and maybe have a meal or something, you've got a responsibility to make sure that they leave having had an authentic experience. Because so much is driven by hype. How often have you gone to something that's been driven by hype, with certain pop culture notoriety? I want people to feel they've had a good time and heard a different perspective on things.
"I like to get that roll and pitch. I really like to take the car out on the highway for a spin."
– Ron James
GM: I was talking to Irwin Barker recently.
RJ: Oh, my goodness! What a great guy. He's a warrior, man, and a really funny cat.
GM: He was talking about his writing process. He will sit down and actually research a topic and write an essay – not even funny – before he can start paring away and editing and looking for the humour.
RJ: That's really interesting. And it parallels the approach to my specials. Quest for the West was about Alberta and Saskatchewan. I spent four months researching those provinces. I had toured them so I got a feel. I felt the heartline hum of region beneath my wheels and felt that November wind come rolling over the plateau. And I was up at Fort McMurray. And the same with BC. I travelled through the Kootenays in the spring when everything was exploding in this scream of green. I was down there in funky Nelson town or Qualicum Beach, where, to the left of me, there was this ancient couple, a pair of Methuselas, sitting on a park bench necking, and I said to myself, "Geez, it's nice it still goes on but we don't have to see it." From the proletariat's perspective ... the windshield or on your feet or smelling the smells and hearing the sounds where you're travelling.
And then the next level is as you said Irwin approaches it. You write, you research, and you find the spine of the story. You can't not do enough research. The more you know, the more you have to choose from. You really need to have more on your plate than you're going to use because not all of it is going to be golden, you know? But once you're on your pins, you have to sell that baby so you better have your convictions and beliefs down pat.
GM: You're both very thorough comics. A lot of comics today have a great premise, one punchline, then they're on to something else. And you go, "Wha--? That's it?"
RJ: You have to trust your instincts in that regard. You'll have a piece and there's that little voice inside your head that's alawys saying, "No, no, no". You have to know your audience. You never want somebody walking away feeling just exactly what you said, Guy. They have to know that they got the full buffet. That's the rule.
GM: Not to stay with Irwin, but another analogy of his that I love is that when a regular person loses their keys, once they find them they stop looking. But a comic's job is to keep looking even after he's found them. Keep looking for different angles. You don't just stop after finding the first punchline.
RJ: I guess we're analytical by nature. It's chaos. Comedy comes from chaos for me. That's where I find my mileage, just hoping to get the sun in your face and the wind at your back and somewhere in this victory of baby steps, in our march through life's bright fury, we're hoping to have an easy day. We're hoping there'll be some small victories along the way. And I guess that process from A to B, for me, anyway, is where the funny lands, whether I'm over my head at Future Shop staring at a bank of television sets realizing that I've got 50 years on Planet Earth and three years of university and every frigging book in my house is for dummies. I look at big subjects and I try to put the average person's spin on it, I guess. It's just the journey of the everyman, which is the journey we're all on, just to follow our bliss and hope that you reap a few boons at the end of a working day.
But anger fuels the funny, too. You gotta be pissed off a little bit, you know?
GM: Do you have to really care about a topic or do you just have to understand that they make for good comedic subjects?
RJ: That's a great question. It's six of one, half a dozen of the other. Not everything is going to be a sermon driven by piss and vinegar. You have to have a balance of all kinds of topics in your set and some observations are just light comedic observations. I've got a bit of a rant on Afghanistan and Iraq ... and I needed to care about it, you know? So it all depends on the kind of subject that you're wrapping your head around.
GM: Have you been to Afghanistan?
RJ: No, I haven't. I have not been over that way. I did one of those tours once and we ended up at the North Pole several years ago. North Pole in November. Canadian show biz dream. But that was 15 years ago. Mostly what I've concentrated on is trying to maintain a product standard over the last 9 years touring the country in the soft seaters. I shoot for new material each time I come out. You don't find that under a rock.
GM: You also don't find too many comics who perform for as long on stage as you do. How long are you up there?
RJ: Ninety minutes to two hours. I think a hundred is fine. I had been going two when I first [started these tours] but I find the audience peaks a little bit at two hours. Plus, too, I need a pee. I'm 50, man. But I usually find that about 100 minutes is good. But I don't like to take a break. I had an opener for the first little bit when I started but then I realized that I had enough to drive the 90-minute show myself, so why not?
GM: I saw Mike Bullard last week. He does 35 minutes.
RJ: Where? At a club?
RJ: Well, just because we're all in the same medium we don't all work in the same fashion. Just like music is different all over. There's different genres and styles and everything. I think it's the same with standup. It all boils down to what you want to get out of it. What do you want it to be? It's respect. And the audience that pays to see it deserves some, too. But that doesn't mean that you have to pander. I mean, I think you gotta strike a balance between artistic need and audience expectation. But 35 minutes, eh? Wow. To each his own.
I like to get that roll and pitch. I really like to take the car out on the highway for a spin. And plus, too, I think the audience likes to see a little bit of "best-of" stuff. And you need some time to really let the new stuff breathe, as well. And sometimes it's not quite as tight as it will be over time. It needs to find its legs. The show that I'm doing, you have to know where you're going. I like to take a compass read first before I take a tangent. Then you take a tangent off and you can always come back to your place of origin. But it's always good to know where you're going. I think most comedians have that [centre] You want to make sure what's coming next or what you're opening with or what you're closing with.
"That's why this eight-minute set on Letterman or Leno and all that stuff, Jesus, I'm not interested. If that's what it takes in order to validate me, then I'm fucked. Because it takes me that long to set up a preposition."
– Ron James
GM: Oh, I don't like it when a comic takes a tangent and then forgets to come back to his original point. But you always find your way back.
RJ: The full circle. You have to do that. ... To punctuate a narrative with character stuff, too. I've been having a lot of fun with that lately, you know? So if there's any sort of tangential stuff I'll usually milk a beat a little bit like that and allow myself to go out on a thinner limb. The character stuff is fun. [It's not like I] sit down on a chair and do five minutes as a character or anything; it's just to punctuate it. I think you have to have the narratives so the audience knows what you're talking about and within that narrative it's gotta be punctuated consistently with laughs.
GM: Do you have to fight being the curmudgeon who thinks everything was better in his day? Like we all do?
RJ: A little bit. How old are you?
RJ: Yeah. I'm 50. I think there's a certain nostalgia among Baby Boomers, you know? But I'm trying to be aware of that. I think my 19-year-old daughter is a helluva lot more enlightened than I was at 19. She's not stumbling around a university frat house with an empty bucket of purple Jesus on her head doing hot knives. As far as I know. But I think there's a focus today that may not have existed a long time ago. Then again, Christ, you're 22 and immortal in 1980, what are you gonna do but have fun? But I try not to have that as a mandate of my set. God forbid that that's the theme that people walk away with: "He's just become a cranky old bastard."
I saw Carlin in Las Vegas about six years ago and he was fairly strident and I don't think the audience got the kind of show that they paid the 70 bucks for. But if I talk about stuff... like how I've worked since I was 12 years old. So there's always comparisons between today and yesterday, I guess. Like, I asked my kids to rake up a few leaves in the back yard when I went on tour in November and Christ, there was a pause you could march a Russian army through, you know? I said just rake up a few leaves. My reward for helping dad clean up the back yard when I was a kid was to stay an extra 45 minutes at the Halifax dump shooting rats in the head with my pellet gun.
RJ: It was good fun, man! And here I am listening to Sean Penn read Dylan's Chronicles in the truck. These are things everybody did in Wisconsin: went to the dump and shot rats. I thought, "Yeah! Alright." I can't play the guitar to save my life, but Dylan shot rats. But I guess it's the absurdity of it. I'm not trying to advocate rodent killing as a pastime for my girls, but you can't help but look there. It's the intention, right? What are you trying to say with it? What's the point? What's going to resonate for them?
GM: When we were younger and older people would say such things to us, we'd think they're just old. And I'm sure your daughters and my son will say the same thing when they're older about the younger generation.
RJ: Sure. My dad would tell me they used to get up at five o'clock to sell mackerels before he did his paper route. And you know what I used to do? I used to play a violin in front of him. I'd pretend I was playing a violin: "Oh, tell me another one." But I think that's one of the themes of the show, though: the past, the present and the future; where you're from, where you are and where you're going. That's life, though, isn't it, Guy? To put the whole picture into perspective. You have to draw from somewhere.
I think I said it to you earlier, where does the material come from? It's alchemy. You're pulling gold from straw. And all the comedians who step up on stage and deliver it, in order for it to be successful, I think there's got to be some investment of the heart line in there. At least for me that's what worked. And I find that the stuff that really does have shelf life, that really consistently has legs, is stuff that has a personal anecdote that universality of content. Political jokes are gone in six months, aren't they?
GM: Unless they get elected in.
RJ: Yeah. ... You can hang your hat on some archetypical things. I try to, anyway, with politicians. That they're the same guys in different ties. Glad-handing political opportunists with a pathological pursuit of power who as soon as they [get elected] don't give a rat's ass about the people that gave it to them in the first place. And I think it's important for a comedian not to be a member of the country club, too. I'd never want to be in a room filled with people I make fun of for a living. I think you've got to be cautious about that. I think it's our job to always be observers. You always want to be standing on the porch looking in. I don't want to be the guy inside with the alligator on my shirt, for Christ sake. I want to be with the misfaced boy and the bearded lady on the front porch.
GM: You've got to stay real.
RJ: But it's hard, though, isn't it, when we're all carrying this Sisyphean lump of fuck called the bourgeois dream? I mean, all of us are in the same game, aren't we? You want a nice south-facing window in the house or ... you want the media room. Jesus, it's not good enough to have a TV anymore, you've got the fucking media room. You've got all the accoutrements of comfort you could possibly want. [His other phone rings in the background.] I'm enjoying talking to you. The Cowichan Times can fucking relax. They're late phoning me. I'm gonna turn it off, actually.
GM: Turn it off. It's just Cowichan.
RJ: I just did an interview and they said, "What have you heard of Abbotsford?" I said, "Geez, you don't want to know."
GM: Were you Catholic? Or are you?
RJ: No, I was Anglican but I grew up with Catholics.
GM: I was wondering because when you get into one of your long, wordy passages it sounds like a priest singing.
RJ: Isn't that interesting?
GM: You know, they get on that one note.
RJ: (big laugh) They get on that one note! That's funny, man. Well, isn't that interesting. No, High Anglican. I mean, I was as close to Catholic as you could get without having any saints to pray to when I was on the high diving board at the Halifax Centennial Pool. Your Catholics could call up a host of saints, couldn't they? There was any friggin' saint for a bow-legged, luminescent 45-pound red-headed kid scared shitless at the top platform.
But my wife, I tell ya, her mother is Roman Catholic. And I'm not shittin' you, man, I lost my car keys for three friggin' days and she said, "I'll talk to Mom and she'll say a prayer to Saint Anthony." There's a fella who's not sleeping on the job, buddy. They fell on my head when I was sleeping. But they showed up! So I don't like to mess with that spookiness they got going on there.
Look, I came from a Celtic culture, right? I was raised with one television station. I don't want to go into the whole nostalgic thing and stuff, but it was a black and white TV and for the most part I was surrounded by people who would never shut up. They just talked. I mean, it wasn't a fiddle-playing kitchen but people could tell a story. Oh, jeez, they could tell a story. It was holy. And you listened. And you respected it. These things stayed with me.
I really admired Billy Crystal's standup and the way he called up that soul line of all the people he knew from that club his father ran in the '50s. Was it a club or a record store he ran or something, where all the great black musicians came and sang. ... I like Cosby's stuff. But at the same time, early Dennis Miller, too, was a real inspiration. That first album, Black & White, he did was great, before he became a avid member of the Republican party. But I saw Billy Connelly. We drove to Hamilton to see Billy Connelly in Copps Coliseum. The 65-year-old Scottish wizard went for two hours and 25 minutes without a break. And it was absolutely inspired. You know, I saw him on an HBO special when I was in Los Angeles seventeen lifetimes ago. We were down there for three years. And it was an epiphany, man. I saw this cat flying across the stage and I remember watching it going, "Jesus, this is the language of my tribe." He was talking about relatives and times. There was a texture to it, you know, Guy? There was a texture. That's why this eight-minute set on Letterman or Leno and all that stuff, Jesus, I'm not interested. If that's what it takes in order to validate me, then I'm fucked. Because it takes me that long to set up a preposition. ... I like the reverence that words allow the individual to place on time.
GM: When are you going to do a book?
RJ: Well, when I find the time, buddy. I was approached there a couple of years ago by Douglas & McIntyre in Vancouver and I sent them some stuff that I'd written on the north. My kid and I had gone kayaking into the barren lands of the Teelon Game Sanctuary a couple of summers ago. That's where the holy notes singing loud and clear because space is Canada's greatest commodity. When I find the time to sit down and ... [write about] some of the wonders that have passed in front of my windshield or some of the ground I've walked, maybe in the next few years.
GM: You could even adapt your stage material because it's all written.
RJ: Yeah, it reads. That's what people say to me all the time. Thank you. I will get around to doing that. It's just first things first, you know? I wrote a pilot this year and I'm waiting to hear if I get an order.
RJ: Yep. They've been good [to me.] The last four specials have been with them. My fifth hopefully will be on Winnipeg. I'll shoot that one next year. They're the only television network in the country that's building it from the ground up, you know? I mean, Robson Arms and Corner Gas are CTV's, both with excellent actors and I'm a big fan of Brent's work, anyway.
GM: They're the same actors.
RJ: (laughs) Yeah, they are! There's a couple of the same actors. That's funny. You know, there's more actors out there.
GM: Exactly. Is the pilot a sitcom or a one-camera thing? What is it?
RJ: You know what, Guy? I just don't want to play my hand yet until the gods smile, buddy. I hope you'll respect that.
GM: I respect that.
RJ: Thank you. I'm just so damned superstitious.
GM: I'm sure there's a saint you could pray to.
RJ: (laughs) I wish there was! Saint of pilots.
GM: How do you relax? You're so busy working all the time. Do you just sit down and veg in front of the TV?
RJ: No, I can't do that. It drives me nuts. I read a lot. And I had been running a lot. I was an avid runner and then [I had a scope of my left knee] and I've been running bone on bone for like ten years. There's no cartilage in them and the miniscus is torn so I'm gonna have to start biking. But I like to get outside. I like to fish. I'm bringing my fly-fishing rod to the interior when I'm out there in May. So hopefully I'll be able to land a speckled or two without being mauled. That's one of the things about fishing in BC, you're always doing 360s.
GM: I wouldn't go out there. Not to bring it back to Irwin again, but he said his advice to young comics would be to read more.
RJ: Read. Read, read, read. It's so true. It's so true. ... It gives it time to sink in, you know? I've just never been one to pull my act from popular culture, I guess. Maybe it wouldn't hurt, but I don't know. I just find that Canadians as a whole are a literate people. They respect the rhythm of the spoken word. I mean, you've got so much more choice. If you're just watching TV shows or just watching movies or fucking around on the internet, you're just going to the same well as everybody else. And you gotta read the right stuff, too.
GM: What's the right stuff?
RJ: I think you should have a smattering of the classics. I think you should read a lot of non-fiction. I just finished the new Thomas Homer Dixon's book The Upside of Down. That was a great read. And I read that fellow from the west coast a year ago, The Disappearing Macaw, which was great. ...
GM: Some people say they read and they just buy the tabloids at the checkout counter.
RJ: I don't want to sound like I'm a snob about it, either, because you put a Stephen King book in the truck when I'm driving it on tour and it's amazing what that fellow can do with character, you know? He's prolific. And I try to read stuff that's... I sort of topped out on the war in Iraq. I was reading a lot of stuff on that. Gee whiz, three books at 400 pages each. You know what, Guy? Apparently it's all about oil.
RJ: Yeah! (laughs) Oil and power. Go figure, eh?
GM: Well, Ron, I can't hog you all to myself. Others need to talk to you.
RJ: But you get it, right?
GM: I get it.
RJ: Anyone who quotes Irwin Barker as a sage has my respect. I wish I had half his low-key energy on stage.