Ron James is back on the road, where is he never more at home.
For decades, the legendary Canadian stand-up comedian from Halifax has been working the country coast-to-coast, and he’s back after a pandemic hiatus, with a newly published memoir on the shelves, new material that reflects the past two years we’ve all been labouring under.
James is on the phone from Stratford, Ontario, checking out the theatre where he’s been invited to take the stage.
“They asked me to perform stand-up at the festival this summer,” he said, over the phone from Stratford. “It’s the first time in 76 years.
“This festival that’s had its prestigious theatre as a result of Shakespeare has finally decided to bring in stand-up. It’s an art form; but then again, two cans of Red Bull backstage for me and a glass of water onstage is a hell of lot cheaper than mounting Richard III.”
From Ontario, James is setting out on a tour of B.C., including Trail on Saturday, June 11.
The road has always been James’ foundation, the place where he learns the most about the country and where he has honed his craft over the years. This long career was interrupted by the pandemic, of course, but has the country has re-emerged into its “new normal,” the touring life in front of live audiences is back.
“I’ll tell you what’s been great,” James said. “Just hearing people laugh again and sitting shoulder to shoulder. Processing the trauma of the last two years in the language of laughs. It’s really great to be able to make a living again and pay the mortgage.
“That’s a reality as well, that a lot of people don’t equate with performers — that apparently banks don’t take a killer set for 15 people as a down payment on a mortgage.”
“It’s good to be out there. What’s been so amazing about the last two years is about how all of us the wide world over still manage to survive and keep our eyes on the prize, and our faith and place know we’d get to the other side of this Rubicon we were crossing, and would work again.”
James worked to keep his chops up during the pandemic with livestream shows, hosting livestream shows from his living room, for hundreds of paying customers.
“And you couldn’t hear the laughs,” he said. “In stand-up you got to hear laughs, ‘cause they act as an adhesive. If you don’t hear laughs for what you’re saying you’re just Rupert Pupkin alone in his mother’s basement [Robert De Niro’s deluded character in the film “King of Comedy.”
What was missing was that synergy between performer and live audience — the essence of stand-up comedy.
“The reward of that synergy is an authentic experience,” James said. “You can sit at home in your pajamas and watch Netflix specials, but when you’re sitting shoulder to shoulder, grunting and wheezing in the same company as everybody else … it’s unifying too. That’s what had been lost during Covid. And look how much we’ve missed each other.
“And then things became polarized, and people fell down their own conspiracy rabbit holes. If you’re wondering about Bill Gates and his minions putting nanobots in our bloodstream, for the New World Order’s mind control, they’re welcome to my mind any day, ‘cause I don’t know what’s going on up there 97 per cent of the time anyway.”
Back on the road, James’ new material will reflect the world we’ve been through. The best comedy, after all, reflects the real world. It’s like the news in that regard.
“Every comedian worth their salt reflects the world they’re walking through,” James said. “And that’ basically always been my mandate, to connect the dots in the chaos that we try to process every day. And hopefully people feel a hell of a lot lighter leaving the theatre than they did walking in. Despite all the polarizations that have occurred, you have to address these things. You have to try to make sense of them, as a comedian does. There are sensitivities out there, but you have to laugh. It’s the only thing that separates us from the beasts of the field.
“I take my comedy seriously. But I don’t take myself that seriously. I’m just as confused as the next person, trying to connect these dots.”
James’ remarkable career is open to all now, with the recent release of his memoir “Ron James: All Over The Map,” an episodic memoir about his long life on the road, Canada at its most intimate, and his and his family’s place in it.
Comedy was as a professional was James’ destiny— “never not an option.” His father was from Newfoundland and his mother from Cape Breton. James himself grew up in Halifax, “surrounded by fun and funny people, my good buddies and relatives were all funny. There’s always been an organic respect for it in my circles. But it’s an existential leap being funny in the kitchen and classroom to being funny on stage. And that’s where the last 42 years have come in.”
James started in Second City in Toronto, that legendary institution that spawned John Candy, Gilda Radner, Dan Ackroyd, et al.
“Mike Myers was in my company — we were all students of comedy. You learn how to be funny.”
And again, it’s that synergy and pressure of live performance where the comedian hones his craft.
“In my earlier days when I went to Just for Laughs to perform, I’d sweat a bucket before I went onstage,” James said. “I never the content to breathe. I went too fast, I was too frenetic. And that was nerves. But I don’t have those nerves anymore. I approach the work as an opportunity to channel the life force. Why be scared when you’re up there?
“You certainly go through that crucible time after time at amateur night. You gotta bomb. You gotta hear crickets. You gotta be booed, you gotta be heckled. You gotta come back bruised and beaten, and come back and take a hard look at your set and say ‘where did I lose them tonight, and where can I win them tomorrow’. It’s a victory in baby steps. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s not about fame and fortune it’s about the joy of doing the work.”
As for the memoir itself, it is literally all over the map.
“I wanted to pay respect an homage to some of the soldiers in my calling. It’s about failure, and success, and charting your own course. Bits about vagaries of television of network machiavellian manipulation that I have no time for. It’s about the pure joy of the work.
“And to me, it was a thank you note and love letter to the people and places in this country and the window they gave me on their world.
“There is a commonality to all of us here. With me I never felt like I was bringing any great message to the masses — I was a guy making the living touring the country, and I enjoyed it so much. Those were the kind of things I wanted to praise and express in the book. Talk about history, the places I’d been, and who’d been there before me, and the vicissitudes of western weather, and the highlights of what many would consider an arduous journey.
“And now, this far down the road, spent following my bliss, I’m telling you, Bro, it’s been worth every kilometre travelled.”