Comedian’s success boils down to hard work

Prince Albert Daily Herald.jpg

Perry Bergson

Published on February 19, 2015

Even Ron James isn’t sure how his mind processes his standup act when he’s on stage.

“It’s a mystery to me how it works but it works,” the Canadian comedian says. “Your brain, when you’re on the stage, is cutting and pasting on the fly. It’s moving things around, cells are sliding into the chamber left and right. You’re constantly gauging the shifting terrain, at least in my act. You’re making these nanosecond decisions ‘OK, I’m going to go over here at this point and that’s going to work.’”

James returns to the E.A. Rawlinson Centre on March 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $42.86.

The Glace Bay, N.S., product, who has lived in Toronto for most of the last 35 years, says he feels a heightened sense of awareness during his shows.

“It is an intoxicant. It’s the life force in full throttle.”

His work ethic suggests that he keeps his foot on the gas pedal a lot.

He wrote and starred in Blackfly from 2001-02, creating 26 episodes in two seasons. The Ron James Show had a five-year, 57-episode run between 2009-14.

He also wrote seven 90-minute standup specials.

His upcoming 12-show, three-week-long Pedal To The Metal tour brings him through Western Canada next month. He plays a major concert at Massey Hall in Toronto on April 23.

He is currently writing a book and also does charity work for the Global Poverty Project.

James says he comes by his work ethic honestly.

“I’m a working man. I work. Writing is work,” he says. “My father got out there every morning and worked for the telephone company. My uncles worked at the dockyards. My other uncles were in the merchant marines, some were fishermen, some were coal miners. They worked. You have to get behind the mule and plow.”

James says he is fortunate that he put the time in when the comedy industry was wide open in Canada, performing in what he calls a “trapline” of soft-seat theatres from coast to coast.

When the recession hit in the U.S., American comedians rediscovered Canada, regularly playing the major cities.

“The job of a comedian is to get on stage and work and make people laugh so it doesn’t matter where you’re doing it, as long as you’re doing it,” James says. “Luckily I was able to pour a solid foundation before the marketplace got as busy as it is today.”

Even if James was able to maintain his tours as the U.S. acts played here, he’s resigned to the fact that they remain the industry standard.

“The great American comedians will always be the litmus test for success and Canadians will always be compared to them,” James said. “I like to think that the ones who have sustained themselves over time in this country have worked just as hard. We didn’t make as much money but we worked just as hard.”

James did chase the dream south of the border, spending three years in L.A. in early ’90s. He returned in 1993 after deciding that he wanted to raise his children -- the first of his two kids had just been born -- at home in Canada.

“I’ve got no mojo to chase the American dream anymore,” he says.

Instead, James has concentrated on his TV shows and tours in Canada. He prefers extended runs, although he also does the occasional corporate gig and now plays some casinos too.

James says his show is tightly crafted, although he will riff within the context of his written material. It’s an interesting decision for the graduate of The Second City troupe in Toronto, which is known for its improvisational skills.

But he says he owes the preparation to his fans.

“If people have stepped out of their house in a snowstorm or inclement weather and got a babysitter and all those things you have to do in order to see somebody live, they can’t see me working on a bit when I’m up there,” James says. “It has to be solid.”

He is a big proponent of spending as much time performing as possible, saying his stage confidence came over time and allowed his act to slow down.

He also enjoys the moment more. James says that early in his career he approached his sets “like a Mexican welterweight going 13 rounds.”

After his first TV special he was told to lighten up and enjoy himself; he now chuckles along with the audience, delighting in the moment and occasionally taking quiet pride in material he comes up with on the fly.

He says a comedian doesn’t hit stride until they’ve been at it 10 or 15 years.

“It’s a trade,” James says. “You have to hit your thumb with the hammer a few times before you know what you’re doing.”

He says he’s matured as a person as well, losing the constant intensity he had as a younger man.

“Somebody who’s on all the time probably isn’t on all the time when they’re on stage,” James says. “Comedy is a very introspective calling. I was a far more frenetic personality in my younger years. I felt that I had to be on all the time.”

Twenty years ago he toured with Brent Butt and Jeremy Hotz for Just For Laughs. He remains a huge fan of Hotz, who still works as a full-time standup comedian.

“I’ve never seen a more bulletproof act in my life. He’s great.”

James also appreciates Prince Albert comedian Kelly Taylor, who he worked with at a benefit in Winnipeg.

“He’s a good cat,” James says.

James chuckles when he says that once you get the life you want, you’ll never have a life. Even the TV shows had a nonstop cycle of writing, acting and promoting.

“I was lucky but I worked for it too. Nobody handed it to me,” he says. “And they still don’t. You never really get a chance to sit back and watch the river run. It’s all about work.”

James says he hopes that when the audience leaves the theatre, that they’ll feel like he carried their load for a while by making them laugh.

It’s part of the motivation that keeps him writing new material. He suggests the road takes no prisoners and that comedy doesn’t suffer fools kindly.

“You always have to be feeding the machine,” he says. “You can’t keep coming on the road with the same act you’ve been dragging for the past 15 years. You have to change it up. All it takes is one bad set for the word to get around that you’re not putting your heart into it.”

James says that fame has become perverse in its validity in the age of reality TV stars and Internet sensations. While he jokes that fame in Canada means drinking for free north of the tree line, his take on celebrity isn’t of the 15-minute variety.

“Longevity is what matters. Seeing people in a theatre laughing, that’s what matters. That’s fame.”