Ron James used to be the spokesman for Texas tourism for three years on CNN. “It was during George Bush senior’s term. I can imagine Saddam Hussein, who watched CNN all the time, really getting to know my face.”
James is talking like a freight train on the phone with me. Not jokes, but gems of sentences that are all jammed together as he reaches his epiphanies before I can write them down.
He’s excited to return to Whitehorse for his third time, again being brought up by Nakai Theatre. He is headlining this year’s Pivot Festival.
The North, he says, “is like this nation’s holy land. It attracts everyone. It’s the last frontier. Even for Americans, Alaska is like a pilgrimage. But everyone’s here because they want to be.”
And he laughs, “That’s why I’m coming.”
James admits that his rise to comedic supremacy (my words) has had anything but a straight route: “It’s been 30 years now.”
It was a road that took him from Canada to Los Angeles to be in a TV series, a series that was cancelled before it got on the air. “I did what all Canadians would do in that circumstance. I became a journeyman. I looked around a lot, got work where I could.” Eventually he moved back with his wife and daughter to Toronto and started work with Second City doing improv which, after a few years, led to his own stand-up comedy.
Why stand up?
“I got fed up saying someone else’s words. I had a brain in my head. I did the pursuit of the American dream and I wanted to tell my story. You know, Joseph Campbell. I was taking his advice to follow my bliss.”
But it wasn’t just his bliss he was following, and certainly he admits that bliss was not the only thing that came. His decisions had practical motivations, too.
“You have to make your own epiphany. Shift the paradigm. I had a family to feed, and so I made the commitment. It became a calling. But let me tell you, this profession doesn’t suffer fools. It’s hard work, long years.
“Now, I had 15 years under my belt of performance — so I didn’t come to this without skills. Still, it was frightening going through the amateur nights. But that’s the crucible — the common denominator for every comedian. No one gets anywhere without going through that crucible.”
James came through that crucible to arrive now at his own show: “The planets all lined up,” he says. Comedy writing “allows me to make sense of the chaos we’re all walking through.”
His appeal is wide, his audiences diverse.
“I don’t have the same kind of audience as Larry the Cable Guy. I would be frightened if I did.”
James’ comedy hands you something funny on the surface but a lot to chew on afterwards.
“My stories become their stories. There’s a universality of experience that comedy, by virtue of its language, puts everybody on the same page. Doesn’t matter their socioeconomic background.”
But comedy here in Canada is sometimes different than in the States. “You can pick a side on something and 60 million people will still be with you. In Canada, you have to be more cautious of how you rock the boat.”
He works the metaphor for me on the phone, altering it. “People want you to rock the apple cart, not ride in it. You have to be able to be an observer, to step away. It’s a funny irony.
“You have to belong to society at large — invest time in real life and experiences, the frustrations of everyday life, but you shouldn’t be a card carrying member of the country club. You have to maintain that satirical eye. Otherwise you could lose the room.”
His job, as he sees it, is to “bring an authentic experience and a visceral immediacy to his stand-up comedy. To be progressive, to enlighten. It’s a balancing act when you’re up there.”
He’s looking forward to conducting a workshop for comedians in Whitehorse. “Stage time, stage time, stage time,” he says is the key. Just getting on stage and being there and trying out your comedy on an audience. A lot of great comedians had their start in places they felt comfortable in. “Get good there first,” he says.
“People think comedy is all about being funny. It’s a serious business. It’s a craft. It’s hard work. No one expects to pick up a hammer for the first time and build a mansion. Why would you think comedy is any different?”
But you can tell when he talks about comedy, even the hard stuff, that he’s smiling on the other end of the phone. “It’s not a moment of eureka. It’s trench warfare. You gotta pull something from nothing.” And then, he hits on something he likes, another epiphany, “It’s alchemy!”
Ron James appears on the Yukon Arts Centre stage, 8 p.m., from Friday Jan. 29 through Sunday, Jan. 31, and will give his artist talk, Making Them Laugh …Comedy is a Serious Business at the Westmark Saturday, Jan. 30 at 2 p.m. ($20 cash at the door).