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A chat with Ron James
Ron James calls from a Kamloops hotel, fresh from a performance the night before. “I’ve had my first cup of coffee,” he explains, a smile in his voice, “and I’m feeling lucid.”
Lucid doesn’t begin to describe it. With little prodding, James is raring to go on a variety of topics.
“I’m no longer, I think, the wide-eyed troubadour from the East discovering his country, although I do have things to say about the stuff that I care about in it, and I would have to say my perspective is quintessentially Canadian,” he says.
This quick description of his current tour—which touches down in Chilliwack on May 14 at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre—quickly segues into a discussion of what it means and how it feels to be a Canadian comedian.
“At a time when the nation has become increasingly polarized along partisan lines, thanks to the guys running the place, it’s never been a better time to be a comedian. There are things that you care about that you want to say,” he explains. “And when the government’s mandate is to muzzle freedom of speech and stifle scientists, negate clean water acts, take the humpback whale off the endangered lists, be prostate at the altar of bitumen, then it’s a good time for those of us who care about finding a balance between resources and the environment. It’s a good time to talk about things that you care about, and ultimately that’s what comedy’s all about.”
James has bounced through a variety of comedic careers—from working in L.A. and playing comedic characters to doing stand-up to the Ron James comedy show on CBC, which ran for five years.
“My show got cancelled on CBC, and I got bounced around the dial by those guys more than an albino foster child. Put him in the attic! Put him in the basement! Put him in the garage! Is he on the front lawn? Then cover his head, for Christ’s sake, before somebody sees him!” he says, his signature manic energy coming in clear over the phone. “But the other night I was in Kamloops performing, and I looked down at the front row, and on the left-hand side there were four hipsters in their stocking-caps and beards. On the right side were four folks in their seventies with canes. And I thought, that’s exactly what you want! You want people of different ages, of different demographics, of different socio-economic standing—different tribes, laughing at your stuff in the show.”
Fitting into the framework of a network show was not always easy, and now that it’s come to an end James finds himself back on a platform of freer expression: the stage.
“It’s nice to marshall the powers of your muse within that context,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed these 15 years, chasing that muse from coast to coast, and achieving the simple rewards of a working man: I put my girls through university; I built a house. And I’ve had the disappointments that come with life. But you keep moving forward—that’s the way it is. You keep creating. And it’s fun. There’s a clarity to the live work that is refreshing.”
And while he’s happy to be back on the stand-up tour, James can’t resist one last parting shot at the television show.
“And of course with television, or the specials, there’s too many friggin’ lawyers when it comes to comedy,” he says. “I remember I wanted to call Kentucky Fried Chicken ‘hormone-choked hell-hen.’ Can’t do it. I wanted to do a bit on Monsanto when I was on TV, and I had to trim my words on that in case the devil claw of Monsanto stretched from whatever subterranean think-tank where they’re modifying their seeds. The Tories, too. Jesus, they can’t take a joke to save their life. Toward the end of the run the Liberals could take a joke, but this gang of button-down patriarch neocons with the key to the government store—they’re litigious sons of bitches, they are. I could be disappeared if I said the wrong thing. I’d wake up with a black bag over my head in a pentecostal church basement in southern Alberta, while a gang of young Tory stormtroopers put the boots to me with a box of stale Timbits.”
It’s the comedian’s place, he says, to take a good poke at larger ruling bodies—whether that means the Conservative government or Tim Hortons.
“I don’t want to leave your readers with the idea that my show is overtly political,” he says. “There’s a flavour for everybody. But I guess my challenge as a comedian is to address as many issues as I can, and also try to find that common denominator with all of us, that gets us on the same page.”
“That’s why I spend a lot of time in my show talking about memories of growing up, childhood,” he explains. “I try to find some identifiable things that make us all the same, and that’s the greatest charge. Like I said, looking down and seeing hipsters sitting beside the elderly: that’s the way my kitchen always was. I trust my audience, you know? I feel like I’ve sat in the kitchen with them.”
And with any luck, he hopes his show might just poke his audience to do some thinking when they’re done laughing.
“I think there’s one thing that wouldn’t hurt for Canadians to exercise—a little bit more of the rebel spirit. You gotta be allowed to tip the apple cart, and I think that’s important,” he continues. “Canada always has time for Tim Hortons. I just happen to think there’s more to us than a cup of coffee and a doughnut.”
• Ron James performs at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre on Wednesday, May 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $55, and available at 604-391-7469, online at www.chilliwackculturalcentre.ca, or at the box office on Corbould street.