From the frozen lip of Lake Superior to Festival City, Ron James has seen the country. The comedian performs July 16 at the Avon Theater.
Smart enough to dissect the headlines of the time, weathered enough to give them the prototypical Canadian twist, Ron James delivers that elusive comedic balance in his stand-up: artistic needs and audience expectations.
“It’s so hard to be creative in the first place, to create content that’s going to appeal to 1,200 people in a theater, of different socio-economic status, different points of view, different political leanings and with all this which is becoming so polarized and fractured these days, it has the potential to be a minefield,” the comedian said.
James recounted his trip with Stratford Today over a Café Americano at a Stratford cafe the morning after watching a performance of Hamlet.
James performed in Stratford two years ago, before the ‘white fist ride on a Corona coaster through a dystopian underworld’ – one of his patented and much-loved descriptions.
He has teamed up with the Stratford Festival to perform on July 16 at the Avon Theater in a ‘Comedy at the Forum’ event.
The festival includes a list of “late night laughs” this summer: James Cunningham, Ali Hassan, Martha Chaves, Jordan Carlos, Howie Miller and Flo and Joan. Each performs Friday nights at Lazaridis Hall at the Tom Patterson Theater, starting Friday after James’ show.
A native of Cape Breton, who weighed “45 pounds until he was 15,” James branched out into stand-up comedy later in life after being “broke in Los Angeles for three years, chasing the sitcom dream.
He wrote a solo show about his years in California, “Up and Down in Shaky Town – One Man’s Journey Through the California Dream”. From then to now, it’s a whirlwind career that includes CBC specials with millions of viewers.
Much of the past two decades and more has been spent traveling across Canada, meeting locals, writing thoughts (his recently published novel “All over the Map” is nominated for a Leacock Medal) and learning to know the country and its people.
“I made my living driving strips of asphalt doing widows in the dead of winter, stuck in blizzards a Yeti wouldn’t wonder,” he said. “But I love the sight of snow swirling around a stage door.”
The concerts kept him honest. Ontario has been his home for 42 years, but James learned to entertain in different parts of Canada. Personalization of hardware is important because of Canada’s regional identities, he said.
“Whether I play at a community center in Atikokan on the frozen lip of Lake Superior in February, where I started blowing my trap line on my own in 1999, or play 2,000 seats at the Windsor Center in Edmonton, I always gave the public what they paid for.
James said he charted his comedic journey by the standard comedy was built on: speaking truth to power.
“It’s all about the man on the golden throne, you don’t go after the man in the gutter.”
He doesn’t spend much time watching on his feet and doesn’t understand why some of the most popular comedians south of the border with “more money than God” have to go after the marginalized.
George Carlin is his biggest influence.
“He believed in science, he believed in progress. He didn’t believe in being manipulated. What a golden age he would have had with guys like Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell.
James saw Carlin in Las Vegas before he died. He spoke for 90 minutes about the day’s pressing issues, not soliciting a single laugh. It was genius, without comedy, he says, and it took courage.
James said that while he admired that about Carlin, he needed to hear the laughter and “likes that people feel lighter when they leave the theater”.
Another big influence is Billy Connolly. The two met briefly in Montreal after playing each. James was too shy to walk around and introduce himself, so he asked his producer to do it.
The thick-haired, cigar-chewing Connolly was quizzed by James on how a poverty-stricken welder from Glasgow became an international comedic sensation. It was a question about fame, the Scot replied, adding a curse.
“Sing your song,” he told James. “Sing your song.”
James can understand everyone’s flaws by making them his own – Netflix binges or an inability to hang up the phone. He is careful not to insult, flatter, or give the impression that he is the smartest person in the room. James does his homework and pushes the boundaries without overstepping, a neat and well designed gift.
“I never underestimate the intelligence of the public.”
The pandemic has changed his outlook. A certain percentage of the population has fallen down the rabbit hole, he noted, and many people would have sold their souls for a “hug or a haircut” during the lockdowns.
“The fact that we’ve been through it is cause for celebration…I’m here to help people process what we’ve been through for the past few years through the language of laughter.”
“You have to keep moving forward, you have to keep adapting, you have to keep growing.”
James said he enjoyed the Stratford Festival acknowledging stand-up comedy as an art form with performances scheduled for this summer, describing him as brave and courageous.
From his point of view, it is also a good business decision, he noted.
“Let’s face it, two red bulls backstage and a glass of water on a stool cost a lot less than putting on the Pirates of Penzance.”
For tickets, see the link: https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/WhatsOn/PlaysAndEvents/TheForum/Ron-James?utm_campaign=external-ron-james