- Ron James Live, Centennial Theatre, Friday, May 4 and Saturday, May 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets $53 available by calling the box office at 604-984-4484.
RON James can't shut up.
Whether the topic is "sphincter-twisted barristers," or Alberta's dueling conservative parties, the comic has no interest in his right to remain silent.
"I can't shut up," he says before repeating himself in his breathless maritime lilt. "I can't shut up. It's like Farley Mowatt said to me, 'If you didn't talk, you'd blow up.'"
Far from a character defect, James' verbosity has made him one of Canada's best-loved comedians, nearly as closely associated with the Great White North as universal healthcare and French fries smothered in curds and gravy.
James is scheduled to bring his collection of japes, jabs, rants and rage to the Centennial Theatre May 4 and 5.
"I came back to North Van because I realized that people in Vancouver, once they cross that bridge after a working day, are reluctant to cross the bridge and go downtown again," he says. "And I love that theatre. It's always alive, it's always cooking."
The self-described "non-stop stuttering bandy-legged luminescent Celtic gonad," got his first taste of comedy in his mother's kitchen in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
"I don't want to perpetuate a cliché myth of East Coast bliss but there were folks who came through my mother's front door into her kitchen who all had their own take on life. It was a pantheon of personalities," he says. "It poured and set a foundation
for what would be a deference for the spoken word later on in life."
Still, James is quick to point out that his virtuosity as a standup wasn't simply the result of being inoculated with the storytelling culture of the Maritimes.
"I'm 54 now, and it's been 32 years in the professional trenches of funny that have made all the difference in the world," he says.
James made his first foray into theatre when he was studying to become a history teacher at Acadia University, a time he remembers with startling vividness.
"I said I was studying to be a history teacher. I had a major in binge drinking and a minor in bongs, brother," he recalls. "It was the 1970s, you might as well ask me what it was like being four."
Between the suds and smoke, James does recall making a profound decision.
"I had a fundamental epiphany there, though, that this is what I was supposed to do with my life: be a comedian."
After joining a theatre company, James was exposed to small stages and big egos of Canadian drama.
"Everybody in the theatre company thought they were going to get an Academy Award for Jesus' sake. I came in contact with bigger egos in a puppet company in Nova Scotia than I ever did in Los Angeles."
Despite honing his improv skills at Second City in Toronto, the sister theatre of the comedy stage that served as training ground for greats like Bill Murray, Mike Myers, and Stephen Colbert, James' career got off to a slow start.
He is credited as "Man in Movie" in the Canadian classic Strange Brew and provided the voice of Mring Mring the Gupin on Ewoks, the TV series.
"I did voice gigs, I did commercials, I did guest spots. I went out with my journeyman actor's tool kit, but I never got anything more than enough breathing room to cover three months rent," he says. "If you did take a vacation you spent six months paying off the debt on your credit card."
After three years "chasing the sitcom dream" in Los Angeles, James knew it was time for a change.
"I had two mouths to feed and I had a daughter who was five and another one who was born in '94 and I was sick and tired of waiting for agents to phone me up with another audition."
Frustrated with trying out for "nebbish sidekick roles," James finally put pen to paper and started crafting standup material.
Asked if it was a relief to be telling his own jokes, James grows quiet and contemplative for nearly a full second.
"Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? It was everything. There's only so many ways you can deliver the work of a tube of toothpaste or a soup can for a commercial before you want to start taking hostages, brother. And you got one of those Procter & Gamble freaks leaning over your shoulder, one of those automatons with their MBA tucked under their arm and more attitude than a storm trooper," James takes a breath.
"Jesus, I'm gonna use that line."
Still, going through the "crucible of amateur night" in an attempt to amuse crowds of halfway inebriated Torontonians with stories of his Halifax upbringing was a daunting one.
"Scared shitless," James says, succinctly describing his psychological state at those first standup gigs. "I sweat a bucket, I talk too fast, my tongue would get stuck to the roof of my mouth, I was too gratuitous with profanity, I was nervous when there was quiet."
Part of James' persistence in finding his niche in the Canadian standup scene sprang from an unexpected source. "As an actor I had a supporting role in one of those Ernest movies in Vancouver," James says, referring to the Oscar-eligible film Ernest Rides Again.
"The whole cabal that came up were unapologetic Nashville Republicans. And I would tell my stories about growing up in Halifax and the influence of the American dream on me as a kid, because we used to see the Americans come up in their 60-foot chrome-plated Airstream living units when we were camping at the Highlands National Park," James says. "And those people laughed at my stories and I thought 'Wow, man, maybe I got something going on here.'"
While James has secured a degree of notoriety, he's quick to point out the corrupting influence of fame, as well as the disturbing practice of ranking comedians by how much money they make.
"Why is that a priority? It's a priority because celebrity culture is so driven by the fraudulent ethos of fame and fortune. The comedian should be measured on what he's saying, not what he's worth, because what he's worth is what he's saying."
For James, standup comedy is the rare art form that's nearly impervious to fraud.
"I knew that the rules for standup were authentic, I knew that they were real and I knew there'd be no crutch," he says. "I got into standup comedy to follow my bliss."
Comedy seems to be ingrained in James' personality, and with barely a question asked he's quick with stories of a recent concert in Ontario. "I just played Tony Clement's riding up in Ontario, here, and there's so much Tory pork in that riding I'm surprised the mayor hasn't grown a curly tail," he says.
During the interview James states his preference to refer to jokes as "material" and to material as "prose."
"I took this work very seriously because it was a way for me to make sense of the chaos I'm walking through," he explains.
James does his best to make sense of Canadian chaos in The Ron James Show, although he's not certain CBC's Friday night stalwart will continue.
"The show, we're waiting on pins and needles to find out if we get picked up. We have reason to believe we will, but who knows? It's been such carnage over there," he says, reflecting on his role with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
"Sort of holding down the eight o'clock time slot on Friday night like a tailgunner in a B-17," he summarizes. "'And where's Ron?' 'Ah, he's at the back of the friggin' plane.' "You gonna go see him?' 'Nah, he's all right.' "That's pretty well the feeling I get."
The program's evolution over the past three seasons is a testament to the show's writers, according to James.
"This is just a marvelous team of writers I have. We've matured and evolved into a cohesive unit, and when you get that unit, you keep it 'cause that's where everything comes from.
That's the lodestone."
As James hits the road for a slate of standup dates this summer, he's mindful of the money people pay to see his show.
"Comedy, by its nature is populist. It's the language of the common people," James says.
"I did the Vancouver comedy festival a couple of years ago," he remembers. "Janeane Garofalo came on stage with her notes and proceeded to tell the audience how stupid they were. Nice, eh? I wish I'd've paid 50 bucks to see that."
James takes pride in the fact that his audiences receive good value.
"I have to give them an honest bang for their buck. The only reason I get off after 100 minutes or two hours is I need to take a leak. I should strap in, I guess, and then maybe I could go longer."
Asked what he would say to someone who was on the fence about seeing his show, James is aghast.
"Why would you be on the fence?" he asks. "I've got a couple of jokes in my show that I know if people aren't laughing at them, if people aren't laughing at those particular jokes, they just won't laugh at anything."