Ron James takes on Canada and the world
Story by Chris Ryall
Ron James may not be a towering figure in height but when it comes to comedic talent and astute observations on people and society very few can touch him. His comedy whether live on stage or on his eponymous CBC show, James pulls no punches while delivering both hilarious and wry comments and observations. No one or any institution from the federal government to the local Canadian Tire store is immune from his rapid-fire and witty delivery.
James, 58, was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. His Maritime roots and his parents, both now 83 years old and who he describes as “still hilarious,” have influenced his take on the world. James cherishes his two daughters, Cayley (26) and Gracie (20), and they keep him grounded — no gargantuan ego for this guy.
James, a Second City veteran, has acted and performed all over and lived in Los Angeles for a spell but that city was not for him. Based in Toronto, James says Canada will always be home. When not touring James has an adventurous streak and loves to go on journeys testing his mental and physical capabilities.
James is at his best performing on stage and TV viewers can get a taste of his show during a one-hour New Year’s Eve special called “The Big Picture” (CBC, 9:30 pm in Newfoundland & Labrador, 9 pm in all other time zones). Facebook culture, rabid real-estate markets, corporate spin, mobile devices, texting, Rob Ford and multitasking are only a smattering of subjects James puts on trial with his form of poetic and comedic justice.
Ron James Talks Travel and New Year’s Eve
Vacay.ca caught up with James earlier this month for his comments on his career, comedy idols, conquering his fear of heights and travelling the world.
Vacay.ca: You have a New Year’s Eve special coming up. Were you the type to party or have a quiet evening at home?
James: My days of partying ’til the wee hours are long gone. That being said, in an earlier incarnation, I have greeted that dawn on more than one occasion. Trust me, it’s overrated. I’d rather wake sober on January 1st than be awake and still drunk!
Vacay.ca: Tell me about your New Year’s Eve special? What can viewers expect to see?
James: It is a search for the authentic in a world of constant connection. The set is very cool and we shot it at Fallsview Casino (in Niagara Falls) in front of a sold out audience over two nights. I’m back to the “big canvas” of my earlier specials and it’s not regionally themed like they were. Although there is a substantial amount of Canadian content, it does look at our role in the world and the effect of rapid technological change on daily life.
Vacay.ca: You were born and grew up in Nova Scotia? Do you think growing up in the Maritimes helped shape your comedic talents?
James: Definitely! But like anyone who was surrounded by a family who appreciated a good story well told and liked to laugh, not to mention colourful relations and a pantheon of personalities crossing our threshold, it couldn’t help but influence me. The same can be said for someone raised in the Bronx, or East London. If you’re engaged, you can’t help but assimilate the world you’re being raised in.
Vacay.ca: Who were your comedic idols when you were first starting out and today?
James: Coming of age in the ’70s, I liked [George] Carlin and [Richard] Pryor. Monty Python were huge! Later on Steve Martin and Robin Williams. I don’t watch a lot of stand-up today but you can’t help but admire Louis CK.
Vacay.ca: How would you brand your style of comedy?
James: Never spent much time trying to brand it because creating content is challenge enough! But I did describe my television show as “affable subversion.” It is our job to tip the apple cart without losing the room.
Vacay.ca: You lived in LA but returned to Canada? Any desire to move back?
James: No. Every now and then you think about the place when February’s hammer is laying the land low but truth be told, I really dig the change of seasons in Canada. I love a really cold prairie day, or an Ontario fall. Spring in Toronto. A Nova Scotia summer. I also have no interest to run the gauntlet in that carnivore’s arena of LA showbiz. The place is littered with “the fallen, failed and forgotten” and no matter what people have, there seems to be malignant discontent it’s not enough. Truth be told, I make a great living here. I’ve built a home, raised two beautiful daughters and put them through university.
Vacay.ca: What was the best crowd you ever recall performing for? The worst?
James: They’re all good! But the worst had to be Edinburgh Fringe Festival about 18 years ago. I took my one man show over there for a run in a small study hall at the University of Edinburgh. Last time the doors were open John Locke was writing a mid-term! It held 75 people and two showed up. One was asleep and the other wasn’t paying attention!
Vacay.ca: Who would you love to work with?
James: It would be great to work with Atom Egoyan. He enjoys a good broad comedy.
Vacay.ca: What would be the ultimate for you as a comedian?
James: For Russians to think I’m funny. They’re a pretty sour lot! Lighten up! Stalingrad’s over. You won!
Vacay.ca: Let’s talk travel. What’s your favourite city or town in Canada?
Vacay.ca: What are the three things you like and three things that bug you about Canada?
James: Our empathy. Our seasons. Our natural environment. Bug me? Our insistence Tim Hortons is a national icon. It’s coffee! Our lack of a rebel soul. Our current government.
Vacay.ca: What are your favourite places to travel outside of Canada?
James: I haven’t done a lot of that but am starting. Hiking in Patagonia this winter will be cool. I really dig the jungles of Belize and the Mayan ruins.
Vacay.ca: What would be a dream destination? Where you have always wanted to go?
James: I have always wanted to go to Zanzibar. Even the name is cool!
Vacay.ca: When you travel — are you a beach bum or active adventure seeker?
James: Active adventure. I get bored shitless in no time … plus I burn in the sun. I have the Celtic skin of a leprechaun! A great vacation for me is a full day of hiking, cycling or snowshoeing, then a great meal with a shared bottle of wine back at the cabin in front of a crackling fire.
Vacay.ca: What is your travel pet peeve? What don’t you like about travelling?
James: Not knowing what to pack. Other than going to the tropics, climate change has so rattled the planet you have to pack for four seasons whether you’re travelling in February or July!
Vacay.ca: What’s the most memorable and favourite trip you have had?
James: I have been on some great trips but the best had to be my mountain climbing trip in BC’s Purcell Range with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH). I did the Via Ferrata, that’s Italian for “Iron Way.” Italian soldiers in WW1 carried supplies on their backs at night over the Alps to their fellow troops fighting on the Austro Hungarian front. CMH mimics this experience (sans the nocturnal climb and live sniper rounds) with metal rungs drilled into a cliff face and a “metal rope” running to a height of 9,000 feet. Novice climbers carbine their way to the summit, crossing two foot bridges over bottomless gorges, straddle a mountain peak and finally, be rappelled down 7,500 feet of mountain to a waiting helicopter. My lifetime fear of heights was tested to the max, where I fuelled my courage by singing hymns forgotten and embracing a Tourette’s-driven level of profanity with relish.
Vacay.ca: What’s a bizarre thing that has happened to you when on a trip?
James: I went to visit Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras and had to drive three hours south to the eco-lodge I was staying. Unbeknownst to me, the highway I had to travel to get there is known as “La Ruta Narco,” it being the direct conduit for all the Colombian cocaine headed to America … with the full sanction of a corrupt and very criminal Honduran government. Prior to leaving, I had no idea the nation’s capital city, San Pedro Sula, was voted the “most dangerous city” in the world. Outside magazine failed to mention that fact in their article on the “World’s Best Eco-Lodges!” We hit a traffic jam at 3 in the afternoon in La Sienna, a town an hour from my destination. An almost festive atmosphere prevailed, with curious locals craning to see the blown-out windows of a Toyota pickup truck and its owner’s bullet-riddled corpse in the middle of main street. There were no police to be seen. When I asked my driver why there were none around he said: ‘There is no law in Honduras unless you buy the law.” Note to self: Check yearly body counts of the country you’ll be travelling to before booking the room!
Vacay.ca: Favourite souvenir?
James: I’ve got a varnished walking stick made of mesquite wood with turquoise inlay up the shaft and compass on the top I purchased in Sedona years ago.
Vacay.ca: Favourite restaurant in Canada?
James: The Bison in Banff is by far my favourite.
Vacay.ca: Favourite hotel in Canada? Internationally?
Vacay.ca: Must-have travel item you take always?
James: I must always have a good book.
Vacay.ca: Do you prefer to travel alone or with family or friends?
James: Not many people I know enjoy adventure vacations so I do those alone. I’ve taken my daughters on several trips.
Vacay.ca: What do you do to relax? Have you ever visited a spa?
James: Exercise. Read. Cook. Yes, I have visited a spa and they bore me. Spa music is what I imagine you hear on your way to heaven and I’m far from ready to take that trip!
Vacay.ca: What’s next for Ron James?
James: I’m going to write a book!