Comedy Interview: James, TV funny man

By Katherine Fletcher

Canadians are damn funny and we’ve got a rich history to prove it. From Stephen Leacock to Wayne and Schuster, SCTV to The Kids in the Hall, Royal Canadian Air Farce to Corner Gas, our nation is home to so many wonderful comedians who provide uproarious entertainment. A lot of the comedy we come across these days is on television programs, but for the lauded comedian Ron James, who starred in the defunct series Blackfly, performing on a TV show isn’t the most natural place to induce side-splitting laughter.

“There’s an immediacy and it’s authentic on stage,” says James. “You don’t have to depend on hype and publicity and networks. You’re not a slavish whore to the numbers game. And you don’t get to see people taking their glasses off and wiping their eyes and doubling over with laughter when you do a television show. For some reason television has got the credibility beyond the live work. Any performer who’s done stand up who’s worth their salt knows damn well where the muse sings the loudest is onstage in front of people.”

While you won’t find him back in a TV series anytime soon, there are televised versions of his performances, the latest being Quest for the West, a humourous examination of Alberta and Saskatchewan’s role as ‘The Promised Land.’ The program is a recording of his Calgary show in September. Quest for the West follows the tradition of James’ highly successful comedy tours and TV specials The Road Between My Ears and Up and Down in Shakey Town: One Man’s Journey through the California Dream.

“Quest for the West got started because I played in the West over the last four years in different tours and last year in particular I had enough encore dates across Alberta,” James says. “I had compiled enough material and I thought [I had] a simple [enough] understanding as I possibly could have of the West and enough material for a 90-minute special that I gave to CBC as an hour special. I travelled it enough to get a feel for the place.”

James has got more of a feel for the West than do most native Albertans and Saskatchenwinians. During his time in the West, he’s embraced the wonders of what he calls the Big Wide Open, including Milk River Country, Head Smashed-in Buffalo Jump, Crowsnest Pass, and the oil patches in Fort McMurray.

“I try to keep my ear to the ground to hear the primal hum of country,” remarks James. “I read local newspapers when I’m [touring]. I make my notes and I save them and I compile them into a project that will hopefully have national resonance.”

A history and political science major in university, James looks to Canadian history as much as he does to current affairs as a basis for his comedy. Quest for the West looks back at the pioneering days, while the series Blackfly was set in Canada’s fur trade era. Despite this, James’ humour isn’t exclusive to Canada’s past and present.

“I think it’s important to have a historic context for stuff,” he says. “I like to have a mix of everything. As my friend says, the equation for my comedy is History Mimicry Poetry Poo. You got to have the smart as well as the scatological–all sorts of different things. You got to be ribald as well as you have to be an intellectual. I like the plumber and the professor sitting in the theatre to be laughing at different things in the same joke. I like to strike a balance between artistic needs and audience expectation. I think I have to honour my brand as well as my views.”

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