James to headline Rock Comedy Show

Ron James may have grown up in Glace Bay, N.S., but his down-home style of humour could just as easily have been spawned in a community like Timmins.

Thomas Perry
More from Thomas Perry

That is one of the things that has led to the popularity of the veteran comedian — especially in rural communities from coast to coast.

James will headline the fourth-annual Timmins Rock Comedy Show at École secondaire catholique Thériault on Thursday, Feb. 13, with Casey Corbin serving as the opening act.

“This is going to be my first visit, but that is not to say I have not heard of Timmins,” James said.

“I have toured Canada for the past 20 years, running my trap line from Corner Brook, Nfld., to Comox, B.C., so I have covered some ground.

“I have played as far north as Alert, 400 miles south of the North Pole and I have played as far south as Windsor, or L.A., if you look outside the country.

“I have put my time in, that’s for darn sure. I have played Hay River (Northwest Territories) and I have played the Yukon, in the middle of the tundra with the Diavik diamond mine, three hours north of Yellowknife.

“I have lived the Hank Snow ‘I Have Been Everywhere’ dream.”

In other words, no matter how cold it gets in Timmins during James’ visit, he has seen worse.

“It doesn’t matter to me, I am looking forward to some cold weather,” he said.

“I love a cold winter. I hate this dull, grey two or three degrees weather Toronto has. You don’t see the sun for the month of January.

“When I go to the prairies and it is -40 C, I am just jazzed.”

Does James plan on picking up an souvenirs during his stay in Timmins?

“I wouldn’t say no to any moose meat if anybody has any,” he said.

“I hunted with my father when I was growing up and I miss it actually. He left me his guns when passed away a few years ago and I am going to get registered again.

“I want to get a moose next year. I don’t know what people in the city I am going to be able to give my moose meat to, maybe an orphanage.”

James describes his decision to become a comedian as “a calling.”

“I was born to it,” he said.

“My father was real funny and he could tell a good joke get a good laugh. I was surrounded by people who were natural story tellers.

“I went to university and did a couple of plays, but I thought my mojo got stoked riffing and getting laughs, whether it was in the classroom or in the kitchen.

“I will tell you though it is an exponential leap from being funny in the classroom, or the kitchen, to being funny on the stage and that’s where the last 40 years of hard work have come in.

“I have got to tip my hat to Toronto for that. You don’t get anywhere in comedy unless you come here.

“I joined Second City after I graduated with a history degree from university. I wasn’t going to be doing much with that, so I got into Second City and I learned the fundamentals of comedy and timing and writing.

“Then, did the thing in L.A. for three years, my sitcom dream, went down there to do something and it was cancelled and I was out of work for a while.

“During that time, I started writing and doing some stand up but my visa expired so I came home and wrote a one-many show about my time in L.A. called ‘Up & Down in Shaky Town.’

“That ended up as the first 90-minute special on the Comedy Network. From then on, the played it for seven years on New Year’s Day as a hangover cure.

“Then I moved into stand up and I got my first cheque in 1995 and I have been with it ever since.”

While he has enjoyed both, James prefers stand up to being a part of a sitcom.

“Live work, always,” he said, emphasizing the fact.

“If I never work for a Canadian network again, I will only be too happy. That’s the truth. I love working live.

“My nine specials on the CBC that were always on New Year’s Eve, the last three years in a row we did 1.5 million viewers each year and it is something to be proud of.

“I had a couple of colleagues I wrote those with, but the first five I wrote entirely myself. I honed at least a third of those shows on the road. I had a great producer who was able to create a good look for the shows but whatever CBC is looking for now, it certainly isn’t that quality of production as far as stand up is concerned.”

Given the length of his career, it is only natural that James has seen a great deal of change in the world of comedy and what is considered funny.

“It has become far more sensitized,” he said.

“Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s not. I think some comedians and their reaction to political correctness has been too severe. There are some best of intentions with political correctness in understanding gender differences and anti-misogyny and anti-homophobia and anti-this and anti-that.

“You have to move the world in the right direction and I have always looked at stand-up comedy as that, as enlightening without being strident about the whole thing, to be cool about it and be progressive.

“Comedy is progressive and comedy’s job is not to make fun of the guy down in the gutter.

“Sometimes, you have to be cautious about how you push the envelope, but I always want people to be leaving my shows feeling a lot lighter leaving than they did coming in.

“You have to strike a balance between audience needs and expectations, but ultimately I like to see people laughing and having fun.

“One of my heroes is Billy Connolly. I saw him at the top of his game 15 years ago and he is sick now with Parkinson’s, very ill.”

James has enjoyed the work of a number of other comedians over the years, as well.

“I was 13 years old when George Carlin’s album ‘Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television’ came out,” he said.

“And our generation was at the cusp of the birth of comedy when Saturday Night Live came on television. We had George Carlin, we had Richard Pryor, we had Johnathan Winters and when I was younger we had the Smothers Brothers.

“These were iconoclast. These were people who didn’t suffer fools. It was the time of the Vietnam War and they were tipping the applecart.

“I enjoyed them, but whether or not they influenced my work, I wouldn’t say I copied any of them.

“That’s one of the things a comedian looks for, is to discover or hone his own voice.

“When I started, my work had a Maritimes exile feel to it and I certainly do reference those days when I was growing up there but that is only because I came from there.”

James is looking forward to being able to help raise funds for the Rock while he is in Timmins.

“Absolutely, all of the comedians I know have always done that, lend a hand,” he said.

“I tell people I live in Toronto, but the country is my home. My girls live here, so I like to close to them.”

Having mastered the sitcom scene and stand up, James is about to expand his horizons.

“I have a book coming out this fall,” he said.

“I will submit the manuscript on March 18 and it is really a book that embraces people and places. People I have met, places I have traveled or performed at, conversations I have had in my travels, Indigenous people, or gold miners in the Yukon.

“Stories about camping with my family when I was a kid and what it meant to be in the woods or on the water with my father and uncles, who were great outdoorsmen.

“It is a celebration of the 20 years I have spent traveling the country and it is really a testament to the Canadian soul.

“I call it my anti-showbiz book. It is not stories about famous people I have met or may have been around. If it was, that would be jaundiced.”

James has no plans of slowing down any time soon.

“I like working,” he said.

“It is the life force that makes me feel alive. Whether or not it is performing as many nights as I do, I would like to create another television series, with the right people, but I have really enjoyed writing this book.

“If I could work faster on the books, I would like to keep doing that, but working live is very satisfying, it really is.”

Tickets for the fourth-annual Timmins Rock Comedy Show can be purchased by visiting  the NOJHL team’s website.