Been there. Done that. Got the network.
By his own account, Ron James figures he’s worked with every TV broadcaster in this country. And it’s not so much that he’s ditching that T-shirt; it’s just time to wear a different one.
“I’m not interested in knocking on network doors in Canada anymore, buddy,” proclaims the East Coast native and one of the country’s most successful, if not busiest, comedians. “I’ve been through it all and I’m very happy doing what I’m doing … just making sure this next show is great.”
This “next show” is James’s third “Live From My Living Room”: a livestreamed, one-hour performance scheduled for March 21.
“These little shows sure aren’t buying me a Lamborghini,” he says on the phone from his Toronto condo. “But they’re keeping the wolf from the door, keeping me engaged. Keeping people employed (contributing writers Chris Finn and Paul Pogue). And keeping me sane during COVID.”
So no high-performance luxury sports car, then. But maybe a decent hybrid sedan, because fans paid $30 each to view each of his two previous shows. And the most recent one, a New Year’s Eve special, required James’s digital strategist and virtual show co-producer, Keith Tomasek, to renegotiate with the Zoom people to increase the number of allowed streamers beyond its cap of 3,000.
“We hit (3,000) on the afternoon of the show,” says Tomasek, adding that James’s Facebook page filled up soon afterward with gripes from disgruntled fans who couldn’t get tickets. Ultimately, Tomasek opted against selling a “replay” of the show and bought more bandwidth, which bumped the audience to 3,500. “Because it’s about a live experience and congregating for comedy.”
That James, who admits he’s not tech-savvy, was wise enough to surround himself with people who are, is one reason he’s succeeding on a platform where many of his peers either fail or flat out avoid. To be sure, social media is overpopulated with stand-ups delivering meandering, unrehearsed diatribes into iPhones.
James’s live shows, conversely, look more like well-produced, polished TV: good lighting and audio, and a professional camera operator.
“I was a poster boy for Luddite status,” admits James. “But I’ve embraced this world out of necessity … to adapt and survive.”
He’s even learned to work within a tight space, occasionally leaning on a wall to deliver a bit or reaching behind for a glass of water on a coffee table. He looks completely at home because, well, he is.
About not being able to pace the floor with mic in hand, he jokes about an arthritic toe and says, “Well, I’m 63 now, so my physical actions are somewhat less than they used to be.” For his fans, it’s also an easy adjustment, since James’s act is anchored more in the phrasing than physicality — which is better suited to the inevitably reflective nature of performing without an audience in front of you.
Says James, “I’ve never been a comedian who’s built his act around riffing with the three front rows so that the other 17 don’t get a show.”
Instead, he relies on carefully crafted rants — on everything from politics to drinking to indictments of those aforementioned TV networks — nouns, verbs and adjectives spilling out of him faster than one can flip the pages of a thesaurus.
“I’ve always honoured the word,” he says about a funny, smart and word-laden act that still manages to sound more homespun than smug. “I like the way they trip off the tongue and tickle the ear.”
COVID-19’s restrictions had much to do with the comic’s ease and willingness to explore — and exploit — the virtual world. “The demand it placed on adaptation …” he muses about the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders. “Strangely enough, it’s also inspired a new level of creativity.”
This isn’t his first experience with having to adapt, either. In the 1990s, James smoothly transitioned from his successful one-man theatre show to headlining comedy clubs — while still standing out.
“To be honest, I didn’t think he was a standup,” says respected L.A.-based comedian and actor Debra DiGiovanni, whose paths crossed with James when she was starting out in Toronto in those early days. She remembers that James was a delight to watch because, “he was doing an act that wasn’t like all the other stand-ups I was surrounded by, myself included!”
His tenure in comedy clubs was short-lived, though, because he believed theatres were more suited to his long-form, heavily scripted material — and potentially more lucrative. “There was no faith that a comedy career could be built playing theatres across the country,” he remembers. “(But) I was always an independent … so, out of necessity, I pointed my truck to the far points of frontier.”
Early on, he confesses, it was a bumpy transition with no-guarantee door deals in Legion halls and school gyms — “Playing the lip of Lake Superior in the dead of February” — before he eventually cultivated a loyal fan base and earned coast-to-coast tours in sold-out soft-seat venues. That fame brought more than a few stints on TV, including “Blackfly,” a period sitcom on Global, and “The Ron James Show” on CBC.
But James isn’t bitterly pining for those days. He’s adapted and embraced this new/old reality. “It really feels like I’ve come full circle,” he says about his virtual shows.
“It’s that feeling you get when you were a kid and jumped off the high diving board after being scared of it for a year.
“And when you finally jump, you say, ‘Well, that wasn’t so bad!’”
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