Returning to the stage after the COVID-19 hiatus on live entertainment has brought back awkward memories for Ron James.
The 64-year-old comedian, actor and, most recently, bestselling author, feels the same heebie-jeebies — and ecstasy — when he begins his standup act in 2022 as he did when he was as green as a $20 bill.
“When the solo (spotlight) is staring at you like a judgmental eye of God and all the spit has left your mouth and it’s running down the palms of your hands… and you can’t remember your set and your heart is beating like a deer in the headlights and you’ve forgotten everything that you’ve rehearsed,” he recalls in the heavily descriptive style that’s made him famous across Canada.
“It’s really akin to stepping into space untethered to the mothership… In space, nobody can hear you laugh.”
James floats into the expanse that is the Burton Cummings Theatre on Saturday night, part of a 16-night western Canadian tour that began in Portage la Prairie Thursday and continues tonight at the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium in Brandon.
Burton Cummings Theatre
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $65.50- $75.75 at ticketmaster.ca
It’s called the Back Where I Belong Tour, and James says he belongs telling jokes in front of a crowd, “from Corner Brook to Courtenay-Comox,” even if there are hundreds of kilometres of driving between shows.
“I’ve had my share of black ice on widow-making strips of asphalt, but when you walk through that backstage door and the audience is packed…” he says. “To be able to line the planets up and make sense of the chaos we’re all walking through in the language of laughs, it’s following your bliss, man.”
James was a regular in the comedy clubs in Toronto in the 1980s but he hit paydirt as a comedic prospector, performing in Legion halls and church basements in small towns far from the Big Smoke that eventually led to headlining in theatres such as the Burt.
“Nobody invested in the big wide open and so I put a tour together around the tip of Lake Superior. It was like I was driving through a Group of Seven tableau. I thought, this was where I belong.
“Lo and behold, 10 one-hour specials and a successful five years of a series (The Ron James Show, 2009-14) later, the land has provided a living for me.”
In his 2021 book All Over the Map, which was published by Penguin Random House Canada and longlisted for this year’s Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, James mentions “the embrace of people and place,” and how he found as much enjoyment and insight while hearing stories from fans across the country as they did hearing his.
“I remember reading an interview with Steve Martin years ago, and it was at the top of his fame I think as a standup, and he said, ‘When you choose comedy, the universe provides for you.’ In other words, it presents these gifts, I suppose, if you’re aware of your surroundings and you’re in tune with what’s going on, there’s always something to find humour in.”
The pandemic put a crimp in that; James was among many comedians who took to a virtual stage to tell their jokes and pay the bills.
It was weird to not receive the instant feedback from muted audiences on Zoom.
“I got 3,700 people on New Year’s Eve,” he says. “I didn’t hear any laughs, which is very ironic. Life comes full circle. It reminded me of my first year of standup.”
While there is plenty in All Over the Map to chuckle about, James says he was able to look at the world, his life and show business, in a more philosophical fashion that would flop on stage.
“There’s a chapter in there about my Uncle Ronald, who was homeless on the streets of Toronto, prisoner to the bottle in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and there’s a story about…Vern, this Indigenous dude who asked me for a lift at the Petro-Canada pumps in Airdrie to Leduc,” he says of a tour in Alberta. “I was able to explore the emotional depth of my feelings rather than worrying about laughs all the time.”
“I got 3,700 people on New Year’s Eve… I didn’t hear any laughs, which is very ironic. Life comes full circle. It reminded me of my first year of standup.”–Ron James on performing virtually
James is seeking laughs again now that he’s back on tour, but he feels the world needed the pressing of the pause button that the COVID-19 pandemic foisted upon us.
“I had an epiphany during the lockdown that what we were missing more than anything else was each other,” he says. “We didn’t miss the accoutrements of materialism, we missed being shoulder to shoulder with our fellow man.
“We realized, I think, that what matters most is us. Everything else is a spoiler on a Dodge Neon.”
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Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.