By Bill Brioux
Ron James describes himself as “the average man standing in one place while the ground shifts beneath my feet; trying to make sense of this rapidly changing planet.” That makes him the perfect comedian to take stock as another year winds down. James’ ninth consecutive New Year’s Eve special, this year titled “The High Road,” airs December 31 on CBC.
Two thousand and seventeen, however, has been a year of highs and lows for the ever-touring, 59-year-old Cape Breton Island native. The lowest of the lows came this past summer, as his father Bernie passed away.
“He was a good man, I miss him a lot,” says James, gamely fulfilling a press commitment after a straight-through, 16-hour road trip. He had just driven back to Toronto from Halifax, where he was visiting his mother and other family members.
James spent much of the summer helping to care for his ailing pater, who passed away at 85. As is his wont, he was able to find a shining ray of comedy in his dad’s final moments.
“The penultimate night before he passed,” he says, “This nurse was giving him a catheter. I walked around to this side of the bed and he said, ‘Ronnie, am I ever glad to see you. Look what this beautiful young woman just picked up for me at Canadian Tire!’”
“How fantastic is that?” says James. “He understood what it is all about, which is the main thing, right?” James works the personal story into this year’s special, but more towards the end.
“I try to strike a balance between the big laughs and the pathos,” he says. “You always have to keep in mind that it’s New Year’s Eve and that people are partying.” James shot the special over two live performances in mid-October at the River Run Centre in Guelph. Yes, the fact that marijuana may be legalized in 2018 is one reason to call the special “The High Road.” As he jokes, it’s no coincidence that fidget spinners “came out just as legalization is happening because all you do is spin it and stare at it. That’s a perfect stoners evening.”
“The High Road,” however, also refers to the path Canada is taking “as America seems to go squirrelly.” As one might expect, James does take aim at Donald Trump’s “Kraft dinner coated” noggin. Still, Canadian government officials are also fair game. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “hand is held over the flame for selling weapons to Saudi Arabia,” says James, who also saves some barbs for finance minister Bill Morneau.
One of the hazards of shooting a year end special ahead of time is missing some last minute headlines in December. The Harvey Weinstein Hollywood sexual assault allegations, for example, has just come to light in the days leading up to the taping. Fortunately, that was still enough time for James to work in shot or two.
“That’s the challenge with these shows,” says James. “You have to take broad strokes on these events that have affected us. Between the time I shoot and the time it airs, anything could happen. The mother ship could land and dinosaurs with penguin heads could be doing a soft shoe down the ramp.”
The comedian went back out onto the road after taping his special – just as he always does.
“I’m running my trap line up and down the 401 this winter,” says James of his swing through southern Ontario. He was heading out to Winkler, Manitoba, the day after this interview.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for the West,” says James, who has taped several comedy specials and done countless live concerts on the Prairies. “I hit my stride in the big wide open.”
“The road takes no prisoners and comedy doesn’t suffer fools,” says James, who peppers every conversation with a salty lobster trap full of colourful phrases. “The road has poured the foundation for everything that I’ve achieved,” he continues, “and everything I go back to when it’s over.”
The Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, native says he has “a piece of property down by the water,” in his home province, a retreat paid for from his 35 years as Canada’s comedy road warrior. “It really does make it all worthwhile,” says James, who also has a condo in Toronto, but claims he hasn’t been able to sleep without earplugs since he got it.
He calls his ability to fill theatres from coast to coast “a victory in baby steps. I think it was a face in the funny that the audience and I built together one kilometre at a time.” James knows the annual TV specials play a big part in bringing fans out to his live shows. He gives credit to his long-time executive producer, Lynn Harvey, for making each special special. Harvey’s Enter The Picture Productions also backed his CBC series “The Ron James Show” during its five-year run.
He also salutes writers Paul Pogue and Scott Montgomery for “raising the bar for me,” especially this past summer, he says, “when I had so much on my plate with my dad. To have a team like that that has your back when the chips are down is priceless.”
The steady exposure on TV and on the road has made James—as Rick Mercer once called him—“more Canadian than warm mitts on a radiator.” That’s the kind of apt phrase that usually drops from James’ own lips. He’s a language specialist with an ear for Canadian colloquialisms, a sort of stand up Stephen Leacock with a Cape Breton cadence.
As for what he has planned for New Year’s Eve, James hopes to get back to Nova Scotia like last year, “when we just tucked into my place, had some wine and popcorn and watched the special. It was a nice clear night for a walk afterwards – hopefully we’ll be able to do it again.”