Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ron James : From Stand Up To TV Star

So here I am in Ron James's King St. E offices --his own workroom is oddly muted without the expected paraphernalia of Canada's standup king.
"That's how I am," he shrugs leading the way to "a safe chair, the other one tilts ver if you lean back."
It's a cold Monday afternoon out there but James is already knee deep in preparations for the New Year's Eve hour version of his CBC comedy series --separate shows are taped Thursdays and Fridays before the obligartory "live audience."
In person he's friendly but contemplative. Jokes don't roll of his tongue as might be expected. He's like so many top comics, introspective and critical of his own work.
"On the weekend I did the Niagara Falls casino, 2,000 people," he says. "And that calls for a different sort of delivery. You just can't go out and chat up the first row. The guy who paid just as much and is sitting in Row M might get annoyed."
And what about the TV gig, this is season two.
"We're all getting the hang of it," he smiles. "I mean it's a real learning experience. I do stand up at the beginning every week. That means new material every week. On the road I had time to refine the material."
And the sketches. Although I liked a lot of them I sometimes had the feeling James was holding back a bit.
"I'd be doing the opening monologue and wondering how the heck can I change into that shepher'd costume in one minute flat?" he admits with a laugh.
So this season the sketches have been done in advance. "We started in August. And they're shot out on real locations as opposed to the studio sets. We still have a grand gaggle of guests --Deb McGrath is in one, I know that. And we rounded up the greats --I just feel more comfortable. I think we've all found my comfort zone."
That still doesn't mean he'll occasionally sneak out for a live gig. "It's where I'm from and summers I still tour although I took the girls back to the East Coast for a week of dipping my toe in the waters and, well, just thinking."
On Friday nights James continues to struggle for the ratings CBC thinks he deserves --trouble is many fans are out Fridays shopping (the older ones) or clubbing (the younger). Still, last Friday he averaged a not bad 559,000 on the least watched night of the week.
"People are still discovering the show. They get where I'm at. I generally leave the political stuff to Rick Mercer (a guest last week) and This Hour. When I talk politics I'm in a more general frame of mind." Concentrations on the political scandal of the week are downgraded to a riff on paint colors and his desperate search to find simple white paint.
In one sketch he partners with Deb McGrath and Devon Bostick in a hilarious piece about their high school kid caught with a marijuana joint --trouble is the boy had borrowed dad's jacket for the day. You get where the jokes are going?
"We first met on Blackfly," he suddenly remembers. "I was very uncomfortable on that one."
Trouble is the innovative 2001Canadian sitcom was often very funny but it was also all over the place.
James not only starred, he led a ragged team of comedy writers and an ecclectric cast (including Richard Donat, James Klee, Colin Mochrie) all set in an English fort in early colonial Canada. Critics often say a series was ahead of its time when it flops but Blackfly had a cadre of loyal supporters and got better over its 26 episodes.
"With this series I had good feelings from the start. A lot worked in the first year. The L'il Ronnie animation worked from the start. But this season we've added Odes To The Road looking humorously at all the places I've toured in Canada."
And there's James as furniture salesman named Larry Garibaldi who'll be popping up consistently.
Also new in this episode is an historical episode casting James as great PM Wilfrid Laurier and his vision of what Alberta could be (co-starring is Corner Gas's eric Peterson).
About the writers and directors he says "We spent the first year getting to know each other. Now we're raring to be abit more daring. It's a completely different world for me, this TV series. It requires different muscles, to look past the studio audience. Busy? I never really knew how busy."
In fact executive producer Lynn Harvey says the crew has been so busy they haven't had the time to negotiate a DVD release of the first season.
"I'm thinking if this is what it means to be in the trenches then I feel at home.We're getting there week after week, I can feel it. Frustrations? I can't finesse the monologue after taping. But the writers keep surprising me and I trust their opinions. I'm getting camera savvy, I really am. The audience deserve to see a finely honed show and that's what they're getting.Then on Monday it's back into the battlefield."

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