Interview: Ron James, set to host the Geminis

Last year’s Geminis drew 62,000 people, which is less than a tenth of what your average CBC special brings in. Why are you doing this?
[Laughs] Listen man, just jump right in, that’s what I say. Look, I could always use another 62,000 viewers, too, you know. I’m doing it because I had a riot doing it last year at the non-broadcast night, I did the news events. I’m in the industry, I’ve got my own series on CBC now, and after last year, they asked me if I’d commit. I said sure, sounds like fun. The same company that produces my television show is producing the Geminis, and I knew I’d be right in my comfort zone.
I love the west, and when I heard it was going to be open to the public, I thought, sweet, it’s not going to be such a corporate gig, you know? I could push the envelope a bit.
Was it important for you to have the live audience involved?
Yeah, it was definitely an encouraging thing to hear. It loosens the night up and takes it out of the corporate realm, and allows the material to be not so much inside [industry], but embrace a broader perspective. I can talk about Calgary, I can talk about the West. I’ve toured there extensively over the last 10 years, I’ve worked from Lethbridge to the oil patch, and I think that now the West is playing a crucial role in the national zeitgeist, and, you know, why not embrace that when we’re talking about Canadian culture as well?
Are you going to be tailoring the show more towards the west, or since it’s a national broadcast, is it a national focus?
I’m going to be touching down on all sorts of spots. I’ll touch down on TV, touch down on the West itself, touch down on the nation, H1N1, you know, whatever hot button points are in the news. You have to go by instinct, too. If you’re touring — I’m in the middle of a tour of Atlantic Canada, so there’s some material that I was going to play universally that I’ll be playing there, that I’ve been honing on the road. There’s some material that I’ve played out West that’s never been on TV that I’ll be utilizing, and stuff the writers have come up with that pertains directly to TV.
When you’re doing stand-up, how is that different from sketch TV and this kind of live broadcast?
Well, absolutely. It’s a customized gig, isn’t it? It’s not just me winding the engine out for two hours, with a paying audience who paid $50 to see my show. I can say what I want to say there, as long as I don’t lose the room. But, you know, the same rules apply: Get laughs or get off. After 16 years in the trenches of Canadian comedy, I like to think that I’ve learned a few things about how to work a room. The same rules apply, it’s just that you have to tailor them a little differently for the arena you’ve found yourself in.
You seem to be having a better go of it now, but you’ve had some bitter experiences in the television industry —
Tell me, who hasn’t after 30 years in. How old are you?
I’m 26.
Twenty-six. You spend 30 years in the newspaper business, you tell me you haven’t had a bitter experience. Here’s the thing. Every hammer a carpenter picks up, he doesn’t build a mansion. You’ve got to learn. And if you’re referring to the bitter experience of Blackfly, that was two years that I was on, and it was a validation of the imagination, and I learned a great deal. The most important thing I learned doing that show was that you’ve got to surround yourself with great people who are taking their ship in the same direction, and that’s what I have with this particular series I’m doing now, which is why we got 811,000 viewers last Friday night. You work just as hard to get a show that receives mediocre reviews as you do to get one that receives stellar reviews and numbers. And I enjoyed the cast I worked with on that series, I enjoyed the struggle of the work. But you’ve got to have writers and you’ve got to have a team of writers who believe in your funny. And that’s what I have with the series The Ron James Show. I’ve got (Gerry Campbell), who honed his chops — as executive producer and head writer — honed his chops in Los Angeles for 10 years writing for Mad TV, Jeff Foxworthy, Roseanne, you name it. And I have (Liv Harvey), the executive producer who’s produced my last five national specials, and I’ve got my love of the work, which is a marriage of stand-up and sketch. I get to perform with people who come to play, and so, you learn from experiences that may not necessarily win you accolades. Your teachers come in many forms.
Some notable exceptions like your specials, Corner Gas and This Hour has 22 Minutes aside, it seems like Canadian television has a hard time capturing the national imagination. What do you think is the biggest source of difficulty for Canadians to capture Canadian audiences?
That’s a good question, man. Well, what do you mean capture Canadian audiences — are you talking in terms of numbers or are you talking in terms of pure enjoyment?
I’m talking in terms of numbers, because enjoyment is a much trickier thing to measure, really.
Well, when your budget for a show each week, like Mad Men, is $15 million, you’re gonna have production values. And you’ve got American spin, you’ve got the hype, you’ve got the power of an empire that’s got 177 military bases around the world, you know: Better start watching our shows or we’ll invade you.
That’s a cheap shot, but, I don’t know. I don’t pretend to be an authority on the semantics of the differences between Canadian and American TV. I just know that when Canadians find something that appeals to them, they’ll watch. I know that when I started in standup comedy, too, people said that, ‘Oh, you’ve got to lose all that material if you want to be successful in the States.’ Well, I put three years down in Los Angeles in the early ‘90s, and when I came home, I wanted to make it work here. And I came to learn that 2,000 people laughing in a snowstorm in Edmonton sounds exactly the same as 2,000 people laughing in Los Angeles where it’s warm.
When stories reflect the Canadian zeitgeist, and when they reflect and embrace the iconography and mythology of people and place, and try to figure out what it is that makes us tick, Canadians will watch. Look at the success of Corner Gas. And they will feel represented. Whether or not the nominating committee of the Gemini Awards feels the same, that’s a different issue altogether.
That is another thing — last year, Corner Gas, despite it being it’s last year, was shut out. When people see something like that, does that give them a reason to look away from the awards show, if they don’t see it reflecting what they’re actually interested in?
Well, I think it’s something that definitely the Academy has to begin to look at, period. I mean, the fact that Corner Gas was shut out last year by Cocked and Loaded that nobody watched lends one to assume that something’s rotten in Denmark, and I just can’t understand it. It just perplexes me — and it perplexes everybody in the industry. Perhaps I’m speaking out of turn by this, but — what odds, it’s what I do for a living — but I think that the consistency of that show and the seamlessness of the cast and its standards, the fact they were overlooked can only be explained by internal jealousies. You know? That’s all. And I’d like to see more consistency from that area in the comedic categories, absolutely. We’re always eating at the little table, and then when you finally do have a great show, for some reason or another, it’s overlooked. It’s almost that old Canadian adage, ‘Oh, they’re successful, we want to make sure that they don’t get a big head, so we’re not going to nominate them.
But the country knows, and Brent knows, and the people who created that show know how great it was. And it is. Period.
You do seem to see a lot of the time that “Gemini nominee” and “recently cancelled show” go hand in hand.
Once again, I can only comment on things that affect me and that I know about, and I don’t know about those semantics of why they’re cancelled and why they’re nominated and things. I mean, I’m sure that’s network decisions or a myriad number of decisions. I know it takes an awful long time to line your planets up and to have a successful show, there’s numerous elements of the show that go in to make it successful. Success has many fathers, and failure is an orphan.
In all these awards shows, there’s people that are overlooked. It happens at the Academy Awards, you know, Dr. Strangelove loses out to My Fair Lady or whatever it was, and there’s glaring omissions, and sometimes that’s bound to happen. But I think that for the most part, I’m pleased with the way things are looking this year for Canadian television. Flashpoint is sold to, how many, 19 countries around the world? That’s outstanding! That’s the universality of the storytelling, and that’s really important.
In your view, what would be the key thing to change to get a wider audience for the Geminis — aside from having it on basic cable this year and not on specialty cable like it was last year.
Oh, is that what it was? I was on tour, I didn’t see it. I think they’re on the right track with opening it up to the public and not keeping it insular. The more that you, why should the public be excluded from an awards show and seeing it, when it’s the public who feeds us. You know, it’s the public who pays our bills. I mean, those are the ones who are watching, so bring ’em in. We’re all one big happy family.
That’s my motto, anyway. I’m just going to approach the gig with the same passion I bring to my live show. If the ushers aren’t wiping the seats down, I haven’t done my job.
One last thing — I noticed that one of the nominees for best host of a variety show this year is Jason Priestly for hosting last year’s awards.
[Laughs] Oh, is he?
Do you think you’re a shoo-in for next year’s nomination?
Oh, goes without saying, I can’t wait. I’m going to buy a winery like Jason did, too, after next year.

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