WINNIPEG - Thank the comedy gods you don’t have to choose between two masters of humour this weekend.
Roll with shaggy-maned Scottish veteran Billy Connolly’s free-wheeling, expletive-laced ramblings in Too Old to Die Young, at Burton Cummings Theatre Friday. Then bust a gut over diminutive Canuck Ron James’s poetically super-charged perambulations in Full Tilt, at Pantages Playhouse Saturday.
“I’m following the funniest man in the world so believe me it’s a tall order, but Winnipeg’s always been good to me,” James says, happily admitting he planned to see “the great wizard” Connolly on three Canadian tour stops this week, in Toronto, Hamilton and Calgary.
James, 49, is no casual fan. He says Connolly, 64, changed his life back when James was a struggling actor in L.A. in the early ’90s.
“I saw an HBO special and I still remember every minute of it, and it was his,” James says. “And I watched this wizard fly. I watched him just lift off his feet. And he was talking about things that resonated for me, you know. He was talking about family, he was talking about being little, he was talking about just the sheer joy of being able to deliver his stories.
“That was the message I got … and I remember watching it and saying, ‘If I get back to Canada and I can get enough money together to keep my head above water and maybe move back, I’m going to step into the arena of standup and write my story about here.’ Well, it’s an old story now. I wrote Up and Down in Shaky Town and that led to my first comedy special.”
Connolly personified the adage, “follow your bliss.” So, that’s what James did. He returned to Canada in 1993, wrote his one-man show the next year and earned his first paycheque for a standup gig in 1995. He did his time in clubs but for seven years, James has been hopping in his car and embarking on tours that take him from his home province Nova Scotia to B.C., and every stop between.
He and Connolly have the same goal — making people laugh so hard they spring a leak. They just have different methods. Connolly flies by the seat of his pants, pulling his high-wire act together from a well-stocked store of comedic observations, while James crafts his verbal virtuosity one syllable at a time.
“I like the way a phrase trips off the tongue and tickles the ear as well as the funny bone — I like language and I put a great deal of effort into the way these things flow,” he says. “And then you’ll watch a Billy Connolly … doing these incredibly funny fart jokes and I’m dying — I’m dying. When the muse is on turbo, oh, geez, I love a good laugh.”
James was an actor for 15 years before he got into standup but says he was only in demand “when the script called for Christmas elves or the mentally challenged.” He felt stifled by network executives on his own Global series Blackfly and recently walked away from another series when he didn’t like the direction it was taking. Besides, TV doesn’t hold much charm compared to the “adrenal charge” of working live.
“It’s an intoxicating hum that has an almost addictive pull to it,” he says. “It really hasn’t changed that much since the crosseyed fool imitated the king at the village square on market day — I’m sure that’s why the giants of the form continue to return to the lodestone of live performance.”
James says he’s lucky to make a good living doing the work he loves while traveling the country he loves. He considers himself a craftsman and doesn’t take the responsibility lightly. He puts in long hours writing, honing his performance and reaping the communal rewards on stage, living by the rule, “get laughs or get off.”
“If the ushers aren’t wiping the seats down after you’re finished, you haven’t done your job.”
Tickets for his Saturday show at Pantages cost $40 at Ticketmaster.