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James on solid ground now after shaky start in showbiz

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James: 'constant vigilance'

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James: 'constant vigilance'

Ask Ron James if he feels like he's finally "made it," and there's bound to be a pause in the conversation.

He's working at a level few entertainers reach in Canadian showbiz -- filling theatres for standup-comedy tours and starring in a CBC series that bears his name and has survived into its about-to-launch fifth season in what is surely the most budget-challenged era in the public broadcaster's history.

But he's also a guy whose entire north-of-the-border career was kick-started by a one-man show he wrote a couple of decades ago about having attempted -- and failed -- to achieve success in the centre of the show-business universe, Los Angeles.

It was 20 years ago this spring that James, 56, first staged Up and Down in Shakytown: One Man's Journey Through the California Dream, which was turned into a TV special that started him on a long road to stardom in his home country.

So now, as The Ron James Show reaches the half-decade mark and its star is at the top of his comedic game, has he "made it?"

"Oh, well, that's a question, isn't it?" James says in a telephone interview. "I guess it calls for a definition of 'made it.' If doing what you love every day of the week, 365 days a year, means you've made it, then yes, absolutely, I guess I've made it. I'm doing what I want to do, and I've had the good fortune to make a living at my calling in a country that I like to live in."

The Cape Breton-born comedian prefers to describe his career as success by baby steps, and it's fair to say his ability to enjoy having made it in Canadian show business has a lot to do with how hard he has worked to make it happen.

Starting with Shakytown and then spending years on the club and bar circuit, transitioning from acting to standup comedy, James eventually made the bold choice to leave the road-comic grind behind and start marketing himself as a touring headliner performing in theatrical venues.

The gamble paid off, and CBC took an interest in turning his touring shows into a series of TV specials that set the stage for The Ron James Show. And now, five seasons later, James has become a reliable fixture in the CBC lineup.

"That's not to say that it hasn't required constant vigilance on our part," James says of his show's ongoing evolution. "It's a 24/7 gig on our part. I like to say 'Be careful when you get the life you want, because that's when you won't have a life,' and it's true, because when you're working on a show like this, it's all-consuming. You're creating it, you're writing it, you're shooting it, you're editing it and then you're selling it.

"And thankfully, with the changes in management and executive structure that has taken place at the CBC, this is the first time we've ever been vigorously promoted, and I think all the publicity we've been getting during the Olympics is going to have an impact on our (audience) numbers."

When The Ron James Show returns tonight at 9:30 p.m. on CBC, viewers who've followed past seasons will notice the addition of several new semi-regular segments, including Bobby De Niro's Canada, which draws upon a popular impression from James's standup act to provide a fresh perspective on Canada's vast glory.

"I've always wanted to work Bobby into the show somewhere," James says of his spot-on mimicry of the famed Hollywood actor. "We tried to get it to work back in season 3, but it wasn't quite right. And then (head writer) Garry Campbell and I started riffing one day, and I mentioned how Canada loves it when Americans think we're cool, so why don't we make Bobby the new spokesman for Canadian tourism?"

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 24, 2014 D5

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