From magic to stand up, from origami to dog grooming to comic collections to Disney fandom, James Ryder has tried and tested it all. Now settling in Tokyo for another adventure, the Maltese performance artist speaks to us about making people laugh.
Who is James Ryder in the eyes of James Ryder?
In the eyes of James Ryder, James Ryder is the product of delusion, theatre, and a general lack of social boundaries. I’m great at family dinners.
Where did the stage name ‘Ryder’ come from?
I was twelve, and I needed a stage name after taking up magic. I submitted my name to every themed name-generator on the internet and between Seamus O’ Leary (Irish name generator), Oz Ryder (Rock star name generator), and Beefstick McHugendong (self-explanatory), I decided to stick with Ryder. I eventually grew out of the name, but by that point everyone had got used to me being known as Ryder.
Image credit: Svetlana P. Photography
You have a very accomplished performance repertoire – from magician to stand up comedian. Can you tell us how it all began and how this transition was from one genre to the next?
It actually started when I was eight and went to Masquerade Theatre Arts School doing acting, singing and dancing. Eventually, I wanted to try something that didn’t have as many rules. I love acting though, and every now and then I always want to go a bit rogue and do my own thing. I then tried out magic for a few years when I was twelve. Brian Role was my tutor at the time, and he even got me into the local group of magicians. At eighteen, I realised I wanted to use my words rather than my hands when I’m performing, so I hung up the wand and top hat. I still have a few tricks up my sleeve in case I need a quick icebreaker or when playing a game of poker.
Some of your latest performances – aside from stand up comedy – include Irbaħt l-Lottu and Rock of Ages. What can you tell us about these past experiences?
Both were great. 2016 was definitely my breakthrough in theatre. Rock of Ages has by far been my most favorite production to work on. It’s always a blast working with Marc Cabourdin and Wesley Ellul. I also got to work with some awesome people such as Kurt Calleja, Taryn Mamo Cefai, and Errol Sammut, not to mention the backstage antics with comedians Chris Dingli and Colin Fitz.
Once the show ended, I started getting quite a few offers. It turns out wearing a spandex suit on stage is just the thing that producers like to see, so I ended up accepting a role for Irbaħt Il- Lottu, where it was my first time acting in a play in Maltese, which I found quite challenging. It was also my first play with director Mario Philip Azzopardi, and it was a pleasure working with him. He’s offered me some more work once I’m back from Tokyo which I’m most looking forward to. I enjoy his unique approach towards theatre.
Image credit: Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi
How has your portfolio as an actor and a magician contributed towards your stand up comedy?
It was acting that helped the most. I started at a young age which does help develop confidence, and director Anthony Bezzina was always willing to support any new form of entertainment I wanted to try. Magic taught me how to improvise and how to control a crowd when someone decides to call me out during a show. Toddlers and drunk middle-aged men are quite similar in that department.
If you had to create your fantasy comedian line-up, who’d make the list and why?
Louis CK always keeps his material fresh and knows how to build momentum fast. Mitch Hedberg gives clean comedy based on lateral thinking, and he’s one of the only comedians to have mastered this form. Dara O’Briain can improvise a full show and still blow the roof off. Philip Leone-Ganado manages to perform a set about Malta in a way that both locals and tourists can appreciate, and Malcolm Galea appeals very well to the older generation with his sets about married life and kids.
You’ll soon be heading off to Japan. What do you think lies ahead?
Ambiguous vending machines and restaurant owners who yell pleasantries at you when you enter. The metro punctuality is apparently the best in the world. As a Maltese person, I have to check that out. I’m also expecting a good audience in Tokyo as stand-up comedy is getting very popular in that area.
How can the comedian contribute towards society? What is his role in the grander scheme of things?
Society is stressed out. People need more money. Students need less books. A sub-species of ostrich is due to go extinct by the end of this year. So in the grander scheme of things, a comedian’s role is to make people laugh, either through stories or light-hearted commentary on what’s happening around us. When someone’s had a bad day, a good laugh can make all the difference.
Image credit: Jacob Sammut Photography
What was your first stand up gig like?
I was fifteen and still a magician, and I wanted to experiment with stand up. With my wand and colourful cloths, I went to a Scottish pub after midnight. It’s worth pointing out that this was right after the occupant’s football team lost the game. It was like the battle of Normandy if both sides called for a temporary truce to gang up on a fat rabbit.
What’s the best joke you’ve ever heard?
“The worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades.” – Demetri Martin