James Cunningham is the host of Food Network Canada’s hit show Eat St., the creator of the award-winning touring show Funny Money, and a successful stand-up comedian. He has hosted and performed for clients such as Pepsi, Sobeys, Canadian Tire, and McDonald’s.
On top of all of these achievements, he’s also an alumnus of UTM and Sheridan College’s theatre and drama studies program. James took some time during his busy touring schedule to chat with the Medium about university life (including the staples of the student diet), food trucks, and finding humour in finances.
The Medium: What were the food options at UTM when you were a student?
James Cunningham: Almost slim to none. We would go to our buddy’s place [on residence] for lunch. There wasn’t a lot going on there back then. We had the Blind Duck, more or less. We’d bring our own or go to one of the cheap Chinese restaurants on Dundas.
TM: What were the essentials of your student diet?
JC: I lived at home all throughout university to save money, so my diet was pretty good. I saw firsthand there was a big difference between the girl student diet and the guy student diet. My guy friends lived on 80% ramen noodles and Kraft Dinner, whereas the girls would actually make things like vegetable stew and soup.
TM: What are your fondest memories of your time at UTM?
JC: All my profs were really good. The quality of the UTM staff is always top-notch. I had a lot of great times with my friends; we had a lot of fun in residence. The [theatre and drama studies] productions were one of the greatest things about UTM. Your life became that production. It was the coolest thing.
TM: Did you intend to go into comedy?
JC: I graduated and I wanted to be an actor. I thought I would go do stand-up comedy to give me something else to sell. I began with Yuk Yuk’s amateur night and just started working so much that I didn’t have time to act. It took over my whole [life].
TM: How did you get involved with Eat St.?
JC: I auditioned for Wipeout Canada and I got down to the final four. But my audition tape from that show started making the rounds. I got a call from a guy in Vancouver and he said, “I want to get you on this new show on food trucks. These gourmet food trucks are taking over the street. The network doesn’t want a comedian, but I think you’re great.” So I flew down and auditioned in New York. On the spot, he said, “I’ll take a risk if you take a risk. Let’s shoot episode one with you as the host. If you do it for free, we’ll send it to the network and see what they say.” And now we’re talking season five, so something obviously worked out.
TM: What’s the filming schedule for the show?
JC: It takes one full day to shoot the six-minute [segment for each food truck] that you see on TV. We shoot the footage first, we edit it, and then we write the episodes around that. We go back to where the trucks are and shoot the throws.
TM: Do you have a favourite food truck?
JC: I eat my fair share of food for sure. It’s impossible [to pick a favourite ]. They’re all so good. Every time we say, “Oh my god, that was the best truck,” then we go to the next city and we say, “Oh my god, this is the best truck.” To make this show to begin with, you have to be a good truck. We get the best of the best.
TM: Did you have an interest in food before working on the show?
JC: I had an interest in food, but I wasn’t a hardcore foodie. Now I could tell you what goes into a Korean short rib taco or the secrets behind really good American-Indian fusion. I mean, I loved to eat, but now I have a lot of experience in the food world.
TM: What’s been the biggest surprise about working on the show?
JC: The people. The great places. I travel to places I normally wouldn’t go. When you travel for comedy, you fly in, do the show, and fly out. But when I do [Eat St.], I spend days walking around, talking to people, and going to food trucks.
TM: How did your Funny Money show develop?
JC: I would pull into college and university campuses, talk to the students that were broke, and write jokes about that. I would give them advice and people would email me back and say, “It worked. You should teach this stuff.” There’s a lot of videos, apps, and great tools out there, but no one actually goes out and talks to high school or college students, makes them laugh and realize that we can do this. It’s a really simple process.
TM: Have you had any particularly memorable performances?
JC: I love going into schools and seeing students walk in, going, “Oh man. This is going to be a stupid money show thing,” and by the end of it going, “That was the best show I’ve ever seen. That was so funny.” I love doing the show and making people laugh. I like talking to students afterward and finding out what they think about money. People are very honest about these things, but no one ever wants to talk about it. I’ve done shows for 10 people and 500 people. We’ll do 10 shows in a week and talk to about 5,000 students over the course of a week.
TM: Where did you get all your financial knowledge?
JC: My dad was an accountant; he was very business-savvy. I learned early on, especially going into the arts, you have to have your finances in order. The secret is you have to afford your [acting] career. For years you have to be on call to go out for an audition. You have to make money somehow, but still be flexible for your career. It’s a fine line you have to walk. I tell people you have to use your credit cards wisely, build your credit, and start saving or investing your money.
TM: What’s it like having a career that takes you all over North America?
JC: It’s got pros and cons. I love travelling, but I do miss being at home. That, to me, is luxury.
TM: Do you have any advice for current UTM students?
JC: Maximize your time while you’re there. Do the extra course, make use of the facilities, and join the clubs that you can join. […] It’s a little part of your life to make you a better human being. Use UTM to your advantage. Use the campus. Use the teachers. Now is your time to explore, fail, and try things. If I went back now I would work so much harder to get more courses in. When you’re in the middle of it you’re like, “This is so much work,” but when you get in the real world you’re like, “That was so easy. Why was I complaining back then?”