Jun. 20, 2012 - Issue #870: Food Trucks
"I honestly think Corner Gas is less Canadian than people think it is," Brent Butt says. The 45-year-old comedian is sitting in his room on the top floor of a swank downtown hotel, chewing the cud on the show that brought him into the homes of 26 different countries with a story set in the Saskatchewan prairies. In his mind, that success was never because of location; the appeal was much broader than that.
"People would always say to me, 'I really like Corner Gas but I'm from Saskatchewan, so I get it.' And then other people would say, 'I really like Corner Gas but I'm from Canada, so I get it,'" he explains. "And it kind of keeps getting bigger and bigger in scope—it's in 26 countries. And the reason is because it's not particularly Saskatchewan, it's not particularly Canadian. It's pretty universal. These are archetypal characters. The show's not based around barley jokes or something. Every now and then there was some kind of a rural storyline, but for the most part these were people going about their day and the small Saskatchewan day was their backdrop. That's what I wanted to do. I always said I wanted to do a show that happens to take place in a small rural community. But it's not about that, the same way Seinfeld wasn't about New York—that was just where it took place.
"It happened to be in Canada; it happened to be in Saskatchewan," he continues. "We didn't hide the fact. I think as Canadians we've kind of been force-fed a diet of super Canadiana. It's kind of unnatural a lot of times: it seems earnest and is trying too hard, and it's, 'Look how Canadian we are.' And I wanted to do a show that just is Canadian, but it's not a big deal. It's just these people, and the situations they get into that week. And then if you're Canadian there's some value added, or if you're from Saskatchewan there's some value added, or if you're from a rural community there's value added. But it would play to anybody. That was always kind of my goal."
Butt was in town a few weeks ago in advance of a stand-up slot at the Winspear. The stand-up circuit is where he sharpened his comic teeth in the '80s, starting out during a "real comedy boom" with lots of opportunity—"a lot of pubs had comedy and chicken wing night," he ribs. " If you even claimed to be a comedian, there was somebody who was willing to give you work. "
Butt kept with it when that bubble burst and the wanna-be comedians went back to their dayjobs, having by then fashioned himself into one of the country's finest rising comics. He's never quite left that world behind, even after venturing into television. At the peak of Corner Gas's workload, and that of its follow up, Hiccups, those televised endeavours would command his full attention—Butt wrote, directed and starred in both shows, meaning 16-hour days during filming. But he would still hit the road for a couple of months of the year when they weren't on set.
Of course, he plays to much larger rooms these days—the Winspear is a substantial room for a guy and a microphone to command. Butt notes that it's about the largest size of a venue that he'd go.
"I've done standup for really large groups, 13 000, 18 000, and it really changes what you're doing," he says. "There should always be some level of subtlety in comedy. I like it when comedy is layered; my favourite comedians are people who can deliver big, overt comedy and subtle left-handed comedy—throughout the evening you're getting all kinds of flavours, and there's different layers to each particular bit. That's when comedy's at its best. When you get in a giant arena venue, subtlety has to go out the window. At a certain point it doesn't become about the comedy, it becomes about the spectacle. That's why Steve Martin quit standup; it was just at the stage where he'd go out and it was just people screaming. He said there were times that, just as a test, he would just say something that made no sense. And it would get the same response as what he thought was his best joke. And he just walked away from it 'cause it didn't make any sense anymore."
The Edmonton stop is one of only a handful of stand-up dates Butt has pegged down this summer. He kept the schedule light while he waited to hear back on a film project. It got the greenlight (though for a fall filming rather than summer). It's called No Clue, a mystery-thriller with elements of comedy, but still a true take on the form.
For its creation, Butt will be wearing most of the same hats he usually does: in addition to having scripted it, he'll play the lead.
"Who else is going to hire me to be in their movie?" he asks with a grin. "I gotta hire myself."
Fri, Jun 22 (8 pm)
Winspear, $28.50 – $42.50
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