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  Co-op Toques

by Dave Yanko

Comedian Brent Butt does a bit about the difference between living in a small town and the big city.

"You hear phrases in a small town that you'd never hear in the big city: 'Excuse me sir: Will you hold my baby while I count this cash?'"

And then with spot-on timing, as the laughter subsides just enough that he can be heard, ". . . a different level of trust, really."

Butt's easy manner and observational style have taken him a long way from Tisdale, Saskatchewan, where he spent the first 20 years of his life (this article was written before the hit comedy TV series Corner Gas ran in Canada and in syndication abroad - ed). He's performed all across North America and represented Canada at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal. He's had several TV specials and numerous appearances on Canadian and U.S. television, he's now landing small parts in the movies, and the Toronto Star says he's on his way to becoming ''the next Canadian comedian to make it big in Hollywood.''

Brent Butt: 'coffee shop' humor.
Brent Butt: 'coffee shop' humor.

Pretty heady stuff for a small-town, prairie boy. Yet, in spite of his background, Butt says he's simply following a course he set years ago.

"I kinda very, very early made the decision to do this," the comic said in an interview from his current home in Vancouver. "I was 12 when I told my mum 'I'm going to be a standup comic'."

His decision came during summer holidays, when he was free to catch the Al Hamel television show weekday afternoons. Many of the programs featured a standup comic.

"When I saw them doing standup - my only exposure before that was to comic actors on TV - it just hit me like a ton of bricks. It was like, this is what I should be doing. This is what I do with my friends.

"I didn't know a guy could do this for living and wear a tie and be on TV."

Before Al Hamel came along, Butt didn't realize the stories he swapped with buddies at the local coffee shop were the sit-down beginnings of a standup career (''typical, small-town prairie, we started going for coffee really young''). Today, he refers to his style as ''coffee shop humor.''

"It's not so much premise, punch-line, tag, tag, tag. It's conversational. Very coffee shop," he says, adding it's a style of delivery common among small-town comics.

Home life played an equally important role in his development as a comic. The youngest of seven kids, Butt says every one of his brothers and sisters could make him laugh. His mother was a hoot in her own right, and his father was a frustrated performer.

"He had an act he used to do at fairs, wherever he was asked. He sang, played the harmonica, danced, and he had a puppet that danced with him - all at once.

"I think if my father didn't have to support seven children, he would have ventured out into show business. He loved an audience as much as I do."

With home life and the coffee shop providing the young Butt with years of practice, it was really only stage presence he had to work on for his first appearance at an amateur night in a Saskatoon comedy club.

"I knew that when I watched comics, I could always tell how good or confident they were, or how long they'd been performing, by their microphone technique. I figured if I can at least look like I know what I'm doing, it'll help.

"In my room, in Saskatoon, I'd go through my routine talking into a screwdriver, getting used to having that thing in front of my face. Being conscious of it. That's a big part of the battle."

He honed his craft for four years in Saskatoon before moving to Calgary, Toronto, Los Angeles and now Vancouver. And he's performed in big and small venues across North America.

Some material works equally well in Saskatoon, Toronto and Los Angeles. And some doesn't.

"I remember one time I was doing a show in New York City. I'm half way into the setup of the joke, working my way towards the punch line, and I realize the punch line to this joke is going to be 'Co-op toque'.

"What a horrible feeling.

"You can't just bail out, you know, you're half way into the story. I'm thinking 'Oh my God. There's going to be nothing! It's going to be like I'm speaking another language'."

He finished the joke (for the uninitiated, Co-op is a department store and a toque is a woven head warmer) and then immediately launched into another.

"The idea is to not let them realize they missed something."

Butt finds Canadian and American audiences very similar. But he believes the small differences say much about the culture of each nation, as well as the long-standing success of Canadian comics in American show business.

"Americans love heroes - they love somebody standing up and taking charge. It's like they give you 10 points just for having the moxie to get up there.

"We're a more socialized culture. Things are done for the good of the nation. (Canadian audiences) almost take 10 points away from you for getting up on stage. It's like: 'What makes you think you should be up there telling these jokes?'. It's a good environment to learn the craft in because you're forced to prove it."

Tisdale, Saskatchewan's motto is 'The Land of Rape (canola) and Honey'.
- courtesy Crawford Studios.
Tisdale, Saskatchewan's motto is 'The Land of Rape (canola) and Honey'.

It's a fact that a single standup performance in a place like Los Angeles can make or break a career, he says. Comics are well aware the head of NBC likes to slip into an audience to scout out new talent for the hungry sitcom industry. But since comics seldom know whether one of these influential types is in the crowd, ''they do their same seven minutes of A material every set.''

In Winnipeg, on the other hand, laying an egg is far less likely to jeopardize a career.

"You get people experimenting up here more than in LA. And you develop comics like Norm Macdonald and Harlan Williams and Jim Carrey - guys who have a totally different take on things. Part of their success comes from being afforded the luxury of going out and tanking."

Canada's connections to Britain, and our easier acceptance of off-the-wall humor from the likes of Monty Python, may also account for some of this country's comedic success south of the border, he says. And being close to, but not a part of the United States, likely helps.

"America is Our Town, and Canada is the old guy in suspenders who stands up and says: 'Get a load of this'.

"We get to stand back and poke."

Keep an eye out for Brent in the movies, and drop by his Web site for news and performance dates.

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