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
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.''
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
"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
"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
"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
"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."
courtesy Crawford Studios.
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
"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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