by Dave Yanko
"Ever been to Victoria?'' comedian Brent Butt asks the audience near the beginning of his standup routine.
"Nothing against senior citizens," he continues, and you know he means it. But why don't they just move a few more of them to Victoria "and make it an even billion?"
|- all images courtesy CTV
Joke upon joke unleashed with immaculate timing has me crying with laughter 10 minutes into the show at the Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon. Me, and everyone else in the full house at the second show.
(The standup tour was in support of his hit TV show Corner Gas, which at the time was kicking off its second of six seasons on Canada's CTV television network – the show ran from 2004 to 2009 – ed.). Butt said the honchos at CTV were a little concerned Corner Gas might appeal only to a small, rural audience. He boldly assured them it would play well right across Canada, in big cities as well as small rural communities. Then he crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.
As its many fans now know, Corner Gas was a phenomenon. Each episode in the first season drew more than a million viewers. And it was up against some of the best and priciest shows produced in the U.S. Oh, and the highest percentage of viewers in Canada? Downtown Toronto. That made the CTV honchos laugh, too.
"Original, genuinely funny and clever," wrote the Globe and Mail reviewer. "Sheer genius," penned a TV critic at the Toronto Star.
Of course, we Saskatchewan folks have known about Butt for years now. Hailing from Tisdale, Saskatchewan (pop. ~3,000), Butt is the youngest of seven kids. He remembers telling his mother he wanted to be a comedian after watching one perform on the Al Hamel television show during summer holidays. He was 12. He credits much of his facility with observational humour to small town life and the inevitable tours of duty at the local coffee shop.
|Corner Gas stars (l-r) Gabrielle Miller as Lacey, Brent Butt as Brent LeRoy, Lorne Cardinal as Officer Davis, Tara Spencer-Nairn as Officer Karen, Eric Peterson as Oscar, Nancy Robertson as Wanda, Fred Ewanuik as Hank, and Janet Wright as Emma.
"I think if you grow up in a small town you're kind of naturally an observer,'' Butt said in a telephone interview. "(Small town folk) become very astute, if for no other reason than they need ammunition at the coffee shop. Maybe somebody who doesn't have as much time on their hands, maybe somebody rushing around in the city doesn't have time to examine things as closely as we do.''
Butt is big on Saskatchewan. Although he now makes Vancouver his home, he talks a lot about Saskatchewan and small-town life in his stand-up routine. He takes a bit of a ribbing about it occasionally, as well.
"A friend of mine in Toronto, another standup, says 'I've never met anybody who's as inordinately proud of where they're from.' And I say: "What do you mean inordinately? Appropriately!"
Butt says Tisdale is part of who he is. He had an "amazing family" life and an "amazing core of friends". He truly believes it was a great place to grow up.
"I'm not sure why I feel it more than some people do, but I feel very fortunate that I grew up in the situation I grew up in.''
Although a number of the actors on Corner Gas are from Saskatchewan (Eric Peterson, Brent's cranky TV dad Oscar, is from Indian Head, and Janet Wright, who plays his TV mother Emma, is from Saskatoon), most hadn't spent much time in the province, according to Butt. While shooting the series, however, the actors came to appreciate what Butt calls Saskatchewan's "exotic beauty".
"We'd sit out in front of the gas station at Rouleau in between shots, just sitting in our lawn chairs, and they would just stare out at the open space. They'd be mesmerized by it. Loved it. Any time you wanted to find the actors, you'd find them in the lawn chairs just staring out at the horizon.''
|Vertical relief on the Dog River landscape.
Butt is quick to point out, however, that the show is not about Saskatchewan. The province is there in the background and viewers may well become more familiar with it as a result. But it's not the focus.
"I'm kinda trying to rail against the stereotype that this region is this way and that region is that way. This is a show that just happens to take place in Saskatchewan the same way Seinfeld just just happened to take place in Manhattan. But it wasn't about New York, it was about those people. It's the same kind of philosophy I had with Corner Gas.
"My idea was to show that people are more the same than they are different,'' says Butt. "When Lacey (the coffee shop proprietor played by Gabrielle Miller) moves from Toronto to Dog River, there's some cultural wrinkles. But for the most part, she fits in; she blends in."
So did Corner Gas. First in living rooms across Canada and then much further afield through syndication.
Check out our earlier story about Brent.
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