Here's a harsh reality: 95 percent of the people for whom the name Brent Butt means anything live in the country that's situated directly north of these great United States of America (you know, the one that's only spoken of in hushed tones). Butt is the star and creator of Canada's number one sitcom, "Corner Gas," which is now entering its fifth season, but, to date, you'd be hard pressed to find an American who's ever heard of the show, let alone seen it. Fortunately, however, WGN, Chicago's so-called SuperStation, is trying to change that by serving as the American home for "Corner Gas." The series makes its U.S. debut on Sept. 17, and we spoke to Butt about his experiences in stand-up comedy, how bizarre it is to be talking up four-year-old episodes, and what he thinks of our fine nation. (Plus, he also offers up his favorite joke about Canada!)
Bullz-Eye: It's a pleasure to speak with you. I was actually out at the TCA function in L.A. (where WGN promoted "Corner Gas" to members of the Television Critics Association), but I don't think I actually got to talk to you directly.
Brent Butt: Yeah, that was fun.
BE: Do you get out to L.A. very often, or ever?
BB: Not very often. I mean, maybe once a year or so. I was down there for awhile; I was down there for about six months once, back in the early 90s, but I wasn't able to get the paperwork to stay and work down there. I was going to pursue show business down there, because I hear it's all the rage. But, anyway, I had to come back to Canada until I got my paperwork, and then I just ended up getting really busy here and stuck around.
BE: Well, how weird is it to be promoting the first season of "Corner Gas" all over again, three and a half years later?
BB: Yeah, it is a little surreal, but it's fun. I mean, this is an exciting time for all of us, and we didn't go into this with a notion of making a U.S. sale, so it's a pretty exciting time. So it's worth it. It's weird, but it's worth it.
BE: Did you ever consider the possibility that it could happen, or did you just figure that someone would try to Americanize it rather than bring the original over?
BB: We never really gave it a lot of thought. From the get-go, we never really thought the show was going to be the kind of hit that it was. When the network, when CTV picked it up for 13 episodes, I thought, "Well, this would be a great way to spend the summer: have a job for 13 weeks, and then I'll go back on the road as a greasy night club comic." We don't have a long history of successful sitcoms up in Canada, so I thought, "Well, we'll just do one that we really like and hope for the best." Then the next thing you know, it just took off like crazy.
BE: You had a pretty solid career in stand up for some time prior to "Corner Gas."
BB: Yeah, I was just on the road for about 15 years.
BE: How did you get into comedy originally?
BB: Pretty standard route. There was a club that had an amateur night and you could go try it. It was something that I always wanted to pursue. I did it in high school a couple of times, like a variety night, a drama night, that kind of thing. Then when this club opened up and had an amateur night I decided to try it there. I think I was 20 or 21. It went pretty well, and I got offered weekend spots right away, and then got offered road work right away. I was otherwise unemployed at the time, so I didn't have to make the big decision, "Do I leave my law firm to pursue show business?" It was, like, "Eh, I got nothing going on, anyway."
BE: Do you have a favorite road story?
BB: (laughs) Well, I was actually recounting one to Eric Peterson, who plays my father on the show, because he is kind of fascinated by the world of stand up, and he often asks me about it and stuff. I was telling him there was this one place that was called Port Alberni. Generally speaking, comedy doesn't do well in places that start with Fork, Port or Prince. So we're in this place called Port Alberni, and I had been there three or four times, and I've noticed that every time it's just a wall of ambivalence. It's not hate ridden, they don't hate you or anything; it's just nobody listens. And the manager is happy to pay you at the end of the night, they're, like, "Hey you did a great job," pay you out of the till and then you leave, right? So after the third or fourth time I was there, I was being paid, and I said to the manager, "You know, I can't help but notice: nobody ever listens. It's obvious they're not here for the comedy. I wonder why you have comedy nights at this pub." She said, " Oh, well, with our liquor license, you need to have live entertainment, and you guys are the cheapest." So it was duly noted. I spread the word, and the comedians all used that as a rehearsal space. They would do the same jokes four or five times in the same set, and nobody would notice.
BE: Now, some stand ups in the states seem to be handed sitcom gigs the second they build up a following. Were you tempted to skip Canada and head for Hollywood? I mean, you said you were there for about six months. Is that why you went?
BB: No. I mean, I never really fancied myself an actor. It was not something I ever pursued. I never took acting class or anything. It was the rare occasion when my agent phoned and said, "Here's a part you might want to audition for." So, I was full into doing stand up and just wanted to go down and make myself known as a stand up. My dream has always just been to do stand up on Letterman. Anything else is gravy after that. But I did write this treatment for a sitcom, but, in typical "me" fashion, didn't do anything with it. But when I was asked, when the network asked, "Do you have any ideas for TV shows," I happened to have this one that I wrote. It was being prepared, but not pursuing anything.
BE: I know you were an episode of "The X-Files," and you were in a Robert Altman. Did you enjoy those experiences?
BB: Yeah. You know, I fully expected to be jaded and dislike show business 20 years into it, but I just don't. I get a total kick out of it. It's a blast. I feel like George Burns. They say he got up and read Variety every day, he loved show business. That's what I feel like. I thought I would be sick of it by now. I mean, there are parts of it that are weird, but I always get a kick out of it.
BE: How is it working with your wife every day?
BB: Well, we don't get to work every day. Maybe three days a week. So it's nice, you know. It's fun when we're doing it, and we also enjoy when one of us is doing it and the other one's at home and then we get to hook up. It's nice; it's a good balance, actually. It beats being away from each other for months on end. But you know, she wasn't my wife going in to this. I didn't know her from Adam, so it was like an on-set thing. By the end of season one, it was, like, "Hey, aren't you groovy."
BE: Did you ever have any concerns that if things didn't pan out, it would really ruin the show?
BB: Yeah, all kinds of concerns. I tried to talk myself out of it many times.
BE: Which would you say was more intimidating-performing before Queen Elizabeth or dueting with Leslie Nielsen?
BB: Well, I can tell which is harder: working with Nielsen, because he used to change the script on you. He will just decide in the middle of things that he's doing a different character. And he'll leap ahead. He'll, like, not do two or three lines and just leap ahead to the next. So it was, like, "OK, I wonder what he's going to say now? I better be ready."
BE: Does he still carry the whoopee cushion with him everywhere he goes?
BB: Yeah, he's nuts with that thing. There's no stopping him.
BE: As far as "Corner Gas" goes, I know there's a "Littlest Hobo"-themed episode, but are there a lot of episodes that require a major knowledge of Canada to get?
BB: No, not at all. I think of it as value-added. There are some jokes that you might enjoy on a different level if you get the Canadian reference, and if you don't get the Canadian reference ,you either won't realize that you missed something or it will be one of those things where you just let it slide. It's the same as when you watch a British show. There will always be that one reference that you don't get, right? "Molly Wiggin's hat" or something, and the crowd will burst into laughter and you go, "Oh, well, I don't get that one...but 99.9 percent of it is good!" Going into it, my goal was...Canadian TV has a tendency to be overly Canadian. I guess it's because we're next door to this big, giant show biz machine. You guys have done it so well for so long, and we're like, "Hey, look at us!" And so we do, like, a big Canadian show all the time, and, generally speaking, the Canadian public doesn't respond that well to it. What they respond well to is shows that just kind of happen to be Canadian. They don't make a big deal out of it. That's what I wanted to do with "Corner Gas." For the most part it could be taking place in Berlin or Madrid. We had a guy from Sweden say it was exactly like his village in Sweden.
BE: Well my wife's from Iowa, and we've only seen the first four episodes that are on the DVD that was sent out, but she immediately fell in love with it because it's very much like her town. They were the county seat and they had a population of 2,000. So it definitely gets that feel for her.
BB: My home town was 3,000, and I dated a girl from a town with 250 people, and they always called me city slicker.
BE: A friend of mine actually lives in Regina, and his theory is that the reason "Corner Gas" is popular in the East is "because it's a way of laughing at and confirming prejudices towards the West." What do you think about that?
BB: I think your friend is far too paranoid. I have lived on the west coast, I have lived in Toronto, I spent lots of times in the Maritimes, and I grew up in central Canada here in the prairies. So I've spent lots of time around, and there is no...like, everybody hates Toronto and they love the west. They love the prairies. They think it's great. They're envious of the wide open spaces. What I think is it's just quality jokes. If you look at your friend's theory, it really doesn't hold water because most of the time when somebody comes into the town from out of town, it's them that is made to look foolish. You know, the locals are scoring off the out-of-towner, more often than not. My theory going into this is people are more the same than they are different. We make too much of the differences when we are 99.9 percent the same. My experience as a stand up from a small Saskatchewan town when I moved to Toronto, I was accepted quite readily and people liked my jokes so I kind of just reversed that when Lacey moves from Toronto to small town Saskatchewan, she's accepted pretty well. Now, there are wrinkles and idiosyncrasies, and that's where the comedy lies, but for the most part, she is accepted and welcomed.
BE: Yeah, I think his vision in his mind he saw it as being perceived as the "Beverly Hillbillies" or the Saskatchewan equivalent.
BB: Oh really. Has he ever seen the show?
BB: Maybe it was our moonshine episode.
BE: It looks like that, four seasons in (based on IMDB.com, anyway), the primary cast hasn't changed at all. That's a pretty impressive accomplishment.
BB: Yeah. Well, everybody is back for this year, for season five. I think people enjoy the time there, they seem to really like the scripts and...it's a little tough everybody is away from home for so long, so that's a little tough, but other than that, everybody seems to really like what it is we do out here, so I'm grateful for that.
BE: Based on the first couple of episodes, it looks like the rapport must have been there from the get-go, pretty much.
BB: Yeah, I mean, none of us really knew each other, except the two who play my parents, Janet and Eric. They had known each other from the theater world. But other than that, we all just kind of met during the casting process. Like, in season one, we didn't know that this was going to be a popular show that would go four seasons, so we could've whooped it up every night. It was a party every night. We thought, "Well, we're all going to be fired in 13 weeks, anyway." So, yeah, there was a good bonding.
BE: Now that you're this many seasons in, do you have a vision for how long the show can go on? Or do you have in mind a stopping point already?
BB: Not really, no. The deal with the network is it goes season by season. You know, the numbers are still high. There is a quote that I read one time that I always think of in situations like this that said, "If you want to make God laugh, make a plan." And that's kind of what I go by. I try not to think too far ahead. Any time in my life when I have tried to think really far ahead, it never works out.
BE: Well, the question I was curious about, since very few Americans can resist a joke at the expense of Canada and yet jokes about the States...well, we don't allow those. What are your thoughts on the fact that America so often thinks that Canada is a joke? Or, at least, that's how it's perceived in the media?
BB: What are you going to do? You roll with it, right? What are we going to do, go to war? I don't like our chances. I mean, we kicked your ass in 1812 but I'm not really looking for a rematch. Things are different now. We're a fairly quiet bunch. We send our spies down there to slowly take over show business: our Mike Myerses and Jim Carreys, our Celine Dions and Shania Twains.
BE: Don't forget Shatner.
BB: Yeah, how could you forget Shatner? I am more of the notion that...I'm flattered that you guys make fun of us because it beats not being talked about at all, which is more often the case I think. There is an American comedian, Kathleen Madigan, she says, "I went up to Canada for the weekend and, you know, Canada is like America's attic: you never go up there but when you do, it's, 'Hey, look at all this cool stuff up here!'"
BE: Well, I'll be using that as a pull quote.
BB: I've only ever heard one Canadian joke.
BE: Well, now you have to tell it.
BB: I quite enjoyed it, actually. The joke is, how do you get 200 Canadians out of the swimming pool?
BB: You say, "Could you guys get out of the pool, please?" (laughs) I enjoy that joke. It sums us up pretty well. If you're going to paint with a broad brush, that's us.
BE: Well, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. I'm looking forward to the show. I'm already half-tempted to just go to Amazon Canada and order the DVDs, but I'm going to restrain myself and just watch it as it unfolds on WGN.
BB: And then after you watch, then buy the DVDs. Get that revenue stream trickling.
BE: Exactly. Do it in the right order. Well, it was a pleasure talking you.
BB: It was a pleasure talking to you too.
BE: Fingers crossed everything takes off in the States for you.
BB: Well, thank you very much.