To many he’s that laid-back guy behind the counter at everyone’s favourite gas station in the middle of nowhere – that being Corner Gas in Dog River, Sask.
Both are fictional places, of course, but to Brent Butt, they were his home for five years.
Actually, Dog River is based on the small communities surrounding Butt’s hometown of Tisdale, Sask.
“Tisdale was kind of the hub for little towns around us that had a population of 200 to 300. I spent a lot of time in those towns,” said Butt, on the phone from his Vancouver home before setting off on a five-day tour through B.C., which comes to Vernon Thursday.
Butt notes that his hometown has made the news as of late – one with a harrowing story of murder, the other about the town’s slogan, “The Land of Rape and Honey,” which Tisdale has been reconsidering. Neither make for good comedy, well maybe the sign does.
“All my life, we thought nothing of (the slogan). I have talked about it in my act before. All the jokes are pedestrian. They are not typically clever or smart… I think my hometown liked the attention that it brought them. In one article there’s people that feel passionate about it. Some didn’t want it to change, some thought it was big and stupid. When I’m asked, I just say it’s none of my business.”
It’s the kind of answer Butt’s alter ego, Brent Leroy on Corner Gas would give.
One of the biggest television comedy series to hit Canadian airwaves since The Beachcombers, Corner Gas went from word-of-mouth buzz in this country to being shown in 26 countries.
“It was Canadian, but we didn’t hang our hat on that. You didn’t have to be Canadian to get it,” said Butt.“It was a gratifying thing for me. We were able to overcome the argument that we can’t do sitcoms well in this country. It’s more that we can’t afford to make a lot of failures. In the States, you can make 20 shows and 19 are bombs, but if one is a hit, then you’re fine. Here, we can’t afford to fail a lot. I always felt it could be done if things lined up right. With Corner Gas, the stars lined up: The network supported it, the cast we put together was fantastic, the writing room was fantastic, the crew was amazing.”
Corner Gas is still an integral part of Butt’s career – he even brought the series back last year as a movie that had a five-day run in theatres across the country.
“We fell right back into it. Talking with other cast members, we thought it would be a big hurdle, but it felt like we were never gone,” said Butt, about reuniting with his castmates, including Fred Ewanuick, who plays his best friend Hank, and Nancy Robertson, who plays Butt’s partner in crime, Wanda, and is also his partner in real life.
“Everybody was working before Corner Gas. Fred and Nancy worked on a movie before together without even knowing it. I was the one without a lot of acting background. I was the least accomplished. I had a bit parts on The X-Files and other TV shows and movies, but mostly I was doing stand-up.”
Actually shot in the town of Rouleau, the set for the Corner Gas store and station as well as the Ruby Café made the news after the show wrapped up in 2009. The town’s mayor was reported as saying the site was becoming an eyesore. That all changed when the cast and crew returned there to shoot Corner Gas: The Movie last year.
“The tricky thing was that (the set) was never built to last. It was a temporary set made of plywood. It was basically built to last six months to a year. We didn’t realize this would be a hit show that would go on forever,” said Butt, adding the set was built on an empty field. “It was not planned for drainage or a permanent structure, so we were playing catch up when it came to shooting the film, as we were not there everyday. Our art director made it look so real. People were pulling up for gas when we were filming.”
Before he ever started waxing poetic with the townspeople of Dog River, Butt was making himself known to the Canadian public through his stand-up act. He remembers his first time on stage was in February, 1988.
Butt’s career here is comparable to that of American comic Jerry Seinfeld, in that he had a successful show, but didn’t rest of his laurels after it ended. He has always been first and foremost a comic. It’s where he still feels most at home.
“All throughout doing the TV show, I was never far from doing stand-up, even when the show was in production and I couldn’t perform, I would be writing material for my act. When production wrapped, I was on the road doing shows again. I am never too long off the road,” said Butt.
It’s the rapport with the audience that makes Butt return to the stage time and time again.
“On Seinfeld it was referred to as a monologue, but really it’s a dialogue. They’re responding to what I’m saying. I love everything about it,” he said.
That love developed at around the age of 12, the first time Butt saw a comic doing stand-up.
“I saw this guy on TV. I was hooked and told my mom I was going to be a comedian,” he said.
As one of seven kids, Butt didn’t get much of a reaction to his chosen career path at first, but eventually he did manage to wrangle his parents and siblings to catch his act.
“I did a show in Saskatoon, and my oldest brother came to see me. There’s a good differential of years between us, about 14 to 15 years, and I didn’t know him well growing up. In school, he was a hot rod guy. He was always mad and screaming at his car… By the time I got to school, he was working and had a job. He came to my show… I didn’t like my family to sit up front, but he did and he was cracking up,” said Butt.
In fact, Butt’s family used to be fodder for his act when he was starting out.
“Now I tend to write about being a middle-aged man.
“We actually spend a lot of time together as a family. We are big laughers and jokers, part of that was a way to get noticed. For me it was a real thrill if I could get my older brothers and sisters to laugh. It wasn’t easy. Now they seem to laugh at my jokes.”
That goes for the rest of the nation who flock to Butt’s live performances. The comic continues to produce and write new material, and says he hasn’t ruled out doing another show in the future.
“The notion of being done is terrifying,” he said. “It’s hard doing gigs you really don’t want to do, but getting up there and playing a bar where you think you’re going to be stabbed and then taking it on the stage where people are waiting for you has been gratifying… That hour of the day when I’m performing is the only time of the day when it makes sense for me. It makes me happy.”
Brent Butt takes the stage at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Thursday, May 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets were still available as of press time and cost $47.50 at the Ticket Seller box office, 549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.