Brent Butt heads home to the standup stage
Everyone thinks of Brent Butt as a Prairie comic. Yes, he was born and raised in Tisdale, Saskatchewan, and centred his hit sitcom, Corner Gas, among the rolling wheat fields in the fictional town of Dog River. But the truth is, Butt has spent longer living in Vancouver—20 years—than he did in his home province. So let’s just claim Butt as our own, once and for all.
Arguably, he’s the most successful Vancouver comedian of all time—and even that’s not much of an argument. He was a top headlining standup for years before the huge hit that Corner Gas became. He followed that up with the popular, albeit less successful, Hiccups, set in his adopted hometown. And come March, Butt will be coming to a theatre near you. Imagine that famously giant melon on the big screen. Well, it’s happening when No Clue, a film-noir comedy directed by Carl Bessai, premieres in Vancouver on March 6, then opens across the rest of the country the next day.
In support of the movie, Butt is crisscrossing the Dominion with his Almost a Movie Star! standup tour, which hits the Vogue Theatre next Thursday (February 6). (Fun fact: Butt was the first live performer at the Vogue in 1993 when it reopened as a live venue after years as a movie house; he opened for Kids in the Hall.) Despite his successes on TV, the stage is where Butt feels most at home.
“It felt like it [standup] came very naturally to me,” he tells the Straight over coffee in Kits. “I was able to get laughs early on. It was my whole life, it really was. From the time I decided to do standup when I was 12, I became fascinated with it.”
Twelve? Butt claims that's when he told his mother he'd decided to become a standup comedian. It wasn’t just a passing thought or idle dream, like being an astronaut or cowboy. “I started thinking about what my material would be. Even when I was out with buddies, I would be in my head formulating bits. If I said something funny that got a laugh, I would replay it in my head and be like, ‘How could I get to that joke sooner? That was a long setup.’ I was workshopping in my head.”
He had odd jobs, even went to college for a year. But at the age of 18, he thought, “This is all just shit that I have to do because I can’t just lay down and wait for a comedy club to open up,” he remembers. “I have to do other things, but this is all just killing time till I can start doing standup.”
All that thought he put into his act translates into a very unaffected and relaxed on-stage style, giving the impression this is all just easy-breezy conversation—granted, with killer punchlines and tags.
“I’ve had this little mantra,” Butt says. “The enemy of comedy is conspicuous effort. You shouldn’t see any effort. You know, a lot of things have to be done right, but that effort shouldn’t be conspicuous. I try to make it seem as effortless and off-the-cuff and un-thought-out as possible.”
Butt’s reputation for clean, family-friendly comedy is largely deserved, but even though his live show is listed as all-ages, he doesn’t recommend you take your child to see him perform.
“There’s a whole lot of reasons to not bring your seven-year-old to a show without filth,” he says. “Is your seven-year-old going to like politics or science or paying taxes? Is this going to entertain? I’m not Gwar but I’m not the Doodlebops. I’ve had people come up to me upset because I said the word hell and damn in my act. I got accused of blaspheming one time. What year is this that you expect to not hear somebody blaspheme?”
Butt’s hidden work ethic infuses his on-screen characters, too. His latest, Leo in No Clue, is a specialty advertising salesman who gets in over his head when he tries to help a beautiful dame (played by American Amy Smart) who mistakes him for a private investigator. The film also stars David Koechner of SNL, The Office, and Anchorman.
Butt, who also penned the movie, likes to write with a question in mind. This time it was, “If you were thrown in the middle of the ocean, how far could you swim?” In other words, he says: “You don’t know what your abilities are until you get put into a situation where you have to find out. And that’s what happens with Leo. He’s had a very safe, content, quiet, low-middle-class life. And within a matter of a small amount of time, he’s just in it. So how would a real-life person who wasn’t Jason Bourne react? And what we learn is he’s maybe better at this than he would have given himself credit for.”
Bonus: Vancouver plays Vancouver. “We don’t hammer it home or anything, but you see the Vancouver skyline, you recognize it, you see the Lions Gate Bridge,” he says. “If you’re working in a visual medium, it doesn’t get any better than Vancouver. It’s got everything you want.” And in No Clue, it being a homage to film noir, you get both beauty and grit—the back alleys and seediness not often depicted here.
It’s a far cry from the flatlands he’s most associated with. But Butt’s a big-city boy now. “There are people in Saskatchewan who want me to just do everything all the time in Saskatchewan,” he says. “Corner Gas was written to take place there. I don’t have a desire to make every story in the same locale. Hiccups and No Clue were Vancouver-based because this is where my home is.”
That settles it. He’s ours. Now if we can just get him to support the Lions over his beloved Roughriders.