The typical career arc of successful Canadian entertainers is to acquire some chops on anonymous projects in this country before heading south for work, recognition, and greenbacks, providing the rest of us with a chance to proudly shout “They’re Canadian!” whenever their mugs hit the screen.
Brent Butt is an anomaly. The comic—who’s set to bring his standup act to the River Rock Show Theatre on Friday (January 25)—is a household name here without ever having left the house. His hit Canadian TV series, Corner Gas, is now seen in more than 25 countries, including the great U.S. of A., where it’s broadcast nationwide by the Chicago-based Superstation WGN.
Not that he didn’t try the American route. More than a decade ago, the Saskatchewan native spent six months in Los Angeles, on the heels of a five-year stint in Toronto. But after he was unable to get the proper paperwork, he found himself in Vancouver, gigging here and around B.C. He fell in love, and his affair with the 604 hasn’t waned.
“This place is like nowhere else I’ve ever been,” he says from his home in Kitsilano. “I’ve been here 15 years now—can you believe that?”
It’s a fact that might surprise many of his television fans, who know him as Brent Leroy, proprietor of a filling station in rural Saskatchewan. Considering he spent only the first 19 years of his life in his home province, we can safely claim the standup-comedy veteran as one of our own.
But everyone wants to claim a bit of Brent. Corner Gas is just as popular outside of Roughrider country as it is inside. And it’s quickly gaining fans outside of Canada as well.
“People want to take ownership of it at different levels,” he says. “Saskatchewanites think that it’s really Saskatchewan. Somebody will say to me, ”˜I think the show’s really funny. Mind you, I’m from Saskatchewan, so I get it.’ And I say, ”˜Well, you know, it’s doing really well in Toronto and”¦ Yemen.’ ” (Corner Gas also runs in Iran, according to Butt.)
Other Canadians think the show’s success is due to its core Canadian-ness. Yet the comic notes that one of his favourite fan e-mails came from “a guy in Sweden”, who “said it’s exactly like the village he grew up in in Sweden: all the people are the same, the town is the same. There’s a universality to it. The characters are kind of archetypal.”
Butt’s profile has grown to the point that he has performed standup for the Queen of England (at Saskatchewan’s centennial celebrations in 2005) and thrown out the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game last season, as part of a Superstation WGN promotion. Nerves were a factor only in the latter.
“You think it was surreal watching it, imagine how surreal it was walking out there,” he says. “I’d never been to Chicago before, and the first time you go is to throw out a pitch at Wrigley Field.”
This is what it’s like now for the man who, as recently as 2003, was hosting the comedy show at the old Urban Well in Kits every Tuesday night. Now a day doesn’t pass when he doesn’t get stopped on the street by an admirer.
“It’s actually less hassle than I thought it would be,” he says of the fame game. “But I’m not George Clooney, right? And generally speaking, 99 out of 100 people are terrific. They have proper social skills and know how to talk to other people.” His only beef is with those who feel the best way to start a conversation is by assault. “That’s the only one I don’t get. Why is that cool? They kind of scream ”˜Hey!’ and slap you on the back. That’s the way the conversation starts. And for the next five minutes I’m just trying to talk myself out of breaking their jaw.”
But if most of his fans know him only through his TV character, that’s a shame. Butt is one of the funniest standup comics on the planet—you can hear his act over and over again and it never gets stale. He’s one of the few comedians who are revered by both peers and audiences alike. And his Vancouver fans, who grew accustomed to seeing him every week at small venues around town, are no doubt jonesing for some Butt (if you’ll pardon the expression). His schedule doesn’t permit him to perform as often as he’d like, so he relishes the chances that he does get.
“I miss the intimacy and the camaraderie of just hanging around a bunch of standups, because it’s very much a little community. It’s a community comprised of lone wolves, but it’s a community.”
Known for a gentle humour with an emphasis on precise language, Butt is able to destroy audiences of all ages and backgrounds. No harangues, no moral outrages—just a constantly bemused take on topics like lost pet birds (“What the hell do you even put on the poster? ”˜Has the gift of flight, answers to nothing’ ”), living in the West End (“When I first moved there, I was like, ”˜I hope I don’t get hit on.’ Two weeks go by, I’m like, ”˜Whew!’ Six years go by, I’m like, ”˜Hello?!’ ”), and the infamous 1999 incident in which supermodel Fabio was struck in the face by a goose while riding a roller coaster (“He’s had so many face-lifts, his skin is like the tensile strength of a windshield”).
“There’s no value in my show outside of it being comedically entertaining,” he says with a modest laugh. “There’s no social relevance—I’m not going to change your political views. I have no merit to my shows. I am comedic distraction for an hour. So if I don’t bring the comedic distraction, I’ve got nothing. So I try to bring lots of comedic distraction.”