By David DeRocco
There’s probably dozens of surreal moments that occur over a lifetime when you’re a kid from small-town Saskatchewan who winds up becoming an international comedy, television and movie star. For Tisdale-born Brent Butt, one of the strangest such moments occurred May 19th, 2005 when he found himself hosting Saskatchewan’s Command Performance Gala for supreme royals Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip.
“I was on stage, playing my guitar, singing ‘Nothing Rhymes with Saskatchewan’ to the Queen,” recalls Butt, past winner of four Canadian Comedy Awards for Best Male Stand Up. “She looked at me, I looked at her while I was singing, and I think we both had the same thought – why am I here? That was a real surreal moment. She’s not a real belly laugher.”
Adding “jester to the Queen” to Butt’s resume seems apropos when you consider the long list of titles he’s accumulated as Canada’s reigning King of Comedy. Those titles include writer, director, screenplay developer, producer, actor and star of the #1 most successful Canadian television comedy of all-time, the incomparable “Corner Gas.” Ask Butt what he does for a living, however, and he quickly chooses the one role that has defined his career since first stepping on stage as an amateur comic in Saskatoon in 1988.
“I would say I’m a comedian,” says the affable Butt, who worked as a drywaller and comic book publisher before pursing his stand-up dream and scoring international acclaim with Corner Gas. “Everything I do spokes out of that. That’s what I am.”
That self-realization is the driving force that has Butt back on the road doing stand-up after riding a giant wave of television success, first with his comedy specials, then with Corner Gas and its follow-up, the short-lived but beloved sitcom, Hiccups. Is there any reservation about leaving the perceived comfort and stability of a television series for the grind of the road?
“Well, first of all I’m amused with the notion that doing stand-up is harder than putting 19 episode of a television series together over a month,” observes Butt, who reunited the cast of Corner Gas for a feature film last December after ending the six-year run of the TV series in 2009.
“Television is a thousand times more work. Stand up is a much easier way to spend your day. While producing the series I’d get up at 5:30 and go to bed at midnight. There was always something to do. With stand up you get in the car or a plane, entertain folks for an hour, and go home. It’s much less work. But the reason I do it is I love it. It’s the one thing I could never walk away from.”
Butt’s love of stand-up comedy began at age 12 when he first saw comedian Kelly Monteith performing on television. “When he was finished, I went into the kitchen to tell my mom I wanted to be a stand-up comedian; I knew immediately.” His meteoric rise through the comedy club ranks established Butt as a headline performer, eventually earning him hosting duties on many of his own television comedy specials during a period he calls a “comedy boom.”
“I started out during a comedy boom in the late ‘80s,” he recalls. “There were lots of gigs, you could go make a few bucks here or there, eke out a meager existence. A lot of true innovators arrived, guys like Eric Tunney (host of Ed The Sock), Derek Edwards and Irwin Barker.” With every boom, however, there comes a bust, and Butt says that was ultimately a good thing for Canadian comedy. “The boom attracted a lot of comics kind of doing hackneyed pedestrian material to the market. A lot of them made money, got a lot of laughs, but it was regurgitated material – airplane food, how men and women were different, that kind of thing. As a comic, you watch and say ‘you’re bringing nothing new to the table.’ When the bubble burst it was good for the art form. A lot of guys doing it for the wrong reason went away.”
The key to comedy longevity is relevancy, and Brent says it takes a personal commitment to maintain your comedic edge.
“The challenge is not to get complacent. If you have an act that works, it’s easy not to write anymore. I have my phone, I write memos. If I get ideas for bits, I put them down. It’s hard to find the time to work on them when writing scripts and running a production company. Used to be I’d get up at noon, kick around with other comedians and work on my act. I don’t have that time to dedicate to stand up any more. But you have to do the work, and when you do it’s gratifying.”
“Doing the work” hasn’t been an issue for Butt, who has spent the last decade as one of the busiest people in Canadian show business. That didn’t stop him from bringing Corner Gas: The Movie to the big screen, although he readily admits it was an arduous journey to finally get it finished.
“It took two and a half years to get the script written,” admits Butt. “My partner and I had to get a lot to line up. The production schedule was lighter (than the TV show) because this was a one-off. No editing for months, just one script. But I always felt this is how we should have ended it, to revisit it with a feature film. Corner Gas is too special to me. I wanted it to live on as good as it was.”
With Brent Leroy, Butt has created one of Canadian television’s most iconic characters. Re-imagining what his life may have been like had he remained in a small Saskatchewan town rather than pursing a stand-up comedy career, Butt’s Corner Gas managed to tap into the psyche of average Canadian townsfolk better than any previous home-grown sitcom. Given his instant identification with Leroy, does he feel trapped by the very character that made him a star? “It’s been wholly gratifying, a giant boon and a blessing,” he says sincerely. “If you’re a performer, you have to perform for somebody or what’s the point. Corner Gas afforded me a much bigger audience as opposed to playing comedy clubs and theatres.”
The only quasi-downside to the show according to Butt is that fans of the television show don’t always come prepared for the content he delivers on stage during his stand-up act, which brings him to the Falls April 8th and Toronto April 9th where he’s host of the Goose Gala fundraiser in support of the Canadian Wildlife Federation.
“I’ve always worked as a clean comedian. I never said I was, but before people started coming to see me specifically because they know me from television, I always had the freedom to do something filthy and funny. Now people are bringing 11-year-old kids to the show, I can’t do the “erectile dysfunction” routines. I’ve kind of become the family entertainment guy.”