The Comedy Couch

 BRENT BUTT - January 10, 2008

Brent Butt

"I miss the intimacy and the camaraderie of just
hanging around a bunch of stand-ups. Because it's very much
a little community. It's a community comprised of lone wolves,
but it's a community." - Brent Butt


Guy MacPherson: Hey Brent. Thanks for calling, and on time, too.
Brent Butt: It's not altruistic, really. I do it to avoid anxiety. I get anxious if I'm
late for things. I get anxiety.

GM: And you probably don't like it when people are late for you.
BB: No, actually. It's weird. Most of my friends are late all the time.

GM: Because they're comics.
BB: But I have another friend who's not a comic, who lives in Vancouver, and if
we agreed to have coffee at 10:30, in his mind what that would mean is start
putting on his shoes at 10:30 at his home. It's like, don't begin getting ready
until 10:30. At 10:29 we're not late.

GM: You have to just cheat and say you want to meet at 10:00.
BB: Yeah, that's what I do. I say 10:30 then I show up at 11:00 and then he
rolls in.

GM: So how are you doing?
BB: Doing all right.

GM: Is it tough in your neighbourhood now that you're so recognized? Are
people hassling you?

BB: No, not really. Except for Halloween when they come to the door they
take pictures of Nancy and I. So now I've taken to wearing a mask to thwart
the effort. Because they pretend they're taking a picture of the kid but they
take a picture of you (laughs).

GM: Are you sure you're not just paranoid? Because I took my kid out on
Halloween and I was taking pictures.

BB: No. I don't think so. Because often the kids are behind the parents.

GM: You could wear a Brent Butt mask.
BB: Yeah, that would be popular.

GM: So this show of yours hasn't waned at all. How many years has it been
on now?

BB: This is the fifth that's airing. Season five is currently on the air.

GM: And there hasn't been a dip at all, really, has there?
BB: It was kind of a slow growth to season three and from season three it's
held to where it averages about 1.5, 1.6 [million viewers].

GM: So it was a slow growth. I thought it was a hit immediately from the first
episode.

BB: It was almost 1.2 the first episode. So a slow growth from there to where
it averages now 1.5. To me that's slow growth: 400,000 viewers over three
years.

GM: You're spoiled. It's heartening to know now that it can be a success in
other countries. I know it's in the States; is it anywhere else yet?

BB: Yeah, I think the States was the 27th or 28th country that's airing it.

GM: Holy crap!
BB: Yeah. It's like in Yemen. And Iran. (laughs) It's all over the place.

GM: You're an executive producer, right?
BB: Yeah, I'm one of three executive producers.

GM: Do you get information on how it's doing in places like Yemen and Iran
and wherever else it's playing?

BB: Not really. I get reports about what sales were made in what countries and
when, but ultimately I'm not really kept abreast on the ratings in each place. It's
not that detailed, the reports. If they stop buying it they you know the ratings
weren't good. And if they continue to buy, if they renew their license, then it
must be doing OK.

GM: I've read some good reviews in the States.
BB: Yeah, the response has been very favourable. I don't know what the
numbers are in the States but I know that our broadcaster, Superstation WGN,
said that they've never had a show that's had this kind of positive feedback from
the audience.

GM: The typical self-hating Canadian might say, "Oh, that show's too Canadian."
But they're just wrong because it's universal, as we're seeing now.

BB: Yeah, that's the success of the show, really. People want to take ownership
of it at different levels. Saskatchewanites think that it's really Saskatchewan.
Like, 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." (laughs) So I don't think it's that. And the next
level is the Canadians. "It's real Canadian humour." Mind you, one of my
favourite e-mails is from a guy in Sweden and he said it's exactly like the village
he grew up in Sweden: all the people are the same, the town is the same. There
is a universality to it. The characters are kind of archetypal. My goal was to do
a show that happened to take place in a small town in Saskatchewan.

GM: And you could have made it a generic town in Anywhereville.
BB: If you look at a lot of the shows, the show would play if it was a gas station
on the corner in a neighbourhood in Chicago. A lot of it would play. If you do a
show in Manhattan, you're going to have the odd Manhattan reference. If you
do a show that's in a small town in Saskatchewan, you're going to have the
odd small town Saskatchewan reference. But most of it plays.

GM: When we watch British shows, we don't get all the references but it doesn't
take away from the enjoyment.

BB: Let's roll with it. Pippy McGuigan's hat, everyone's laughing their head off.
I don't get that, but I'll get the next one. You don't turn it off. "Click, I'm done. I
didn't get that." (laughs)

GM: My favourite Canadian reference was when you were all debating the
greatest Canadian show and
Street Legal comes up, and your dad [Eric
Peterson
] pipes up, "
Street Legal sucks!" That's hilarious because we know
the back story, that he was on it. Somebody in the United States, or Yemen,
isn't going to know that but they can just appreciate it on its own.

BB: Yeah, the idea is that most of those jokes, there's value added if you know
the reference. And if you don't know the reference, it works separately. [We]
kind of try and make it so you don't know that you've missed something. That's
the idea. And then if you do get it, it's value added. And then sometimes we do
the odd reference where people just blatantly say who they are, like, "Hello, I'm
Pamela Wallen, Canadian Consul-General to New York." You just say it. There's
humour in that to me. (chuckles)

GM: Did you get Dog the Bounty Hunter?
BB: Yeah.

GM: Are you going to be getting more international, or American, cameos?
Have you exhausted all the Canadian ones?

BB: I don't know. We don't really write the scenes targeting guest stars. They
just kinda happen. Like, as you're writing the show you go, "It would be funny
if such-and-such could appear." And then you try and see if it could happen.
Sometimes it can, sometimes it can't. In the odd situation, something falls in
your lap like the prime minister's coming to town or Dog the Bounty Hunter. We
got word that he was coming to Regina to do a speech to some law enforcement people. He was like the guest speaker at some convention and was going to be
in Regina. So we thought, OK, if he's here, what could we do? And we came up
with this idea and wrote it and pitched it by his people. So for the most part, we
don't target it really ahead of time, like, "OK, we need ten cameos." They just
sort of happen organically. You're writing along and you think of a funny idea.

GM: It was so surreal seeing you throw out the first pitch at a Cubs game.
BB: Yeah, that was pretty surreal. (chuckles) You think it was surreal watching
it, imagine how surreal it was walking out there.

GM: And people seemed to know you.
BB: I think some did. It's funny because Chicago's the only place in the U.S.
where it doesn't air.

GM: Isn't the Superstation based in Chicago?
BB: No, WGN is based in Chicago. There's two entities. One is WGN and one
is Superstation WGN, which is cable. We have similar regulations in Canada
but they're a little looser. The FCC regulations says the same company can't
own two broadcasters in the same market. WGN was already so ensconced
in Chicago, they couldn't have a Superstation WGN because it's the same
company. So within Chicago, Superstation WGN can't broadcast.

GM: And yet they asked you to come out to the ball game. That must have
been a thrill.

BB: The thing is it was a nationally televised baseball game so it was a good
way to get my face out across the rest of the country. Yeah, it was very surreal.
I'd never been to Chicago before and the first time you go is to throw out a pitch
at Wrigley Field.

GM: Did it cross the plate?
BB: It did. A little high. I gave it a little extra juice. The last thing I wanted was
for it to hit the dirt. At the last second I really muscled it and it went high.

GM: Did you pull anything?
BB: I threw some junk. A little knuckler. No, it just went across the plate but a
little high.

GM: Are you doing any other promo stuff across the U.S.?
BB: Nothing on the agenda right now.

GM: Has there been talk of doing the talk shows? It would be perfect because
you have something to plug and you could do stand-up as well.

BB: Yeah, that is the talk, so we'll see if that comes together.

GM: That would be a thrill.
BB: Yeah, I'm all for it. One of my life goals was to be on Letterman. So I'm hoping
to put that on the Things I've Done list.

                                                                                         
Corner Gas

"There's no value in my [stand-up] show outside of it being
comedically entertaining. 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 got nothing. So I try to bring lots of
comedic distraction."


GM: Are you able to develop any new stand-up material with everything on your
plate?

BB: It's tougher than it was because I don't have the ongoing constant outlets.
But I do stand-up shows and you try and sneak new material in to test it out,
you know? Like, I'll do a theatre show somewhere and do an hour, and
somewhere in the middle of that hour I'll test out some new stuff. But it's tough.
It's trickier when you're not on stage five nights of the week. If you're not doing
five sets a week it's tricky to develop that new stuff.

GM: Do you miss the Urban Well and having that regular outlet?
BB: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I do. I do miss it. I miss the intimacy and the
camaraderie of just hanging around a bunch of stand-ups. Because it's very
much a little community. It's a community comprised of lone wolves, but it's a
community. In a way, nobody really understands what you're talking about
except another stand-up. It's like that with anything, I think. An accountant has
a shorthand with another accountant and you don't gotta explain to somebody
what the G-11 form is. You can just say the "G" and somebody knows. It's like
that with stand-ups, too.

GM: We miss seeing you around town all the time. But it's amazing that lots
of people, who discovered you through
Corner Gas, didn't know that you're a
stand-up. Or maybe they've heard, but they don't realize how good you are at it.
I was thinking how when an unfamiliar stand-up walks on stage, there are so
many factors. The audience has to figure out if they like this person and can
relate to his point of view before they'll be ready to laugh at this comic. So
these new audiences that are discovering you as a stand-up already know you
so you've already cleared that hurdle. They don't have to sit and wait and go,
"Who is this guy?"

BB: I don't know all those kinds of dynamics. All those things that you mention
I think exist, all those dynamics. There are people who've never seen me
before outside of Corner Gas; there are people who watch Corner Gas because
they were a fan of my stand-up. There's all levels of people. But it comes down
to what Seinfeld said. If you're well known because of a TV show, they'll give
you like ten minutes. They'll give you the benefit of the doubt for about ten
minutes and after that you gotta bring it. After that, you suck like anybody else
if you're not funny. Your notoriety only gives you about ten minutes of leeway
and then it's, "OK, where's the funny, buddy? Yes, you're famous, now...". I
think they're ready to laugh but if you try and ride your notoriety and not bother
with doing a well-prepared stand-up show then they can turn on you. You still
have to bring it. The difference might be that maybe the audience would turn on
you after a minute if you weren't well known whereas your notoriety will buy you
another nine or ten minutes. And then you gotta have it.

GM: But you always bring it.
BB: I always try to bring it. I try not to coast.

GM: Are those who only know you from the show surprised at how good you
are?

BB: I have had that situation. Some people aren't really familiar with stand-up
in general. And then they come to a stand-up show. The thing with stand-up,
versus some other forms... Let's say you go see a funny play. There's maybe a
solid joke every five minutes maybe. And that's plenty. People are happy with
that. That's terrific. But in stand-up you get judged by laughs per minute. It's
not like how many minutes until you get a laugh; it's how laughs within that
minute do you get? That's what your goal as a comic is. You want to get at
least two, three, four laughs a minute. And I think people who aren't familiar
with stand-up kind of leave the show going, "Holy hell! That's so many jokes! I
laughed so hard my face hurt." Because they're not used to going to a stand-up
show. There's really nothing else going on. There's no value in my show outside
of it being comedically entertaining. (laughs) 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 got nothing.
So I try to bring lots of comedic distraction.

GM: Some comics who become known on TV have acts that are diametrically
opposed to their TV characters. They could have a filthy stage act and people
bring their kids based on what they see on TV. But your act is similar in style
to your character.

BB: The trick with that is I generally work clean but it's not so much a conscious
decision on my part. And I'm not prudish. Some of my favourite comics are
filthy. So you kinda get pigeon-holed. I work clean 99 percent of the time so
people go, "Oh, he always works clean." And if that one time I want to do
something that's a little off-colour or adult, the people are like, "Oh my God!
How dare you!" Well, I never said I was a clean act; you assumed it because I
often work clean. Sometimes down at the Well it could get quite blue. If that's
the way the flow was going naturally, you kinda follow it. It's just that nine times
out of ten I don't think that way. I'm not thinking about sex all the time. I'm
thinking about food so you'll see a lot of food jokes. But now and then I think
about sex.

GM: And you really think about the language, too, and the words you choose.
BB: Yeah, because that's fun to me. To me, the fun lies in playing with the
English language. Now, there are people who do that well with blue language.
And if I'm going to work blue, I still like to try and play with the language. I
always feel that if somebody is going to buy a ticket to see me talk on stage,
I better be trying to do something that not just any Joe Schmoe can do. I better
bring some twist to it. I better be thinking of something that they didn't think of
or why the hell would they pay for a ticket?

GM: Are you talking about subject matter? Like the difference between men
and women?

BB: Not subject matter. It's the twists of it. Like, people say you shouldn't do
McDonald's jokes. I'm more like don't do tired old jokes. If you can think of a
fresh new McDonald's joke, or a fresh new airplane travelling joke, then I feel
that's valid. You just gotta at least try and have some kind of desire to be
creating an original thought.

GM: I've come to realize there are no hack premises; only hack jokes or
comics.

BB: Yeah. It all comes down to the joke itself.

GM: I still talk to people who have no idea that you and about half the cast live
in Vancouver. They just assume Saskatchewan, I guess, or Toronto.

BB: Yeah, we get that all the time. Sometimes somebody'll see myself or one
of the cast members here and go, "What are you doing here?" And I'll go, "I
live here" and they'll go, "I didn't know that!" And I always say, "I bet there's lots
you don't know about me." Seeing me for a half-hour a week... "His favourite
food is tuna casserole."

GM: Did the fame game slap you in the face how quickly it came? Was there
an adjustment period?

BB: For the most part it was a slow growth. Before Corner Gas I'd been doing
stand-up for 15 years. And from playing tiny clubs with 11 people to where the
bulk of what I was doing was theatre shows or large corporate shows. And
within that time frame, I performed on every Canadian broadcaster and some
American broadcasters. So my recognition factor grew slowly. On my first
amateur night, my roommate and I drove across town and went into a 7-11
and somebody had been at the show and said, "Hey, you were hilarious." So
it grew from there to where I would get recognized once out of a hundred days,
then it grew to where I would get recognized once out of ten days, and then to
where I would get recognized once a day, to now where I'm getting recognized
several times a day. So it was a nice slow growth.

GM: You always dreamed of that fame, I would imagine, being in entertainment.
Is it everything you thought it would be? Is it a hassle?

BB: It's actually less hassle than I thought it would be. 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. The only people
that really kind of annoy me... There's a certain type of person who feels the
best way to start a conversation is to slap you on the back as hard as they can.
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. You go,
"No, it would be wrong to punch him."

GM: I imagine that you're polite to everyone, even that guy, because then they'll
go, "That Brent Butt's an asshole!"

BB: You try to be. There was only one time that I can recall not being polite.
No, there's two times. One time I was on my cell phone talking at the airport
and a guy came over and grabbed my wrist and pulled the phone away from
my head and started talking to me. And I was on the phone with my mom. And
I said, "What the hell are you doing? I'm on the phone." And he said, "Well,
excuse me" like I was some kind of princess. (laughs) The only other time I
kinda lashed out at somebody was when I was flying from Regina to Vancouver.
I had to get back and see my chiropractor. Once a year I become crippled. My
back goes out. Usually it's when I'm here but the odd time it's happened when I
was in Saskatchewan filming. We had to alter shooting so I was sitting on stools
and stuff in the scenes because I couldn't really walk very well. In tremendous,
tremendous pain, right? So I'm hobbling through the airport and I'm on the phone
talking to my chiropractor in crazy pain and this woman is following me beside
me. And I go and try to kind of avoid her. I'm talking to a doctor and I'm in obvious
pain. I'm like Quasimodo, bent like a question mark, and one of my legs won't
bend. I'm dragging it. And I guess I had a sour look on my face and she pokes
me and goes, "Hey, smile." And I just said, "I don't have to smile. I'm in pain."
And then she just kinda turned and walked away. This was after, like, five
minutes of her following me around staring at me as I was trying to find
someplace where I wouldn't be seen. But in five years of doing a national TV
show, if I can count two incidents where somebody was rude...

GM: That's pretty good.
BB: Yeah. Usually it's just, "Hey, I love the show" or that kind of thing.

GM: Now that you're more famous and more articles are being written about
you, are you noticing more errors about you?

BB: Yeah, all the time. I'm always amazed. There are some people who feel
like they don't really need the truth. Like, "I'm pretty sure this it true. I think I
heard this somewhere." And then they just write that. There are journalists who
just don't research anything: "He's afraid of water." What?! They make stuff up.

GM: And it could be totally benign but it just isn't true.
BB: Usually they are [benign]. It's not a bad thing; it's just not true.

GM: And then it builds on itself because somebody else will read that article
as part of their research.

BB: That happens often.

GM: But nothing horrible that stands out?
BB: No, nothing horrible, I don't think. There was one thing, but I'm not even
going to get into it. There was one thing where I thought that could be hurtful.
That could show me in a bad light. If what was being said about me were true,
it would mean I was a jerk.

GM: And what do you do in that situation? Do you contact the writer?
BB: No, what can you do, right? What can you do about it? You've just got to
roll with it.

"Prince Phillip leaned into me and we had a very strange exchange.
He leaned in really close and quick and he said to me, 'From where
we were sitting we could barely tell if you people were alive or
dead. Are you alive?' And I said, 'Barely.' And he laughed. He said,
'Ha ha! Barely!' And then walked away. And I thought, 'What an
odd exchange that was.'"

GM: You performed for the queen?
BB: Yeah!

GM: Did you meet her?
BB: Yeah, we shared a cab back to the hotel. No, she came on stage afterwards.
It was for the Saskatchewan centennial, the 100th birthday of Saskatchewan...
I say that like you don't know what "centennial" means. That's a big word... So
they asked me to host the show. It was at the big arena, 13,000 people, and
the queen and Prince Phillip were going to be there.

GM: Do you get nervous for something like that?
BB: Not really. I've never been nervous for that kind of thing.

GM: But you'd never played for the queen before.
BB: I was nervous about throwing the first pitch out because I'm not used to
throwing, even though I had practiced. I had a mound built and everything at
Corner Gas. But still, that's not my forte. This is something I've been doing for
20 years. And really, it's not the court jester days where if she doesn't find you
funny she'd chop your head off. Then I'd be nervous. Really, I have very little
effect on her life and she has very little effect on mine. So I just hope she likes
it.

GM: What was the exchange like?
BB: The exchange with her was just kind of pleasant and brief. She was going
down the line. But then Prince Phillip leaned into me and we had a very strange
exchange. He leaned in really close and quick and he said to me, "From where
we were sitting we could barely tell if you people were alive or dead. Are you
alive?" And I said, "Barely." And he laughed. He said, "Ha ha! Barely!" And
then walked away. And I thought, "What an odd exchange that was."

GM: And then he slapped you on the back.
BB: And then I punched him in the jaw.

GM: Little Mosque on the Prairie. What do you think of that? I guess you don't
want to say.

BB: I've only seen one episode of it. I watched the first episode of it.

GM: Everything always used to be set in the maritimes. Now you've changed
that.

BB: It's very typical television. I love the notion that Corner Gas was popular so
somebody said, "Well, you know what people want is shows about small-town
Saskatchewan." Nobody said, "You know what people want? A comedy that
people really spent a lot of time honing the jokes and really trying to make the
characters believable and it's shot on film and done well." It's like Mark Farrell
used to say. People would always try and come up with reasons that Corner
Gas
was successful. And he said, "It's not on anybody's radar that it's well
done."

GM: A great quote I read of yours was, "An accountant shouldn't tell me what's
funny."

BB: Yeah, we've had very few cooks on Corner Gas. That's the nice thing. There's
a very small circle of people who are giving notes on the show. It makes it move
forward quickly, everybody is aware of the vision, and at the end of the day there
are three executive producers each with a different role, and my role is to be in
charge of the funny.

GM: Did you have to train them to leave you alone? Was there an urge in the
beginning for everyone to be giving you notes?

BB: No, not really. It was all pretty cool. Everybody knew what their role was.
In season one when you're building a new show, everybody hashes around
ideas and contributes and people have concerns and sometimes you've got to
debate a bit. But at the end of the day I just kind of said if I don't get to make
the final decision on the comedy, there's no point in me being here because
that's all I got. Like, I don't know how vans we need in the morning, I don't know
if we should be shooting on 16 millimetre film or hi-def video, I don't know how
many lights we need, what software should be used in the accounting program.
I don't know any of these things. There's only one reason to even be talking to
me about this. I have no knowledge of making film. All I know is this is probably
going to be funnier than that. That's all I bring to the table. So if I don't get to
do that, why not just talk to somebody who'll work cheaper (laughs).

GM: And all your writers are stand-ups, aren't they?
BB: No. Mark Farrell and I and Andrew Carr are stand-ups. Kevin White did
stand-up but doesn't really consider himself a stand-up. I don't think he's done
a stand-up show in five or six years.

GM: How many more writers are there?
BB: Dylan Wortz, who is kind of a cool story. He was the story department
coordinator. He's a local guy from Regina and a young guy. His job was to kind
of compile the notes and organize when the scripts are being printed then look
after the logistics of the story department. But by being around the guys all the
time, to compile their notes, he started being involved in helping break stories.
He started contributing ideas because he's always there. And he's a funny guy
and a smart guy. And last year we invited him to co-write one of the scripts. So
now he's no longer story department coordinator. Somebody else is filling that
job. And he's now a writer on the show.

GM: That's a success story.
BB: Yeah.

GM: You say you're not an actor, that you basically play yourself. Have you
grown as an actor in the five seasons?

BB: I think I'm better at it than I was. It's like anything. I'm better at typing than
I was. Anything you do a lot of you tend to get better. So for four months of the
year I'm acting twelve hours a day so I've gotten better. But I still don't really
refer to myself as an actor really. I act. But there's a big difference between me
and Meryl Streep, you know?

GM: What would that be?
BB: Body mass.

GM: But it still requires some talent even to play yourself, so it's not all stilted.
It's still acting.

BB: Yeah, but there's a part of stand-up comedy that's acting, too. That is, you
say something as if you haven't said it a thousand times before. I was doing
that for fifteen years before getting into acting, so that part of acting I can do
because that's what stand-up comedy is a good training ground for, to be able
to say something as though it isn't rehearsed. But beyond that, like if I had to
cradle a dying infant in my arms or something and be believable, I don't know
if I could do that. Maybe I'd surprise myself, but I wouldn't go out for that
audition.

GM: Do you think too many entertainers try the U.S. route when they could try
to make it here first? You did it the opposite way than most people.

BB: I did that. I went from Toronto to L.A. I lived in Toronto for five years and
moved from Toronto to L.A. for about six months. And the reason I came back
to Canada was that I wasn't able, at the time, to get the proper paperwork to
stay and work legally in the States. So I had to come back to Canada. And it
just so happened that I had about a month's worth of work lined up around
Vancouver and the rest of B.C. So I said, OK, I'll hang out here for a couple
of months, and just fell in love with Vancouver. And then got busy. I was
booked doing stand-up a lot and was getting opportunities to work on TV and
stuff like that. So I was just busy and employed.

GM: It must have been summer when you got here not raining and dark.
BB: It was. It was a lovely summer. This place is like nowhere else I've ever
been. And I've been here 15 years now, can you believe that? Next month it'll
be 15 years that I've been here.

GM: Longer than anywhere else? No, Saskatchewan obviously.
BB: Yeah, but getting close. Saskatchewan was about 19 years.

GM: Will the show at the River Rock include cast members?
BB: No, this is just stand-up. But what I do like to do when I do shows now is,
people have a lot of questions about Corner Gas, so at the end of the show I
turn the lights up and do a little Q & A. It gives people a chance to tell me what
they think of the show or ask questions about the show and I answer them if I
can.


 
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