Butt, Brent (Profile)IT'S 10 P.M. TUESDAY at the Urban Well. COMEDY night. The nearly packed Vancouver bar is buzzing. But when the lights at the back of the room go up, all eyes shift to a tiny stage - empty, except for a wooden stool in front of a purple curtain. The show's headliner appears from stage right, sets his rye and Coke on the stool, nods to the crowd and grabs the microphone from its stand. Brent Butt is home.
Before the success of CTV's Corner Gas turned Butt into Canada's hottest comic, that was his life: travelling the country, with every cramped club and corporate gig a new stage for his jokes. "Since there was never any heat from hockey scouts, I gave up my dream of playing in net for the Maple Leafs pretty early," says Butt. "Doing stand-up is what makes the most sense to me. I know what to do in front of a crowd. The rest of the day, I'm never sure where the hell I should be or what I should be doing."
That's why six years ago, Butt and fellow Vancouver comic Jamie Hutchinson started the Urban Well's comedy night. And though the bar is not ideal - female patrons have to cross the stage to get to the washroom - it has become an institution. "Robin Williams calls whenever he's in town and asks if he can do five minutes," says Butt, who moved to Vancouver's trendy Kitsilano area last year, in part to be closer to the club. "I love its informality. It's one of the magic places in my life."
Maybe that's because Butt seems to stand taller onstage than his five-foot, nine-inch frame. In fact, the instant he steps in front of the crowd, he comes alive - turning jokes on himself ("I don't do a lot of sex jokes, because they say to do what you know") and jabbing audience members like a playful, but very witty uncle. And unlike most other stand-ups, Butt rarely swears. "There are people who do incredibly filthy stuff in an original way," says Butt. "Chris Rock is very blue, but brilliant. And Richard Pryor was like that. I just don't like using it as a crutch." Based on the applause drowning out his final bit, Butt's fans at the Urban Well don't miss it.
Neither do the million-and-a-half viewers who tune in every week to watch him play gas station proprietor Brent LeRoy on Corner Gas. The most watched sitcom on Canadian TV, centered around the quirky residents of the fictional Prairie town of Dog River, has made life pretty great for the 38-year-old from Tisdale, Sask. (pop. 3,000). He met his fiancée, co-star Nancy Robertson, on-set; the series, which runs until March 21, has already been renewed for a third season; and he's hosting the Juno Awards in Winnipeg in April. His smart style of humour - more observational than slapstick - has struck a chord with a wide-ranging viewership. Toronto, surprisingly, is the show's largest viewing market, per capita. "People always talk about the importance of pushing the envelope with comedy but that's just not me," says Butt. "I'm not a very edgy dude." He's right, his appeal comes more from the fact that people like laughing at life's oddities.
Kathy Kehrig remembers the comic when he was just a funny teenager who hated Macbeth in her Grade 11 English class. "He wasn't exactly a scholar," laughs Kehrig, now 45, who taught at the Tisdale Unit Composite School when Butt attended in the early '80s. "He had nearly perfect attendance, but never did his homework and rarely handed in assignments." It was clear to the school's staff and student body that Butt was destined to be an entertainer. "He wrote his own stand-up for variety shows, played in a couple of bands (Main Street and Fast Exit) and wrote and performed in plays," says Kehrig. "He was a wit with words - but he only got 57 per cent in my class."
After graduation, Butt studied animation, albeit briefly ("not sure if it was a week, or 10 days"), at Toronto's Sheridan College. He then moved back in with his mom - his dad, who ran the boiler room at a local honey plant, died of a heart attack when Brent was 16 - and started working as a drywaller. Soon after, he and a friend decided to try comic book writing and started a publishing company called Windwolf Graphics. "I've always been fascinated by superheroes," says Butt, whose comic Existing Earth was nominated for a Golden Eagle Award - the Oscars for comics. "In the end, we only got two issues out before our $5,000 bank loan ran out." So in February 1988, he took his material, honed at the local Tisdale coffee shop, to amateur night at a Saskatoon comedy club. A very Canadian star was born.
Rick Mercer, who co-hosted CTV's tsunami relief special with Butt last month, still remembers seeing his small-town shtick for the first time about a decade ago. "Brent did a Garry Shandling-like monologue on Just for Laughs and killed me with a joke about opening a restaurant on the Prairies," says Mercer. "He was going to call it Things Boiled, and base the menu on his mother's cooking. It was very Newfoundland to me even though it was from Saskatchewan."
That's exactly why Butt thinks Corner Gas, filmed in Rouleau, Sask., attracts a national following. (And soon, he hopes, an international audience, despite its very Canadian cameos, which include The Tragically Hip and Lloyd Robertson). "Seinfeld was set in New York but wasn't really about New York," says Butt. "If you lived in New York, you might enjoy the show on a different level, but 98 per cent of the humour was universal. Corner Gas is just like that."
So far, there have been a few bites from U.S. distributors, but no deals. Interest may spike now that the first season has been released on DVD, ratings are climbing and the network has ordered season three. "To be honest, I'd be loath to give it up, and would probably have to be forced to or bought out with a giant whack of dough," says Butt. "We had one American company put in an offer without even seeing the show. They had just heard it was good and knew that we had beat Joey and Will & Grace in the ratings up here."
Centralized control - Butt is the show's star, head writer and one of three executive producers - is one of the keys to success. "In the American system, the sitcom star has been an executive producer on most of the big hits since the mid-'80s, but that doesn't happen a lot in Canada," says Butt. "I understand it's hard to turn the reins of a $9-million project over to some greasy nightclub comic. I just have a great track record of making people laugh. It's the only consistent thing I've been able to do. That's why I'm in charge of funny. An accountant shouldn't tell me what's funny."
With CTV, Butt has found a network that has kept its hands out of the creative process, but provided plenty of financial support and great marketing (notably, a free gas giveaway and a book project). "From the start, we didn't have any doubts about backing the show," says Susanne Boyce, CTV's president of programming. "Brent comes from that Bob Newhart tradition of being both smart and warm - people relate to that."
Co-star Eric Peterson, a stalwart in Canadian TV and theatre, says he loves the way Butt and the other writers (all stand-ups) tackle humour. "They don't worry about things like character psychology and just write good jokes," says Peterson, who plays Oscar LeRoy, Brent's crotchety father. "Do I trust them? Of course. These guys know how to make jokes work in biker bars."
THE DAY AFTER his gig at the Urban Well, Butt is sitting in a booth at Sophie's Cosmic Cafe, his favourite Vancouver breakfast spot. Between bites of eggs over easy and turkey sausage, he pulls a tattered black notebook from his jacket pocket and starts flipping through the pages. "When I get inspired or see something goofy I make a note in here," he says, pointing to a couple of scribbles that made it into his routine the previous night. "I rarely sit down and write stand-up. You can only be so funny at your kitchen table at two in the afternoon."
On one of the lined pages is an idea for a play. In high school, Butt wrote Bored Of Education, and says he'd love to produce a play - not that he's interested in being centre-stage. "I act, but I'm not an actor," he says. "Within the narrow parameter of Brent LeRoy, I'm not required to have a broad range of emotion. I get to basically be me. Anything more than that and I think it's smart to get a pro."
Butt acknowledges his acting limits, but as often as he can, he pulls out his guitar for a one-man jam session. "I play straight-ahead rock 'n' roll," says the fan of '80s Can-rockers Loverboy, whose biggest splurge since landing Corner Gas is a Fender Telecaster. "I'm not a good singer or a solid enough musician to make a living at it, but I have a CD of my own songs that I'd like to try and sell one day. When I get a chance I'm going to redo the demo with someone who can really sing and play."
Butt also dabbles in oil painting. "I do things creatively to purge," he says. "If I get an idea and can't get it out, I obsess over it. When I get a picture in my head it gets in the way of everything. I don't know why, but the last time I had a picture of a blue apple on an orange background in my head. So I bought a canvas, painted it and it was gone. I do that same thing with a tune or a lyric. I just need to get it out."
That said, he never takes himself too seriously. "At the end of the day, I'm a joke teller," says Butt. "If everything goes wrong at my work the worse thing that will happen is people won't laugh. It's not like screwing up during heart surgery and having to explain to a family that you killed their loved one. I can handle a few people rolling their eyes if they don't like a joke."
Maclean's February 14, 2005