Sitting around at the local coffee shop, talking with friends about where to find the best price on gas in town, or nodding about the latest gaffe made by Justin Trudeau--it's what people do. Canadian comedian/writer Brent Butt does it too, and it's where the 56-year-old still finds fodder for his projects, from stand-up to t.v. scripts. Butt has said, "coffee shop conversation was a great way to learn comedy. It's relaxed and conversational and the jokes build naturally without forcing them."
The chat of everyday life has been Butt's bread and butter for a 30-plus year successful career, though the modest Canuck and youngest child of seven says all he ever really wanted to do was be a stand-up comic.
"I wanted to get my family's attention--we all tried to make each other laugh," said Butt in a phone chat from his Vancouver home. "When I was about 12, I saw a comedian on the old Alan Hamel show on one of our two t.v. channels, and I told my mother that's what I want to do. Either that or be a superhero crime fighter. She said 'Go do it outside'. But what she really did was legitimize the pursuit for me. She didn't pooh-pooh it."
Though his abilities at doodling would come in handy later on, (in the animated version of Corner Gas), Butt turned down the opportunity to study animation at Sheridan College after high school, instead opting to try stand-up in nearby Saskatoon.
Chasing a dream
Butt cracks wise about going from small town life in Tisdale, Saskatchewan (population about 3,000) to the big city stand-up circuit, but his emerging onto the scene (mid 90s) was a golden era for comedy in the country, Butt says. And stumbling onto the Just For Laughs scene after only a few years on the road was not only fortuitous in upping his profile, it gave Butt a steady living and the opportunity to try acting gigs (Millennium, The X-Files) and even take on movie roles.
"It's never lost on me, that I've been allowed to pursue a dream," Butt said. "I didn't intend to go after t.v. either. I had tucked away a treatment I wrote--a story about a gas station in Saskatchewan that I didn't think would be funny to anyone. But that ended up changing my life."
Corner Gas: The gift that keeps on giving
It's not an understatement to say Corner Gas became (and still is) something bigger than Butt could have ever imagined. Not only did the show become the highest-rated sitcom on prime-time Canadian television, it won numerous awards for the team and Butt, who served as series creator, writer, executive producer and director.
The original six-seasons (107 episodes, from 2004-2009)) have been shown in 26 countries, and recently found new life again on the Amazon Freevee streaming service which plays Corner Gas reruns 24/7. There's been a feature movie (a most-watched in Canadian history--no big deal) and the animated version of the show, which ran for four seasons too.
"I now get way more correspondence from the U.S. than here. The show really is about how people are more the same than they are different," he says. "Lacey is a big city girl with no small-town experience, and Brent is small town; no big city experience. But they click."
Reflecting on how it all came together, Butt said, "It was all pretty quick, if you don't count the 17 years of being on the road as a stand-up. They (the network and the public) didn't want it to end. It was hard to walk away, but I didn't want us to get into a rut; to wither on the vine."
In the years that followed, Butt also created the series Hiccups and wrote the 2013 feature film No Clue.
Achieving another dream; this time a novel
Though he's made his home on the west coast for several decades (with wife Nancy, who starred in Hiccups and played Wanda on Corner Gas), Butt says he's happiest when touring the country and performing stand-up in clubs or at corporate events. But when the pandemic shut everything down Butt said he knew it was time to revisit his lifelong dream of writing a novel.
"I had the idea percolating for a long time, and I thought 'if not now, when?' I was finally out of excuses," he said. "I had spent 30 years writing scripts and stand-up, but I wasn't sure people would want a dark, psychological thriller from me."
Butt says he put the book together in about twelve weeks; mathematical in his approach of putting down 1,000 words a day in segments until he had something to show a literary agent.
"It's really happening; I'm more excited than I feel comfortable showing," Butt gushed. "Doubleday Canada is publishing it next fall, and I'll be along authors I admire on the bookcase shelf."
Butt summarizes his debut novel, HUGE, as "Three comedians on the road, two of whom don't have a tremendous capacity for violence."
"I feel the horse is out of the barn, so I'm already well into my second novel," he added. " I've been able to do just about all the things on my list, but I still want to write a play that's professionally produced. I have a pilot for another t.v. show in the works, and Nancy and I listen to old-time radio plays; I'd like to do that too."
"But standup is always my favourite thing to do. I feel the most me when I'm on stage with a mic," Butt said. "I'm an 'ears open' kind of guy, never afraid to dive in, but I try not to look too far down the road--I just want to enjoy the moment. People can feel when you're being authentic, and if they like what you do, they respond."
Butt is well-versed in using social media to let folks know what he's up to. There's brentbutt.com, which leads followers to his Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages, YouTube posts and to a newly-resurrected podcast a.k.a The Butt Pod.com. To be in the know (and get a sneak peek at a chapter of his novel), Butt recommends fans sign up for his B.B. Bulletins too.
"Besides the stage, this is a way for me to connect with people," Butt said, relating back to what has always worked for him before. "I look at it as just having coffee. Only now it's with hundreds of people at a time."