Brent Butt heading to the Middle of Nowhere

February 20, 2024, 10:53 am
Kevin Weedmark

Brent Butt is coming to Maryfield for the Comedy Night in the Middle of Nowhere on March 15. The show sold out within a day.

Brent Butt, the best known comedian to come out of Rural Saskatchewan, is heading to the heart of rural Saskatchewan soon for the Comedy Night in the Middle of Nowhere at the Maryfield Auditorium. The show is coming up March 15, and editor Kevin Weedmark spoke with Brent Butt about the show and about his career.

You probably figured growing up that you would star in a TV show, but did you ever think you would be performing in Maryfield, Saskatchewan?
Well, that was the end target so mission accomplished—I can wrap it all up now and retire.

The way they’re promoting it, they’re calling it the Comedy Night in the Middle of Nowhere. How would you define the middle of nowhere and how many middle of nowheres have you performed in during your career?
It’s all relative right? The middle of nowhere—it depends on how big your world is. So it’s different for everybody but I’m sure for the people in Maryfield, even though they’re calling it that, I’m sure Maryfield is probably the centre of everything for them.

So it’s been like 20 years since Corner Gas started. Almost exactly 20 years this week. Does it seem that long to you or does it seem like just yesterday?
It’s one of those things that seems like, from moment to moment, sometimes it seems like it was two years ago and sometimes it seems like it was 106 years ago. But yeah, I have some fresh relevant memories of putting that show together that it’s sometimes hard to believe that it was 20 years ago.

Everybody knows you from Corner Gas. How different is Brent Leroy from Brent Butt, or was that just you being yourself?
I wasn’t super confident in my acting skills so I thought, “If I make this guy a lot like me . . .” and at the end of the day it was kind of based on what my life would be like if I hadn’t pursued show biz. So the idea is, he’s basically me. The difference between me and him is that he wears a round watch.

So how much space does that show take up in your consciousness? Does that role partly define who you are?
Yeah, I mean certainly in the eyes of other people it does. It’s sort of part of the mix for me—for me, I think at the end of the day if you boil everything away, I’m a stand up.
I’m a comedian and I got to do this amazing TV show. I love TV, I’ve been able to do movies and I’ve written a book. I’ve done a few things but I think if you boil it all away, I hope to continue to do everything, but I’m a greasy nightclub comic at the end of the day.

So what kind of comments do you get from fans of the show when you go to a small town and do a show? What kind of things do you hear from your fans?
Usually it’s very nice and you know, very complimentary. One of the things that I like hearing is that people often think of Corner Gas as the one show that the whole family watched together—like grandpa wanted to watch it but the teenagers wanted to watch it too. I like that. I like that the show had a very broad demographic and I think that’s because the show wasn’t really trying to be something it wasn’t. There was an authenticity to it that sort of played across all demographics that way—it wasn’t middle aged people trying to be cool or hip, you know?

If you’re in rural Saskatchewan how often do you hear, “Geez, Dog River is just like our town. You must have based it on our town.”
Yeah, you hear that quite a bit but you know, we had a guy write in from New York City who said, “Dog River is exactly like my neighborhood. Like there’s the gas station there, there’s the cranky old dude who’s giving everybody hell—there’s a couple of dopey cops.”
So there’s this weird universality to it. We had a guy in Sweden say that it was exactly like the village he grew up in, in Sweden. So it’s got this sort of universality to it that I didn’t try to consciously try to write into it. It just sort of worked out that way because it was about these people and at the end of the day everybody knows people like that.

You’ve discovered that there’s cranky old people everywhere then?
Yeah, who would have thought?

How much did growing up in rural Saskatchewan influence your comedy?
I don’t know. I don’t know to what degree rural Saskatchewan had anything to do with it because if it did then everyone from rural Saskatchewan would have the same sense of humour and that certainly isn’t the case. For whatever reason, as a little kid, as much as I loved growing up in small-town Saskatchewan—I loved it and I had a great time—it still never made sense to me that we lived there.
I was like, “Why are we not in New York or Los Angeles? Do you not watch TV and films?”
Like my father ran the boiler room and I was like, “You know, there’s a lot of boiler rooms in New York City. That’s where Spiderman lives, let’s go.”
I was very drawn to show business so I didn’t understand farming and I still to this day don’t understand what all of the equipment does.
So it’s sort of where I just happened to be and I was more shaped by the fact that I grew up in a large family full of people who all tried to make each other laugh. If we had all been in Denmark or China, if that same dynamic existed, my work would probably be very similar.

So when did you know that you would be a comedian?
Well I knew early on that I was going to try. I didn’t know if I would be able to do it or not but I knew that I wanted to do it. When I was 12 years old, that’s when I told my mom that that’s what I wanted to do. It’s when I first saw a comedian on TV and I didn’t know that stand up comedy was a thing that existed and then I saw that and it’s the only thing that made sense to me in the world—aside from being an NHL goalie but I was pretty sure that I didn’t have the skill set for that. I tried it in high school and it went really well, like at a variety night, and it went over really well and I was encouraged to keep trying.

So how did you get into your career in comedy? Did you go straight from high school and start trying gigs or how did you do it?
I did it a couple of times in high school and then it wasn’t again until when I was 20 and a comedy club opened up in Saskatoon that had an amateur night and when I was 21 that’s when I first went on stage.

Do you find that your comedy plays well wherever you go or are there some places where your kind of humour lands better than others?
Yeah, it’s not so much geographically or from community to community, that’s not the variant. The variant is just on any given night when you get a few hundred individuals into a room and it creates a brand new mix.
An early show and a late show on the same Friday night in the same city can be so vastly different. Far more different than any geographic difference could ever make up. So it has less to do with where you are and has everything to do with what mix does this group of a few hundred people make? What dynamic, what chemistry, what energy do they bring to the table?
Because at the end of the day comedy is usually referred to as a monologue but it’s very much a dialogue. What you’re doing—you put it out there and you elicit a response back from the crowd. It’s just not usually talking, it’s laughter—or blank stares, whatever the case may be.

So how quickly do you know if it’s an audience that you’re really going to click with? Is it the first joke? It’s like, ”Yes, we’re all on the same page and we’re connecting?” How quickly do you know?
Well I mean, you know for the last lot of years of my career, I’m the guy that goes up last. So I get to listen to whoever my opening act is or whichever comedians are on stage before me and you get a pretty good sense of it then—if the crowd is into it or if they’re not laughing is it because they aren’t hearing funny stuff?
So I sort of have a pretty good sense by the time I get out there what they’re into because I’ve just heard them so far listening to other comedians. If it’s just me, if I’m just walking out, I know pretty early on. Within a matter of seconds I know if this is going to be just fun or I know if it’s going to be a little more work.

I’ve seen your stand up show and you make it look effortless. How much effort goes into making it look effortless?
Well a lot of work goes into making the material. You know, trying different phrases and different wording and trying to land on something that works—one thing is going to be funnier than another. There’s a lot of trial and error and a lot of just running it and running it at multiple shows until it gets refined and honed and by the time the crowd sees it then, most of the heavy lifting has been done. Then it’s just you doing what you’re doing and delivering the material but yes, there is a little bit of show business involved where you’re trying to make it seem effortless, right? There’s a little bit of smoke and mirrors that goes into that. That’s part of the thing. The more you can make it seem like you’re just thinking of this as opposed to rambling something off I wrote, the more it connects and the more it seems real.

Well you do that very well, I know when we saw you, you just got up there and it sounds like you’re just making this up off the top of your head or it’s stuff that’s happened to you in the last 24 hours.
Well thank you.

So how do you come up with your material? Is some of it out of actual life and day-to-day experiences where you think there’s something there that you could turn into a bit?
Yeah, that’s where the vast majority of it comes. Just from an experience or an observance and if something about it strikes you as odd or unusual or funny then you just start exploring it to yourself. That’s a part of it. Like I saw a guy today eating a muffin in a way that I had never seen a person eat a muffin before. The whole drive home I was just talking to myself about that guy eating the muffin and I came up with some stuff that I think is kind of funny. So for me then I make a note of it and I’m like, “Ok I think that could be a bit.”

Well now I’m curious, what’s so different about how this guy was eating his muffin?
I’m not going to go into a bit here for you but it’s that kind of thing. You see something that strikes you as odd or unusual or maybe humourous and you just sort of have a radar for it. People think of comedians as people who make other people laugh but I think it’s more that comedians laugh at things that other people don’t.

So do you adjust your show at all depending on where you’re playing? Do you do the same show in Vancouver as Maryfield or do you make some changes depending on the crowd?
Yeah, pretty much. It’s more just adjust it a little bit to how that particular crowd is responding to particular stuff. Like let’s say that I do a joke about sports, some sports related joke and it goes over gangbusters, I might think to myself, “Oh they really liked this sports stuff, maybe I’ll do a bit more of that.” Or if I do a sports joke and it doesn’t go over I’ll think, “Oh they’re not really into sports and I was going to do a couple more sports jokes but maybe I’ll drop them.” So it’s more just situational and has less to do with Vancouver versus Maryfield. It has more to do with what is this particular group into at this particular time? One of the great things about standup is that it is immediate and it’s now and it’s you and me and we’re here in this time and space and we’ll never be here again. What is going on? What is this like? How do we make this work? As opposed to doing something for TV where you’re going to record it, put it down, it goes into the world, that’s how it is and you have to trust that it’s funny. If it’s not then there’s nothing you can do about it—it’s out there. Stand up comedy is so individual to this time and this group that’s in this room and that’s what I love about it because it’s different every night.

So is it fun to do? Are you actually having fun when you’re up there on stage or are you thinking like a chess game three moves ahead, “What am I going to do to keep this crowd on their toes?”
It is like that, and it’s very fun. They’re not mutually exclusive. It’s work, it’s thinking and strategizing, but that’s part of the fun, and it’s a good time.

So what would Brent Butt be doing today if the comedy thing never happened? Other than running a garage. What would your life be like today do you think?
I don’t know. I would probably be miserable—unless, if I had tried standup and it didn’t work, if I wasn’t good at it and if I couldn’t have made it, if I gave it a real solid run and just wasn’t able to get laughs, that’s one thing. Then you go, “Well at least I gave it a whirl.”
But if I had just not given it a try and I was now at this age, 57, sitting here wondering what my life would have been like if I had tried standup when I was 20, I think there would be a lot of regret and a lot of misery.
But in terms of vocation, I don’t know, probably something to do with drawing. Illustrating or graphic arts, something like that. It’s the only remarkable talent that I have.

What does it feel like when you’re up there and you’ve got the crowd with you? How does it feel to make all those people laugh?
Fantastic. First of all, most comedians have some psychological itch that needs scratching, right? I don’t know what that is but I’m sure a psychiatrist or psychologist could delve into it more, but I think that most of us have some need that getting laughs from a crowd satisfies. So on that level we’re getting the fix that we need but beyond that it’s just like, I tell people, “Have you ever told a joke at a party and got a laugh from the four people that are there?” It feels good, right? So now multiply that by one or two hundred and make them all strangers you don’t know—that’s way better, right? So that good feeling of telling a joke and getting a laugh from four friends is exponentially better to a big room full of people. So it’s just a really, really good feeling. Now when it doesn’t work, it’s not such a great feeling. People have a great fear of public speaking because “What if I look foolish?” Well if it’s not going your way, you’re up there for 45 minutes, you know that you have to do your time or you’re not getting paid and nobody is liking you, that’s a different feeling altogether.

I know a lot of work goes into a TV show, is the stand up more fun than that or more immediate gratification?
It’s a different kind of fun. Really it’s just sort of a different kind of fun because one is a solo act and one is a team sport basically. So it’s like tennis and hockey, they’re both fun, they’re both a lot of work, they’re just different.

Tell me one thing about yourself that most people would not know.
I’m the tallest man in Canada—seven foot ten. Most people would not know that about me, ha ha. That’s something that I hold pretty close to my chest.

Ha ha ha! Are you looking forward to the show in Maryfield?
Yes, very much.

Excellent, we’ll see you there!