The Works of Brent Butt (So Far)

8 06 2014

A Corner Gas movie is in the works. Principle photography starts in Rouleau shortly (and they have a Kickstarter campaign to cover some of the costs). This, coupled with my recent viewing of No Clue, Brent’s first motion picture, has inspired me to write some words about the works created by Brent. I won’t be going into his stand-up career or the TV appearances that go along with it. I will be focusing on his TV shows and his one movie to date.

My Overall Opinion

Overall, I am very happy with the work Brent has created (with help from others, obviously) so far. Generally, they have a lighter tone and are meant to be funny, first and foremost. There aren’t any attempts at great life lessons, or any deep moral or philosophical explorations. They are light, fun entertainment.

With that in mind, I will cover his work from my least to most favourite (with “least” being only relative).

Hiccups

Hiccups is a situation comedy starring Nancy Robertson, with Brent initially in more of a supporting role. Nancy plays the role of Millie Upton, a children’s book author and illustrator with anger management issues (what she and others call “hiccups”, hence the title of the show). She turns to Stan Dirko (Brent Butt), a self-proclaimed “life coach” for help. Other notable characters are Millie’s publisher, Joyce Haddison (Laura Soltis), Millie’s agent Taylor Rymes (David Ingram), the Haddison Publishing receptionist Crystal Braywood (Emily Perkins) and Stan’s wife Anna Dirko (Paula Rivera). The show ran for 2 seasons.

What I liked about Hiccups was that it was an attempt by Brent to take a secondary role, and give Nancy (Brent Butt’s wife) a chance to be the focus of the show. However, Millie’s life in the main spotlight tended to diminish as the other characters got more time and their own story lines, usually associated with Millie. The show changed, somewhat, which isn’t surprising. The point of Millie getting help was to improve, and she did to some degree. But once we get past the “Millie no longer flies off the handle as much” stage, the show starts to take on a different feel and a different direction.

I think that what caused the show to end after only 2 seasons was that there wasn’t a larger story arc planned out for Millie and the supporting cast. Unlike Corner Gas, each episode of Hiccups was really meant to build on the preceding ones. That meant that everyone had to grow and develop, and “get better” in some way. Sure, Millie could have reverted back to “old Millie” from time to time to preserve the premise, but that was only going to last so long before it got tired and cliche. I’m not saying the show had to have some intricate plan (or the appearance of an intricate plan) for each season. But it needed to feel more than just “made up on the fly”.

Not having Millie actually improve would have brought its own frustrations to the audience. I suspect that it wouldn’t have help extend the longevity of the show. Again, it comes down to the fact that there wasn’t a bigger plan in place for the story, and how it would unfold over one or more seasons. It’s too bad, because the performers were wonderful in their roles, making them caricatures without turning them into cartoon characters.

No Clue

No Clue is a feature film written by Brent Butt. It was produced by Brent, Laura Lightbown, Carl Bessai, James Brown and Mark Slone, and directed by Carl Bessai. It stars Brent Butt and Amy Smart. The story is about a promotional products salesman named Leo Falloon (Brent Butt) who is hired by Kyra (Amy Smart) to solve a mystery. It revolves around the mystery of a missing game designer, and features personal and corporate intrigue.

The movie is fun, but still dark enough to be more “mystery” and less “comic book”. The characters aren’t exactly deep, but they aren’t cardboard cutouts either. It is a well-paced story with enough humour and plot twists to keep it interesting, but it isn’t trying to teach any lessons. There is no real moral to the story, although there is a tiny amount of character growth. Overall, it is a fun way to spend an hour and half, and it stands up to repeated viewing.

As a first attempt at a feature film, No Clue is a success. The story was well crafted, and it was kept simple. Rather than trying for some great, intricate story right out of the gate, Brent showed restraint and told a funny and engaging story. I quite liked it, and I’m looking forward to the Corner Gas movie even more.

Corner Gas

Corner Gas was originally conceived by Brent Butt, who had writing credit on pretty much every episode. If features an ensemble cast (Brent, Gabrielle Miller, Nancy Robertson, Fred Ewanuick, Eric Peterson, Janet Wright, Lorne Cardinal, Tara Spencer-Nairn) as well as a host of supporting characters. It revolves around the “ordinary” lives of residents of Dog River, Saskatchewan (played by the town of Rouleau of the same province). From time to time, the first-season episodes touch on the outsider nature of Lacey Burrows (Gabrielle Miller), who moves from Toronto, Ontario to take over her late aunt’s restaurant, which she names The Ruby. The Ruby is part of the same building as Corner Gas, the gas station run by Brent Leroy (Brent Butt) after he bought it from his father, Oscar Leroy (Eric Peterson). The show ran for 6 seasons.

This is Brent’s masterpiece. The tone and pacing were light. The characters didn’t change or grow.  You can watch any episode in any order and not feel lost. The humour is pretty mainstream, and not over the top madcap or silly. It is family-friendly viewing (unless you object to the use of the term “jackass”, in which case you better avoid the scenes with Oscar).

Beyond the show’s production qualities, what is striking is just how little the “feel” of the show changes over 6 seasons. You can watch episode 1 in season 1 (Ruby Reborn) and episode 19 in season 6 (You’ve Been Great, Goodnight) and you would be hard pressed to tell those two were made 6 years apart. The exact same title sequence appears in each and every episode. Sure, Brent has a little less hair, and some hair and makeup styles have changed a little. But the show managed to maintain a consistency in how things looked, how lines were delivered and how the overall show felt, sounded and looked. It is remarkable, and there are very few shows that don’t have substantial changes from season to season, let alone over 6 years of production. Corner Gas successfully managed to hold true to its original premise and feel for its entire 6-year run.

This was Brent’s first television show, and he hit it out of the park. The show won numerous awards during its run, and it remains on of the most popular Canadian television shows in history. It seems to have jumpstarted the Canadian television industry, as we are seeing far more quality shows from Canadian writers, producers and studios than we did in the past. But Corner Gas still stands out as a giant in Canadian television. It set a standard that has yet to be achieved, let alone surpassed, in Canadian TV, and stands up well against television programs from anywhere else.

The Future?

I’m hoping that Brent is able to develop other TV shows and movies. I am really hoping that the Corner Gas movie is a hit. Brent is a funny, creative talent that I think can continue to create new and entertaining shows and movies. What I do hope, though, is that he does try to stretch his talents (at least as a writer) to go beyond humorous situations. Obviously, any artist should do what they are comfortable with, and if Brent only created funny work, I wouldn’t be disappointed. But sometimes you understand your real skill when you stretch. Robin Williams has had as much success playing serious, dramatic roles, as he has in his funny ones. Other comic actors have found success going beyond comedy. If nothing else, it would be interesting to try to see what else the mind of Brent Butt can come up with.

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