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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Brent Butt, a pro's pro

I got my Butt fix last Saturday night. Wait. That doesn't sound right. Let me rephrase. I caught stand-up comedian Brent Butt again last week. It had been a while.

Gone are the good old days when I could see him two or three nights a week at a local watering hole. Now that he's a major star, I have to enjoy him with the masses at a theatre about once a year.

I remember the first time I saw him live. Being a comedy fan, of course I had heard of him. He was a well-respected name in Canadian stand-up circles. I saw him on TV and wasn't blown away. I thought he was decent. Nothing spectacular.

Then one night I headed down to the Urban Well downtown, where Butt hosted on Wednesday nights. It was a smaller show than the one in Kitsilano on Tuesday nights, which Butt also hosted. I sat and watched Butt perform in front of probably ten to twenty people. He was fantastic. Now I got what everyone was going on about.

Over the years, I probably saw him perform hundreds of times and I'm not exaggerating when I say he was fantastic every single time. I kid you not. And if you don't think that's rare, you haven't seen much stand-up. Think of all the factors that are involved: 1. The writing. 2. The delivery. 3. The ability to be in the moment and make changes on the fly. 4. Spritzing with the crowd. 5. Confidence not to bail on your material. 6. Adjusting to the whims of the crowd and noises from the room. And lots more I haven't even considered. Every single time he nailed it.

Butt has an exceptional talent. Not only is his material great the first time you hear it; it's great the hundredth time you hear it. I can recite many of his bits almost word for word, but I never tire of hearing him tell the jokes. Nothing he says sounds rehearsed; it's as if he's just thinking of it each and every time.

One thing I always admired about his act was his professionalism. Whether he was performing to six people or 600, he never tanked. He gave a show to the fans who showed up, not worrying about who didn't. He dressed for success, too, usually wearing a blazer, if not a tie, no matter how insignificant the gig. I don't think dressing up is all that important, but it illustrates how he treats all the shows equally.

I once asked him about playing to the sparse downtown Well crowds, who weren't exactly gregarious (maybe because I comprised a large percentage of the crowd – I'm not exactly a big laugher). A lot of comics get up there and if they don't get the reaction they expect, lose all confidence and start bailing. Some of them take it out on the crowd. Not Brent. He told me that even if people weren't laughing, he could sense they were enjoying the show. And he was right.

When he first told me about his idea for Corner Gas, I was... skeptical? Not because the show sounded lame, but because it was Canadian TV. We're just not used to seeing anything good on the tube. The Royal Canadian Air Farce has lowered the bar so much that a horrible show like This Hour Has 22 Minutes is considered a masterpiece. And forget about sitcoms. When was the last one we had? The King of Kensington? You can't count Mosquito Lake. I honestly can't remember.

But damned if he didn't pull it off. Season one of Corner Gas was as good as anything on TV, in my opinion. Great writing, good acting, impressive production quality. The second season was, again in my opinion, the dreaded sophomore jinx and the show was as bad as anything on TV. The actors all started trying to be funny instead of relying on the writing. They started "face acting". Ugh.

Since then, I like it more. Not nearly as well as the first season, but way better than the second. Regression to the mean, I guess it is. All things considered, it's still a pretty good show.

But for our international readers, or anyone who came to stand-up after Corner Gas hit the airwaves, you really don't know what you're missing. At some point along the way I came to the conclusion that there's no comedian out there funnier than Brent Butt. There are lots who are just as funny, with varying styles. But no one is funnier. And he's one of the few who gets the same respect from fellow comics as he does from the audience. Those two don't always go hand in hand. So many comics I've interviewed over the years bring up his name. Andy Kindler raved to me about Butt. So did Mike Macdonald. Ditto Mike Wilmot. One story goes that at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, Butt was a little nervous having to share the stage with American satirist A. Whitney Brown. By the end of the show, the former Saturday Night Live cast member said Butt was the funniest comic he'd ever seen.

I hope one day Butt records a CD and DVD. Check out the web. A talent as great as he is and his standup act is next to non-existent. Where are his Comedy Now! specials? Where are his Just For Laughs spots? I have no doubt that if the rest of the world could see him and forward favourite clips on to each other, he could be a viral hit and sell out theatres in other countries the way he does in this one.

Butt claims his first love is stand-up, but it seems television and movies are a priority for him now. It's a shame. At least he's getting out on stage more since Corner Gas ended. His appearance at the Red Robinson Show Theatre on Saturday was vintage Butt. When I saw him at the River Rock Show Theatre last year, his timing seemed off. Maybe he was out of practice. Maybe he had other things on his mind. But his last show was as good as ever. Unlike a lot of comics, who give up after the first punchline or two, he just keeps coming with tag after tag after tag.

It's also a weird kind of fact, but many hilarious stand-up comics aren't so hilarious in real life. Butt is. He just thinks funny. It's not like he's obnoxiously "on" all the time, because he isn't. He's just naturally funny. His one visit to our studio remains one of my favourite shows. As I said, he's a pro through and through, so he's going to be as informative and funny on little old co-op radio as he is on a big-time commercial station. Here, for old time's sake, is our hour-long conversation from December of 2005.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Wish I'd seen the show.

Dan Jardine said...

Well, I've only seen Brent once, but he certainly delivered. The dude is even funnier than he looks, and Brent's one funny looking fella.

Little Jackie Showers said...

I did the see the show and was thoroughly entertained. But I'm easily amused. Still he's damn good.