COMIC INTERVIEW: Brent Butt gets mocked for optimism

The great thing about being a stand-up comic who gets a TV series is that you have a pretty sweet gig to fall back on once the series – inevitably – ends. A lot of TV actors aren’t so lucky. Ask Seinfeld’s co-stars.

Brent Butt was of course the creator and star of the CTV sitcom Corner Gas – perhaps the modern Canadiana analogue to the Beachcombers (from “Nick, get the boat” to “Brent, get the truck”) – a gig he got on the strength of his stand-up act, which fans may see again when Butt performs live at the Winspear Centre on Friday.

Q: If you could be any celebrity, other than yourself, who would it be and why?

A: Letterman around the start his NBC late show. I’ve always loved the idea of doing a talk show. It’s a great forum to interact, to think off the cuff, but also do prepared comedy. I’ve always been a fan of the form, Carson, Letterman, I think it’s an ideal format for a comic.

Q: Are you planning to do a late night talk show?

A: I did have plans to until I got into the scripted television world, and that’s where my work lay for the last eight years. But if somebody came to me and said, “We want you to host a late night talk show,” I would be receptive to the idea.

Q: How would you do it differently?

A: I’m on the line about wanting to try something drastically different or not. At the end of the day it comes down to execution. Letterman and Leno are doing the same thing – but Letterman is truly, creatively hilarious.

Q: What’s your best heckler story?

A: There was one night down at the Urban Well in Vancouver, and I used to do stand up on Tuesday nights. It was a real regular crowd, familiar atmosphere, very comic friendly. And one night there was a guy who had never been there before, and he heckled me about being fat. There was a Christina Aguilera song that was popular at the time, so I just started singing to him, “I am beautiful no matter what you say,” and the whole crowd joined in, “Words won’t bring me down!” And the look on the guy’s face when he realized he was one out of 150 and he picked the wrong place to heckle – it was great.

Q: A musical heckle comeback! Usually these stories are pretty nasty – comics getting beer bottles thrown at them …

A: When I started in the late ‘80s, there were horrible road gigs. I had a non-verbal heckle. A guy came up to the stage, pulled a bowie knife out and dragged it across his throat. I was beyond being scared. I responded, “Really? You’re going to kill me because you don’t think I’m funny? That doesn’t seem like kind of an overreaction to you?” … the club manager was really upset – because we didn’t do our full time.

Q: Do you have an old bit you were sad to let go?

A: I never really abandon anything. The Fabio bit is dated, but there are times people holler out for it, and I’m not above pulling it out if people want to see it. I never say never to anything.

Q: Is there such a thing as “too soon?”

A: It you can put an incredibly creative twist to a horrible thing that happened that afternoon, my hat’s off to you. But it’s a very difficult thing to do. I feel that there are no taboos. I just feel that certain subjects are incredibly difficult to get the crowd to laugh at. The problem with being a comic is that you often think something funny about something horrible – that’s just the way the comic mind works – but you can stop and say sometimes maybe we don’t need to hear that right now. It’s up to you if you want to take the risk of losing your Aflac gig.

Q: Do you think stand-up comedy has become more honest than it used to be?

A: Being honest has always been the role of the comic – from the court jester who was the only one allowed to tell the king the truth, and the king would often only learn about the public’s discontent about him through the jester’s jokes. But of course there’s also comedy just for the sake of comedy.

Q: Do you have to be a pessimist to be a good comic?

A: I’m a very optimistic person. I get mocked for my optimism, but I know that will stop.

Q: Why is that?

A: I’m just being optimistic about it.