Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Corner Gas

Hollywood Reporter yesterday and in the issue of Maclean's I received in the mail today -- both extolling the success of Brent Butt and his great comedy, Corner Gas.

Corner Gas is about the people living in Dog River, Saskatchewan. It seems warm and goofy at first, and then three episodes in you realize it's devastatingly sly and smart, with an absurdist deadpan no one in American broadcast television would ever have the stones to try. No huge convoluted laugh constructs, just pure weird funny sneaks up on you ep after ep. It creates that rarest of alchemies -- characters who you are perfectly content to hang out with, just hang out with, because they're charming and amusing as people.

That's it. No "He's a genius, she's neurotic!" orrrrrr "They need to live together, or they lose the inheritance!" orrrr "The kids have to move BACK IN" any of the other desperate high-concept thrashing slapped onto the American fall schedule every year.

Brent writes what he knows.*

Brent is funny. **

QED: show works.

Comedies (all shows, but let's stick to comedies right now) should always be written becasue someone has an original point of view, a funny point of view, they enjoy filtering the world through. The problem is, when you, as a professional televison writer, go in to PITCH, the executives are literally hearing dozens of show pitches that week, and for several weeks in a row. In order for you to pop, to get their attention, to jar them from their lethargy (and hell, anyone would be lethargic during this process), in order to get that tiny fraction of money allotted to all the ideas put forth every season, you have to stand out. And sadly, high-concept premises are what stand out. They stand out in your mind during the pitches, during development, even during the sales process if and when they're picked up.

And they fail.

Always.

It's worth noting that during the last great Growing Season of Sitcoms, stand-ups were king -- because stand-ups, by the nature of our odd little job, need to have well-developed worldviews. My perceptive manager Will Mercer always points out that, for all the TV deals made with stand-ups during the boom, none of the shows worked unless the comic had been a working road comic for at least seven years.

Character-character-character-character-when push comes to shove a successful show tells at least 100 stories and no one, NO ONE has 100 great stories in them. All shows are really about the characters, and the more the writers love those people, the more they just want to hang out with those characters week in and week out, hear their voices, nod at their arguments ... the better the show.

My other favorite Canadian show (Season 4 this year) is Trailer Park Boys. Shot faux-documentary style, the program follows the adventures of nominal losers living in a trailer park in Nova Scotia. I say "nominal", because again, these are gun-toting, Grade-ten-less, pot growers you'd be lucky to have as friends. The characters in both Trailer Park Boys and Corner Gas are never mocked as hicks. Their dignity is never stripped from them, regardless of the ludicrousness of their schemes or circumstances. If you told me I had to live in Dog River for the rest of my life, I'd be okay with that because they're decent, smart, funny people.

Who. Don't. Live. In. New. Fucking. YORK.

One might note that in this nascent little media hypothesis, the model for success is for a single voice to drive a small show, while the industry distributing these shows is built around the opposite. The conclusion of this hypothesis is that the system is inefficient, and broken.

Heh.

In summary -- Brent Butt goddam wins, and it couldn't have happened to a finer comic or better guy. Congratulations.



* Although the guiding hand of supervising producer Mark Farrell is there, to be sure. Mark's a helluva writer, giving structure to Brent's whimsy.

** Brent is not just funny, he is terrifyingly funny.
I worked with Brent as a stand-up. He's effortless on stage, a great mix of cerebral and physical comic. I'd see him walk into the back of the room when I was working, and would change my routine so I didn't do the cheap stuff in front of him. I once did a tour with Brent and Derek Edwards that couldn't have been more nerve-wracking. I'd accept that, back in my road days anyway, there were a handful of Canadian comics as good as Brent. I'd squint pretty hard at any claiming to be better.

24 comments:

Oerwinde said...

I can't believe I still have not seen a single episode of Trailer Park Boys. I saw them in person at an Our Lady Peace concert in Vancouver, but other than that, nothing. I've been hearing good things about Corner Gas too... need to find out when thats on, its about time CBC got a decent show, I can't believe how much crap is on there. The only thing worth watching is the news.

DJ said...

Willie Mercer is right (I can’t believe I just said that) actual comedians make for good Sitcom leads. Not the flavor of the month who has a Tight Seven-minutes. But Honest to God comics who love the art forum and have made it their life’s work.
Brent said in a Toronto paper last November when asked why he was so funny said (and I am paraphrasing) “ because I spent the last 15yrs working the road, figuring out timing and the use of words”. The other key to ‘Corner gas” and “The trailer park Boys” success is that they had no network interference. Both where devolved outside the network system. Mark Farrell is the best working writer in Canada. He has had a hand in almost every successful comedy this country has produced in the last 10yrs (The Newsroom, This Hour has 22minutes, Made in Canada…etc.). Seeing Brent’s and Mark’s success almost gives me hope…almost

Andy said...

“And sadly, high-concept premises are what stand out. They stand out in your mind during the pitches, during development, even during the sales process if and when they're picked up. And they fail. Always.”

Yes, John. That’s exactly what I needed to hear when I’m knee deep in casting and six weeks out from shooting my high-concept sci-fi series. Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Besides, I’d have to disagree with you. HAUNTED was a high concept series and it…er…wait…never mind.

Andy said...

“And sadly, high-concept premises are what stand out. They stand out in your mind during the pitches, during development, even during the sales process if and when they're picked up. And they fail. Always.”

Yes, John. That’s exactly what I needed to hear knee deep in casting and six weeks out from shooting my high-concept sci-fi series. Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Besides, I’d have to disagree with you. HAUNTED was a high concept series and it…er…wait…nevermind.

Andy said...

"And sadly, high-concept premises are what stand out. They stand out in your mind during the pitches, during development, even during the sales process if and when they're picked up. And they fail. Always."

Yes, John. That's exactly what I needed to hear knee deep in casting and six weeks out from shooting my own high-concept sci-fi series. Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Besides, I'd have to disagree with you. HAUNTED was a high-concept series and it...er...wait...nevermind.

richard said...

i dunno, i kinda found trailer park boys to have really waned by its 3rd season. i still like it, but its much less of a must see thing for me.

Anonymous said...

Curb Your Enthusiasm. 'nuff said -- One voice, one person. Fucking hysterical.

Rogers said...

One hours are different, Andy. You need a little more to hang dramatic procession off of. Besides, your shows are perfect examples of what I'm talking about - nobody BUT you would ever think of doing theses things, and you do them because they're the shows you want to watch yourself.

MAX WALKER said...

I don't know. I've never really gotten into the whole Corner Gas/ Train 48 thing. It just doesn't appeal to my age range, but more importantly, it's so damn boring.

But then again, I know it's HUGE with babyboomers. My dad loves it.

It's also a HUGE thing for Canada. Both Train 48 and Corner Gas are quality English-Canadian shows. We need to catch up to those French-Canadians who are currently leading.

MAX WALKER said...

I don't mean to offend anyone with regards to it's age range. It just isn't huge for the 18-22 range. :X

I still <3 canadian tv.

DJ said...

You can not compare “Corner Gas” and “Train 48”. The only thing they have in common is that they both appear on Canadian TV. There is no comparison. Fullhouse is a sitcom but so is Newhart. Apples and orangutans. Every living Canadian with taste hates Train 48. Don’t worry you should not get Train 48 ‘cause there isn’t nothing to get.

DJ said...

I am sorry about this, but I cannot sleep. Comparing “ Corner Gas” to “Train 48” is so wrong on so many levels. And it’s not an “age” thing. The Marx’s brothers are funny if you are 17 or 70.” Looney Tunes “ are funny for ever. It’s a taste thing. For our American viewers it’s like comparing “Saved by the bell” to “Cheers”. Yes, they both are on NBC, but that’s it. These two shows have never been spoken about in the same sentence before. Train 48 is a hack show out of Toronto that lets the network fulfill their Canadian quota for shows to maintain their broadcast license, it’s like comparing David Leans masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia “ to “The Mummy Returns” starring the Rock. Well they both take place in a desert.

MAX WALKER said...

DJ, you're right. It's a stretch. I was comparing "Train 48" to "Corner Gas" as regards to its tone. Purely as that.

I just feel both have the same tone. I mean, I think you'd agree "Corner Gas" doesn't SCREAM 18-24. It isn't their target audience.

Once again, this isn't to say that Corner Gas is HORRIBLE. I was able to sit through an episode without my eyes freezing over... which is always a good sign.

I didn't mean to get you started. :P

By the way, are you Canadian DJ?

Rasmus said...

I would say that The Office is a good example too. Especially since a lot of us don't watch Canadian TV

DJ said...

Don’t worry Canadians do not watch Canadian TV either. It is the word Tone. Corner gas and Train 48 do not share tone or do not share “A” tone. I am lost as how these two shows compare in anyway imaginable other than they both originated in the second largest geographical country in the world. It’s like comparing Bach to The Scorpions…well there both Prussians.

Oerwinde said...

Glad to see I'm not the only one who hates Train 48. We're on Rabbit Ears in my apartment so we only get CBC and Global, and at 7 or 7:30, not sure when, CBC has Coronation Street, which I hate, and Global has Train 48, which I hate. Train 48 sucks less than Coronation Street so we end up watching that though. Usually we just shut the TV off and just listen to music until something good is on.

MAX WALKER said...

Okay, DJ, I take it back. You've proven your point. :P

Chaz said...

This is surreal. I wandered in here via BoingBoing because of their post about how well Global Frequency is being recieved by the legions of illegal file swappers, including me, and I find this. A post about the amazingly funny and intelligent Canadian Series Corner Gas. I love the show. Hell I HAVE to love the show.

"Although the guiding hand of supervising producer Mark Farrell is there, to be sure. Mark's a helluva writer, giving structure to Brent's whimsy."

rogers - Thanks for the kind words about my uncle (my aunt is his partner), they're very true and he doesn't get the credit he deserves. Corner Gas is amazing and is a testiment to the genius, devotion, and talent of Brent, Mark, and the rest of the cast and crew.

dj - Same as above. I'll have to mention this to him next time I see/talk to him. He's a very humble man but I'm sure he'll appreciate it.

Thanks for making me smile at 4am.

Charles Barry

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