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.
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.
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.