Brent Butt Gets Animated

You want to see Brent Butt get animated? Ask him about his new cartoon version of Corner Gas.

The 51-year-old comedian has been busy the past couple of years transforming his classic Canadian sitcom about a band of misfits who live and work in a sleepy, Saskatchewan, one gas station town,  into The Simpsons with silos.

Butt has reunited the entire cast from the original live-action Corner Gas, with the sad exception of one member who has passed on. Janet Wright, who died in 2016, teamed with Eric Petersen to play Butt’s character’s bickering parents, Emma and Oscar Leroy.

Petersen carries on as a voice in the new animated series with his original colleagues Gabrielle Miller, Fred Ewanuick, Lorne Cardinal, Tara Spencer-Nairn, and Butt’s wife Nancy Robertson. Wright sound alike Corrine Koslo joins the group as the voice of Emma.

Between his many live stand-up comedy dates, Brent has been working on Corner Gas Animated the last couple of years. Of late, he’s been flying back and forth between Toronto and Vancouver,  recording the cast’s voices and editing scenes on computers in his man cave of a garage. That’s where he spends a lot of his time these days, according to wife Nancy.

In many ways the animated series brings Butt’s life full circle. Back in high school in Tisdale, Sask., he already had a notion that he wanted to be a stand-up comedian, but the only thing he could think of to fall back on was to train as an animator.

“I used to do a lot of drawings in the edges of my comic and text books,” says Butt. “I was just fascinated with the process. “

Butt applied, and was accepted into, Toronto’s renowned Sheridan school of animation. “I got there and I think it was four days,” he says of his abrupt departure. “It was still orientation week when I said this is not for me. I just knew stand-up was what I was supposed to be doing.”

Flash forward 30 years to last November, and Butt is back in Toronto, showcasing the first complete episode of Corner Gas Animated. He and his fellow cast mates  gathered at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Hugh Jackman theatre. After the screening, everybody declared their approval of the various ‘toon transformations.

“It was the damnedest thing to watch,” said Petersen. “It immediately was like watching like a person not connecting with it in any way.”

He also thought he could take some acting tips from animated Oscar. “He has a better chin than I do,” says the Order of Canada member.

Toronto-based Smiley Guy Studios is the animation house, and they did a terrific job capturing the look and personalities of the regulars. Robertson’s only note was that they made her look too young — possibly the only time an actress has ever filed that complaint.

Butt says he consulted with one of his writers from the original sitcom, Norm Hiscock, before embarking on the new scripts. Hiscock, a Montreal native who has written scripts for Saturday Night Live, Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine,  also wrote for King of the Hill so he knows adult animation. Butt asked what changes he should make to adapt Corner Gas to an animated comedy. Hiscock’s reply: ”Change nothing.” The series was always grounded in reality but prone to flights of fancy in flashback moments – a trait well exploited in cartoon form.

Butt himself was transformed at the screening. He seems to have grown a camera out of one eyeball these days, due to his ever-present camera-phone. He uses it to capture video to promote his podcasts, which he has cleverly called, “The Buttpod.”

“It’s really fun and I can shoot stuff when I’m on the road or behind the scenes things,” he says. So far he’s drawn close to 2,000 YouTube channel subscribers. “I haven’t really put the word out much aside from mentioning it on Twitter,” says Butt, who has 164,000 followers.

He’s not super active on other forms of social media, but he does use Instagram. “So far it’s mostly pictures of my dog.”

Between touring and writing and producing the new animated series, the comedian says he has not had much time to listen to other people’s podcasts. “Any spare hour I have away from production is generally spent watching a Canucks game,” says the Vancouver –based NHL fan.

The original Corner Gas went off the air in April of 2009 with a finale that drew more than three million viewers—still a record for a Canadian scripted series episode. A follow-up feature film, 2014’s “Corner Gas: The Movie,” was also a hit.

“I think we were all blindsided by its success,” says Butt, remembering it to be almost completely the opposite of the “edgy” comedies others were pitching to networks back in 2002.

Peterson feels Corner Gas benefitted from what he calls “the synchronicity of personality,” the right people just creating the right show in the right place. “Saskatchewan was this little secret place,” he says. “Then there was a kind of humour, a structure like Seinfeld surrounded by character. A notion where you make what’s trivial and mundane important.”

“As a result, we came from a very authentic place,” says Butt, “and I think people pick up on that authenticity. People can tell when they’re being sold.  And we weren’t selling anything other than this is a comedy and we’re trying to be funny. But beyond that, we weren’t trying to be cool or hip.”

That lent a certain timelessness about the show, a quality that continues today with the animated series. The new Corner Gas takes place in the present day, but really it’s as if the characters are all frozen in time.

That works for Butt. For one thing, “I don’t have the hairline I have now. I have Season 1 hairline for the rest of my life!”

It works for the series, too. “One of the themes of the show is not much changes,” says Butt, who is floored each time he’s approached by a young lawyer or other adults who tell him they grew up watching the series.

CTV plans to premiere Corner Gas: Animated in the spring. In the meantime, Butt is back on the road, with stops in Ottawa, BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan throughout February and will be performing in Hamilton and Oshawa, Ont., in March. Just look for the guy with the camera growing out of one eye.