Brent Butt talks comedy, human nature and avoiding beheading
How did you first get involved in comedy?
I first decided that stand-up was the thing I wanted to do, basically the first time I ever saw stand-up on television when I was twelve. I’d never seen a stand-up comedian before. I’d seen sketch comedy and seen a lot of comedic acting but just seeing a guy stand there talking and being funny, it was a revelation to me. I said right away, “That’s what I want to do,” and it was kind of my serious life goal from that day on.
I first tried it in high school at like variety night and drama night and it went well there so I was encouraged to keep trying. When I was twenty there was a club that opened up in Saskatoon that had amateur night, and so I went and signed up and that’s how I got started.
Who do you look up to or love working with?
There’s so many great Canadian comics that I love working with, there’s a lot of guys that I don’t get to work with anymore because I headline shows and they headline shows. You rarely have two headliners on a show, except at festival. Derrick Edwards is a guy that comes to mind, he’s one of the funniest people walking the planet.
So he’s on your dream list kind of thing?
Well I don’t know that I spend a lot of time dreaming about him. But in terms of guys that I wish I could see more often he would be one of them. Mike Wilmot would be one of them, Lloyd Banks. There’s so many. Canada really has a rich field of very talented comics and a lot of really funny newer people.
Do you find you have to tailor your material knowing where you’re going?
Not very much, no. I kind of feel like the material should be funny enough to play to anybody. It’s my job as the communicator to find a way to create material that doesn’t just work for somebody with a specific view of the world.
There’s a comedian that I work with sometimes named Graham Chittenden and he cracked me up cause he said, “You know you appeal to a very specific group of males and females between the ages of seventeen and ninety-seven.” Sometimes he’ll open for me and he cracks up cause at the theatre he’ll see a sixteen-year-old and an eighty-year-old sitting beside each other and he’ll say to me, “Man, who are you?”
I think it’s because I don’t try to cater that much. I think authenticity is the big part about why comedy works so what I try to focus on is what I legitimately think is funny myself, what would I find funny. That’s authentic to me if nobody else.
For people who haven’t seen stand-up what can we expect if we’re just coming out to your show?
Don’t expect much. That doesn’t sound good, but it’s really just a guy talking. Expect to see a middle-aged man talking about things. There’re no flash pots, there’re no costumes, I’m not doing characters. It’s just a guy talking and trying to be funny. Every stand-up has their own style, I’m very conversational. Partway through my act I always feel like the drunk uncle who won’t shut up. It’s like at Christmas dinner, “Good God, you’re talking nonstop.”
For those of us who are familiar with Corner Gas and rural Alberta, do you find you want to play off that?
Not so much, there’s a little bit now and then but the same kind of grab bag of material that I’ll be doing in Camrose is the exact same kind of grab bag of material that I would be doing if I were playing Massey Hall in Toronto. Because people are basically the same.
Somebody in rural Alberta might know a bit more about Barley prices than somebody from Bay Street in Toronto and somebody from Bay Street Toronto might know a bit more about… I don’t know what the hell they would know more about. Everybody has their little specific things, but for the most part our human experiences are ninety-nine percent the same. I’m not going to spend a ton of time focusing on the differences.
People just are so much the same. And because we’re so alike we tend to make a big deal out of our differences. It’s understandable, but I think that’s what leads to a lot of our problems. We really hang our hat on our differences and they’re so arbitrary that it doesn’t make any sense. I could see us as a species having a war between people over 5’9” and people under 5’9”. Let’s find something that separates us so we can slug it out.
Do you think that’s just part of our nature or is it bred?
I think it’s a bit of both. We’re social animals, by nature we end up congregating in groups. We have one group and a few miles away we have another group. We can either blend together or fight for resources. What direction we take depends on who we’ve decided is the leader. I get that there’s some element of us that wants to dig in our heels and fight but we’re also better than that and above that.
That’s why I think, especially right now in the world where it seems like a shit-show in a lot of ways, if people weren’t basically genetically engineered to work together none of this would work. Society wouldn’t work. So much of society is based on this premise of, “This is how we should live and that’s it.” If we didn’t do that we’d just be running around biting each other’s faces.
Do you feel like comedy has that element to draw people together?
Yeah, I know it does. Comedy is like any kind of art, it can unify or divide but it should tell some form of truth. At the end of the day I’ve always looked at myself more as an entertainer than an artist. I relate much more to Donald O’Connor than Salvadore Dali. “Turn on the lights and let’s put on a show,” that’s my DNA as opposed to, “Let’s open a can of paint and change the world.”
I don’t know if it’s some psychoses or neuroses, maybe cause I’m the youngest of seven kids and I want attention. Ever since I was a little kid the notion of getting up in front of people to put on a show was very appealing to me.
On that note, I understand you performed for Queen Elizabeth the 2nd and Prince Philip at one point?
I did actually. In 2005 it was Saskatchewan’s hundredth birthday and I hosted a show in Saskatchewan that the Queen and Philip were at. At one point I was playing guitar and singing a song called, “Nothing rhymes with Saskatchewan” looking right at her and it was one of the most surreal moments of my life.
I got to meet her afterwards and I had this flashback in my mind. I remember very distinctly from when I was a little kid, say five or six, with one of my brothers, who’s ten years older than me. I remember saying, “I wouldn’t want to meet the Queen because if she didn’t like you she could cut your head off.”
That’s what you hear about queens doing right? Then he said, “She can’t cut your head off,” and I said, “Yeah she could. If she’s the Queen and she didn’t like you, she could cut your head off.” We had an argument and he said, “Well don’t worry, you’re never going to meet the Queen.” So there I am shaking her hand and I’m thinking, “That’s weird that this just came back to me.”
She was nicer than you expected?
She made no efforts to behead me whatsoever. Didn’t even hint at it.
Survived that adventure. I also read that you had a brief stint making comics?
Yeah, me and a buddy published a comic book called “Existing Earth”. It was an idea that I had for a story that could be an eight page filler, we could write it up and try to sell it to Marvel to put in the back of “Savage Sword of Conan.” So I told my buddy and then he fleshed this story out to something that could be a series and could have it’s own legs.
Then the pragmatist in me said, “Two teenagers from Tisdale Saskatchewan are not going to be able to sell a series to Marvel comics or DC or anybody.” So being entrepreneurial I said, “Let’s start a publishing company and do it ourselves.” So that’s what we did. I was still living at home, I would have to say to my mom, “If you hear me in the middle of the night on the phone, don’t panic. I’m just talking to England about a distribution deal.”
That never really panned out though? Comedy was the choice?
No, it was going in the right direction. I’d say it was my first substantial business lesson about under-capitalizing. Not having enough capital to survive until you get to the point where you become profitable, a big mistake in business. We took out a bank loan but it was just not enough. We were growing, we’d been nominated for an Eagle Award and starting to get some note. We just ran out of money.
That was basically the same time that I had started to do stand-up, so that was panning out, and it was always my dream to do stand-up. At the time it looked like our publishing venture was going to fail. I was starting to live my dream and my buddy was interested in going into the Navy so we just kind of let it die. I went and became a greasy nightclub comic and he was navigating a destroyer.
So you still keep in touch?
B: We do, yeah. When he got out of the Navy he moved to Vancouver and got into computer animation so he’s a director and producer in that. We’re both pretty busy so we don’t get to see each other a lot, but we still go for lunch or Rider games.
Getting back to what you do, in the age of Youtube and Netflix when people can pop-up stand-up comedy on a dime why do you think people come to live shows anymore?
I can’t even put a magnitude on it. It’s so much better live, there’s no comparison. It’s like asking why you go see a band in concert when you can just hear them on Spotify. It’s because one is way better than the other. One is way cheaper, I get that. But the other one costs more because it’s a thousand times better. It’s the difference between experiencing something real versus a digital fabrication. Anything is better live, I think.
I’m writing for a student magazine, do you have any life advice for those of us just starting out?
Not really. The only piece of advice I would give is try not to give advice to people. Who the hell am I to give advice to people? Anything that I say, I feel would be kind of cliche. I’m fifty, I’m a third of the way through my life, and I feel so blessed that I was able to chase down this stupid pipe dream of being a standup comedian.
It’s easy for me to tell people to chase their dreams no matter what when I had virtually no resistance. I had no obstacle to overcome other than you don’t make any money when you start out, so poverty. But who cares? As long as I have enough money for a couple of beers and a box of Kraft Dinner you’re gonna be fine right? Everything else is great, you’re pursuing your dream.
It’s one of those things that you don’t realize how lucky you are at the time. I was in a family that was supportive of my dream, or at least didn’t get in the way. My mom was like, “As long as it’s not illegal what do I care? Do what makes you happy.”
You know, I grew up without a lot of money. My mum and dad raised seven kids on seven dollars a month or whatever the hell my dad was making, but they were two of the happiest people I’ve ever known. They just loved life.
I was fortunate that I fell to earth in this environment. In a country where there aren’t a lot of obstacles. For a white male in North America in a family who didn’t oppose my dream, I can’t hold pride onto any particular hurdle I’ve overcome. It was all, “I wanted to do this and nobody stopped me from doing this. Hooray for me.”
If there’s something you really enjoy, that’s a good sign that that’s the direction you should be going. Whatever the hell it is, music or law or carpentry or art or math. Whatever blows your hair back.
Thanks so much for your time, we’re looking forward to having you in town next Friday.
Brent Butt will be performing at the Peter Lougheed Performing Arts Centre Friday Jan. 20. For the complete interview with Brent Butt, head to augmedium.ca