At the time that I relocated to Canada from South Africa, I thought that the situation down in Southern Africa was pretty depressing. The violence and tension in the country were affecting even the work of local comedians, who seemed to have turned bitter and defensive. Comedy was either viciously political or superficial and slapstick. Making fun of public figures could get you sued. Or worse. My impression was that South Africans had lost the ability to laugh at themselves. It was not a good time to be politically incorrect.
Then I arrived in Canada and saw my first episode of the Canadian sitcom Corner Gas. First I thought; ’¿Qué…?!’ Then, ‘Oh, this is funny!’
It was philosophical, but also witty – in a dry, sneaky sort of way. There are poignant, reflective moments, and some hard truths underlying the dialogue, which gave it more depth than one would expect from a sitcom.
Corner Gas – Typically Canadian
Corner Gas is an example of art as truth: “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth,” to quote Pablo Picasso. It’s social commentary on small-town life in Canada, versus living in the big city, like Toronto.
It’s about the Canadian Way of Doing Things. But it also makes gentle fun of Canadians, and Canadians, God bless their little cotton socks, loved it when it was an award-winning hit, running from 2004 to 2009. And they still love it a decade later, with the show continually being rebroadcast and airing in 28 countries. It says something about Canadians. They can take the truth about themselves, but they can also laugh at themselves. They didn’t sue Brent Butt – rather, they proclaimed April 13, 2009, and the same day ever after, as “Corner Gas Day” in Saskatchewan. In fact, two Canadian Prime Ministers, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, made cameo appearances on the show.
Screenwriter Dennis McGrath has pinpointed the success of Corner Gas. His explanation applies to other Canadian-made comedy shows as well. He writes that that before Corner Gas, the consensus about Canadian TV comedy shows was this:
“Networks would petition the CRTC [Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission] to reduce their CanCon [content made by Canadian] obligations by saying ‘Don’t force us to make shows that Canadians don’t want to watch.’
Canadian shows would sometimes premiere to big numbers. People gave them a shot, but rarely came back. But was it really because they were Canadian, or just not very good? Corner Gas settled the argument. It shocked CTV by drawing over a million viewers – not just once, but week after week. It was bounced all over the schedule. Not only did the audience follow the show – it managed to outlast and outdraw most of the U.S. shows that replaced it.
“As much as Corner Gas changed the thinking at networks, its effect on people making TV was greater. Producers used to pitching earnest Canadian dramas with more social than entertainment value took one look at this genial little show with its sly, understated humour and didn’t know what to make of it.
It was not uncommon in the first couple of seasons to go to industry events and hear people run Corner Gas down. But a new generation of writers saw in Corner Gas an alternative. It was something to shoot for: a popular homegrown show for a homegrown audience…On [Corner] Gas, the writers’ work was respected, and that attracted the finest comedy writers in the country.
The jokes were slightly absurd, sharp but never mean. The characters were pleasingly self-deprecating and not too full of themselves. Canadians recognized themselves in them.”
Seeing the show on TV for the first time in 2011, it was as fresh and new to me as if it were filmed that year. I’ve watched every series of Corner Gas more than once. By the time I’d done that, I considered myself somewhat educated in the humour of Canada and the typical Canadian mindset (those of the characters as well as the viewers and fans), and willing to learn some more. McGrath hit it on the nail about the show reflecting the Canadian psyche.
Nothing much goin’ on
In the fictional town where the characters live and the gas station is, “Dog River”, nothing much happens. The band The Odds sing in the show’s very catchy theme song, “Not a lot goin’ on”:
Because the drama in the series is low-key, viewers are engaged by the repartee between the characters, which usually start of as normal conversations, but then spin out to quite complicated subjects with philosophical, cultural or moral questions: friendship, loyalty, morality, patriotism, pacifism, free will, civic duty, language, the laws of physics, and so on. Contrasted with this is the running joke of how much they hate the neighbouring town, “Wullerton” (“Eeuw.” *spit*). In that respect, the scripts of Corner Gas remind me of the philosophical and moral debates underlying most of the episodes in the original (first) Star Trek show. (Michael Stark expands on this in The Value of Star Trek.)
What makes it funny
This technique of slipping in sharp, debatable statements, and playing with language, while remaining, on the surface, polite and calmly Canadian (or passive-aggressively Canadian, some would say), is difficult to get right unless the audience is educated and informed enough to recognize the joke and enjoy it.
(Scroll down to some examples are at the end of this post.)
In the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld, particularly in the Seinfeld TV show, he and his co-writer, Larry David, push the boundaries of this type of humour to the max. It might seem as though nothing happens in the episodes of Seinfeld, but when you think about the meaning behind the words of the characters, it does strike you as being subversive and cynical – but unapologetic.
That’s the thing with humour and comedy: unless it riles you, you won’t laugh.
Humour is not just a reliable intelligence-indicator; it may be one of the most important traits for humans seeking mates – being witty is also sexy. (Think about that.) If you combine intelligence, particularly verbal intelligence, with satire, you get great comedy and great social criticism, and Corner Gas is an excellent example of both. Its success is also an indicator that freedom of expression and tolerance are alive and well in Canada. I doubt whether the equivalent of Corner Gas would have done well, or even been possible, in less tolerant societies.
Oh go on, get published!
I think Brent Butt is an excellent humorist, writer and actor, and the Corner Gas scripts are genius. If they ever published the scripts, I’d buy them in a flash, and if Brent Butt ever taught a course or workshop in comedy writing, I’d be the first to enrol. Corner Gas convinced me that Canadians have a sense of humour – despite what everyone else says, and what they say about themselves.
All I can say is, Mr. Brent Butt, thank you, from an appreciative almost-Canadian.
Examples of humorous exchanges in Corner Gas
Davis: Uh… I came to use your skate sharpener.
Oscar Leroy: Getting ready for the season opener, eh? Geez, I can’t wait.
Davis: I heard we almost lost Brent.
Oscar Leroy: What do you mean?
Davis: The Stonewood Saints asked him to play for their team.
Oscar Leroy: They what? Sons of… How would they like it if we went there and burnt down their rink?
Karen Pelly: That genuinely seems like an appropriate response to you?
Brent LeRoy: I’m not up on that new stuff.
Wanda Dollard: You’re not up on it? Or you’re not into it?
Brent LeRoy: I might be into it, if I was up on it. But I’m not up on it, so I’m not into it. What I’m into, I’m up on.
Lacey Burrows: I’m mostly into what I’m up on, but even though I’m not up on the new stuff, I’m sort of into it.
Brent LeRoy: I’m down with that.
Wanda Dollard: Prepositions are fun, aren’t they?
Brent LeRoy: What’s a preposition?
Karen Pelly: I can’t believe you’re sending me in without back-up.
Davis: It’s just a fishing trip Karen.
Karen Pelly: But it’s with Hank, twelve hours, killing fish.
Davis: If it gets to you, you don’t have to kill him, just throw him into the lake.
Karen Pelly: I wasn’t worried about the fish.
Davis: I wasn’t talking about the fish.
Customer: What’s that, quantum physics?
Wanda Dollard [reading a book]: Yeah, I’ve always been fascinated that light could be a particle and a wave. I was gonna study it in college, but then I got interested in Biochemistry. And then on a whim settled on Linguistics with minor in Comparative Religion.
Customer: Wow, how’d you end up in a place like this?
Wanda Dollard: The last girl quit, can you believe it?
Oscar to Lacey: Do you have perogies? Only they’re not really called perogies. They’re pyrohy. Yeah. That’s Ukrainian.
Emma: Master Linguist.
Oscar: Watch your mouth.
Lacey: Well, if anyone actually wants to order some non-hypothetical food that’s actually on the menu, I’ll be back. I have an errand to run.
Oscar: Dobra pobachennya. [Correct – that’s Добра побачення – goodbye in Ukranian.]
Brent: What’s that, Hawaiian?
Oscar: Ukrainian, ya jackass.
Brent: Yeah? Well, Ukraine is the Hawaii of Eastern Europe.
Davis: [after losing the Grey Cup tickets] Well, I’ll have to go to a scalper.
Karen Pelly: Isn’t it weird for you to go to a scalper?
Davis: Why? Because I’m a Cree man? I resent that!
Karen Pelly: Because you’re a police officer and scalping tickets is illegal.
Davis: Oh yeah.
[The irony here is that the actor who plays Davis, Lorne Cardinal, is actually a Cree, of the Sucker Creek First Nation.]
Lacey: You’re going through caffeine withdrawal and have overslept.
Brent (ordering): Two large cokes.
(Lacey brings him a glass of milk.)
Bent: Ah, tryptophan. that’ll help. [Tryptophan in milk helps you sleep.]