“I had an aversion to overtly rural themes,” says Brent Butt, creator and star of Corner Gas. “One of the writers pitched a story about this cow who was following one of the characters around, and I said, ‘That seems like Petticoat Junction to me. That’s not what we’re doing here.’ ” Butt didn’t set out to do a rural comedy, but he revived the form. Corner Gas, now in its sixth and last season, is perhaps the most successful Canadian sitcom; it runs in more than 20 different countries, gets a million viewers a week in Canada, and spawned many imitators including the successful Little Mosque on the Prairie. CTV is giving the series finale, which airs April 13, the sort of hype usually reserved for American finales, including a “pump out a poster” contest for the best fan-made expression of misery over losing the show. It’s become a success, in part, by bringing back the old-fashioned comedy about lovable people who don’t cotton to city life. Executive producer Virginia Thompson, who oversees the show’s production on location in Saskatchewan, says that part of its appeal is that “small-town stories are nostalgic. I think that they remind us of community, which we all need.” So is Corner Gas a nostalgic show about small-town life, like Petticoat Junction, or is it the opposite, as Butt insists? Maybe it’s both.
Rural sitcoms are traditionally about a world where everything is a little slower and calmer. Corner Gas, loosely based on Butt’s stand-up routine about growing up in rural Saskatchewan, certainly fits that format, starting with a theme song that tells us “you’d think there’s not a lot goin’ on” in Dog River, Sask. It’s a prairie town where people are few, buildings are fewer, and nobody minds their own business. Several character types are familiar from rural shows like Newhart and Green Acres. There’s Butt as gas station proprietor Brent Leroy, who, in the tradition of Butt’s idol Bob Newhart, spends his time reacting to the antics of the local weirdos. There’s also another staple of the rural sitcom, the urban fish out of water character, in the form of Lacey (Gabrielle Miller), a Torontonian who inherits Dog River’s only coffee shop.
But there’s a difference between Corner Gas and traditional rural shows, one that was apparent when Butt and consulting producer Mark Farrell delivered the first scripts to CTV; Farrell says the executives were surprised because “they thought it was going to be a little more rustic.” Most earlier shows portrayed small towns as an oasis from hard, fast modern life (or, on Green Acres, a hellhole where people are mocked for refusing to adjust to the modern world); on Corner Gas, the town looks quiet, but the characters spend all their time on crazy schemes, business deals and fighting. Lacey, Farrell says, is really “a fish in water” because she discovers that her Toronto ways fit right in in a small town. The characters may have the stereotypical rural preoccupation with keeping everything the same—in the pilot, they get upset when Brent starts carrying VHS tapes at the gas station—but most episodes revolve around them being obsessed with the same things as city dwellers: television viewing, technological gadgets, and sports. “The underlying message there,” Butt explains, “is that we’re a lot more the same than we are different.”
But even as Corner Gas tries to get away from the clichés of the rural sitcom, it benefits from being one. Most importantly, when it started, it had no competition. If it had taken place in the city, it wouldn’t have stood out the way it did when it premiered in 2004. Rural shows had been banished from U.S. networks decades earlier because they didn’t skew young enough; there were a few one-hour dramas about small towns (Northern Exposure, Ed), but apart from Newhart, most hit sitcoms stuck to cities and suburbs. Which meant that when Corner Gas came along, with its jokes about canoes and small-town busybody cops, it was able to satisfy a pent-up demand for something like The Andy Griffith Show.
And Corner Gas gave audiences something else they were looking for but couldn’t get: a show that had no desire to be edgy or socially relevant. Most contemporary Canadian sitcoms tend to be a bit cynical and tough-minded, as if the writers were rebelling against Canada’s reputation for doing safe, family-friendly comedy. “There wasn’t anything being done that was just a show about regular people who aren’t in TV, who aren’t cynical jaded bastards,” recalls Farrell, who previously worked on tough-minded shows like The Newsroom and Made in Canada. Corner Gas was the Canadian show for the viewers most Canadian producers had abandoned, and Brent Butt was one of those viewers: “I would like to sit down and not watch people be uncomfortable. I wanted a show that would let you just sit down, and laugh, and not change the world.” Corner Gas’s characters could be mean to each other; Brent’s father Oscar (Eric Peterson) called his son an “idiot” in the first episode and hasn’t let up since then. But it always made sure we were at ease, whereas other Canadian sitcoms were unsettling, or at least tried to be: “They all talk about being edgy, but they never are,” Butt says. “It always comes off as kind of sad and pathetic when people tell you how edgy their show is. It’s like your dad trying to show you how cool he is.”
But there has to be more to a show’s success than taking place in a rural community and adopting a non-edgy approach. Corner Gas also became a Canadian hit by not trying to be Canadian. Many shows emphasize the fact that they don’t take place in the U.S., as if worried they won’t have a reason to exist if the viewer doesn’t know they’re Canadian. “When I was growing up, I wanted to see more Canadian TV,” Butt recalls, “but whenever I did, the Canadiana was crammed down your throat.” Corner Gas occasionally has Canada-specific references, like a joke about Tommy Douglas, the man who brought free health care to Saskatchewan (he was really after “free refills on coffee”), but for the most part, Dog River is a generic town; though Canadian celebrities and politicians like Stephen Harper have made cameos, Butt has tried to emphasize the universality of the idea, even asking a director to remove a bunch of miniature Canadian flags from a shot: “How desperate does that look? It’s like, ‘Look how Canadian we are!’ ”
Even more important than the lack of Canadiana was the un-Canadian method of production. Canadian shows have tended to be driven by non-writing producers; by giving control of the show to Butt, CTV followed the pattern of shows like Seinfeld, where a stand-up comic guides his own star vehicle. “This is one of the first Canadian shows I can think of where the comedian had a say in the final product,” Farrell says. In a way, Corner Gas isn’t so much the great Canadian sitcom as the U.S. sitcom the U.S. wasn’t giving us: Americans could have produced a rural comedy with U.S.-style production methods, but they didn’t. Butt filled the gap.
So it’s no wonder that Corner Gas is going out with so much fanfare for its final episode; hit Canadian sitcoms are rare. On the other hand, it’s one thing to beat other Canadian comedies, but it’s less clear where Corner Gas stands when stacked up against the other successful one-camera comedies from the U.S. or England, like The Office (both versions) or Scrubs. For one thing, it doesn’t have the kind of character development or emotional involvement you get on some of those other shows, and doesn’t pretend to. Corner Gas has no story arcs and almost never changes the characters’ lives; when the promos for one episode made it look like Brent would sell his gas station and Lacey would move back to Toronto, the scene turned out to be just a parody of shows that actually try to shake things up. “People always ask us, ‘What are you going to do next?’ ” Thompson says. “And we answer: ‘we’re going do the same thing.’ ” Butt feels that keeping the characters and format the same has helped the show in reruns, and he considers it a sign of strength that the show has been so consistent: “When I watched the first few episodes, it wasn’t as different as I thought. We hadn’t grown much. That’s a testament to the fact that we found our legs early.” But you could argue that a really great show finds its legs and then builds from there, developing the characters and relationships beyond what we’d expect. Corner Gas has spent 100 funny episodes living up to our expectations, not changing them.
Of course, just because a show is comfortable and safe doesn’t preclude it becoming a classic. Many of the ’60s rural sitcoms that were frowned on as being too bland have become pop culture icons. The same thing might happen with Corner Gas, as people look back on it. Butt certainly thinks his show will look a little different as we start to understand it better: “People often think of Corner Gas as a gentle slow-paced show,” he says, “but it was anything but slow and gentle. It was fast-moving, with tons of cuts, and people being mean to each other.” He thinks the idea that he does a cute, friendly show is based more on the setting than a viewing of the actual episodes: “It’s a rural stereotype. When people see a field and blue jeans, they go: ‘Oh, quaint country folks.’ They often don’t know that those quaint country folks are plotting their murder. ”