The best TV show you (probably) never heard of..Posted: August 3, 2011
unless you’ve been to my home.
You think there’s not a lot goin’ on
But look closer, baby, you’re so wrong
And that’s why you can stay so long
Where there’s not a lot goin’ on
– “Not A Lot Goin’ On (Theme from Corner Gas)” by Northey Valenzuela
Thank heaven for Netflix. If it didn’t exist I probably would never have discovered my new favorite TV sitcom, “Corner Gas,” which ran from 2003 through 2009 on the CTV group of networks in Canada.
It’s not surprising that you’ve never heard of it. Why would you? It’s not American-made. It’s funny, it’s intelligent, it’s real, and it’s joyous. No life lessons, no laugh track, no “very special episodes.” If you’ve ever lived in a small rural town, you’ll appreciate the quirks:
Oscar: What’s all the racket? I can hear you clear across town!
Brent: You can hear us two blocks away?
Emma: How do you like Dog River?
Visiting Doctor: Well, it takes a bit of getting used to. I’m accustomed to a slower pace.
Emma: There’s a slower pace?
But as pointed out by creator and star Brent Butt (yes, it’s his real name), the themes are quite universal and could play out in just about any community, large or small, around the world. (My sister Colleen, who is also a fan, gave me three DVD seasons of the show. I told her once, “I wish I lived in Dog River.” She replied, “We DO live in Dog River.”)
“Corner Gas” is a TV show that some of you might not have heard of before. You’re probably scratching your head trying to figure out what the hell “Corner Gas” is, so let me tell you. Unless you live up in the Great White North or you get over a billion satellite channels, you have probably never seen this show. You see, “Corner Gas” is something very unusual. Something very rare. It is something almost mythical in nature, such as unicorns or white pants that are not totally see-through. “Corner Gas” is a successful, multi-season, non-cancelled, Canadian sitcom.
Brent: Want me to fill it up?
Man: Sure. You know I’ve never driven across Saskatchewan before.
Brent: Well, you still haven’t really. About halfway to go yet.
Man: Sure is flat.
Brent: How do you mean?
Man: You know, flat. Nothing to see.
Brent: What do you mean, like topographically? Hey Hank, this guy says Saskatchewan is flat.
Hank: How do you mean?
Brent: Topographically I guess. He says there’s nothin’ to see.
Hank: There’s lots to see. There’s nothin’ to block your view.
Brent: There’s lots to see. Nothin’ to block your view. Like the mountains back there. They’re uh… Well, what the hell? I could’ve sworn there was a big mountain range back there. Juttin’ up into the sky all purple and majestic. I must be thinkin’ of a postcard I saw or somethin’. Hey, it is kinda flat, thanks for pointin’ that out.
Man: You guys always this sarcastic?
Brent: There’s nothin’ else to do.
Brent took it over from his irascible father Oscar (Eric Peterson) and long-suffering-but-feisty mother Emma (Janet Wright):
Emma: I’m going out to get plant food. Oscar, do you need anything?
Oscar: What are you getting plant food for?
Emma: Because my tomatoes are pathetic and wrinkling. And when things are pathetic and wrinkly they need food. Eat your sandwich.
Oscar: I didn’t know whether to tell you this or not, but someone in town has a crush on me.
Emma: A crush…on you? You couldn’t get a dog to lick you if you were covered in gravy.
Oscar: What the hell are you talking about? Dogs lick me all the time.
Emma: So who’s got a crush on you? Is Helen Keller back in town?
Wanda (Butt’s real-life spouse Nancy Robertson) works for Brent. She’s probably the best-educated person in Dog River, but considers working at Corner Gas a primo gig:
Customer (pointing to Wanda’s book): What’s that, quantum physics?
Wanda: 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 a minor in comparative religion.
Customer: Wow, how’d you end up in a place like this?
Wanda: The last girl quit, can you believe it?
Lacey (Gabrielle Miller) is the new owner of The Ruby, her late aunt’s restaurant connected to Corner Gas. She moved there from Toronto, and is doing her best to adapt to small-town life and her eccentric new friends:
Wanda: What’s with the rubber gloves?
Lacey: The dishwasher’s broke. Oh, well. A little hard work never killed anybody.
Karen: Hard work kills people all the time.
Wanda: You never heard of a heart attack?
Karen: Aneurysm? Hernia?
Wanda: Burst blood vessel behind the eye?
Lacey: Well, it’s nice chatting with you.
Hank (Fred Ewanuick) is the town slacker lay-about and Brent’s best friend since childhood. He works as a mechanic when not depriving others of their livelihood:
Hank: Hey Brent, how tall are you?
Brent: About 5’9.
Hank: My point exactly!
Brent: Did I just lose an argument I wasn’t even in?
Hank: You ask anyone over the age of 30 how tall they are, they’re going to tell you in feet and inches. Huh? Watch!… Hey, Wanda!
Wanda (filling the milk cooler): What?
Hank: What size is that milk you’re putting out?
Wanda: Uh, some two liters and some half liters.
Hank (looks knowingly at Brent): How tall are you?
Wanda (pivots angrily): Yes, Hank, I’m short. Very funny. You’re a regular Jay Lame-o. I’m still tall enough to kick your sorry ass. (storms out)
Brent: Now ask her if she’s over 30.
And Davis (Lorne Cardinal) and Karen (Tara Spencer-Nairn) are the local officers of the law. They spend their days hanging out at The Ruby and arguing about who gets to be called “Car One.”
Karen: I can’t believe you’re sending me in without back-up.
Davis: It’s just a fishing trip, Karen.
Karen: 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: I wasn’t worried about the fish.
Davis: I wasn’t talking about the fish.
Davis: Proper billy club use, Karen, that’s the secret. I find it helps if you give your billy club a name. You know what I call mine?
Davis (pause): Anyways, a billy club is a cop’s best friend.
Karen: I thought you said a gun was a cop’s best friend.
Davis: Well, a gun is more like a cop’s lover. There’s some things you tell your gun that you’d never tell a lover. And sometimes your lover and your best friend don’t get along. Or maybe you go out with one and the other gets mad at you ’cause you didn’t go out with it!
Karen: You’re divorced, right?
There are a few sitcoms I’ve enjoyed over the years that were perfectly cast. Any other actor in any of the roles would be unimaginable. “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Mad About You,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Arrested Development,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Scrubs,” “Seinfeld” all come to mind. I wouldn’t hesitate to add “Corner Gas” to that pantheon.
“Corner Gas” did make it to the US, albeit briefly. In September 2007, cable superstation WGN began broadcasting two episodes a night, four nights a week. For reasons that continue to baffle me, they aired only a couple of seasons’ worth and then let it drop. (I just now checked their website and it’s nowhere to be found on their schedule.) Actually I’m a little bit glad. If “Corner Gas” had become more popular here, one or more networks would have commissioned a knockoff series that would never have captured the show’s quality. Dumbed it down, lamed it up. So thank heaven for Netflix.
A reviewer in the Australian newspaper The Age imagined “Corner Gas” as if “Northern Exposure” had been made as a sitcom. No less an authority than Canadian comedian/actor/writer/producer/Kid In The Hall Mark McKinney (no relation, damn it anyway) once suggested that the history of Canadian television would henceforth be divided into two distinct eras: before “Corner Gas,” and after. While according to the website everything2.com,
“Corner Gas” achieves the show-about-nothing status that “Seinfeld” attempted: It isn’t sexy, violent, or even (particularly) filled with attractive people. It dodges most current issues and eschews “very special” episodes. Mayberry, by comparison, constitutes a hive of activity. The crew even film as far as possible from the centers of the Canadian film and television industry, in a Regina studio and on location in tiny Rouleau, Saskatchewan. Yet for six seasons, millions have tuned in to laugh at the banal idiocies of Dog River, an imaginary small town on the Canadian prairies … “Corner Gas” is more like “Northern Exposure” and less like “Seinfeld” in that it has sympathetic characters.
Again from M-M-M-Mishy:
“Corner Gas” turned into a bit of a Canadian phenomenon. It gets good ratings, people all across the country are said to watch it, and people are actually taking trips out to Saskatchewan to see where the show is set. If you’ve ever been there, you’d know that Saskatchewan, while beautiful, is not exactly known for its tourism… Dog River is where everyone knows everyone else’s business because there is nothing else to talk about. In Dog River, the liquor store is also where life, car, and property insurance is sold. Where the police force consists of only two cops who have to try to find people who are even coming close to breaking the law. And Corner Gas is the only place to fill up for kilometers around.
And again from everything2.com:
Week after week, episode after episode, the citizens of Dog River engage in pointless banter, aspire to trivial goals, and battle over mundane McGuffins. Brent and Hank rediscover their childhood treehouse, which has been taken over by intimidating little kids. Lacey tries to teach free Pilates, but finds that the residents (a) worry it has some connection with “the guy who sentenced Jesus to death”, (b) think there’s some kind of trick, and (c) already attend “mat class.” Wanda tries to write her name in fresh sidewalk cement; Oscar attempts to prevent her. Hank tries to prove that a visiting American knows nothing about Canada (Hank fails). Karen and Davis crack down on jaywalkers in order to pay for the town’s new traffic light. Lacey tries to track the source of counterfeit bonus coupons. Emma and Oscar get a new thermostat and argue over the ideal temperature. The plots don’t matter so much as their execution. The deadpan delivery by this cast turns seemingly mediocre lines into hilarious witticisms.
Speaking of the lines: The writing is superlative. Clever and bright, but like conversations you’ve overheard in daily life. Nowadays most sitcoms are scripted by one writer who submits it and goes on to the next gig. With “Corner Gas,'” Butt and the rest of the writers stayed in Saskatchewan with the cast and crew, working as a team, sitting in on read-throughs and shoots, tweaking and modifying and buffing and polishing until it was perfect:
Brent: I’m not up on that new stuff.
Wanda: You’re not up on it? Or you’re not into it?
Brent: 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: 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: I’m down with that.
Wanda: Prepositions are fun, aren’t they?
Brent: What’s a preposition?
I’m not categorically opposed to “blue” or overly topical material, but “Corner Gas” is a stellar example of how a script can genuinely be funny while taking a more genteel high road. The strongest recurring language was Oscar’s favorite epithet: “Jackass!” The raciest the dialogue ever got was when Lacey pleaded with Brent to let her coach the Dog River River Dogs hockey team:
Lacey: Why are the guys so against me being the coach?
Brent: Well, I’m not sure. Let’s ask your penis. (Leans forward as they’re walking:) Excuse me, Lacey’s Penis… What the…? You don’t have one!
Lacey: Oh, you can’t be serious.
Brent: I’m serious. I didn’t see one.
The most topical the show ever got was when Davis lost his football game tickets:
Davis: Well, I’ll have to go to a scalper.
Karen: Isn’t it weird for you to go to a scalper?
Davis: Why? Because I’m a Cree man? I resent that.
Karen: Because you’re a police officer and scalping tickets is illegal.
Davis: Oh yeah.
And the most risqué the show ever got was when the town wants to build a tourist attraction:
Mayor Fitzgerald’s Grandma: Dog River has always been a farming community. I think that we should build something that would show how proud we are of our agricultural heritage.
Brent: There you go. Now we’re cooking.
Grandma: My suggestion is we should build a hoe.
Brent: The… World’s Biggest Hoe?
Lacey: They do attract people. And they certainly generate revenue.
No one was willing to tell Grandma what she’d said. But concerns were raised about how it may get covered with mud and rain, becoming a “dirty hoe,” or the wood may become brittle and splinter, becoming a “crack hoe.”
Lacey: Yeah, Brent. Why don’t you look Fitzy’s Grandma in the eye and give her one good reason this town can’t build a great big dirty hoe?
In an interview with Rob Owen from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Butt said he kept the show clean for a simple reason.
“I live in terror of my mother, who I know watches, her and her church lady friends. If it was dirty, there would be hell to pay.”
But even so, they weren’t above taking a swipe at the powers-that-be. In the second season CTV started shifting the show to various days and times around the schedule, mostly to accommodate American Idol (of all things). So when Hank got hold of an electronic planner:
Hank: Look at this, I got my whole day mapped out. 1 pm, hang out at Corner Gas; 2 pm, eat chips…
Wanda: That thing’s turned you into a real go-getter.
Hank: …4 pm, hang out at Corner Gas…
Wanda: Oh, um, can you rebook to 5? That’s when I get off.
Hank: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep bouncing Corner Gas around the schedule.
A little later in Owen’s interview, Butt identified the show’s setting and appeal.
“You’re either from a small town and can relate, or you’ve never been to a small town, so it’s exotic and weird… It’s kind of a win-win.”
A unique, small-town community characteristic (read: quirk) is revisited throughout the series. According to Wikipedia.org:
The residents of Dog River have a pathological dislike of the residents of Wullerton, a neighboring town, to the point that they spit on the ground whenever the rival town is mentioned. They are so used to it they sometimes do not realize it when they spit, and that the local newspaper will print “(SPIT)” after printing the town’s name. Ironically, the people of Wullerton may not hate Dog River, as seen in the fourth season’s finale (however, this was only part of a fantasy sequence, and may not accurately reflect Wullerton’s actual sentiment towards Dog River). The reason for this has yet to be explained. Publicity for the second season indicated that the season finale would reveal the reason for the spitting; however, the episode as broadcast did not actually do so. It should be noted that this practice of looking down on neighboring towns is common in many prairie communities, primarily those in Saskatchewan and Alberta, such as Tisdale and Melfort.
And Lacey’s reaction when, during the grand reopening of The Ruby, she suddenly and dramatically encountered this phenomenon was:
“I’m gonna get a mop.”
But Wullerton spitting isn’t the show’s only contribution to pop culture. Again from Wikipedia:
In a third season episode Brent created the term “staycation” to explain the act of taking a vacation without actually leaving home. This term is now in use on many pages on the internet and has passed into the general lexicon, even to the extent of being included in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
Not surprisingly, Canadian celebrities (and Americans with Canadian ties) clamored to be on the show. According to everything2.com, over the course of its run the show welcomed a host of guest stars, including two standing prime ministers (Paul Martin and Stephen Harper), one former governor-general (Adrienne Clarkson), the Premier of Saskatchewan (Brad Wall), alternative bands The Tragically Hip and The Odds, comedians Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald, and Colin Mochrie, all the judges from “Canadian Idol,” Dog the Bounty Hunter, singer-songwriter Colin James, hockey great Darryl Sittler, CTV news anchor Lloyd Robertson, RCAF aerobatic team The Snowbirds, crooner Michael Bublé, world champion curlers Randy Ferbey and Dave Nedohin, Olympian Cindy Klassen, and actor Kiefer Sutherland and his mom Shirley Douglas.
Butt chose to end the show after the 2008-09 season. According to everything2.com:
Ratings remained high, but the show’s creators and cast, wisely, chose to quit while they were still successful. And “Corner Gas” succeeded as few imagined, becoming Canada’s leading water cooler show and one of the country’s most successful entertainment exports in the early twenty-first century.
Butt shared this in the Toronto Star:
“I made the decision, but it kind of felt like the show made the decision. It kind of felt like the show tapped me on the shoulder and said, `Can I go now? I’ll stick around if you want me to, but I think it’s time to go.’ And you know, I respect that… ‘Corner Gas’ was so special to me and to a lot of people that I couldn’t bear to see it go too long. If you leave a party and nobody’s sad or nobody cares, that’s a good sign that you probably stayed too long. I didn’t want that to happen. I couldn’t have stood it and I felt like the show was asking me not to let that happen… Comedy is nothing if not timing. That’s the most important aspect.”
In her excellent blog “From the Back of the Room,” Toronto journalist Sharilyn Johnson commented on Butt’s decision to end the show “on top” (another “Seinfeld” parallel):
Brent Butt grew up in rural Saskatchewan, and has often said that “Corner Gas” is what he imagined his life would look like if he’d never left…What made “Corner Gas” such a success was the idea that Dog River will always be the same. We fell in love with these characters. We didn’t want to leave Dog River, and indeed couldn’t imagine anyone – including Brent – wanting to leave Dog River. There’s nothing more satisfying for a fan than feeling like a show’s creators understand you. “Corner Gas” fans couldn’t have asked for a happier ending.
“Corner Gas” continues in reruns, just about any time of the day or night across Canada. DVD collections of all six seasons are available. Of course there’s Netflix. You can always try my home; I’ll hook you up. And I don’t live anywhere near Wullerton (SPIT).