TORONTO – He scored one of Canada’s biggest television hits with “Corner Gas,” but writer, star and show creator Brent Butt says he’s not out to set the next big comedy benchmark with his new series, “Hiccups.”
“I never try and do a show that people will watch, necessarily,” says Butt, who pulled the plug on “Corner Gas” last spring while it was still a critical and audience fave.
“I mean, I always want that and I’m not some avant-garde artist tool who says, ‘Screw everybody I’m going to do what I want to do.’ I always know that I’m making a product that we want to have sell, but … I don’t let that be the driving force in the day. The driving force in the day is always, ‘How can we make this funnier?’ And then, that usually is the recipe to getting people on board.”
In the case of “Hiccups,” that’s meant carrying over a lot of the same talent that made “Gas” such a smash. This time Nancy Robertson, who played the acerbic Wanda on the Saskatchewan-based sitcom, takes the lead as Millie, a misfit children’s author with a boundless enthusiasm for life and a hair-trigger temper.
Butt wears multiple hats again as writer, director and producer and steps in front of the camera to play Stan, Millie’s clueless life coach.
Behind the scenes, “Gas” director David Storey serves as director and executive producer, while three “Gas” writers contribute to the scripts.
For obvious reasons, the comedic tone on “Hiccups” will be familiar to “Gas” fans, says Robertson, who adds that the new series is just different enough to woo them into following a new band of lovable losers.
“We know that the ‘Corner Gas’ fans are pretty loyal,” Robertson said during a December telephone interview from the Vancouver set.
“We know that this might be a bit of a transition for them but I always say, ‘We’re the really nice step-parent.’ We’re coming in, we know we’re not ‘Corner Gas.’ We have to be different but it’s a good show.”
While the “Gas” laughs were set in the fictional rural community of Dog River, “Hiccups” plays out against the backdrop of Vancouver’s glass towers and majestic mountains.
And Millie’s entourage is a decidedly urban bunch – they include her demanding publisher Joyce (Laura Soltis), the slick but inept agent Taylor (David Ingram) and the slacker receptionist Crystal (Emily Perkins).
Millie’s volatile emotions are on display from her first appearance onscreen at a Vancouver coffee shop, where she explodes at an indecisive customer holding up a long line of patrons. Later, her nervous energy is put to charming effect when she appears at a book reading for young fans.
“Where Wanda was much tighter and the world around her kind of interrupted her thoughts and were irritants to her, to a certain degree, Millie is wide open,” says Robertson.
“Her first place to go is positive and happy and when something doesn’t turn out that way she doesn’t deal with it very well. So she’s a lot freer. I find when I’m driving home I’m less tense at the end of the day because Wanda …she was so tight and almost ready to pounce. Where Millie, she’s just wide open, the world’s her oyster, bring it on.”
Butt praised Robertson, his real-life wife, for managing to make Millie someone to root for, despite her anger issues.
“The first day we shot ‘Hiccups’ it was like this person who had been living and breathing on the planet, had been existing all this while, showed up and it was amazing to me,” says Butt, also working on an hour-long variety special for CTV.
“She’s one of the most naturally comedic people I’ve ever met so you know you can turn the cameras on her and get something great. That’s comforting.”
“Hiccups” debuts Monday on CTV.