A Happy Place: Corner Gas
by Travis Hedge Coke
“There’s this old saying, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to feed a fish and round and round you go.’”
– Hank Yarbo
After seventy-five years of televised situation comedies, the sitcom has matured, strengthened into a machine which generally dominates the tv set and our televisual nostalgia. Even reboots of older programs emphasize a season arc, make themselves binge-able through stricter intra-episode continuity, the illusion of progressional development and representational types. To succeed today, a sitcom needs to be sophisticated in its tropes and techniques. Or, it needs to be Corner Gas, which owes much more to the days of hazy-continuity, characters who come off as people, not types, and consequences that only work to the rules of wackiness. Corner Gas goes with what works, and what works for them has helped the franchise be one of the most popular in the history of Canadian television.
The situation comedy exists to comfort, to reassure easily and with the elegance we confuse as effortlessness. Sitcoms can educate us, they can enlighten us, but those are side benefits, not the goal, not what keeps a series on the air and available on streaming.
Set in a small Saskatchewan town called Dog River, and centered around the town’s gas station (only gas for sixty kilometers), Corner Gas has run for seven seasons as a live action situation comedy, a motion picture, and recently, four seasons as a cartoon. And, throughout it all, they had Indigenous actor, Lorne Cardinal.
Nowadays, we are all fancy and we got schmancy with shows that have more than one Indigenous actor. Anglophone television is almost overtaken by these twos of shows! Back in the day, Twin Peaks almost fell over and died when it had two Native actors at once.
A predominately white program, Cardinal and his character, Sergeant Davis Quenton, has remained an integral element to Corner Gas for its entire run. “You don’t hear the flute or the eagle scream,” says Cardinal, “when I come onto the screen.” Davis has moments in the movie that make the movie, including one with Graham Greene. The line, “Couldn’t be; I have a sexy face,” has entered my lexicon a little too much. So, too, “Shopping’s exercise.”
The first time I heard of the show, along with my grandparents, was a relative telling us on the phone that there was an Indigenous actor as part of the main cast. Cardinal’s Davis Quenton was never only the Native on the show. He was never slightly outside the community, or stoically remembering what is lost. Walking between two worlds. None of the standard stereotypes and rote tics applied. Davis was right in the midst of things, active, alive, invested and in his community.
Cardinal may have been my in, and a reason for the family to sit around the tv set and go, “Hey, it’s an Indian! Come watch your people!” but the cast of Corner Gas has always been ensemble-strong. If I go through a phase of not being down with sitcoms, it remains one I am joyous to watch. Tired of police shows and really not feeling it? I still want to watch Davis Quenton and Karen Pelly (Tara Spencer-Nairn). Nancy Robertson’s Wanda Dollard and Eric Peterson’s Oscar Leroy always make me laugh.
While many sitcoms rely on everyone dating someone new each episode, or coupling up the main cast in new iterations, Corner Gas has no break ups, hook ups are just barely getting there before they fade, no one dates long-term, and the only character to make the single-to-attached move in a longer frame than a single episode, is Robin Humboldt (Robin Summerfield O’Brien), and she is only seen in that episode. It is her passed husband, Wes, who was a show regular, and the episode tributes the passing of the actor who played him, Mike O’Brien.
Corner Gas adheres to an older form of sitcom, closer to the Dick Van Dyke Show than Friends or that Friends spinoff you know exists but does not have a title in your brain, while carving out its own modus operandi and pace. Creator Brent Butt’s comics fandom, his love, in particular, of 70s Marvel Comics and of Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon feels like fuel for the structure and world-building that generate the best episodes, and the best vibes, of Corner Gas. That world you can dip into briefly or for an afternoon, and the pop right out of refreshed and entertained.
Too often, sitcoms are structured so that minority characters are defined by their minority, gender lines are developed to ensure there is person of not-main-cast gender who is with us and every other person of not-main-cast gender, sexuality is affixed. With Cheers, there is a Carla and there are women. There is an Anthony Bouvier, in Designing Women, and there are men (and Bouvier has to be that one Black friend, as well as man-who-gets-it). Corner Gas can’t even decide which of the cast is the sexy one (it’s Hank when he’s fishing; something happens and you find yourself buying fishing magazines when he’s not around, magazines of men, fishing).
Where many ensemble sitcoms either pick a focus or drive the cast to act as a group-protagonist, Corner Gas can, on a dime, turn the show to focus on a single protagonist for a lengthy stretch, by that Brent, Wanda, Davis, or Lacey. The cast frequently underplay their bits to allow other actors to shine. And, the show can, and will, weave individual storylines or protagonists back into a group ethic in the tradition of the best superhero teams or ensemble comics. Someone else could make a case for Corner Gas’ structural mode is akin to many law enforcement ensembles dramas, but they are not here with us, so they can do that in their own column.
By being multi-generational, (just barely) multi-ethnic, by veering to lower financial classes and even lower helps you ignore that lazy-eye is associated with intelligence, that being thought of as queer does make some characters uncomfortable. Corner Gas, in taking its own continuity and internal logic not that seriously, assists us in revising the show in our memories, as well. The show in our heads is not the show on the screens, nor should it be.
Corner Gas opens with a stranger from afar moving to the town to take over her aunt’s diner, the Ruby Cafe. Corner Gas could have veered towards those newbie’s eyes, and made Lacey Burrows (Gabrielle Miller) our focal character. The one college graduate in apparently all of Dog River, cashier at the titular Corner Gas gas station, Wanda Dollard would be the lead in a show where one smart person lives in a world of dopes. The show could cement creator and producer Brent Butt’s character (Brent Leroy), based on himself, the center of the program. Ad campaigns definitely have put both of those characters, Lacey and Brent, at the fore, but in the show, itself, they may play lead or supporting roles, or barely appear at all.
Roles had sometimes been plotted as more stereotyped. Spencer-Nairn and Cardinal proposed switching the gendered tropes of their characters before shooting the first episodes.
On too many television shows, an episode like the one focusing on a game of slow pitch between two amateur teams would be broken down along strict gender lines, get that real girl vs boy energy, start revealing more sexism than the writers room want to straightaway. Corner Gas does not gender the teams, or attempt to pain the competition as anything but a sporting competition. Nobody hates the other team. No team act malicious or incompetent. It’s essentially supporting characters versus main characters and they all are going to go to the same stores, the same bar afterwards. The prize is like a plate of nachos.
When Emma Leroy (Janet Wright, and after her death, in animated form voice-acted by Corrine Koslo), Brent Leroy’s mother, is terrible at slow pitch, it is not because of her gender or her age, though members of the opposing team suggest it. She is, as an individual on a team which has talented women, talented people her age, just not good.
Tastes in movies, in books or comics or special interest magazines are not rigidly gendered, made age or ethnically-limited. Lacey is completely down to watch Space Frat Party 3 and wear a beer helmet while doing so. Emma and Davis are fans of Game of Thones-alike, Throne Strife, and attempt to attend a con together. Local do-nothing and semi-pro hanger-outer, Hank Yarbo (Fred Ewanuick) competes in the same beauty pageant as Emma Leroy.
We see femme-coded Davis from season one, episode one, bisexual Karen is a blink and miss it thing because she’s not seeing anyone during the run(s) anyway, and when Hank refers to a hypothetical transgender doctor as a transvestite, the joke is firmly on Hank, not extended to a barb at transgender people or transvestites.
Hank or Davis embracing femme-coded hobbies or behaviors is sometimes looked on with incredulity but accepted, while Lacey or Wanda embracing interests that are traditionally treated as male realms is accepted without question, from Wanda’s enthusiasm for breaking mops while mimicking kung fu movies to Lacey’s knowledge of hockey and mastery of table hockey.
The first open discussion of queerness which comes to my mind is Hank being incapable of processing a woman as a doctor, and mangling it into, “the new doctor is a transvestite?” Or, Emma wishing, on occasion, that her son, Brent, was gay.
Corner Gas is not without its representational flaws; I love Mavis (Kathleen Barr) and absolutely respond to her as a trans icon, but she has one entire leg distinctly in the swimming pool of Sergeant Klinger jokes.
The lines of societal qualifying, by gender, by ethnicity, are nowhere near as rigidly performed in Corner Gas as in other sitcoms. Women and men exchange alliances and understandings routinely. The existence of Davis as a First Nations man, as a Cree man, without distinguishing that as specifically alien or between two worlds is a remarkable feat for any television show. That Davis does not exist in a vacuum as the only local Indigenous person, or the only local minority, is almost unheard of in a show with a white-majority cast.
Brent and Hank spend an entire episode in love with a particular shirt, only to abandon it when they learn it’s a top marketed to women (buttons on the left, which previously, Brent believed gave it panache).
Oscar is gender-paranoid, but Oscar can also look at the same photo of a baby he thinks is ugly, and praise it as both, “she’s going to break hearts,” and “big hands; strong.”
For better or worse, like Oscar, we can change our direction midstream. For me, Karen is bisexual, for other audience, that is forgotten but being fifth in the nation for static apnea sticks or her job as a police, a certain gag, a particular joke, that time she told Oscar she lost her foot bag and Oscar told her it was called, “a sock.”
As a fan, your brain might edit out that it takes awhile for the show to develop more nonwhite characters, or that many of them only have a handful of appearances or brief moments within the episodes. For a new audience, Bu’s blink and you miss them appearance might be a defining trait of the show. Or, when Emma says something about Japanese” paper spirits, which, in broader context, is weird, but it is an orientalism easily understood as absurd yet believable by the residents of Dog River.
Hank greeting a knitting circle with, “What’s up, my knitters,” is a perfect out of touch white person joke, but it is also veering on that maybe avoid territory. Same with Lacey saying, “‘People of the air.’ What are you, an Aztec?”
The emphasis is on the characters being out of touch, or simply wrong, but they resurrect racist beliefs or racist terminology and the trade-off is not there.
It depends on your focus. What sticks and who you take as a voice of intelligence or knowledge.
Corner Gas has its flaws and its hang ups, but of the most racial humor, to use that euphemism for racist jokes they will let on the air, are aimed at the misunderstandings or biases of white Canadians, not slights at other groups. Similarly, while Brent may be perturbed by the idea of his parents enjoying sex or each other, sexually, we are not invited to find it disturbing or socially incorrect. When Karen implies we have all fooled around with someone of the same gender, it is not a hanging point for anyone, and simply drifts off. The biggest moral panics in the program come from a doctor from an even smaller, slower-paced town than Dog River (and she leaves after one episode), and Oscar, who is crank about everything and who no one at all ever takes seriously.
The bar is Native-run. The hotel is Native-run. The local realty is Native-run.
That buys a lot if your focus is on Natives. And, it is far better rep than most beloved anglophone sitcoms since 2004.
Shannon Chan-Kent’s Lin and Bu (she voices both) are in half the episodes of Corner Gas Animated. Vincent Tong’s Won is in slightly more. Erroll Kinistino’s Phil ran the bar and the attached Rouleau Hotel, for nine episodes of the live action Corner Gas, from 2006 to 2009 and continued to appear throughout the animated series. He took over the business from his brother, Paul, played by Mark Dieter for the first three seasons, though he is mentioned as still working at the Rouleau part time in Season Four.
Indigenous people as business owners, as ranking authorities, remains so rare in television that bar owner is prestige, especially when there is not one joke about drunk Indians. Simu Liu or Graham Greene doing a guest spot that is not at all dependent on racial jabs or stunt referencing is not only good, it is sorely missed in many other programs.
If it sounds like I am keeping track, I am really not, but part of my brain always is.
Emma, Brent’s mother, knits and cooks and is the hardest person in the entire show. Emma is not character often afforded to older women, and never as a series regular. Rigid and flexible, feminine and the tough, the most patient character on the show and the character you whose patience you never want to test. For that reason, alone, I am glad the role has been played by two actors. I hope they had a lot of fun with it.
When Lacey wants to coach the local amateur hockey team, she without question knows more about hockey than the others, but the men on the team are hesitant to let a woman in, much less to be in charge of them. To explain this, Brent Leroy asks her penis, if her penis knows the problem. Should penis be shorthand for man? No. Does it work in a small town context taking place over a decade ago?
When Karen and Davis debate who would be Batman and who would be Robin, there is no odd – and standards-enforced – attempt to re-gender Batman to make it more heteronormative, they just both believe they would be Batman.
Karen is soft-outed as bisexual in a few jokes, but without the typified queer-coding of straight-written soft-outings. Karen is neither stereotypically femme nor butch in those straight-male coded ways. There is no attempt to inelastically female or male Karen, a woman, which is rare both for bisexual characters or women police.
Emma is concerned about Lacey using the phrase, “girl time,” in reference to them hanging out, not cringing at homosexuality, but, “That’s how rumors get started.” It is treated in the same fashion as she reacts to suggestions about her and Phil, the bartender, or other characters.
Am I being selective? Picking and choosing my examples and my arcs? Emphasizing the continuity or characterizations that resonate most with me? Absolutely.
What Corner Gas does, in not abiding strict gender roles, is to make the gendering of them, in itself, look as absurd as it is.
People do not take in a sitcom in depth and detail. Sitcoms play behind life. Sitcoms are background static and punctuated moments. Simply being ethically superior to Cheers or Mike and Molly is an accomplishment of mark; a little less clumsy than Red Green or The Beachcombers.
Brent talking to a penis, even one covered and non-existence, was perhaps the most risqué joke Corner Gas would risk until, “Get the F off my lawn!” or a recent Season Four episode wherein a dating app signals you with dings and dongs, fostering lots of dong talk.
As, Keith Corbiere said in the Anishinabek News, Davis Quenton is a better, healthier shape of masculinity, and specifically entertainment’s portrayal of Indigenous masculinity, than nearly all previous portrayals on television. Even when Indigenous men were portrayed as more than stoicism, they were unknowable, mystically or animal-like unknowable. Quenton wears his heart on his sleeve and his feelings on his face. We would rather have a person who steals his coworkers yogurts and spoils adaptation watchers because they “should have read the books,” than another
During the dating app episode, Davis is getting dings and dongs nonstop, from a “bikini model slash hedge fund manager,” a UN employee “who loves craft beer.” All designated, “babe,” by the women of Dog River, but he brushes them all off for various reasons (that aren’t explicitly that Davis is gay, but if we are headcanoning here, that gets thrown into the hat, too). The realtor played by Tantoo Cardinal is hot for him. Because sitcoms should be rewarding.
Oscar Leroy, Emma’s husband, is every “shrill complainer housewife” and every “cranky man of the house” trope in one package. Oscar is a walking cartoon, but his cartoonishness stops Emma from being written as the kind of cartoon many sitcom wives, and many many sitcom mothers are.
There is no hot wife and schlubby guy couple because the only times they come close, they reset parameters. And, because when they come close, it’s Brent Leroy, and everyone knows he’s one of the most desirable men in Dog River and way out of Burrows’ league. Brent’s parents cannot be hot wife and schlubby guy, because Emma finds Oscar incredibly attractive, just also incredibly annoying.
Corner Gas lives in flux and change. Characters are plug and play sets of interests and anxieties. The town and the businesses all have muddled, even contradictory histories.
The town of Dog River might be named after the Cree traditional name for the area. It might be named for a guy who really hated dogs. Davis moved to Dog River as an adult. Davis grew up in Dog River. Lacey did not grow up in Dog River, but why do other characters remember her there as a child?
Dog River forgets, in a hundred years, that the town’s Main Street was actually named for the town founder, Harold Main. Or, was it? (Not even misleading; frequently, scenes are shown that turn out inaccurate, misremembered, or just things that did not happen.)
As with real life, especially in a tight-knit, closed off rural community, days comfortably blur together.
The animated episodes float somewhere, vaguely, between a couple seasons of the live action show, but which seasons?
To be a perfect, or a perfectly sensible show, would ruin Corner Gas’ not a lot going on energy, and impinge on our ability, as the audience to preference what we love about it over what might make us role our eyes.
When Lacey and Paul debate the high school garage band, Thunderface, at their one time only revival, it goes like:
Lacey: I thought you said they were good.
Paul: No, I said I loved them. They’re hysterical!
Corner Gas did not play by anyone else’s rules and remains a fun place to visit. The merger of amusing locals small town shows, where everyone is kooky and money is not quite real and the town borders are the borders of their reality, and of sketch comedy, where situation and character take precedent over chronology or gravity or gravitas or building towards any season finale.
Mark Dieter, Mike O’Brien, Gwen Seed, Jean Freeman, Corrine Koslo, Shannon Chan-Kent, Kathleen Barr, and all the guest stars make Corner Gas and Dog River a comfort, a favorite place.
You could cut the show down to just Nancy Robertson, not even reactions to her character, and it would be hilarious to watch.
Brent Butt is a comedy genius. Lorne Cardinal, a comedy genius. Janet Wright was a comedy genius. Fred Ewanuick? Funny funny guy. Gabrielle Miller will make you laugh. Tara Spender-Nairn is a comedy genius. Eric Peterson? Comedy Genius.
After seventy-five years of televised situation comedies, I think we can agree, if Corner Gas did not perfect the genre, they did a pretty good job.
A Happy Place: Corner Gas
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