Beloved Canadian TV series returns to the small screen
By Cheryl Minns, Senior Columnist
If you think there’s not a lot going on at Corner Gas, then you need to see what Brent Leroy and his friends are up to in the franchise’s latest series, Corner Gas Animated. The series is a continuation of the live-action series, Corner Gas, and brings back all of the show’s favourite characters in an animated format.
“It’s fun getting back together with everybody, getting into the studio, and doing scenes again,” series creator Brent Butt said in an interview with the Other Press.
Corner Gas began as a 13-episode, live-action sitcom about rural life in Saskatchewan. Since its premiere in 2004, the franchise has evolved into six seasons, a theatrically-released film, and now an animated series.
“I didn’t think it would last beyond one season. None of us thought anybody was going to watch a show about a gas station in Saskatchewan,” Butt said. “This has all been a surprise from the get-go.”
The series follows the residents of a fictional town called Dog River. The Corner Gas station is run by Brent Leroy (played by Butt) and cashier Wanda Dollard (played by Nancy Robertson, Butt’s wife). Next to the gas station is The Ruby café, owned and operated by former-Torontonian city slicker Lacey Burrows (Gabrielle Miller). In the pilot episode of Corner Gas, Lacey moves to Dog River when she inherits the café from her late aunt, Ruby.
Frequently seen at Corner Gas and The Ruby are odd-job guy Hank Yarbo (Fred Ewanuick), police officer Davis Quinton (Lorne Cardinal), rookie cop Karen Pelly (Tara Spencer-Nairn), and Brent’s parents: Oscar Leroy (Eric Peterson) and Emma Leroy (who was played by the late Janet Wright).
Each episode features a self-contained plot, which allows viewers to start watching the series at any point.
“Everybody changes throughout the episode, but they always end up exactly where they started from the beginning of the episode,” Ewanuick said in an interview with the Other Press. “One of the advantages is you’re never locked in to any one thing. It opens you up to all different sorts of things that could happen.”
Corner Gas Animated continues the lives of the Dog River residents in its 13-episode season, which premiered on The Comedy Network on April 2.
“The animation looks really good and it’s true to the show,” Ewanuick said. “It totally works. Almost to the point where I kind of wish it was animated from the get-go because it totally makes sense.”
“I’ve had a few people reach out on social media, saying that they didn’t really watch the original show, but they were curious about the animated show and they really like it,” Butt said. “It seems as though we’ve hit that sweet spot that we were hoping for. People who really enjoyed the original show are liking the new version, and people who are coming to Corner Gas for the first time are enjoying this version.”
Butt and the creative team wanted to make the animated series recognizably similar to Corner Gas, with the animated characters having many similarities to their real-life counterparts, including expressions, body types, outfits, and hairstyles reflecting that of the original series.
“I play the animated character the same way I played the live-action character,” Butt said. “We’re really trying to make this an extension of the original show, so we don’t want it to feel remarkably different.”
In Corner Gas, Hank was a very visual character, often gesturing while speaking and doing physical comedy to accompany his zany personality.
“Hank knows he’s the coolest guy in the room,” Ewanuick said. “He’s sort of a Norm from Cheers, with a Kramer from Seinfeld mixed in.”
When it came to the animated series, Ewanuick was only able to convey Hank’s vibrant personality through his voice. Having previous experience in voice work—including voicing Click-Clack in the DreamWorks series Dinotrux—he figured out how to alter his performance of Hank to suit the animation medium.
“If I played him the way I played him in the live-action, I don’t know if that would’ve translated to the animation,” Ewanuick said. “You need to amp it up just a touch, just to give it a little more life, and then you rely on the animators to add to that.”
Butt and the team decided to set Corner Gas Animated earlier in the Corner Gas timeline, at approximately season two. This change was to give the characters a younger appearance and to avoid any of the relationship plots from Corner Gas: The Movie.
“This way, most of us are trapped in our mid-to-late 30s, and they can animate us that way for years,” Ewanuick said.
Corner Gas was known for its cutaway fantasy sequences, but the series was limited by time, budget, safety restrictions, and reality. The new series’ animated format has allowed Butt and his team to create lots of fantasy sequences, flashbacks, and physical comedy gags, which would have been impossible to film in the live-action series. For example, the first episode of Corner Gas Animated features Oscar telling Brent that if Corner Gas ran out of fuel it would turn the town into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. The show then cuts to Oscar’s vision of the future.
“We did a scene that was very similar to a Mad Max scene where you have 20 war machines rolling over the dunes,” Butt said, describing Oscar’s vision. “Stuff like that we wouldn’t have been able to do in the live-action, so we’re having fun with that.”
The animated format has also allowed the team to continue the series with the character Emma. Wright had planned to be part of the animated series and voiced Emma in the series’ first trailer, but sadly she passed away at age 71 in 2016.
“We were quite a ways down the development road when Janet passed, so I didn’t know what we should do,” Butt said. “I wanted to make sure that we honoured what we thought Janet might want us to do, so I met with her husband and we talked and he said she would want Emma to live on.”
Wright’s husband, Bruce Davis, suggested that Butt and his team audition an actor named Corinne Koslo for the role of Emma. Koslo was a close of friend of Wright’s, who worked with her in theatre and had a similar-sounding voice.
“We auditioned a few people, one of them being Corinne, and she nailed it. I could really see what Bruce was saying when he said she had a similar timbre to Janet’s voice. She knew Janet so well that she kind of understands Janet’s rhythm and brings that to the table,” Butt said.
“Nobody will ever be Janet, but Corinne does an amazing job of bringing that essence of Emma,” Ewanuick said.
When the cast recorded their voices for the episodes, the team was split across the country. Actors Butt, Cardinal, Ewanuick, Miller, and Robertson recorded in a Vancouver studio, while Koslo, Peterson, and Spencer-Nairn recorded in a Toronto studio. To make it feel like they were all reading together, the team set up a live link between the two studios so the actors could hear and interact with each other while reading lines.
“We all have the scripts in front of us as we go through all the dialogue, our reactions, and everything for about four hours,” Ewanuick said.
During the first cast recording, when Koslo read Emma’s lines, she altered her voice to imitate Wright’s distinct, raspy sound, which surprised some of the Vancouver cast, who were listening to Koslo reading in Toronto.
“The first time we heard her voice come through reading the script, I just looked at Nancy and Nancy looked at me because it felt like Janet was still there,” Ewanuick said.
“There were times where she really nailed it,” Butt said. “But it’s kind of nice that there’s also enough of a wrinkle where she brings a bit of her own thing to it.”
With the animation aspect of Corner Gas Animated allowing for new creative directions, Butt and the writing staff have the opportunity to take Corner Gas to new frontiers.
“It’s a mix of people who wrote on the original series and some new writers. I always like when I get into a room with other writers and sit down and kick around stories. That’s always a lot of fun and a lot of laughs,” Butt said.
“The writing has evolved throughout the series. Every season, the scripts were a bit faster and tighter and we were putting more jokes in and the pacing was a little bit faster than the year before. With the animation, it feels like it’s taken one more step,” he said.
Corner Gas Animated airs Monday nights at 8 p.m. on The Comedy Network.