Brent Butt Recalls Jim Weseen
by Bill Harris
Brent Butt has a simple message for his favourite teacher, Jim Weseen: “Thanks for not calling me nuts.”
“That’s We-seen,” Butt says, “as in, we seen a sasquatch.”
Butt, of course, is famous as the creator and star of CTV’s Corner Gas.
By any measure, Corner Gas is the most successful sitcom in Canadian history, and after six record-breaking seasons it wrapped up – at Butt’s behest, the idea being to go out on top – in April 2009.
Before the fame of Corner Gas, Butt built his career as a stand-up comedian. He started on that path as a high school student at Tisdale Unit Composite School in his home town of Tisdale, Saskatchewan.
“I did stand-up twice in high school, at variety night and drama night,” recalls Butt, who was in the class of 1984. “And I was a little tentative to put that out there, to say, ‘I want to do stand-up.’
“Jim Weseen was the teacher in charge of those events. But he didn’t make me feel like I was a nut. He was like, ‘We’ve never done that before, but that sounds cool.’
“He seemed to give validity to the crazy pipe dream. He wasn’t particularly encouraging, saying, ‘You should go do this.’ It wasn’t like Mr. Holland’s Opus or something. He just said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ ”
You know that old expression, you never know when you’re making a memory? Jim Weseen may not have known he was making a memory, but his willingness to listen to a young Brent Butt made a lasting impression.
“Jim Weseen was at the forefront, but if I look at the majority of my teachers, for this little farming town in the middle of nowhere, I’m often impressed with their open-mindedness,” Butt says.
“One year in biology class I was told I didn’t hand in a single assignment. That seemed far-fetched to me.”
“Jim Weseen is just a good guy and he’s wicked smart. He’s one of those guys who knows a bit about everything and has genuine interest in everything. Chemistry, politics, health, the paranormal, you name it.”
On hearing the nice things Butt had to say, Weseen – who was also the vice-principal – was clearly touched.
“I’ve heard some of this in bits and pieces, but this renders me speechless,” says Weseen, who is retired and lives in Saskatoon. “The thing I never wanted to do to a kid was be discouraging. It was pretty central to my philosophy of teaching, really.
“The stories you hear from a lot of successful people are, ‘I remember when such-and-such a teacher told me I’d never amount to anything.’ And I thought, ‘Boy, I never want to have that legacy.’ So I tried not to.”
Sounds like you did a heck of a job, Jim.
Brent Butt, 42, was born in Tisdale and spent his entire school career there. So was Butt – well, we guess there’s no delicate way to put this – a bad student?
“It depends on what you define as a bad student,” Butt says. “I was not academically motivated but I wasn’t a bleep-disturber, you know? I basically horsed around with my buddies and drew cartoons, and then I would say, ‘I forgot to hand that in; I forgot to do that assignment.’
“There was actually one year in biology class when I was told I didn’t hand in a single assignment. That seemed far-fetched to me. I said, ‘I’m sure I handed in one,’ and the teacher said, ‘Nope.’ ”
That teacher was Jim Weseen.
“He taught a number of things, but the only thing he attempted to teach me was biology. I took Grade 11 biology three times. I relished that class. I just kept doing not enough to pass, and yet I always had a good time. And Jim Weseen didn’t mind having me around.”
Weseen may not have minded, but it’s not as if Butt was ever able to parlay any teacher’s-pet status into better grades. He did take the class three times, after all.
“That’s one of the things I learned from Jim Weseen,” Butt says. “You know how you can charm your way through life sometimes? Well, Jim Weseen gave you nothing. He was like, ‘I’m happy to have you in the class, but if you don’t do any work you get zero.’
“We had a very good relationship, actually, in that regard.”
So what does Jim Weseen recall of Brent Butt back then?
“I could never be mad at him,” says Weseen. “I don’t think any teacher could ever be mad at him. You could be frustrated because he wasn’t handing in his work or whatever, but he was probably one of the best-natured people that I’ve had the privilege of working with.
“I never had any hesitation about him taking biology over and over again because he certainly made the class more interesting. Good talker, obviously. Bright kid. The only problem was that because it was a lab science class, you actually had to do some of the work. It took us a while to see eye to eye on that.”
Butt lauds Weseen for treating his students as individuals.
“He talked to you not like you were a kid,” Butt says. “He’d complain about taxes. He’d say, ‘I don’t know what the hell’s going on with the mayor in this town.’ He’d talk to you as a peer in some regards.”
Jim Weseen also knew what was funny.
“I was able to pick my moments and do some funny stuff in class without serious ramifications,” Butt says.
Funny or not, Butt’s lukewarm attitude toward academics was a concern.
“Goodness knows, there were times when we despaired of him,” Weseen says with a laugh. “Mostly because he was always too busy doing other stuff to ever get down to doing his school work.
“You need one senior science to get through high school, and Grade 11 biology was his choice. He took a few runs at it.”
Uh, he did pass eventually, right?
“He did, but it took some effort on both his and my part,” Weseen says. “At one point or another he joked – except it was probably true – that we agreed he would pass if he promised never to study biology ever again or to take anything that required him to know biology. But this was 25 years ago, and sometimes these tales grow in the telling.”
Butt recalls that Weseen, as affable as he was, did have a tipping point.
“The only thing that really upset him was if you somehow got in the way of other students learning. That would frost him,” Butt says. “But if you were just sitting in a corner drawing Spider Man, that was up to you. I was drawing Spider Man/Hulk hybrids, the Hulk with Spider Man’s head, that kind of thing.
“I’d draw cartoons and pass them to a buddy and every now and then he’d intercept them. I found out years later that he kept a lot of them.”
Is that true, Jim?
“Yeah – Brent would always be cartooning, and I kept the ones I thought were cute,” Weseen says. “Right now, we think of Brent as a performer, but he was also a very good sketch artist.
“He may well have been the brightest kid, but he certainly didn’t have the highest marks.”
“Before he decided to go the stand-up comedy route, he and a fellow classmate tried to write a comic book. I think they produced two issues. I still have one of those in a plastic envelope.”
Butt says Weseen was the first adult who spoke with him about getting into show business. And Butt considers himself lucky that his dreams were not dashed either at school or at home, in the cold way that doors can be slammed in young people’s faces.
“I grew up pretty poor,” Butt says. “My parents were raising seven kids on nothing. But they got along great and were the happiest people I ever knew. Home for me was a very comforting place. I fell into the right family and the right school.”
Weseen is quick to point out, however, that Brent’s own nature has a lot to do with how he views the world and how the world views him.
“He was well loved in school,” Weseen says. “He was elected valedictorian of his class by the students. It wasn’t one of those things where the teachers chose the brightest kid. He may well have been the brightest kid, but he certainly didn’t have the highest marks.
“He came back to the 20-year reunion of his class in 2004, and that was one of the reunions I went to because it was one of my favourite classes. I guess you’re not supposed to admit that.
“It was just like old times. There were no barriers up for anything. Brent was just as popular as ever and just as approachable. And I thought, ‘Good – that’s the Brent I’ve always known.’ ”
Butt says he and Weseen have seen each other in Saskatoon from time to time through the years, when he’s in town to do a show. So did Butt ever specifically tell Weseen how important he had been?
“I did, yeah,” Butt says. “It wasn’t like an emotional outpouring or anything. I just said, ‘Listen, this is one of the things I really appreciated in school.’ And he just said, ‘I’m glad you felt that way.’ It wasn’t a big weepy thing, ‘You changed my life.’ It was more like, ‘Thanks for not calling me nuts.’ ”
The odds of anybody – be they from Saskatchewan, Ontario or Timbuktu – making it in show business are pretty long. So it must have been something special for Jim Weseen the first time he saw Brent Butt’s smiling face on Corner Gas.
“Yeah, but it was a long growth curve for him,” Weseen says. “We would hear that he was doing the comedy clubs and getting better gigs and speaking to organizations, and it just kind of grew.
“Then he started appearing on the Comedy Network, and when he got Corner Gas, well, I do occasionally mention that I was his teacher.”
Not only his teacher, but his favourite teacher.
“Well, that helps,” Weseen says. “I guess I can still do some name-dropping.”
Looking back on his school days and particularly the positive impact of Jim Weseen, what general advice would Brent Butt give to teachers?
“You should really take a moment to listen to the kids, and what they’re saying is not automatically wrong,” Butt says. “Nine out of 10 times it probably is going to be, ‘No, you can’t stick your tongue in the light socket.’ But that one in 10 might help them move forward in life.
“Kids are very sensitive to being shut down. You shut a kid down early, and they can shut down for life.”
Same question, Jim Weseen: What advice would you give to teachers?
“Treat kids like people,” Weseen says. “I mean, that’s badly put – of course they’re people. But it’s so important. I’ve had many people, including my own kids, say that the best teachers, the ones they remember most fondly, are the ones who treated them like human beings.”
Before we wrap this up, we just have to know: Brent, how did those two high school stand-up gigs go, anyway?
“Really great,” Butt says.
“I knew it was something I was going to try, but you don’t know initially if you’re going to be any good at it. I was encouraged. I seemed to have the ability to put a joke together.”
We’ll speak for all Canadians who have ever laughed at Corner Gas when we say this:
Hey, Jim Weseen – Thanks for not calling Brent Butt nuts.