Brent Butt is a Canadian comedy icon. For years he worked as a stand-up comic, performing all over the place, from small town venues to large festivals, but is best known for Corner Gas, a sit-com set in a small town in Saskatchewan he created and starred in. Viewers enjoyed the quirky characters and humorous situations. The show was so popular that there was an animated spin-off and a film called Corner Gas: The Movie.
When word got out that Butt had written a book set in the mid-90s about three stand-up comics touring rural Canada, we assumed it would be a comedy. However, the author quickly clarified that Huge was a dark thriller. Can a writer and stand-up comic known for his good-natured, dead-pan humour stride into dark thriller territory? Well, the answer is yes.
The majority of Huge takes place in various bars and comedy venues across central Canada. Butt does a great job at setting the scene as this is an environment he knows well. It’s easy to visualise the small town venues and rundown hotel rooms where you desperately want to smell of bleach which tells you the room has been cleaned. He captures that vastness of rural Canada and how it is possible to drive for hours between towns or get lost in the wilderness. Because that’s the point – most of the time, his characters are a long way from help.
There are three stand-ups comedians on the tour. The oldest and most experienced member of the group is Dale Webly. A solid performer from Chicago, Dale has been in the business for a couple of decades. Things have changed since he hit his 40s. Gigs are not as frequent and money is tight. His daughter is starting college in two months and Dale’s ex-wife wants financial assistance with the tuition. Dale wants to help his daughter and sees it as an important way to rebuild their relationship. Life on the road means that he hasn’t always been there for her. So money is why Dale accepts this Canadian tour.
Rynn Lanigan is on a different career trajectory and her career is on the rise. Originally from Dublin, she is in the running to host a late-night show in Los Angeles. As she was only able to get a Canadian work visa, her manager has booked her on this tour. Rynn has to brush up on her skills as an emcee. After the tour, she is booked for the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, and the president of the company producing the late-night show will be in the audience.
The last minute addition to the tour is Hobie Huge. He is a novice stand-up comic who has agreed to do the driving and perform for free so that he can gain experience. The only reason that he got the gig is because a relative of his set it up with Merlin, the man booking the tour. Hobie is loud and large but his talent is small.
Most stand-ups can handle hecklers with ease. Over the years they learn how to deal with loudmouths and drunks, brushing them aside with a one-liner so that they can go on and finish their set with an entertained audience. However, Hobie just isn’t prepared for audience interaction and when things don’t go his way, he responds with… extreme violence. The expression that someone’s act ‘killed it’ takes on a whole new meaning with Hobie. He’s a psychopath and soon Dale and Rynn will become his victims too. Hobie wants to finish the tour come what may, and there’s no help for Dale and Rynn out on the road.
Using a stand-up tour to drive his plot is a clever move by Brent Butt. It is a realistic way for three characters, unknown to each other, to be thrown together in close quarters. The author knows all the details that surround performing comedy, and he uses them to ground the story and make it feel authentic, even though some very extreme things take place.
Early in the book, the plot burns a little too slowly, but it does help build the tension. We see Dale performing solo and come to understand how an old hand like Dale conducts himself professionally while performing. This creates a contrast later on when we encounter Hobie’s unpredictable behaviour on stage and on tour generally. Unfortunately for Dale and Rynn, they become the target for Hobie’s violent side. Their ability to think on their feet might be what helps them survive this tour.
Huge is more than a thriller. Part of its appeal is the homage it pays to live stand-up comedy. Through the characters of Dale and Rynn we learn everything from the art of packing light to the importance of reading the room. They both demonstrate the art of getting the audience on their side. You will finish the book with a greater appreciation of the effort that goes into stand-up comedy. You will also appreciate how Brent Butt was able to use his love of comedy to create a dark thriller.
Another comedian who now writes thrillers is Charlie Higson.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
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