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‘Corner Gas’ set to air in U.S

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (CP) _ After five seasons in Canada, "Corner Gas" _ Brent Butt’s loopy little sitcom set in the fictional town of Dog River, Sask. _ is finally being introduced to U.S. viewers.

The carrier is Chicago-based superstation WGN, available in over 70 million U.S. homes as well as to digital subscribers in Canada.

In an era when U.S. programming floods across our borders and dominates our ratings, it is news when a Canadian TV show manages to turn it around and crack the U.S. market. Not everything we try to export to the States sticks; "Trailer Park Boys" were told to decamp after one low-rated season on the U.S. cable network BBC America. "Da Vinci’s Inquest," however, was quickly embraced by viewers when it was picked up by WGN, providing a tidy annuity for its star, Nicholas Campbell.

"Corner Gas" is already a pretty successful import, appearing in 26 countries. Cast members keep hearing stories from tourists who have seen episodes in far away places such as Australia and New Zealand.

This press tour, however, the buzz has been about the show that has stolen some of the thunder from "Corner Gas" in Canada, CBC’s "Little Mosque On The Prairie."

New NBC chairman Ben Silverman confirmed last week that "Little Mosque" is on his radar. The cast of the CBC comedy is also being feted next month in Los Angeles at The Paley Center For Media (formerly the Museum Of Television & Radio).

The tour has also seen a steady parade of Europeans _ as well as the occasional Canadian _ posing as Americans on NBC, CBS and Fox. More than ever before, U.S. networks seem to be looking beyond their borders for fresh faces. Whether it is thanks to the success of "Heroes" _ a show which boasts an exceptionally international cast for a U.S. television series _ or the break out stardom of Dr. Gregory House _ a.k.a. British actor Hugh Laurie, the world seems to be coming to America this fall.

The star and creator of "Corner Gas," Brent Butt, figures his timing couldn’t be better. This past weekend, the 40-year-old Saskatchewan-native joined critics from both sides of the border at a low-key press tour breakfast to promote WGR’s pick-up of the series.

Somehow, back bacon did not make the menu. Instead, besides the usual bacon and eggs, critics were offered "Corner Gas" golf balls, key chains, coffee mugs and other cheesy trinkets.

Butt, who was joined at the breakfast by co-stars Nancy Robertson (Wanda), Gabrielle Miller (Lacey) and Tara Spencer-Nairn (Officer Karen Pelly), is pretty sure Americans will get his show. He’s been told Dog River reminds them of rural Nebraska. "They just accept that it is a small town in the middle of nowhere," he said.

Someone once described his show as "Seinfeld" rocketed back 40 years and put in Mayberry. That’s the description he passes along to Americans.

Butt used a photo of the cast standing in front of a grain elevator to break down the show for U.S. critics. "You’ve got the authority figures who aren’t very good at what they do," he said, pointing at police officers Spencer-Nairn and Lorne Cardinal, "the bitter co-worker who is snarky and doesn’t want to be there (Robertson’s Wanda), the strong matriarch (Janet Wright’s Emma) the cranky old guy (Eric Peterson’s Oscar), the dopey local (Fred Ewanuick’s Hank), the smart ass (Butt himself, who plays station owner Brent Leroy) and the fish out of water (Miller’s transplanted coffee shop owner, Lacey)."

One U.S. critic seemed to get it immediately, claiming her husband could easily fill in as Oscar.

Robertson, who describes her character as "the plain gas station attendant," is just glad "Corner Gas isn’t being re-cast for the American market. Her part would probably go to somebody like Meg Ryan, she guesses, "the American version of plain."

Butt recalled that when they did write an American into an episode they tried to play against the notion that most Yanks don’t know or care that much about Canada. Mark McKinney guest-starred in an early episode as a Yank who knew more about Canadians than the Canadians did. "We turned it on its head," he said.

He also doesn’t feel Americans will be stumped by occasional guest stars who mean nothing outside of Canada, such as CTV News anchor Lloyd Robertson or former Toronto Maple Leaf Darryl Sittler.

"I look at it as value added," says Butt. "If you know who Darryl Sittler is, you’ll enjoy the joke so much more than people who don’t know who Darryl Sittler is." And if you don’t, well, it’s no worse than when Canadians don’t exactly get all the references on British TV comedies. As Robertson says, the worst that can happen is that American viewers "might learn a few things" about Canada.