Understand this and all the rest makes sense--the tough-girl act, the weepingly devoted audiences, the whispered comparisons to Roseanne--all of it because Brett Butler has what she calls “huge feelings.”
And has them pretty much all the time. At least since she was a kid back in Alabama watching television and the other drama unfolding in her living room--a real-life family feud, the kind that winds up with the cops outside and somebody heading for divorce court. Or in her own life as an alcoholic married to a mirror image of her dad, living in a trailer park and covered with bruises.
Even now when Butler is on TV, the star of ABC’s hit “Grace Under Fire,” where she plays Grace Kelly, a working-class single mother with an abusive ex-husband--a woman not unlike her own mother--she still wrestles with those feelings. It’s why she got into stand-up in the first place. Get on a stage and, in that syrupy, Dixie-by-way-of-Texas argot, make people laugh with stories ripped right from those feelings. Stories about her crummy ex-husband, competitive women, lunkhead rednecks. Mostly the rednecks, like that guy on the plane who just up and irritated Butler for no good reason, so she leaned forward and suggested that the only time he ever enjoyed, uhm, marital relations was to a refrain of “Daddy, don’t.”
Those kind of feelings. People ate it up. Except now it’s different. Now she isn’t one of a gazillion hopefuls grinding it out on the stand-up circuit. Now, she’s on the cover of magazines, TV Guide to the tabloids. Now, she’s got lawyers and managers and a public-relations team just to get through a week’s worth of headlines unscathed.
“The most hideous things that have been done to me this year have been done by people who were smiling at me,” she says, nodding at her publicist, stationed here in the otherwise amiable offices of her producer like a bailiff. “Now, I don’t talk to anybody unless he’s in the room.”
For a moment, it looks as if Butler’s huge feelings are going to hold sway despite objections from her interviewer. She doesn’t call herself “Princess” for nothing, even if it is a joke. After all, one executive producer, Chuck Lorre, already bit the dust after crossing swords with her. Eventually a compromise is struck: Today’s meeting with the press will be on her own while her publicist waits just outside the open door.
Well, for a minute anyway. “For Christ sake, it’s not like I’m in here having my first Pap smear,” Butler says, jumping up to slam the door, apparently embarrassed now by the arrangement. “I am a big girl, you know.”
Actually, very big when you consider the kind of year Butler has had. Even before “Grace” had its premiere last September, analysts had picked the series as one of the few sure hits of last season. Taking its cues from ratings powerhouse “Roseanne"--a tough-talking comedian and trailer-park realism--"Grace” was clearly the new darling of ABC. It was airing in one of the most coveted time slots--9:30 p.m. Wednesdays right after the runaway hit show “Home Improvement.” And it was the latest series from Carsey-Werner Productions, the fabled producing team of Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey, who had turned Bill Cosby and Roseanne into network gold.
Now, after a year in which “Grace” fulfilled those early expectations, consistently landing among the week’s Top 10 shows--and ending the season in the No. 6 position--the anticipation is that Butler is poised to make a similar leap. Earlier this summer, she won top honors at the annual People’s Choice Awards. ABC, meanwhile, has already capitalized on her popularity, upping the series’ ad rates to an average of $200,000 per 30-second spot. (The season’s first show airs Sept. 20.)
“The single-mother show has been around since ‘Julia,’ ” observes Ted Harbert, president of ABC Entertainment. “The success of ‘Grace’ has to do with Brett’s own amazing personal appeal.”
Or as Mark Flanagan, the executive producer of “Grace,” puts it, “Brett is the new franchise.”
For Butler, the past year has been an only-in-Hollywood trajectory that has left the 36-year-old comedian wrestling with a whole new set of emotions, equal parts gratification and guilt over the sudden celebrity that has capped her 12-year journey from that trailer park to the TV ratings charts. Not only has the past year left literal scars--an on-again, off-again second marriage to Ken Zeigler, a contracts attorney and sometime jazz musician based in New York, and some much publicized breast implants Butler had done last Christmas as a gift to herself--but she also has had many of her long-held opinions about women and fame ripped open.
“You know there are those female celebrities that you love to put a harder tack on--like Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand. ‘Get over yourself, honey.’ Well, this year, I’m like, ‘They’re so misunderstood'--except I would never endow a chair in human sexuality"--as Streisand did at UCLA.
“It’s real important for me to be here in life,” she adds, raising her hand to chin-level. “Not too high and not too low. But with ‘Grace,’ I feel like I’m this hologram of fame. It’s just how the light hits you and sometimes you start to think you’re the one that’s shining. But I’m just me and I’m flawed.”
If the public has been quick to embrace Butler, flaws and all, Hollywood has been less sanguine. While executives at ABC and Carsey-Werner insist it is business as usual--"I think more has been made of this because Brett is a woman,” says Tom Werner--Butler has earned a reputation as “the new Roseanne” for being temperamental and difficult. When Lorre, the creator and executive producer of “Grace,” left the show last spring after reports of fractious disagreements with Butler, his departure was seen as eerily similar to creator Matt Williams’ abrupt firing from “Roseanne” after its first season. And when “Grace,” like “Roseanne,” was largely stiffed in the Emmy nominations after its first season (getting only one, for guest star Diane Ladd), the perception seemed to exist in certain circles that Butler’s success fell under the old saw involving sow’s ears and silk purses.
“She’s brusque; she’s ballsy; she’s trouble on the set,” Butler says pointedly of herself. “She’s also good at what she does and she’s human too. Look, just because I haven’t paid my dues here doesn’t mean I haven’t paid my dues. I’ve been a not-formally-educated, self-contained entertainment machine for years. And the thing is, I could walk away from all this.”
It is the kind of in-your-face riposte that audiences, at least, have come to expect from the public Butler. And while she has proved herself equally tough in her off-stage dealings, Butler in person cuts a far more complex, even perplexing figure than the abused-wife survivor portrait the media has so far drawn. Despite the honeyed drawl and good ol’ gal demeanor, Butler evinces an odd mix of braggadocio and insecurity, as if she is uncertain whether to be embarrassed or proud of her accomplishments. There is a watchfulness about her, an almost bewildered, childlike me-too-ness she adopts when talking about her life now.
“I am smart,” she insists repeatedly, “and I deserve this"--assertions that are just as likely to be followed by shrugging insouciance. “I hate all this dewy-eyed celebrity stuff,” she adds. “Like ‘My daddy touched me, so here’s my new exercise bike.’ Look, I did this Phyllis Diller-Fang thing about my ex-husband, so now I’m the poster child for the battered wife movement?”
Butler lets a scowl cross the face that would appear to have seen far more than her 36 years--a face that seems caught in that apocalyptic moment when cheerleader pretty gives way to housewife fatigue. “But I guess that’s what I’m here for, in a way,” she says, adding almost as an afterthought, “and I’m not interested in biting the hand that feeds me.”
That last issue seems most nettlesome to her now, why she has taken to calling herself “Princess” as a way to beat others to the punch line. “You know, nobody good ever resented me before,” she says, sounding almost plaintive. “I know I’m a lot (to handle), but I’m not bad a lot. I’m just a lot, and I have these huge feelings.”
Butler sighs and seems to shake off her fears. “I went up to Tom (Werner) the other day and I said, ‘You know what the neat part of all this is?’ And he goes, ‘No, Princess, what?’ ‘That I’m an interesting, complicated woman and people don’t hate me yet.’ ”
A little past 7 on a hot Friday evening, the studio audience assembled in Stage 14 on the CBS lot in Studio City is restless. The taping of “Grace Under Fire” is still several minutes away and time is not passing quickly given the room’s fitful air conditioning and the evening’s warm-up act, a somewhat frantic Wendy Cole, who is attempting to fire up the crowd with such lines as “OK, who’s here from out of town?” It isn’t until Butler unexpectedly bounds down the aisle in what has become her own slightly unorthodox tradition of personally greeting the audience that the room comes alive.
Dressed in a short, snug jeans dress--"I’m a woman pushing 40 dressed in Sears Junior Miss,” she jokes--Butler launches into a fast, tight rendition of her stand-up routine that includes digs at her own upbringing (“I’m so Southern I’m related to myself”), Hollywood celebrities and Trish Halverson, Butler’s composite portrait of repressed female executives (“Trish takes one look at me and says, ‘Oh, you’re so . . . so dressed like a whore’ ”).
It is a rather amazing performance in miniature--10 minutes that are hip, smart, funny and oddly populist all at once. The audience is literally reaching out to her when Butler, cannily checking her watch, says she’ll take a couple of questions. A revival meeting would be less fervent with all the testimonials pummeling the air. “Do you realize,” says one woman, her voice ringing out, “the impact you have had on other women?”
Realized and then some. A self-described “post-post-feminist” whose hackles are raised by any kind of oppression--"It just surges up in me when I detect anything racist or homophobic"--Butler came to prominence with a self-taught stand-up act that managed to pack a punch without over-reliance on the usual province of female comedians: tampon jokes and male-bashing, or what she calls “the tendency of women comics to act self-deprecating or promiscuous when they first get on stage.”
Her performances, instead, were in the Southern narrative vein, rambling personal monologues laced with quirky observations and references to her own largely dysfunctional life--her upbringing as the oldest of five daughters born in Alabama, raised in Georgia in a household that included two divorces, physical abuse and other alcohol-related problems. On her own at age 16, Butler found herself confronting her own bouts with alcohol as well as an abusive, trailer-park marriage to Charles Wilson, a steelworker whom she married when she was 20 (and who has publicly refused to confirm or deny her accusations).
“I come from a family where the humor was really dark,” she recalls, “a house headed by interesting, intelligent, bohemian, minimally agnostic parents in the middle of the Bible Belt, where girls were either good or bad, where when I got married, everyone said, ‘Sugar, you’re finally settling down.’ ”
It was the gap she saw between that conventional life “and the feeling that I wasn’t good enough to lead that life” that Butler says drove her to the brink of despair. “I knew I was going to die,” she says of those alcohol-laced years. When she finished high school with night classes, stumbled through a semester at the University of Georgia, and fell into and out of her marriage to Wilson. “I wrestled with a lot of inconsistencies in my life and then I found comedy. You know, the ability to yell out ‘Screw you’ and be liked at the same time.”
It went down like gangbusters, and with men as well as women, first in the honky-tonks of Texas and the clubs of Atlanta, eventually on stage in New York and Los Angeles. For however autobiographical her act, Butler was canny enough not to lick her wounds in public. “I married a man who beat me,” she says. “I took the blame and I took the credit.” Her humor, she realized, had less to do with a polarizing feminism than the kind of anger evinced by such comedians as Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. “Here I was this Southern white chick, but I realized that my humor was like urban minority comics,” she says, “the humor of the oppressed.”
Not everyone saw it that way. In 1984, when a 26-year-old Butler arrived in Manhattan with $200 in her pocket and a reputation that stopped at Atlanta, the world of stand-up comedy was still very much “a strident, quota-oriented boys club where I got a lot of jobs just because I was a woman,” she recalls. But her unconventionality also cost her. Several owners of the most prestigious clubs refused to book her, claiming that her act was too hostile. A six-month foray to Los Angeles in 1987, where she worked briefly as a writer on “The Dolly Parton Show” and as a contestant on “Hollywood Squares,” led nowhere.
In a rare act of concession, Butler bleached her naturally brown hair after it was suggested that she would have greater license on stage as a blonde.
“Brett was a lot more ballsy than anybody I had ever seen,” says Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory and one of the few who booked Butler in Los Angeles. “Here was this woman who was so open and honest about any subject, it was really unique.”
“I’m not one of these people who thinks a joke has to be politically correct anymore,” says Butler. “If you’ve got a point of view and you know something is humorous, just say it.”
It was exactly the kind of spiritedness that Carsey-Werner wanted in the star of a new pilot about a single mother. Looking to mine the blue-collar realism pioneered by “Roseanne,” ABC executives had two years ago asked the producing duo to develop a series about a working-class single mother. “It was jokingly titled ‘Life Sucks and Then You Die,’ ” recalls Lorre, a veteran writer of “Roseanne” who had been tapped to create the new series. “It was to be this story of a comedically heroic woman and the obstacles she faces just getting through the day.”
After Carsey-Werner’s David Tochterman scouted Butler in New York, she was flown out to shoot the pilot in the spring of 1992. She got the nod from both the network and the producers “because she is tough, funny, uncompromising and has an amazing talent for getting an audience in the palm of her hand,” says Werner.
For Butler, the opportunity to star in her own television show was not only the realization of any comic’s dream but also an end to the more than 10 years she had spent on the road. “Anybody can go up on a second show on a Friday night and rip a room for 45 minutes,” she says. “I’ve done that and I know any comic can. Stand-up was starting to feel hollow.”
She was also wooed by the fact that “Grace” was “about something"--namely an intelligent, skilled, working-class woman who’s had some hard knocks in life. “This isn’t just making Tuna Helper on TV,” says Butler. “I’m always amused by the people who say, ‘I just love it that she’s so intelligent and working class.’ There’s a lot of intelligent poor people. It’s not always some self-defeating economic mechanism.”
And from the very first, Butler urged the show’s creators to move into bolder, less predictable story lines. “I was inspired by the kind of risks Roseanne took in her show, and so I begged them to make Grace more flawed and the show even more reality-based,” says Butler, who was on the show’s writers from the very first episode, when she buttonholed Marcy Carsey to complain about some excessively scatological humor. Subsequent disagreements flared over issues big and small, from story lines such as a potential romance between Grace and Russell (played by actor Dave Thomas) that Butler found improbable to “fat jokes” that she found insulting and sophomoric. By mid-season there was the inevitable showdown that resulted in Lorre’s departure.
“Brett was very unhappy and I asked them to let me leave,” says Lorre, who remains a creative consultant on “Grace” while he develops a new series for Cybill Shepherd.
When Flanagan, a former producer on Fox’s “Tracey Ullman Show” and CBS’ “Love & War,” was brought on board as the show’s new executive producer, Butler was given the additional title of executive creative consultant.
“It seems to be the hallmark of a Carsey-Werner show that you have this outsize personality and fashion a show around their talents,” says Flanagan. “And Brett is mercurial, so there was a certain amount of reparation that needed to be done.”
“Last year we tried something and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t,” Werner adds cautiously. “Now, everyone pitches their ideas to Mark, and some of Brett’s ideas make it and some don’t, but I think she understands the process.”
And by all accounts Butler has been appeased by the arrival of Flanagan and his new creative team. “I told Mark that I’m really intense but I’m not unfair, that I’m opinionated but I am willing to be more diplomatic,” says Butler, “because I deserve this, the chance to create something good with people who are not insane or mean.”
Already Flanagan has begun repositioning the series--which includes some cast changes including the addition of Paul Dooley as Grace’s new boss--to include Butler’s suggestions for grittier episodes that address such social issues as sexual harassment and latchkey children. He is also working with the writers to hone the show’s dramaturgy, introducing new characters and more sharply defining existing ones. “The second season will be more Grace under more fire,” he says.
Meanwhile, executives at Carsey-Werner and ABC are taking a carefully optimistic attitude toward the show’s second season. “It’s a much more fragile situation than ‘Roseanne’ was at the start of its second year,” says one close observer. And ABC’s decision to keep “Grace” paired with “Home Improvement” in its switch to Tuesday nights can be interpreted as both a vote of confidence as well as concern. “I like owning that hour,” says ABC program chief Harbert. “But we’ve also got a new creative team and I need to give them time to shake out.”
For the time being, Butler will be as much a part of that process as she can be, refusing agents’ proposals of possible film roles to concentrate on the task at hand. “I got these guys coming up to me and I say, ‘What do you want me to be? Betty Rubble? I mean, God love Rosie (O’Donnell), but doing a sitcom is the most deluded thing I will ever do because I know I can go to Arizona and wait tables. I can do something else --this was about the getting of it, that’s what I wanted.”
Already she has modified her goals. Next summer, instead of touring her act on the road, Butler plans to take a respite from Hollywood to finish the book she has promised her publisher, a memoir based on a one-woman show she wrote for herself several years ago. “This is not a book like ‘SeinLanguage’ about the wacky way I look at life,” Butler says, rattling off the first sentence. “ ‘I spent the first 20 years of my life waiting for two men that I was reasonably certain would never come back--my daddy and Jesus Christ.’ ” It is, she adds, the kind of personal, even painful self-analysis that “you can’t do on stage but only on paper.”
“There has been something screwy about me and guys all my life,” she says, suddenly introspective. “My dad left when I was 4 and I never had a father growing up. I was reading self-help books when I was 11, trying to fill up that hole in the middle of me, which is why I think I drank.”
Butler pauses and gazes out the window at the sound stages. “Sometimes it’s very difficult not to look at performing as some kind of emotional weakness too.”
So she will become a writer, teaching herself the way she taught herself comedy, by reading the great books--Shakespeare, Tennyson and the like--and by listening to the great operas.
“I’m kind of like a closet opera fan,” Butler says. “I don’t know what it means but I like the diva-ness of it. I think it’s a throwback to that big geeky girl who never fit in and who always wondered what she was missing because she didn’t finish college or go into the corporate world.”
She suddenly thrusts her hands in the air. “I’m huge,” she says. “I have huge hands, like from some fastidious transvestite. I tell my friends, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be an opera queen, just to be this huge person who gets to yell on stage?’ ” She pauses one last time. “Well, I act like one anyway; I just wear blue jeans and work on a sitcom.”
Like Roseanne, Brett Butler, Ellen DeGeneres and Margaret Cho are comedians with sitcoms based on their stand-up personas. Like Roseanne, their shows air on ABC. When to watch:
Cho’s series premieres Sept. 14 at 9:30 p.m. and moves to its regular Wednesday slot Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m.
DeGeneres’ retitled series, moving to Wednesdays, starts Sept. 21 at 9:30 p.m.
“Grace Under Fire”
Butler’s series, moving to Tuesdays, returns Sept. 20 at 9:30 p.m.