'All My Fears Went Away'

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

They call it a "speech impediment," but comedian Kathy Buckley's distinctive voice doesn't sound any worse than Barbara Walters on a bad day. Maybe an occasional R gets lost along the way, but after listening to her for a while, you figure you don't really need that letter anyway.

And, even though Buckley has a hearing loss that prevents her from suffering the nasal whine of Fran Drescher as "The Nanny" on TV, she can tell even from lip-reading Drescher that her own voice can't sound that annoying.

"I sound like I'm from Noo Yawk, and I have the attitude to go with it," said Buckley, a striking, dark-haired six-footer, during a recent conversation at her cozy Burbank bungalow. "I wish people could get past it. I can't even get to the audition because I've already been labeled deaf, and I'm not. I have a hearing loss. I do not sign fluently; I lip-read. I speak."

Buckley, who tends to call new acquaintances "honey" and greets them with a warm hug, is not big on accepting what most people call impediments, in speech or in life.

Hearing-impaired since birth, Buckley's been dealt some of the lowest cards in the deck: being labeled mentally retarded by an educational system that misunderstood her hearing loss; suffering sexual abuse as a child; surviving an accident that left her partially paralyzed for five years; and cervical cancer.

But, she's turned it all into comedy in her award-winning one-woman show, "Don't Buck With Me!" (There was a time when Buckley had trouble pronouncing the consonant F. Luckily for family newspapers, she ended up with something closer to a B.) The show, which premiered last October at the Tamarind Theatre in Hollywood to critical acclaim, reopened last weekend at West Hollywood's Tiffany Theater. "Kathy Buckley is a warm and engaging storyteller . . . [who] balances her funny, ironic comments about herself with an ongoing undertone of concern about society's treatment of people with impairments," a reviewer for Daily Variety wrote.

Through her show, Buckley also hopes to change the entertainment industry's attitude about that same group of people. Like many comedians, she dreams of her own sitcom. Her best friend, comedian Geri Jewell, who has cerebral palsy, was the first actor with a disability to have a recurring role in a sitcom, as Cousin Geri on the popular '80s boarding-school comedy "The Facts of Life," but so far no disabled actor has been the star of a show. "Maybe they'll stop looking at me as a deaf person, and start looking at me as an actress," she said.

While she's not yet found success in acting, Buckley just celebrated her 10th anniversary as a comic. She is also an inspirational speaker and children's advocate.

Comedy was one goal that even the relentlessly positive Buckley once believed impossible. Jewell persuaded her to enter a 1988 stand-up contest at Encino's L.A. Cabaret, a benefit for children with cerebral palsy. Buckley had met Jewell at a media awards dinner.

"She dared me to join the contest," Buckley said. "Comedy was not something I could relate to, because, being hearing-impaired, I take things very literally. [Comics] would make fun of other people and I would get upset, I couldn't see the humor on picking on ethnicity, or whatever. And I wouldn't get half the jokes anyway, because language is different for me."

But Buckley decided to go ahead and risk making a fool of herself, for the kids. She also figured that helping to find a cure for cerebral palsy, which causes spastic muscle movements and slurred speech, would improve her friendship with Jewell. "I didn't understand her condition, I just knew I kept getting seasick every time I had to lip-read her," Buckley said.

To prepare for the contest, "I went to the comedy clubs, I rented videos--but I couldn't understand them, none of them were closed-captioned. And people always had the microphones in front of their mouths--I couldn't lip-read them. I must have sat and cried for hours, why was I trying to do something that was totally impossible?

"I figured my best target would be myself, because I didn't like it when other people were being picked on; I was picked on, my whole life. Why not do it to myself and make money at it? . . . I can make jokes about being 6 feet tall, being flat-chested, deafness--I've got it all. I'm set for life."

The three minutes onstage seemed an eternity--but she won the contest (she later found out that contest organizers had initially rejected her entry letter, but allowed her to participate as a favor to Jewell). It was the preliminary to a final competition, where she placed fourth among comics with three to 10 years' experience.

Of the first competition, Buckley said: "I was so nervous, so nervous--and then, as I was walking toward the stage, it was like a blanket of security fell over me. All my fears went away. It was the weirdest thing--I coudn't hear the laughter, but I could feel the vibrations in the floor."

Given the circumstances of Buckley's life, it's a wonder she ever made it to the comedy stage. She gives her age as a Hollywood agent might describe it at a casting call: "late 30s--early 40s." She grew up in Wickliffe, Ohio, in a well-meaning family that was clueless about her hearing problem. The public schools weren't much better. They set her up with a clumsy hearing aid in the form of a box that hung from a strap around her neck, connected to earphones. She stopped wearing it, she said, because the only thing she could hear was the scratch of her corduroy pants rubbing together when she walked.

Branded as retarded, she landed in a special school for handicapped kids, which she loved because concerned teachers finally understood that her intelligence was normal, but not her hearing, and they taught her to read and speak. But that lasted only two years, and she soon found herself back in public school.

Buckley left home--"a typical home where we had dinner at 5, and nobody talked"--at 17 (childhood included five suicide attempts), and headed for Los Angeles with $800 in her pocket, unsure of her goals, but ready to try everything. For a while, she lived in her car, then moved into an apartment.

In 1974, soon after relocating, Buckley was sunbathing at the beach and failed to hear a lifeguard's jeep approaching. It ran her over. She suffered from intermittent paralysis in her legs for the next five years, surviving on welfare and disability checks. Six years later, she was found to have cervical cancer.

Are we laughing yet?

The latest incarnation of "Don't Buck With Me!" has some new staging, new lighting and an additional 15 minutes, mostly dealing with her toughest subject: the father who touched her inappropriately when she was a child. Recently, he admitted his mistakes in a People magazine interview, and Buckley's show has his blessing.

"It isn't so much about what I went through with him, but about how we made amends," Buckley said. "I didn't want to put this part of my life in the show because I didn't want to take people to a place I couldn't pull them out of. But people need to know you can make amends for the tragedies in your life, if you confront them.

"I can share it in a way that won't hurt anyone, especially my father. . . . It takes a big man to admit it, and I admire my father for it, and I am very, very grateful. It's nice to know my father has a conscience."

The show's director, Sue Wolf, said they'll see how preview audiences react to this material before deciding how much of it will remain in the show. As far as Buckley's sitcom aspirations go, Wolf, a frequent director of television comedy, thinks TV is ready for Buckley.

"I think she is like a combination of Cher and Lucy--she has Cher's looks and Lucy's comic timing, and she has a really big acting range, which nobody is able to see at all in her stand-up comedy. She's brave, and she's funny," Wolf said.

Along with a sitcom, Buckley yearns for a healthy romantic relationship. "I believe God gave me a hearing loss so I would listen more; I see more, I feel more. I wish I was being felt more," she joked. "I even saw Dr. Ruth, but I said, 'You know, I just can't lip-read this little lady. You want me to do what with my what? I don't think so.'

"I don't want to be poor Kathy," Buckley added thoughtfully. "I don't want it to be about that. It's about my successes--not my traumas."

*

"DON'T BUCK WITH ME!," Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd. Dates: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays 2 p.m. Ends June 28. Prices: $20-$25. Phone: (310) 289-2999.

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