Her waitress zingers got her started in stand-up
THE FIRST THING I TOLD MY MANAGERS was, ‘I’ll never go to L.A. and I’ll never do a sitcom,’ ” says Brett Butler, exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke. Her deep voice, slowed by a Georgia drawl, suggests some kind of Dixie-fied bassoon. “But look at my ass now.”
Better to consider the woman entire. Butler, 36, is sitting in the two-bedroom Beverly Hills home she has rented while taping the first season of Grace Under Fire. the hit ABC series that has turned the stand-up comedian into an overnight star in the wisecracking, blue-collar mold of Roseanne Arnold. She plays Grace Kelly, a bottle-blond divorced mother of three trying to hold down a job at an oil refinery after splitting from an abusive husband—a premise that borrows its bitter back-story from Butler’s own first marriage to a man she has described as a “subliterate, terra-cotta-toothed imbecile with violent tendencies.”
Pain and anger form an ever-fresh mortar between the bricks that are Butler’s stand-up act, her sitcom and her life. One moment, she can chat about the 40 pounds she has dropped from her strapping 5’9″ frame in the last 18 months or joke about the breast implants she got last Christmas to “correct God’s asymmetry.” (Waking after surgery, she peered down at her new cleavage and exulted, “Yesss!”) But she’s wean’ to the bone as she confesses that, on the day of this interview, she’s planning a trip to Manhattan to visit her second husband, contract lawyer Ken Ziegler, 34. Her new life has seriously strained their relationship. “We actually talked about divorce,” she says. “But I said, ‘You know what? I’m in the middle of a tornado.’ ”
But one suspects that Butler has the strength to weather any storm, ride out any bumps her newfound fame may bring her. And as for the notion that other actors toiling long in the field might resent her TV stardom, “I could kill them,” she jokes in her deadpan, slow-bum way. “I go, ‘Look, I paid my dues in a different bucket, honey.’ ”
What Butler calls her “real juicy, almost-died life” began in Montgomery, Ala., where she was the oldest of three daughters born to Roland Decatur Anderson Jr., an oil company executive, and his wife, Carol. By the time Brett was 4, her parents had split. “He was abusive to her,” Butler says. After the divorce, “we were not supported or telephoned or sent birthday cards.” Carol moved the girls back to her hometown of Marietta, Ga., where in 1963 she married Bob Butler, a traveling insurance salesman, and had two more daughters.
Brett chooses not to talk about her mother’s marriage to Butler. But according to her sister Toren Anderson, 33, an events planner in Atlanta, it fared no better than the first, ending in divorce in 1971. Left alone with five kids, their mom, who lives in the Atlanta area, “was simply unable to cope with life,” says Anderson. “There were times when the only supper we got was a Tootsie Roll.” By age 16, sister Brett was living on her own, working as a waitress and earning her high school diploma at night.
There was some redemption. Carol Butler imbued her eldest daughter with a love of books (she named Brett for the character in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises) and a passion for politics. There was also the humor of the womenfolk on Carol’s side, especially of great aunts Estelle and Frances. “The ladies would be around the table, telling stories,” says Butler, “and my grandfather and my uncles would be in the doorway, laughing and laughing.” Butler herself fantasized about being a comedian as early as age 5. With her mother’s encouragement, she did a George Carlin routine, memorized from a record album, in a school pageant. “Even then,” says Toren, “she had that acerbic wit.”
But in an eerie way, Butler traces her humor back to her absent father. After the divorce, Roland moved back in with his mother in Tuskegee, Ala., where he lived as a recluse until he died in 1979. Then, five years ago, says Butler: “Toren went down to put his mother in a nursing home and clean the house out. Roland’s room had been left intact. And in that room were five-or six-hundred books. There were over 50 books on comedy”—many filled with handwritten comments obsessively scrawled in red ink. “My father was nuts,” Butler says simply. “I feel like I lived through the demons that probably ended up doing him in.”
Her own particular hell went this way: In 1978, at age 20, she married a young steelworker, Charles Wilson, whom she had met in a Macon, Ga., poolroom. The day they came home from their honeymoon, she says, he hit her. (Asked about his ex-wife’s allegations, Wilson has said, “She can say whatever the hell she wants to say.”) Their three-year marriage, Butler says, boiled down to her drinking and taking beatings. Looking back, she says,. “I know I don’t seem like the kind of woman who’d get the hell beat out of her. Abuse happens to and from every conceivable kind of person. But two people were in that situation. Two people agreed to that. I am not a man-basher.” Then she adds sadly, “We were kids…we were kids.”
After Butler and Wilson divorced in 1981, she moved to Houston and resumed waitressing—but with an attitude. One day a customer was so taken with the way she told him off—”Your IQ matches your inseam”—that he invited her to perform at one of his comedy clubs. So began her tour of what she calls the “chitlin vaudeville circuit.” Butler eventually caught the eye of comedian Robert Klein, who advised hello take her act to New York City. “She was just a kid,” he says, “but she had an authority about her.”
It was at Manhattan’s Catch a Rising Star that Brett, then 26, met Ziegler. He was moonlighting on bass in the house band, but what impressed Butler was his smarts. In his apartment, she says, “he had French philosophy books, in French. I wasn’t a clay-eater, but I had some ground to gain.” (She started with Moby Dick.) The couple married in 1987.
In November 1992, Butler got a tip that Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, the producing team who had created The Cosby Show and Roseanne, were sending someone to catch her act. Dealing with them, she says, “I felt like I was in a petri dish and they were scientists saying, ‘Look—it’s dividing. We discovered something.’ ” She was ready to join in their experiment and, six months and many meetings and rehearsals later, ABC picked up Grace Under Fire. And now Brett is under the gun. “I bitch about scripts and I have no qualms,” she says. “I abhor sophomoric things that are not redeemed. But the show is on my back. If this show goes down, my ass is out of here. And now,” she concludes, with sarcastic sweetness, “people love my ass and it’s been worth the fight.”
But will she have a marriage to fall back on? “It’s been real hard,” says Butler. “There are times when I think maybe I won’t be married anymore.” If they do divorce, “I’m going to blame it on the old, you know, me-having-my-head-turned actress ego.”
Whatever Butler has to sacrifice, it won’t be her sense of humor. Nope. “Laughing helps you move forward,” she says. “And I’m living proof.”
CAROLYN RAMSAY in Los Angeles, KEITH DUNNAVANT in Atlanta