Spitfire

Editor - October 23, 2008

Comic Brett Butler set to take the stage in Santa Fe

It€™s been 10 years since Brett Butler€™s TV series imploded amid intimations of drug abuse, fractious behavior and lawsuits.

Today the former star of €œGrace Under Fire€ (1993-1998) is more likely to be found digging out the hooves of her two horses or tending to her four cats, five dogs, five birds and one donkey on a farm surrounded by 100- to 200-year-old oaks northwest of Atlanta. The acid-tongued comic with the swampy baritone will headline a fundraiser at the Center for Contemporary Arts, 1050 Old Pecos Trail, at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

€œThis whole animal thing didn€™t happen to me until I turned 40,€ the 50-year-old comedienne and actress said. €œI think it happened with what I called €˜this sobriety.€™ I don€™t discuss it because there€™s always someone who reads it and says, €˜At least I wasn€™t that bad.€™ €

Bad it was. Butler freely admits to sabotaging her own career through a Ferris wheel of drug and alcohol abuse; she says she checked into every rehab center except Betty Ford. She had been clean and sober for years before relapsing during €œGrace.€ She says she can€™t stand celebrities who talk about 12-step programs. But she can€™t help addressing a past of self-destruction mapped by glimmers of triumph blanketed by regret.

The stinging wit is very much alive; critics have long lauded her as a southernfried Lenny Bruce. Her inner cynic recoils from displaying too much of the mensch €“€“she takes in rescued animals but hates PETA.

€œThey don€™t believe in service dogs,€ she said. €œIt makes me want to bite on a cow€™s ass right in front of them.€

Butler embraces her recovery but abhors stars who spout its axioms. She confesses to deep bouts of depression but savages teary-eyed celebrities who moan about their illnesses, then trumpet their spiritual redemption.

€œI€™m like Jews who hate Israel, you know what I mean?€ she cracked.

The pain still trickles beneath the bravado. She claims she used €œeverything but crack and needles,€ both legal and illegal.

€œI did it until the wheels fell off,€ she said. €œMy disease brings out the worst in people. I would watch people deform in the wake of my addiction.€

So she launched into the 12-step €œforgiveness parade,€ making amends toward those she had harmed.

€œThis is going to sound coy,€ she said. €œTo get in the happy trails house you have to go back to the people you pissed on and apologize and then you have to listen. I€™d start to make an apology and they€™d go, €˜Brett, I love you. I€™m just so glad you€™re here.€™€

But not all of them €“€“one being €œGrace Under Fire€ creator/producer Chuck Lorre, who now helms €œTwo and A Half Men.€ In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Lorre once likened working for Butler, Cybill Shepherd and Roseanne to undergoing a €œpublic colonoscopy.€

€œI thought, €˜Jesus, Chuck, you€™ve got to let this go,€™ € Butler said. She credits Lorre with producing the best parent/child dialogue in the history of television.

€œSome people won€™t take calls,€ she acknowledged. €œBut I€™ve plugged away.€

Forgiving herself has been an ongoing ordeal. €œOnly this year...€ she said, her voice trailing. €œ I did not forgive myself. If you don€™t forgive yourself ... I just beat the hell out of myself.€

The oldest of five daughters born in Montgomery, Ala., Butler worked as a Texas cocktail waitress before turning to stand-up. Her father was a bipolar alcoholic and onetime Standard Oil vice president who left the family when she was a child. Her mother named her after the Lady Brett Ashley character from Hemingway€™s €œThe Sun Also Rises.€

€œShe was a tramp and a drunk and mother goes, €˜I€™m a prophet,€™ € Butler said.

Butler married a man she says abused her at 19. She split three years later. €œIf you think of how many guys I€™ve slept with and only one hit me, I think that€™s pretty good.€

She loaded up her 1969 Grand Prix and headed to New York, making the rounds of the comedy clubs and playing pool with Larry David. Two years later, she scored a slot on €œThe Tonight Show.€

€œIt was just a terrific time,€ she said. €œI do not know why I had to learn everything I know by knocking my head against the wall.€

Making people laugh came as naturally as breathing. All the women in her family were funny. She remembers everyone watching the old TV show €œBonanza.€ Every time one of the patriarch€™s three bachelor sons acquired a new lady friend, they knew disaster loomed. €œTo this day, when I see one of the Cartwrights with a girlfriend, I say, €˜She€™s dead; she€™s gone.€™

€œI love being center stage,€ Butler said. €œIt was a wellintentioned but deformed need. All I knew was that sad things could be funny.€

She worked the New York club scene for 12 years before being whisked to Hollywood by an ABC executive to meet Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, the production team responsible for €œThe Cosby Show€ and €œRoseanne.€

Since €œGrace Under Fire€™s€ cancellation, Butler has worked sporadically, taking two years off to recover. She most recently appeared on €œMy Name Is Earl€ as Joy€™s deceitful mother. There have also been appearances on €œThe Late Show with David Letterman,€ €œLast Comic Standing,€ €œThe Larry Sanders Show,€ €œComedy Central Presents: The N.Y. Friars Club Roast of Rob Reiner,€ and was the winner on €œThe Great American Celebrity Spelling Bee.€

When Britney Spears collapsed in her own public meltdown a year ago, Butler empathized. She wrote to the pop princess. €œI just said what€™s happening to you (expletive) me up at 40,€ she said. €œI told her to go back to Louisiana and grab some fried chicken or anything that makes you feel OK.€

When €œGrace€ was cancelled, Butler was living alone in her huge Hollywood Hills home. Her husband of 14 years had left her with a row of expensive cars in the driveway.

€œIt was the first safe place I left my heart,€ she said.

In the meantime, her friend and fellow comic actor Phil Hartman was shot dead by his cocaine-fueled wife, Brynn. She committed suicide after the police removed the couple€™s two children from their home.

€œI knew the guy that sold her the cocaine,€ Butler said.

After the tragedy, Butler headed to the Texas funeral of James Byrd, a black who was decapitated when he was chained to a pickup and dragged for three miles by white supremacists.

€œI get more Jesus from black people,€ Butler said. €œI closed my eyes and all I can see is this wooden cross. I opened my eyes and looked at this old black lady facing me and I said, €˜I€™m self-crucifying through addiction.€™

€œI went home and got sober that month.€

Between working with animals, (€œAnimals help me to be nicer to people,€ she said. €œPeople have real children and I couldn€™t be responsible for screwing them up.€) Butler is writing another book €” or something. She isn€™t quite sure what form it will take. (Her first was €œKnee Deep in Paradise,€ written in 1996).

€œI also do visual art,€ she said. €œI paint and draw, but I also do collage. I did a barbed wire and tool (collage) for someone who got married. I did a triptych of Marilyn Monroe and I sold it for $1,200. I just went to Michael€™s Crafts. I got tired of knitting.

€œMy front porch right now looks like white trash with money,€ she added. €œI found an aluminum bathtub in the barn and I put flowers in it.€

She says she never plans her stage act. She took the CCA gig as an excuse to visit a friend who lives here.

€œI don€™t care what they expect,€ she said. €œI€™m 50 years old. If I cared what they expect, I€™d have to change jobs. I know I€™m getting old when I have to pull over to listen to Garrison Keillor. He called Santa Fe an adobe theme park.€

If You Go

WHO: Brett Butler
WHERE: Center for Contemporary Arts, Muñoz Waxman Gallery, 1050 Old Pecos Trail
WHEN: 7-9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 28
COST: $55
CONTACT: 982-1338