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Funny Lady

Comic Brett Butler is a mix of truck driver and Southern belle

By Joy Lanzendorfer

"I wouldn't say that Brett Butler's comedy is political," her manager Joel Shire tells me. "There are political moments in it, but she's really looking at life. It's comedy about life." Due to tight deadlines and unreturned phone calls, I'm stuck with Shire as Butler's spokesperson, a somewhat arrogant third wall between the talent and the press.

So named, I press on.

A Southern blonde who is best known for her mid-'90s sitcom Grace under Fire, Butler performs at the Mystic Theatre on Aug. 22. She has been doing standup for 20 years, and yet "comedy about life" is the best her manager can do to describe her act. But with so many years of experience under her belt, anything but a vague description might be over-simplifying what she does.

Butler is such a pro, in fact, that she was recently asked to judge the contestants on Last Comic Standing, an American Idol-like program designed to find the funniest person in America. Along with prior Last Comic finalist Tess Drake and big-name comics Drew Carey and Anthony Clark, Butler was supposed to choose 10 semifinalists to advance to the show's televised competition.

Though the four comics thought they were the only ones judging the contest, it turns out they weren't. The show's producers announced different winners from the ones Butler and the others picked. The comics were pissed. Butler slammed her chair and walked off. Carey later called the show crooked and dishonest.

"As panel judges, we can say that (a) we were both surprised and disappointed at the results and (b) we had nothing to do with them," Butler wrote on her website.

Aside from this recent controversy, things have been relatively conflict-free for Butler for the last few years. It hasn't always been the case. Her childhood was like something from a gothic novel, filled with sex, alcohol and Southern eccentricities.

Butler was born in Alabama in 1958. Her father abandoned the family when she was four to live in seclusion with his aging mother. Butler's mother, while educated and left-wing, was mentally unstable and suicidal. She did name Butler after a literary character--not Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind, as many believe, but Lady Brett Ashley from Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Maybe it was all these literary allusions that led Butler to express her life humorously at an early age--her first routine was at a school pageant at the age of eight.

When she got older, Butler started down
a path of self-destruction, drinking and using drugs. She married an abusive man, who started beating her on their honeymoon. She left him three years later and moved to Texas, where she worked as a cocktail waitress while doing comedy on the side. In two years, she logged over 1,000 gigs. Soon after, she moved to New York and began working the comedy circuit.

Her career continued on an upswing, culminating with the creation of Grace under Fire in 1993, where Butler played a former alcoholic from an abusive marriage struggling with being a single mom. The show was cancelled in 1998 when Butler was asked to leave the set because of substance abuse. She checked in and out of rehab and took a few years off from showbiz, but eventually got sober. That was several years ago now.

"You know, the substance abuse was so long ago, it just doesn't come up," Shire chides. "No one ever asks about her drug use, but maybe you didn't know that."

These days, the future looks brighter for Butler, who will continue to tour around the country with her act. She is doing voice work on an animated film, Firedog, with fellow cast members Tom Arnold, Tony Danza and Lauren Bacall. She's also looking into other "potential development," according to Shire.

All this living has left Butler with a lot of material. Some have said she's a mix between a truck driver and a Southern belle. Her stage act is fast-paced, with Butler hardly pausing to take a breath as she delivers insights into topics like current events, sex, racism and, if we're lucky, Janet Jackson's boobs.

Brett Butler's standup routine shines on the Mystic on Sunday, Aug. 22, at 7:30pm. 23 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. $25-$30. 707.765.2121.

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From the August 18-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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