Railing against life’s inanities while embracing its absurdity, Brett Butler has seduced comedy audiences with a singular blend of candor, vulnerability and scathing Southern wit. Butler shifts effortlessly from one role to the next -- from a challenger of social paradigms to a champion of self-actualization -- her perceptions filtered through a comic sensibility as dark and dense as a Georgia swamp. Fast-paced, extremely literate and sublimely on the mark, the woman who calls herself "a Socialist with a Gold Card" is herself gifted with the Midas Touch.
As Grace Kelly in the ABC series "Grace Under Fire," Butler portrays a recently divorced mother of three facing the perils of single parenthood. Produced by Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, the producing team responsible for such hits as "The Cosby Show" and "Roseanne," "Grace Under Fire" heads into a second season with a loyal and growing audience. Butler’s portrayal of Grace, a sharp-tongued and resourceful survivor who works at an oil refinery by day, recently earned a People’s Choice award for Favorite Female in a New Series, with the show itself honored as Favorite New Comedy.
Born in Alabama and raised in Georgia, the comedian that some have dubbed "a Southern Lenny Bruce" grew up alongside four sisters whom Butler calls "all brilliant and funny." Named for Hemingway’s Lady Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises, her mother’s remarriage gave the six-year-old a new name, an unintentional twist on another literary figure, albeit male, from Gone With the Wind. "We were poor, but my mother was cultured and left-wing -- just the thing they admire so much in the deep South," recalls Butler, who performed her first comedy routine during a school pageant at the age of eight.
At nineteen Butler endured a brief and turbulent marriage, divorcing after three years. On her own again, she waited tables at a honky tonk in Texas, where Open Mike Night became a welcomed catharsis. Two years and a thousand shows later Butler had honed her act to a razor sharpness, and at the urging of fellow comedian and supporter Robert Klein, she loaded up her 1969 Grand Prix and drove to New York City. It was the first time Butler had ever left the South.
"I had all these years of Southern white guilt, and then I moved to New York and found that people are the same everywhere," says Butler, who calls New York "my brave new world." Her act translated well to the New York stage, and within two years she was performing for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show," returning a mere six months later. She appeared as a guest star or performer on more than 70 series and specials before landing her own one-woman show, the highly rated Showtime comedy special, "Brett Butler: The Child Ain’t Right."
Butler’s career came to a turning point when ABC approached The Carsey-Werner Company last year about developing a comedy series around a single mother. Company vice president David Tochterman saw Butler in New York and was immediately taken with her honest style and original writing. Twelve years of talking about her life onstage paid off with a starring role on ABC’s "Grace Under Fire."
A comedian by trade, Butler is still eagerly learning the nuances of acting. She offers: "Stand-up is like drawing with primary color crayons -- it’s a beautiful and satisfying world --but acting is like having the big box of 148!" As the star and a contributing writer of "Grace Under Fire," Butler hopes to further develop the series as a cross between "The Andy Griffith Show" and "MAS*H," a nod to Southern tradition with a streak of well-crafted mischief.
Perhaps mischief is what satisfies Brett Butler most, leading others to abandon comfort for a worthwhile challenge. Had she been born in another time, Butler admits, "I’d probably be trying to outrank Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin Roundtable."
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