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The Fearless Interview with Comedian Brett Butler

by D. Patrick Miller
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In the early pages of her 1996 autobiography Knee Deep in Paradise, comedian and television star Brett Butler summarized the opening act of her life this way:

I spent the first twenty years of my life waiting for two men I was reasonably certain would never come back — my daddy and Jesus Christ. I don’t wait for them anymore. My dad, anyway. And at least with Jesus I didn’t spend all that time thinking he was gone because of something I did.

Thus Butler revealed a lifelong spiritual outlook that is usually given short shrift in conventional media profiles of the famous — especially in entertainment reporting where the inner life of a celebrity is assumed to be little more than a fashion accessory or publicity stunt. Yet just like us regular folks, TV and movie stars are sometimes led into their work by an authentic search for meaning and fulfillment.

I became interested in Brett Butler’s spiritual adventures when her book was released, and tried unsuccessfully to arrange an interview with her then. I was interested both in the themes and stories of her biography — wherein she told ironic, near-Gothic tales of growing up in the deep South, surviving an abusive first marriage, and fighting various addictions — and by the scripted echoes of her experience that were then being broadcast worldwide. As television historian Ed Robertson recalls “Grace Under Fire,”

Grace Kelly (Brett Butler) was no princess, but a tough-as-nails single mom determined to pick up the pieces of her life after divorcing an abusive husband and overcoming her own bout with alcoholism. Set in the Midwest where Grace held her own among her male co-workers at her job in an oil refinery (she called herself a “quota babe”), Grace Under Fire was an immediate hit, finishing in the Top Ten each of its first two seasons on ABC while providing an edgy counterpart to its more traditional lead-in, Home Improvement. The first American comedy to be regularly telecast in the Soviet Union, Grace Under Fire was also marked by stellar writing and the intriguing relationship between Grace and Russell, a shy pharmacist deftly played by former SCTV star Dave Thomas. Butler won a People's Choice Award for acting and the show won for best new series; Butler also won a Best Actress trophy in 1995 from the Quality Television Awards. Both the star and the show received Golden Globe nominations, and guest stars received two Emmy nominations.

Despite its success, “Grace Under Fire” was on a short fuse at the time I was trying to get through to the star for an interview. By her own admission, the person who lit the final, explosive conflagration was Brett Butler. Press reports at the time described her behavior on-set as a “diva routine,” and that’s when they were being kind. The spectacular flame-out of Butler’s show left hard feelings and controversy in its wake, and it would be two years before she decided to return to stand-up comedy.

Yet the debacle also marked the beginning of a new and deeper sobriety, the elements of which she describes in the following interview. I finally connected with Brett Butler when she happened across this website and joined the Fearless News mailing list. She graciously consented to talk in her inimitable and no-holds-barred way about the spiritual struggles of surviving fame, fire and surrender.

 

What was “Grace Under Fire” about, from your point of view?
BUTLER: My dream for it was something like “Andy Griffith” in a MASH unit, but it turned out a little different. It was basically about matters of heart, exploring the attitudes of “I love you no matter what” and “Hell, life is hard and annoying, but what’s funny in it?” Those are the same attitudes I try to go through life with, so I tried to do the show that way. We were pretty lucky the kids weren’t too cute, and the adults weren’t too one-dimensional. I feel really grateful to have been part of what I considered a good TV show.

What ended it?
BUTLER: Me, by my failure to address my active addiction – by that I mean taking drugs almost to the point of dying. That will end even the worst of shows, by the way. And I think some people wouldn’t have been so angry with my failure if the show hadn’t been so good when it was right. The things that were right about it were terrific; coming onto the set and feeling like a part of the crew was really great. Once the audience was there, it was an amazingly heady thing that was absolutely right. The beginning of my sin, if you will, was thinking that it was all a mistake and that I absolutely didn’t deserve any of it. I’ll tell you, bringing down my own creation that way was as grandiose a way of playing God as you could imagine.

Was your addiction accelerated by becoming a celebrity?
BUTLER: Certainly. I’m an alcoholic and an addict, and I failed to live my life in the daily way that I had learned beforehand in eight years of sobriety. After the show started, I didn’t do well with becoming the focus of so much plenty. An active addict will grab at any straw, and having your own TV show is a particularly shiny one. As the re-entry to the addictive process occurred, I had the odd sensation of observing it happen, and I observed how  good I was at it. You know, when I was 23 I got into an automobile accident with a really high alcohol content in my system. When I went to the required sessions of drunk-driving school, I was asked to teach it on the first night. Now that’s a good addict
!

Until this recovery of the last five years, I thought that addiction was a disease if you had it, and a moral failing if I had it. And I still don’t feel too wonderful about it. I’m sorry that I didn’t get born knowing the “will of the universe” and how I was meant to interpret it and how to move forward gracefully with complete love. Apparently that wasn’t my first pressing desire in life! Instead my life has been like being mashed and mashed through a wine press until finally there will be nothing left but the desire to live by divine will, knowing what I’m really supposed to do and doing it.

In my very first recovery meeting, I thought “So here’s my family!” I had always felt I was once removed from my literal kin, but as soon as I walked into a 12-Step group I knew I belonged there, and I loved them. Oddly enough, I was loved back for who I was, and I’d never met people who knew more of what I was about.

Do you think there’s a spiritual aspect to addiction itself?
BUTLER: I remember reading that Jung told Bill Wilson that addicts and alcoholics were really mystics, but clumsy ones. What an addict does with spirituality is sorta like what an infant will do with a Gutenberg Bible. You’re gonna get nothing but melba toast mushed up all over the pages; it will get ruined really fast! I wanted something large and opioidal to cover up the huge, gaping wound of who I perceived myself to be. If a bottle or a man were there, I’d take them and say thank you. Growing up so near the zipper of the Bible Belt where religion was totally tame and innocuous, it just didn’t do anything for me. I felt like my blood ran in all different colors, and I just had to have stronger stuff.

 Yet even when I was very little, I was good with Jesus. It was like he looked down at me from the picture on the wall and said, “Look, grownups are gonna say a bunch of shit. I’m just me, and I’m here.” I’ve always loved him and felt that he stood for real, true unconditional love.

I knew people during my addicted years who would hold up a chemical and essentially say, “This is the path.” And I knew enough to think, “No, it’s not. It’s just a pacifier.” I knew there was some place inside myself that I was running like hell to avoid, and drugs and drink helped me keep running. I dislike talking about feeling pain in my childhood, but I think that’s why I never had children. I just wouldn’t want to give birth to anything that could hurt that much, and then wait to see someone I loved so much have to wait so long to find the key to healing.

My typical error is to look up and say, “Listen God, I’ve got it under control. Thanks for being there and if I need you, I’ll let you know.” And God’s saying, “Oh, isn’t she cute…” Remember the itty-bitty, plastic pretend driver seats that you can put in the car for kids? You sit there and beep the little fake horn and you think you’re actually driving. Well, that’s been my life. Honk honk, beep beep, get out of my way! But of course I’m not really doing the driving.

After church in your childhood, what are some of your other significant spiritual influences?
BUTLER: Twenty-three years ago in Houston, where I had moved after a divorce, I met a man in a bar. I was in my early twenties and he was thirty-five or forty; I mean, he was really old from my point of view. I was in a pretty liquid state back then; I don’t mean just drinking, but also being black and blue from three years of pretty serious abuse. Although I lived just across the street with my mother and her new husband, this guy at the bar offered to take me home and I said, “Oh no, I can walk back on my own.” But he walked me about halfway, to this gazebo out in a courtyard, and said, “Wait here. I want to bring you a book.” I remember thinking, isn’t he supposed to try to find out where I live and then bring me a book?

But I said okay, and this guy brought me A Course in Miracles in the original, 3-volume hardcover edition. I wish I could see him again and tell him thank you; I’m still really moved by this memory. He gave me those books with this intensity and kindness in his eyes — like he already knew I wasn’t going to get off the track I was on any time soon, but was still saying, “Please take a look, and sleep on this.” I never saw him again, but I kept those books. Considering that I was a young, itinerant, crazy alcoholic cocktail waitress, that was a pretty cumbersome load to carry around.

So I had those books, and in that same year I met a therapist through the Yellow Pages who happened to be a Course student, and to this day he remains one of my best friends. The simplicity of the Course still eludes and fascinates me; I don’t directly discuss it often unless a serious talk about spirituality comes up. I haven’t actually “done” the Course in the sense of going through all 365 days of the Workbook. But it’s still meant an awful lot to me.

Once in Psalms I found the passage, “Oh God, how do I thank you for all that you’ve given me?” and the very next line is something like, “I will take the cup of salvation.”When I read that it was like my eyes were opened up to the bounty and the possibility and the absolute perfection of everything. To realize that you’ve been given everything, and your means of thanks is to keep partaking of it... Just shut up and drink from the cup!

I’m sure I could have been a belligerent, more troublesome version of Marianne Williamson; I am a deeply flawed preacher, I know that. But the divinity of laughter was made apparent to me in my earliest days. I was given a lot of sugar from my family, I was kissed, and I heard riotous laughter; I still think those are the things of heaven. So it’s no accident that my art form absolutely requires an audience.

You mentioned that you found a family in recovery. Do you feel the same way about comedians?
BUTLER: No, I don’t. I do feel that way, sort of, about show business in general — but then I have blood relatives who don’t speak to me either! Comedians are a rogue band that I happen to be a member of. There’s something very weird and abnormal about my particular quest to do stand-up; it’s very isolating and self-important. On the other hand, I’m really good at it – and now that I’ve figured out how to do it with a lot more love than ever before, I’m so glad I kept my job. Some of the bits I do can only be done with love and non-attachment and if I don’t do them that way, they come out rather grim.  If I am pissed about something, comedy is a good place for that too. But it’s better comedy if I absolutely let go of trying to be right about anything.

Even some of the funniest comics are so angry that after you’ve laughed at their jokes for an hour, you feel kind of sick that you did.
BUTLER: Yes, even with comics I’ve admired and learn from, I look back now and ask, “Where’s the joy?” And sometimes I wonder if I’ve sold out because I have some joy now. I want to employ and enjoy a comedy of inclusiveness, but there’s something very exclusive about it to start with.

I would assume that doing a television show is a much more collaborative process than stand-up. Is that true in your experience?
BUTLER: Doing television was the first time I ever worked with people who would say, “Hey, great idea! We’ll put that in the script” and then you get the new pages and find no trace of it. I couldn’t understand why that happened. I may be imperious, but I’m a straight-shootin’ ho and I expect things to be more honest than that. One thing that’s absolutely true about television is that the very thing they’ve called you in to do is the first thing they start erasing. When I say ‘they’ I mean the collective; no single individual with power in television would intentionally dumb down real talent. There’s just a massive blob effect that has to do with the fact that the 22 minutes I’m in the show exist only to serve the 8 minutes that are for sale. Our first commercials for “Grace Under Fire” were for Tampax, hamburgers, and trucks… You gotta bleed, you gotta eat, and you gotta move!

Is the intimate attention you received for performing as a child the same thing as fame when you’re grown up? Does it give you the same feeling?
BUTLER: All that attention as a kid was great to have, but it didn’t have an anchor somehow, and in that way it was just as unbalancing as fame. I had a father who enjoyed the performance aspect of his clever children; he would pose us and get us to do things, and I remember basking in his odd approval. My mother recalled that it was almost his only way of interacting with us. She said he was overwhelmed with me from the beginning, and could only talk to me as a little performer instead of just a child. I guess I was a version of himself; I was consciously aware as a kid that if I’d been a boy I wouldn’t have failed him, and then maybe he would have stayed around.

On the show, we had twins playing the baby, and I would never take them in front of the live audience because I didn’t want them to hear the sound of clapping. I think all kids in show business will end up in very serious therapy. On the show, I just wanted to be real with the kids. I didn’t worry about how to “perform” warmth and closeness; I’d just scoop the kids up and talk to them like a mother naturally would. I haven’t had kids, but I was one, and I have four little sisters. You can’t script the things I know how to do right.

What was your way out of the active addiction that brought down your show?
BUTLER: In February of 1998 I was asked to leave the production lot and not come back. My husband had gone, and I was alone in the house up in the hills. By then I had been in and out of every $30,000 rehab program there was – sometimes opting for the locked-down psych ward because that’s the only way they’ll let you leave early – and then I’d go right back to using. I stayed at home, alone, in sort of a chrysalis state, until summer. One day I was walking through my house, crying for my mother, when I happened to pass by the TV and saw a story on the news about James Byrd, Jr. being dragged by a truck in Jasper, Texas, until he was in pieces. A voice in my head said, “You are going to that funeral.”

Now at this point in time I heard lots of voices; I was being psychically attacked because I’d sent out lots of invitations, letting everything out there know I was in no shape to defend myself. But this voice was very insistent and I knew it came from the good side. What I said back to it was, “I don’t have enough drugs to take to Texas.” And the voice repeated, “You are going to that funeral.” I paid for a private jet, and I called some friends, a mother and daughter, and asked them to go with me. I hired a man to drive me and one to look after me; I’d taken enough Tylenol 3 so I wouldn’t convulse, but I was really tweaking. The quantity of drugs I’d been taking was at Jedi level by then. We got there and went into the church and somebody tried to seat me in public view, but I definitely did not want to be in the celebrity pew. It was absolutely amazing that I’d even gotten there; I didn’t know how much longer I could last.

So I was sitting in the back of the church, sitting with all these old black women like I grew up with in my childhood. I sat there remembering how often I was protected by black women when my mother was too “sick” to get out of bed and function. And I really didn’t know why I was there to witness all this grief, and think about this hideous crime. The woman next to me held my head when I started to cry, and I pushed off, thinking “No, no, this is your pain, not mine. I don’t even have a right to be here.” And she’s just saying “Hush” and holding me, so I started thinking about how sometimes people are comforted by comforting someone else. Then I closed my eyes, and with utter clarity I saw the cross – the real one, made of wood – and I heard this voice that’s so funny to remember now, even though it wasn’t funny when I heard it. The voice was like an old Catskill comedian saying, “I did it already! You’re not even being original!” And then I realized, I’m self-crucifying! Then I felt this jolt, almost like coming back into the body after a near-death experience; it was like I’d finally figured out something big.

On the way out of the funeral, I was surrounded by this group of black people and I looked over to my left and saw a whole bunch of cameras focused on the front of the church. Now I got scared, because at this point I wasn’t just famous; I was infamous. I had just been a front-page tabloid failure. I gasped, and the guys with me seemed to know what I was worried about. One of them said, “They don’t see you ‘cause they ain’t lookin’ for you, baby.” And I said, “Okay, I guess they’re not, are they?”

Then I heard this big voice booming behind me: “Is you Ellen?”

I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed so hard. I turned around and said, “Well, we all look alike, don’t we?” and there was this booming laugh from the whole crowd, right in the middle of this hell of grief and death and racism – and all the other white people around are keeping a straight face and clearing their throats.

Now this is a two-epiphany story. When I got back to the hotel, I was flipping television channels and found this televangelist on the preacher channel. I saw unequivocal love and forgiveness just pouring from this man. And it was being poured into him; he was really preaching! When he said it didn’t matter whether anybody sent in money or not, all the big-haired Pharisees sitting behind him started shifting around in their chairs with this “well let’s not get carried away” look on their faces. Then the camera zoomed in on the preacher and he said, “There is a woman out there who most of you think has everything, fame and all the rest of it, and now she’s completely alone. If I could tell her one thing, it would be this: There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there is nothing you can do to make Him love you less.”

That was the month I got sober.

When did you decide to return to stand-up?
BUTLER: I took two years off from show business, and I’m sure the feeling was mutual. I was grateful to have the time and money to do it. I was shocked by what I had done and what had happened to me, and still haunted by the idea that I was not forgivable. One day my Italian boyfriend said, “You know, Mario Andretti would drive his way out. It might be time for you to do some comedy again.” It was like Scarlett O’Hara thinking about Tara; it was like somebody pressing the red clay of comedy into my hands, telling me You’ll always have comedy!

Why do you think we’re so fascinated with fame, and so interested in gossiping about famous people whose problems are not essentially different than anyone else’s?
BUTLER: I used to be a gossip, but I didn’t think of myself that way; I just thought I was helping people when they weren’t in the room. What’s behind most gossip, even when it sounds vicious and nasty, is essentially benign: it’s a disguised relief at our connections. The superior attitude behind gossip goes like this: “Well, if I had all that, do you think I would ever do anything wrong, or be ungrateful?” Of course the answer is yes; we’re all alike in that regard. And as I wrote in my book, if you wait til you’re rich and famous to be happy, you’re screwed.

What’s been the most important realization of your spiritual life as you went in and out of addiction over the years?
BUTLER: The most dramatic realization was that in surrender I would find more freedom and power than I’d ever known. It’s one of the harder things to explain, and especially to convince other addicts of. They always come back at you with “You people and your surrender bullshit!” And I want to say, “Believe me, I know exactly how you feel.” Yet it is in surrender – the falling-away from my own will, that adorable, toddler-like thing within myself – that there’s something finer to be discovered. I finally figured out that  the very best parts of me, like mercy, and wit, and hope, and intelligence,  are possessed in enormous quantities by God, or the universe, if you prefer. I’m comforted just by being on the very periphery of the source of those qualities. I have to do repetitive and kind of infantile things just to connect to that source, because I don’t  feel the constant flow of it. I haven’t yet learned to access it very reliably. I often feel like my life is a prayer, and I am the interruption.

I’ve also realized that the things I don’t like in other people are things I generally possess myself. Now I’m trying to learn that if I love something in you, I probably have it dancing around in me too. I am so grateful for the quality of the souls of my friends; I’m astonished by the love and brightness of the people I care about. I live for that.

Finally, I’ve had to look closely at something that used to be a habit with me – outrage – and I’m bemused to see it taking a back seat in my life. Since September 11, I have narrowed my job description to that of comedian; I decided that to be a comedian is as revolutionary as anything I could ever say or do. I’m a big-mouthed white chick who says what she wants. I have more love in me than not, I have more hope in me than not, and I have more faith than I used to. I just want to get out of the way of what I’ve been given, so I can do it right.


NEWS UPDATE: Brett Butler returned to serial television
on Charlie Sheen’s “Anger Management” June 28 2012

See a New York Times profile, Jan. 25 2013

 

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