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COVER STORY : True Tales of TV Trauma: 3 Comics Chase Roseanne-dom : Brett Butler : How has Butler hit the big time in such a short time? She's used the very same demons she's beat in her life to touch audiences with her hit, 'Grace Under Fire.' But, what about that new demon, stardom?

September 04, 1994|Hilary de Vries | Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

Understand this and all the rest makes sense--the tough-girl act, the weepingly devoted audiences, the whispered comparisons to Roseanne--all of it because Brett Butler has what she calls "huge feelings."

And has them pretty much all the time. At least since she was a kid back in Alabama watching television and the other drama unfolding in her living room--a real-life family feud, the kind that winds up with the cops outside and somebody heading for divorce court. Or in her own life as an alcoholic married to a mirror image of her dad, living in a trailer park and covered with bruises.

Even now when Butler is on TV, the star of ABC's hit "Grace Under Fire," where she plays Grace Kelly, a working-class single mother with an abusive ex-husband--a woman not unlike her own mother--she still wrestles with those feelings. It's why she got into stand-up in the first place. Get on a stage and, in that syrupy, Dixie-by-way-of-Texas argot, make people laugh with stories ripped right from those feelings. Stories about her crummy ex-husband, competitive women, lunkhead rednecks. Mostly the rednecks, like that guy on the plane who just up and irritated Butler for no good reason, so she leaned forward and suggested that the only time he ever enjoyed, uhm, marital relations was to a refrain of "Daddy, don't."

Those kind of feelings. People ate it up. Except now it's different. Now she isn't one of a gazillion hopefuls grinding it out on the stand-up circuit. Now, she's on the cover of magazines, TV Guide to the tabloids. Now, she's got lawyers and managers and a public-relations team just to get through a week's worth of headlines unscathed.

"The most hideous things that have been done to me this year have been done by people who were smiling at me," she says, nodding at her publicist, stationed here in the otherwise amiable offices of her producer like a bailiff. "Now, I don't talk to anybody unless he's in the room."

For a moment, it looks as if Butler's huge feelings are going to hold sway despite objections from her interviewer. She doesn't call herself "Princess" for nothing, even if it is a joke. After all, one executive producer, Chuck Lorre, already bit the dust after crossing swords with her. Eventually a compromise is struck: Today's meeting with the press will be on her own while her publicist waits just outside the open door.

Well, for a minute anyway. "For Christ sake, it's not like I'm in here having my first Pap smear," Butler says, jumping up to slam the door, apparently embarrassed now by the arrangement. "I am a big girl, you know."

Actually, very big when you consider the kind of year Butler has had. Even before "Grace" had its premiere last September, analysts had picked the series as one of the few sure hits of last season. Taking its cues from ratings powerhouse "Roseanne"--a tough-talking comedian and trailer-park realism--"Grace" was clearly the new darling of ABC. It was airing in one of the most coveted time slots--9:30 p.m. Wednesdays right after the runaway hit show "Home Improvement." And it was the latest series from Carsey-Werner Productions, the fabled producing team of Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey, who had turned Bill Cosby and Roseanne into network gold.

Now, after a year in which "Grace" fulfilled those early expectations, consistently landing among the week's Top 10 shows--and ending the season in the No. 6 position--the anticipation is that Butler is poised to make a similar leap. Earlier this summer, she won top honors at the annual People's Choice Awards. ABC, meanwhile, has already capitalized on her popularity, upping the series' ad rates to an average of $200,000 per 30-second spot. (The season's first show airs Sept. 20.)

"The single-mother show has been around since 'Julia,' " observes Ted Harbert, president of ABC Entertainment. "The success of 'Grace' has to do with Brett's own amazing personal appeal."

Or as Mark Flanagan, the executive producer of "Grace," puts it, "Brett is the new franchise."

For Butler, the past year has been an only-in-Hollywood trajectory that has left the 36-year-old comedian wrestling with a whole new set of emotions, equal parts gratification and guilt over the sudden celebrity that has capped her 12-year journey from that trailer park to the TV ratings charts. Not only has the past year left literal scars--an on-again, off-again second marriage to Ken Zeigler, a contracts attorney and sometime jazz musician based in New York, and some much publicized breast implants Butler had done last Christmas as a gift to herself--but she also has had many of her long-held opinions about women and fame ripped open.

"You know there are those female celebrities that you love to put a harder tack on--like Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand. 'Get over yourself, honey.' Well, this year, I'm like, 'They're so misunderstood'--except I would never endow a chair in human sexuality"--as Streisand did at UCLA.

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