The road less traveled is no easy trek, Brett Butler has survived and overcome many battles, and the wisdom that she has gained in coming through the other side colors both her outlook and creativity in every way, "Often what I write are the struggles about a point of view or my morality more than anything else. My life is just a succession of experiences whereby I try to get over myself, and the biggest part of that has to do with that rage against the machine. I'm awfully self conscious about that when I'm writing. I'm thinking my heart and my mind are geared towards the eyes that can see the farthest horizon, I'm writing up to people, I never write down to anyone, and I'm writing up to myself, I guess, if that makes sense" Brett says of her often poetic and deeply philosophical writings.
Brett started out performing stand up comedy in 1982, " I was in Houston waiting tables, I had done stand up when I was five, it was just something I always wanted to do, and there were comedy clubs everywhere. One night I did 8 shows in Houston in one night, just going from bar to bar where they had a band and I'd go "can I go up on your next break?" and they'd say "just use the mike on the drum set and don't touch shit" like I wouldn't get any intro, nobody ever wanted something as badly as I wanted that," Brett says of her beginnings.
I asked her what the world of comedy was like, if it felt like a supportive community or family in many ways, "Most of us are just really kind of self centered emotional people with huge pain in our lives and self loathing which often comes off as being mean to other people. There are, as in every other profession and walks of life, lovely people who don't think there's any such thing as too much good comedy. A lot of us have toys in the attic that are broken when we start."
Brett's comedic contemporaries were some of the best the world of comedy has ever seen, Bill Hicks, Paula Poundstone, Marc Maron, Sam Kinison, Rick Shapiro, Robert Klein and of course Brett Herself. "I worked out of Texas for a year then moved to Atlanta for a year, and that's where I met Robert Klein, and he told me "you've gotta go to New York". And I asked him "what about L.A.?" And he said "No, you'll be too provincial there", thank God, thank God I went to New York," says Brett. On Klein's advice she did just that. She was soon to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, "I did a really good job, it went great, my Grandfather cried from being proud, but what made me proud, years later, when I had my television show and everything and I had written my book that they paid me way too much to write, and that had to be hard for him to read, it was not an altogether lovely struggle that I had and wrote about, and he said "honey, I know that you do a good job on the show, I love to watch you, I know you're funny, but books are about posterity and I believe you have a gift in your writing and I hope you always do it."
The show in question is quite simply one of the best and most important shows ever made. It centers on a southern, blue collar single Mom who is a recovering alcoholic and survivor of domestic violence working in an all men's oil refinery, "when they asked me about doing the show, because it was based on my life, I said only if it's in past tense and she doesn't bash men. In the pilot episode there's a scene where Grace realizes her little boy saw his dad hurt his mom, and he's gotten in a fight at school, anyway, it calls for my character to cry, so after it's done I was talking to my director Michael Lessac, kind of bragging about myself, I said, "well. you know, I mean I'm a stand up for like a dozen years and I never took acting classes, so I'm surprised I was even able to cry." He looks at me very dryly and says "you know the amazing part is that you ever fucking stop." I was so glad that he said that. If I was going to go down the path of insufferable, I think he tripped me right there."
Grace Under Fire - ABC - Chuck Lorre - Carsey-Werner Productions
Grace Under Fire tackled a range of issues that television tends to shy away from, poverty, domestic violence, addiction/alcoholism, depression, women's rights in the workplace, fighting against discrimination, intolerance surrounding people with aids, and the jokes actually made you laugh uncontrollably, unlike much of today's sitcom writing. The show also wasn't afraid to be dramatic and serious. There is an episodes where Grace's daughter, Libby, is having stomach pains from an ulcer brought on by worrying about her mother's financial struggles, and in another episode Grace becomes defacto caretaker for one of Libby's friends, whose mother is so clinically depressed that he (the kid) has to offer to make her food, when it should be the other way around. All in all, it was a show that hit close to many people's homes and covered the prosaic details of life in an honest, funny and heartbreaking way.
Things took an unfortunate turn, the details of which are painfully public in a way that many of us would not want our lives to be, "I wasn't, no pun intended, always graceful about the fame aspect of it, or the game that has to be played out here, I took it too seriously. I had this thought one night, I remember going, consciously, "you know, you're really funny and you're not going to be a good comedian if you keep drinking." The fact that I was probably dying was less important to me than comedy. To say I was on a death march doesn't begin to describe it. Steve Earle said "I'm not arrogant enough that I think God saved me for something special, but I'm a curious bastard and I want to know what it is." I'd love to be one of these people that never went out again, that's just not the way it happened for me," Brett says of that painful time in her life. The show was eventually cancelled and Brett began the difficult inner and outer journey back to recovery and herself. "I believe this," Brett says, "that we pick the stage coach ride we come in on. Every freaking moment of it, every lesson, every step of the way, which is very unsettling, when I'm engaged in a difficult situation of my life, emotionally, financially, whatever, wait a minute, I wrote the prescription for this? It's sort of like being at a restaurant and getting bad service and saying "I want to see the fucking manager" and then you, yourself walks out. It's like "well, no, I want to go over you" and everywhere you go to complain, there you are. "
Much of the pain in Brett's life stemmed, in part, from the abandonment of her Father, although she reached a moment in her life, pretty early on, where she was able to forgive him, "When someone in our lives, it's usually someone in our family, is supposed to have our back and doesn't, and we're able to extend a modicum of forgiveness and acceptance to them even if it's an inside job and that person never knows. For example in my life it would be my father, who passed away when I was 21, I never saw him after I was 4, before he died I had kind of a road to Damascus moment about forgiving him. I was alone one day and the words 'forgive your father' were like an audio in my head, I can almost hear them, and I had a complete vision of how and why I was to completely forgive, and it was more than that, it wasn't something I just extended because I wanted to be a good person, I fully understood his sickness, his inability to see it. I'm sorry to say it was an extraordinary experience, where I could understand the failings of another person and love them completely, so the upside of that is I found out a few weeks later that he actually died within a two hour window of when that happened to me. I was literally walking in the country when that happened and I was past the point of thinking about him in my life everyday, you know, he had just been gone for so long, he was not a part of my daily thoughts." "It's funny," Brett continues, "if I hadn't learned this lesson, among the many I think are lessons, one is that it's never personal, especially when it feels that way. It's always about someone else, you know. Stopping short of family annihilators or something like that. The teachings of Christ are basically love, forgive and flip over like a fish in the pan until we get it right. And forgiveness is in lock step with that love stuff."
When asked about her faith Brett says, "it's complicated because it's simple. I love this guy called Jesus but I really don't like most people who identify as christian. That's a horrible thing to say. I believe all paths lead to God, even atheist ones. We all go home, some people just take the long bus ride, that's all. I don't believe in God because I think I get extra credit. There's some televised interviews with Carl Jung and that lovely man from the BBC asked him if he believed in God and he said "I do not believe in God, I have experienced him." That's kind of how I feel about it. It's not a rule book. I know some people who are born again in a very stern way, and this should not be bad news to anyone except evangelical Christians or people in ISIS really, there is no Hell. And people can get really upset about that. Apparently Hell is important in their belief system. We can't get our heads around how much the creator loves us, how love is the creation, and there's nothing else that's really real. He or She is certainly not waiting to kick our ass when we get home."
Anger Management - FX - Bruce Helford - Left to right: Martin Sheen, Brett Butler, Charlie Sheen
Brett has recently had a resurrection of sorts, career wise, many probably recognize her from her role on Charlie Sheen's Anger Management, as well as a small recurring role on How to get away with murder, but the most astounding performance can be seen in HBO's The Leftovers, where Brett plays one of the most intense and dramatic roles of her career. "Rip Torn told me years ago "you'll be a character actress" you know, when you get older, and then Damon Lindelof, who did Lost and The Leftovers called me a couple of years ago and put me in a few episodes of The Leftovers, I'm in the third season which I think will come out this spring. These are some really juicy, interesting parts. You're talking to somebody who wasn't trying to get a T.V. show when I did by the way, I didn't even have an agent when I got my sitcom. Damon Lindelof gave me an interesting, crazy lady to wrap my head around." Brett says of the HBO role. "I was so cowed to be working with Christopher Eccleston, cause I'd never met him before, and it was enchanting. That one show was fourteen hours in July in an Austin Texas park, and I hadn't worked in a long time and I just knew I had to go balls to the wall with this chick, when I read that scene, I thought if this can be my job from here on out, can you give me these parts. That was great. The big scene I do in the third season, Damon wrote a scene where I got to be really dramatic, really funny, cry, all this in the span of a few minutes in a scene. And that's so much fun."
Brett Butler - The Leftovers - HBO- Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta
I asked her if she's proud of the work she did and all that she accomplished with her sitcom Grace Under Fire, "I am" Brett says, "I'm just really proud of it because we didn't demonize anybody."
Recently Brett has tapped into and explored what she feels has been a part of her life for a while, although now she is in a place where she can utilize it fully; the gift of mediumship. "I have friends who are avowed secular humanists, they're just too hip to believe in anything really, and they tend to look upon my foray into mediumship as kind of an embarrassment, like, "well, Bret,t we befriended you despite your lower middle class protestant back woods status and now any chance you had of being an intellectual is now in smithereens" I never pretended to be an intellectual. I'd like to think I do wrestle with higher minded topics and issues and the strugglings of a soul. I try to challenge myself. I have some huge doubts about different parts of it myself. I'm what they call claircognizant, it means clear knowing.
There are people who will just argue with every step of this, like well, you know, that's just believing in unicorns and fairy tales and stuff, it's rigorously asinine. I think this might be the first life where I've been able to wrestle with moral things, I think this might be as good a person as I've ever been, I'm sorry to say. Herbert Spencer, I think was his name, a philosopher that Bill W. quoted, said "there's one thing, in the intellectual process, that keeps us in everlasting ignorance, and it is the process of contempt prior to investigation." I wish that I could be as bossy pants about the psychic thing as I am everything else. If all I do is get one other person to consider the possibility that our souls, if anything, go on to live more expansively and comprehending existences past these skin schools we get, these bodies, that's a bigger school of thought than just a bunch of 1-900 psychic people" Brett says. "I'm not here to be on the charts with this stuff, it's not about Brett Butler's greatest hits. The hardest part about psychic stuff, especially claircognizance, it feels like you're making it up. That's why it's hard to stop when you're in the middle of that wave of like getting hits on the phone with people. There's always this me standing back going "how much of this is because this person wants to believe, how much of it is because you're a good psychic", you know, where's the real in this, and that's what meditating helps confirm."
Brett describes an early experience with meditating and out of body experiences, vividly putting it this way, "At one of the times that I had gotten 90 days sober I was fidgeting but trying to meditate and I had a spontaneous out of body experience that was remarkable, it only lasted 60 seconds of earth time but I went up beyond the curve of the earth, it was transcendental in every way, and what was so funny, none of it felt miraculous while it was going on, it was just a beautiful place where time fell away, where fear and all thought of mortality fell away, I became immortal in that moment, and once you've seen immortality, you have it forever, you just have to remind yourself. When I jolted back in my body, I was so gifted with the people around me, I called my sponsor at the time who was an elderly elegant southern woman, like one with, you know, kind of genealogical credentials one might say, put it this way, she had a life size oil portrait of herself in her living room and it wasn't tacky, that's how landed she was, so I told her what happened and she said in this rich, smoky southern voice, "Sugar, you have had a bona fide spiritual experience. Darling people climb to the top of mountains in Nepal to have things like that happen, and sit there on a cube of ice for seventeen years" she said "do not, I repeat, do not attempt to duplicate it or expect it." And I was 25 when that happened, you don't know how young you are when you're 25, but I'm really glad she told me that."
"I just define mystic," Brett continues, as we talk recovery and mysticism, "as anyone who craves union or comprehension of the divine. Jung actually wrote Bill Wilson, I'm paraphrasing it, and he said "you know, you alcoholics are just mystics that try for short cuts."
"I'm from a little place called Marietta, Georgia," Brett recounts, "I went to Wheeler High School. I didn't really care for school, I don't remember it fondly, I had no team spirit at all after middle school. It was just an unhappy place filled with white people that burned Beatles albums and talked about Jesus, a little bitty mean one. There's one guy that I miss from high school though, Louis, he was just the funniest guy that I ever knew, he had the most insanely dry unique wit, I'm not talking stand up stuff, I'm not talking class clown on purpose, it's like he was born a hundred years old, he could make teachers like just have apoplectic fits within minutes and in a seemingly concerned way. Years later I went to one of the reunions and I was looking around and I wanted to see Louis, they told me he married someone who wrote christian diet books for a living, and I realized then that Louis probably didn't get that joke. It really broke my heart. There was one person there who saw the expression on my face and he came up and put his arm around me and said "If Louis ever saw himself the way you did, it would have changed everything for him."
Remembering an early elementary school talent show in her hometown of Marietta, Georgia, Brett describes her first stand up routine, " I was 8 and we had a Christmas school pageant and I told my mother "I don't want to write a poem, I want to do what that guy did on Ed Sullivan." She helped me remember George Carlin's jokes and I went up and did that. I don't think they even got the hippy dippy weather man, and I knew this shit was funny, even though I was 8, and I sat down and my mother goes "you were great" and I go "they didn't laugh" and she said "they didn't get it." Here's what's funny, my best girlfriend got up to play silent night on the piano right after I did my little skit, and Harriett was painfully shy and the key got stuck on the piano and I thought she was just gonna die and the room got quiet, and from the back row I whispered, really loudly, "Harriett, play the one next to it." And everyone died laughing, and honestly I did not get why that was funny, I just thought I was helping, but my mom said "your face, when they laughed was like, that's my girls drug" and it was. It was a drug for me. What a feeling. Even Harriett laughed. What an idiot, play the one next to it."
When asked if she still does stand up, Brett says "I don't think I have to do stand up or the psychic work, maybe I'm trying to mix oil and water here. I guess I'm telling you I'm not sure what I'm gonna be when I grow up. How can I put it, when I say I feel kind of pregnant spiritually, like something is gestating, I'm feeling comfortable with not knowing exactly what it is yet. Like Flannery O'Connell said, I show up every day from this hour to this hour, if my muses don't show, they can't say I didn't show up to meet them. I'm not comparing myself to her by the way, I'm just good at quoting people."
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.