The very thorniness that makes Brett Butler such an interesting comedian to watch is what makes her such a difficult character to warm up to. She’s brazen, but not as outrageous as Roseanne; self-deprecating but not as huggable as Ellen DeGeneres; Southern-fried but not as corny as Jeff Foxworthy; highly literate but not a debate-team whiz kid like Dennis Miller. In her stand-up act or on her hit ABC sitcom, Grace Under Fire, there’s a private melancholy to Butler’s sharp-tongued observations, a core of sadness to even her jauntiest feminist statements. When Grace first debuted, in 1993, we learned a fair amount of personal information about the star — that her father had deserted the family when she was a girl growing up in Georgia, that she’d escaped a miserable first marriage to a man who beat her, that she was a recovering alcoholic, that she was now married to lawyer Ken Zeiger, that both her blondness and her breasts were proudly store-bought — and still she seemed to be hoarding good stuff for some other venue.
She was. Knee Deep in Paradise, her autobiography, takes Butler from her difficult Southern childhood, through her years of drinking, drugs, random sex, and zero-future jobs, to the early days of her stand-up act, her Tonight Show debut, her stint in the cultural desert of The Hollywood Squares, and on to the birth of the TV show that put her on the charts with Jerry, Roseanne, Ellen, Tim, and Paul three years ago, when she was 35. And it is unlike any other comedian’s book project you’ve read in recent years: powerful, stylish, the work of a real writer with a distinctive literary voice.
Butler has a dramatic story to tell: At its heart, it’s a passionate letter to the depressed but supportive mother who raised her and her four sisters and to the alcoholic father, now dead, who walked out of their lives when she was four. But the author guards against melodrama. ”Surrendering an autobiography before the age of forty is best left to geniuses or martyrs,” she begins briskly. ”Since geniuses are too busy and true martyrs never speak of it, that leaves celebrities.” Warming up, she tells of how, driving in a rented Cadillac on the way to make the Hollywood deal that would launch her show, she stopped to give money to a woman begging for help to feed her kids. ”She looked like me if I hadn’t quit drinking or never came indoors, except her hair was naturally blond.”
Knee Deep is about how the proud, complicated Butler got from there to here, a journey worth marveling at. On high school: ”The diligence I showed toward men and contraband was impressive when compared to my attendance at school or any other discipline…. I smoked pot and didn’t get stoned, and had sex without orgasms.” On being beaten by her husband: ”…the very sickest thing of all is the realization that when he hits you — you win. Because no matter what else happens, you would never sink that low. And you see the agony in his eyes when he figures that out.”
At times in her story, the author is fearlessly candid. At other times, she deftly but firmly sidesteps matters of reader curiosity, particularly concerning reports of strife on the set of Grace and of her not always graceful adjustment to a star’s lifestyle. Always, though, she takes time to find the perfectly polished images that give this fascinating addition to the library of celebrity literature its surprising glow. (A yearlong separation from Zeiger — they’re now reconciled — felt ”as if I’d been standing on the edge of an inherited abyss.”) Knee Deep has the feeling of something the author worked on, with much self-esteem at stake, for a long time. It was worth the difficult delivery — and congratulations are in order on the birth of a handsome, healthy book from a talented woman who’s much warmer than we knew.