When she's tired or when she suspects somebody is underestimating her intelligence, Brett Butler's Georgia accent thickens like honey left in a jar too long. Her mobile face, unconventionally attractive, takes on a harsher grimness. She briefly touches her long hair, which, left to its own devices, would be dark brown, but which in recent years has been cajoled into a camera-friendlier golden blond. And in a taffy-pull twang she says something tough something like this: ''I don't care what it took to get this f---in' show better than it was at the first of the year, with a fart joke in the pilot, but we've done it. And I have done a lot of it.''
Then the crisis passes, the comedian's admirable cheekbones pull up in a smile, the accent recedes, and she says something charming something like this: ''I look like Cybill Shepherd after a bad night.'' She compares and contrasts. ''She's got bigger feet than I do!'' (She's wrong.)
You laugh. You steal a look at the feet in question, encased in black Reeboks and reasonably proportioned for her assertive 5'9'' frame. You begin to understand that Brett Butler, 36, is a woman coolly aware of her own professional as well as physical stature. ''I'm a big, healthy woman with sturdy feet,'' she announces, sitting behind the desk in her L.A. office on the set of Grace Under Fire. The statement applies as much to the vitality of Grace Kelly, the character she plays, as to Butler's podiatric assets: The ABC sitcom from Carsey-Werner Productions, the shepherds of Roseanne and The Cosby Show, finished its first season sixth in overall ratings, and debuted its sophomore season on Sept. 20 (it airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m.) second for the week behind powerhouse lead-in Home Improvement.
The show is thriving. But stresses from that first year hit the big, healthy woman hard. Dressed in black jeans and a green shirt, she displays the office posture of an executive, assuming an executive would say things like ''I think I should be regal and balanced at all times, but it's just not f---in' possible.'' She speaks forcefully; she favors precise analysis over modest hedging. ''I do think that I'm the biggest reason for this show's success,'' she declares. The twang is nowhere to be heard.
Grace Under Fire is about a working-class woman who bails out of an abusive marriage, takes a job in an oil refinery in Victory, Mo., and manages a household with three kids on her own. Minus the kid part (she has none) and the refinery part (she served time in the late '80s as a neon square on The Hollywood Squares, but has never worn a hard hat), the similarities are notable. Way back in her own life Butler, too, left an abusive marriage, the survival of which became the basis of a stand-up act she took to comedy clubs, making jokes about trailer parks, gun racks, pickup trucks, and the SOB-type men who love them.
Born in Montgomery, Ala., and named by her literature-loving mother for Lady Brett Ashley, the heroine of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Butler grew up in Atlanta, the oldest of five sisters. Her father abandoned the family when she was 4. ''I came up in a different kind of home where we picked (our extended family), because our father was gone, and our mother was bohemian and extremely literate and also agnostic,'' she says, describing days when her mother would let her stay home from school to watch Paul Lynde and Totie Fields on TV. ''We stayed up late, we watched the darkest, the worst. (My mother) used to follow me around saying, 'You're gonna be on TV one day!' I did comedy when I was 8.'' At 19, she married a steelworker, entering a three- year misery of abuse and drinking. At 22, she left the marriage, moved to Houston, and began doing stand-up while waitressing. By 25, encouraged by comedian Robert Klein, she had moved to New York, and began establishing a name for herself as the ''chick with the hick (accent)'' who told stories about women who loved men who loved pickup trucks. She married New York lawyer Ken Ziegler. She developed the tough, knowing comic voice that made Johnny Carson double over laughing the first time she appeared on The Tonight Show in 1987. ''I feel like New York midwifed me in so many ways artistically, intellectually, emotionally,'' she says. ''I lived in that town nine years, and it made me an unapologetically strong woman. It's a much more loving city than people ever give it credit for. You know, I'm a lot like that damn town. Everybody says it's horrible, but it's really not. I am just like New York City!''