A Hollywood lifetime ago say, in the late '80s, back when she was a rawboned, brown-haired young woman clutching a mike in front of the legendary curtain on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show wearing a black shirt and pants Brett Butler did a stand-up bit that went like this: ''I know I look like a lesbian art teacher from Santa Cruz.'' Beat. Beat. ''I'm not a lesbian. I can't even do improv.''
The gag killed. But Butler no longer has the droopy-hippie looks to make that joke stick anymore. Today the 36-year-old comedian-writer-actor is stylish and strawberry blond and the star of Grace Under Fire, the sophomore ABC sitcom that's a consistent top 10 (and often top 5 or top 2 or No. 1) ratings hit. She's a pro in pretty makeup and satin blouses who appears in cable comedy specials. She may play off her onstage persona that of a wise-cracking Southern gal who split from an abusive redneck husband and won't let no inbred sumbitch give her ass a hard time ever again to promote 7-Eleven stores in TV commercials. But she's also a gal who now regularly, publicly, jokes about her glamorous, haute Hollywood breast implants. In other words, Butler is no drawling hick chick any more than Roseanne is a trailer-park hausfrau.
What she is is a social commentator, deep and spiky and intellectually complicated, in a hit show that smooths out some of her sharper angles without dulling her bright shine. ''Grace is a lot warmer and fuzzier than I am,'' she warns, analyzing Grace Kelly, the character she plays. (For the record, Grace is a blue-collar single mom with three kids, living in the Midwest, whereas Butler is married to a New York lawyer, has no kids, and lives in L.A.)
But the gossiped-about early battles the star fought to keep Grace from becoming what she thought was too damn fuzzy coupled with the fact that Grace, like Roseanne, features a tough-mouthed cookie playing a tough-mouthed cookie not only gained Butler a preliminary reputation as an Uppity Woman in the Roseanne mold, they also resulted in a sitcom creation of notable substance.
Sometimes, Butler admits, it surprises her to hear that people like her. After all, she's edgy, cynical, pensive, partial to activities involving silent observation. (One of her favorites has been to go to airports and watch families reunite.) Sometimes the woman who says, ''I have an ego and thin skin. I have a radar that's almost unfortunate. I know when people are being nice to me because of who I am as a person versus my new station. And it's a horrific thing to be psychic in these circumstances,'' wonders whether people like her better now because she's blond. ''I said to my husband, 'I swear audiences are nicer to me now,''' she recounts. ''He said, 'No, no, you're acting differently, so you're getting it back.' And then I started paying attention: I was doing some things differently. I was looking at the world through blond eyeballs!''
Brett Butler doesn't wear so much black now. Her hair is yellow. But her best feature is the one she is smart enough never to cover up: Her roots are dark.