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April 20, 2014

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Columnist Lisa Ferguson: Butler puts life, comedy career back on track

There's something a bit unsettling about hearing Brett Butler gush about the man in her life.

"I'm just madly, horribly in love with this great new boyfriend," the comedian effuses about her honey -- a "New York-Italian" who also works in show business. She's reticent to reveal many more details, except to say: "I'm so happy now, if he wanted me to quit comedy and bake bread, I'd say, 'Twelve- grain or white?' "

Hold on: Is this the same Alabama-born, Georgia-bred Butler who built her comedy reputation -- and for six seasons starred as a single mom/oil-refinery worker on her own hit ABC sitcom "Grace Under Fire" -- as a tough-as-nails, completely capable, Southern woman?

For that matter, is this the comedian whose alleged divalike on-set antics and drug addiction reportedly led to her series' demise?

As recently as this year, Butler -- who served as a celebrity judge alongside fellow comics Drew Carey and Anthony Clark on two episodes of this season's NBC reality series "Last Comic Standing' -- made headlines by storming out of the show's taping at Paris Las Vegas.

Yup, that'd be her.

No word on whether Mr. Wonderful has requested any sourdough baguettes or pumpernickel loaves yet. In any case, Butler's stand-up career remains on track as she headlines tonight and Saturday at The Top of the Riv at Riviera.

In a recent call from her home office in Hollywood, Calif., she joked about taking the stage to perform "a couple times a month -- pretty much just to remember how to put on mascara." Butler is quick to explain that after more than two decades in the business, "I've never been funnier, I never have. And you know what, if you've been doing your job for 22 years and ... if you've never been better at it, then there's something wrong."

For a time, it may have seemed that things had gone terribly awry for Butler. She detailed her tumultuous life (including an early marriage to an abusive husband, and her addiction issues) as well as her rise through comedy's ranks in her 1996 autobiography "Knee Deep in Paradise."

The two-time Golden Globe Award nominee continued to battle substance abuse following the '98 cancellation of "Grace Under Fire."

"I'm not excusing any behavior I did that was less than stellar, but I don't think it was that terrible," she told the Sun in 2001.

Butler divorced a second husband in 1999, and also took a two-year, self-imposed break from her career "so I wouldn't have a Robert Downey Jr. thing happen to me. My life is more important than other people's opinion of me," she said in '01.

In retrospect, "I didn't think it was awful," 46-year-old Butler contends of her personal and professional journeys. "I'm a lemonade maker, I really am."

Nor does she much care to discuss the past these days, and says she wishes others didn't, either. "You're talking about stuff that happened, like, seven years ago, so forgive me if I don't have my finger on the pulse of that. It doesn't interest me ... Frankly, if other people are frozen into a kind of judgment or a mind-set not based on any progress I've made, they're crippled and I'm not."

Progress, indeed: Butler is finally coming clean about the fact that she's been sober for six years. "I never talked about that because I hate glisteny-eyed celebrity survivors. But I am a real woman who just happens to be famous, so I really want to share that part of doing this whole one-day-at-a-time life thing."

That's not to say she hasn't experienced some setbacks. Last fall, following the breakup of a long-term relationship with a previous beau, she endured "a pretty rough bout with depression." That's also when she found Leon, a 5-month-old Shih Tzu puppy, at an Atlanta pet store and decided to add him to her menagerie that includes three other dogs and a trio of cats, as well as some horses.

"He'd been in a cage for a hundred days, like a piece of veal. He didn't have any muscle tone; they never took him out." Playing with the pooch later that evening, she recalls, "He looked up at me, and he looked at the sky ... and there wasn't any looking back or anticipation. There wasn't anything but complete bliss for his new mommy, and air, and all these great things to smell. And I realized then that Leon might be God," she says, laughing.

"Ever since then, I've been making some pretty big changes," Butler says, apparently working from the outside in: "I had a really good face-lift in December, which really helps," she jokes. "It hurts, and if you're in show business and you're 46, get it."

Rest assured, she hasn't turned into a complete softy. In fact, she's still miffed about the "Last Comic Standing" incident. Series execs claimed that Butler, Carey and Clark were mistaken in expecting that their votes would serve as the final word in determining which comedic contestants received the nod to live in a Hollywood mansion and compete for the show's title.

"They're big fat liars, pants on fire," Butler says of the producers. What didn't air was footage of her telling Carey: " 'Damn, Drew, I've used up my lifetime supply of public hissy fits.' So I just left" the showroom. Also not aired during the broadcasts were scenes of her return to the theater. "I opened up my arms and I smiled real sweet, and I went, 'This show's fixed.' "

Backstage she consoled contestants who didn't make the cut. "I told the kids, 'Look, the ones of you that didn't go in the house and know you're funny, you'll be funny 'til you die. No one ever takes that away. This is show business ... My best advice to you is get over it and go do a (stand-up) show tonight' " at a comedy club.

Ah, there's the straight-shootin' Brett Butler we know.

"I would like to be a beacon to other middle-aged women who have had to start over more than once," she summarizes in a tone that's mockingly reminiscent of a beauty pageant contestant trying to wow the judges, but then adds, "in ways that are cosmic more than literal in my case -- and some quite literal," referring to her sobriety. Of course, "If I had to be just like I am to get the boyfriend I have now, I'd do it all over again."

Out for laughs

Through Sunday Carla Rea -- co-star of "Divas of Comedy" at Sahara, who was profiled here in April -- fills in for Carole Montgomery of "Midnight Fantasy" at Luxor. Montgomery also co-stars in "Divas," and Rea has become her regular "Fantasy" fill in.

Funny man Bill Engvall, co-star of The WB's new Thursday-night series "Blue Collar TV," takes the stage at Boulder Station's The Railhead at 8 p.m. Saturday.

"Miniskirts & Muffins" is the title of Mitch Fatel's latest disc. A correspondent on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," Fatel has previously played The Comedy Stop at the Trop. The CD ($14.99) is available at www.mitchfatel.com.

"The Hollywood Comedy Tour" is set to play The Palms again on Sept. 4. Co-hosts Cort McCown and Paul Hughes will welcome Freddy Soto (of the "Three Amigos Comedy Tour") and Jim Norton, most recently seen on "Last Comic Standing" and a regular guest on Comedy Central's "Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn."

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