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Spinning the bottle 

What is grace? Is it the toes of a ballerina or the sunglasses of a Jackie O? The one-eyed stumble from a bar or the knowing just when to leave a party? Who can say?

Regardless, "grace" and "fire" exist in some overwrought American pop-culture-wordplay metaphoria, thanks in no small part to the flaxen, spit-'n'-smile demureness of Brett Butler. Her sitcom was a phenomenal "Roseanne" redux -- only without that unseemly fat -- but took on a life of its own, thanks in part to Brett's own down-home charm and, perhaps necessarily, the gossip-ready flak from her fabulous superstar addictions.

These days, Brett's back on the comedy track that made her sort of on fire, but without the booze. She's even working on a pilot for USA, which isn't so uncool anymore.

"Yeah, you're probably too young to remember the original "McCloud." But I'm playing Sam McCloud for the USA network," she clouds.

Despite all intentions, Grace, er Brett, is an icon of no equal. The show was pretty funny. But not as funny as the hearsay that one of the kids quit because she showed him her boob. Anybody who shows his or her boobs is an icon, you should know.

"What did you take from the whole 'Grace Under Fire' experience?" I quiz.

"A pool," she aces. "No, really, there were a lot of things, like, um, acting? I know some people don't think sitcoms are. It's another aspect of performing. I really enjoyed it. After all of those years of standing alone on a stage, it was just nice to look across the room and see someone else. Having a shared thing was pretty terrific. I'm grateful for having done 112 shows in a pretty competitive business."

"A hundred twelve bottles of beer on the wall, a hundred twelve bottles of beeeeeeer ... ." Oh, sorry.

"I took two years off, and I'm pretty sure it was pretty mutual in the business," she breaks my bottle. "I deplore glistening-eyed celebrity-survivor stories, but I've been sober for five years ... ."

Five minutes, here. OK, four. My eyes are glistening.

"I took two off and thought, 'Well, should I go get a horse farm in Louisiana, or will I always be looking over my shoulder to see if I could have played nicely in the sandbox.' But, I'm really glad that I kept the house out there. My little life is bigger than the big one."

My big life is littler than my ... oh, forget it. No apologies, then?

"If you make a big broad amend to people, that's a very private specific thing for me," she gets very private and specific. "The biggest one you can do is just go ahead and do what you've been put here to do and just get out of the way, which in my case is writing and performing."

She thinks for a minute. Oh no. Here it comes. "Yeah, I'm glad to be here. I'm glad to be alive. I almost died."

Here's the part of my job situation in which I hear the pounding of iron against cement in my head -- worse than a hangover, really, but somehow more likely to linger. "How?" I press my temples.

"I try to be responsible about specifics, because there are people who will read and compare, and say, 'Well, I'm not that bad' or 'Blank blank' ... ."

Blank. Blank.

"So, yeah, I did it till the wheels came off."

"So, what put your wheels back on," I grab a notepad.

"I'm really glad I did," she lug nuts. "Because it reminds me of dancing with the one that brung you, so to speak. This is what I do. This is how I got picked. Oct. 17 will be my 21st anniversary doing comedy. I'm so glad that someone like me has had a job this long."

And it's working, apparently. Brett's even kinda sexy ... if you're into that sort of thing. At least she was last night.

"I'm 45, and there was this darling boy who was, like, 25 in the front row, with his beautiful blond-haired girlfriend. And she kept doing looks at him and then at me, and I said, 'Yes, he's looking at me.' And she couldn't get over it. I've got something precious, and he's young enough to be my son, but I could write a book on telling you how to treat him!"


"If I have to be like a proletariat Mae West, then that's part of my career. Well, maybe that's kind of repetitive, actually. To exhibit the kind of bootstrap bravado that she did," she puts her boots on. "They didn't have highlights back then. And they didn't have someone diligently working the low-lights for contrast."

Don't I know it. So, Brett, what is it you do do? (Doo-doo, geddit? Me likey cheap humor.)

"If there were some new way to say 'storyteller,' I would do it. Because 'storyteller' brings a big 'Oh, no.' Why don't you just go and do Victor Borge impressions?"

Who? Oh, no. I smell a story ... .

"For example, this happened the other day flying from Atlanta to L.A. I tell the story about sitting next to a rather grumpy man sitting next to me in the, you know, pristine darkness of first-class movie-watching. He's watching 'Charlie's Angels.' In a particularly provocative teenage moment, I took a bottle of lotion out of my purse, and under pressure, you know, they tend to explode. And this bottle of lotion exploded, arcing up in a rather humorous fashion. And the man's hands went to his lap immediately."

I don't get it. So the lotion is like ... oh.

"Now, I've just told what could have been perceived as obscene and gregarious, without using any obscene words. And that's what I try to do."


"On the other hand," she reaches for her lap, "I can make perfectly pedestrian acts seem extremely filthy. I'm still me. I'm just better at it."

"I think you're great," I ooze lotion.

"I am 45 years old, and I think I'm adorable, 45 or period. And I haven't even had my first facelift yet."

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