Kirker Butler is an Emmy-nominated writer and producer. His television credits include Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, The Neighbors and Galavant. He is the author of a graphic novel entitled Blue Agave and Worm and his latest work of fiction, Pretty Ugly, has received glowing pre-release reviews from such luminaries as Seth MacFarlane, Amy Sedaris and Jennifer Garner. Butler grew up in Kentucky and is a favorite son of his hometown of Hartford but now lives in Los Angeles with his family and a cranky dog. Stay Thirsty Magazine caught up with him for this conversation at his home.
STAY THIRSTY: In the Acknowledgments section of your new novel, Pretty Ugly, you thank the people of Kentucky but worry about what they might say after your book is released? Do you think you will be stopped at the border on your next visit?
KIRKER BUTLER: Hopefully, it won't come to that, although maybe I should take a fake mustache with me just to be safe. At the border of my hometown there's a sign that reads: "Welcome to Hartford, Kentucky. Home of 2,000 Happy People and a Few Soreheads." The mayor made me an Honorary Sorehead a few years ago, so if I have any problems I can always show that to the authorities. I think it's like diplomatic immunity. But having grown up in Kentucky I can tell you that most people there have a pretty good sense of humor about themselves, and also they don't read books, so I think I should be okay.
STAY THIRSTY: Why did you write a book about Southern beauty pageants from the point of view of girls and women? What made you want to spend time reversing your gender and thinking like females?
KIRKER BUTLER: When I was growing up my parents were on the county fair board (how Kentucky is that?) and my mother was in charge of the pageants. So, from an early age pageants were a part of my life, and I always thought they were absolutely crazy. I mean, encouraging teenage girls to put on bathing suits and walk around in front of middle-aged men to judge their bodies is so incredibly creepy I honestly don't understand how it's still a thing, but it is. The children's pageants were also creepy but in an entirely different way. I never understood why mothers would expose their young daughters to that kind of criticism; and now as a father of two girls it just boggles my mind. So, the pageant world was a very interesting area to explore. And as far as thinking like a female, I've been married for fourteen years, I have two daughters, a cranky old dog named Laverne, and I'm close with my mother. I am surrounded by women, and I enjoy the company of women much more so than men. If I didn't think like a female, or at least try to, my life would be incredibly difficult.
STAY THIRSTY: How did you use fate to change the course of Miranda Ford's life in Pretty Ugly and what role did fate play in how you became a television writer on Family Guy?
KIRKER BUTLER: I'm someone who likes to be in control of things, but as I get older I'm realizing more and more that we have very little control of our lives. We can make plans, but life doesn't give a shit about our plans. I originally went to college to be a Southern Baptist youth minister, but that obviously didn't happen. When Fox announced that Family Guy was coming back in 2004 I was writing for a WB show called What I Like About You, and looking to make a change. I wrote a spec script of Family Guy and my agent at the time got it to Seth. It's kind of a rule that you never get a job on the show you write a spec script for because showrunners don't read specs of their own shows, but Seth read it and gave me a job. So, I suppose you could call that fate, but I think it was more coincidence and luck, good timing, perhaps. Miranda is a lot like me in that she likes to be in control, and I liked the idea of her having a long-term plan for her daughters, but then having to alter those plans for circumstances beyond her control. Because of that change—a negative she turns into a positive—she finds greater success and happiness than if life had worked out according to her original plan. I relate well to that.
STAY THIRSTY: Your new show Galavant premieres in January 2015 and stars humans rather than animated characters. How difficult was it for you to go from animation comedy to real people comedy? When you look in the mirror do you see a writer or a producer?
KIRKER BUTLER: I really don't like to look at myself in the mirror for any reason, but when I do it's usually a writer I see looking back at me, a very tired writer. Producing is great in that writers usually don't have a lot of power over what happens to their work, and producing gives some of that back, which is nice. Going back to my control issues, one of the great things about animation is that you have dominion over every frame of it, and that requires a certain specificity in the writing. Live action naturally gives more power to the actors and crew, which means you may never get the line reading or the look you envisioned, but if you have the right actors and crew many times you get something better than you imagined. I enjoy writing for both, and I've been very fortunate that since I left Family Guy and The Cleveland Show that I've been able to work on shows that operate in a somewhat heightened reality. The Neighbors was about aliens living in a gated community in New Jersey, and Galavant is a musical comedy fairy tale. So, I've been able to work on things that, while not animated, are certainly not normal. Pretty Ugly is probably the most conventional thing I've written in a while, and that has a character who plans a murder with Jesus.
STAY THIRSTY: In a column you wrote for the Huffington Post, you railed about how offended people in America can get about almost anything and that being offended seemed to be an epidemic. What is your plan to cure that disease?
KIRKER BUTLER: Sadly, I think it's probably incurable at this point. As hard as I try, I just cannot understand the mentality of someone who gets offended by a movie, or a song, or a TV show and can't just walk away from it. They feel like it's their obligation to be the moral arbiter of society, which obviously is not the case. And if you notice, the people who get outraged the most, and scream the loudest, usually have the worst taste in movies, songs, and TV shows. The things they find "acceptable" are usually just terrible. To me—and I'll probably offend people just for saying this—but there are very few things more offensive than Duck Dynasty, but I don't spend my free time trying to get it off the air. I just don't watch it. Millions of people like it, and that's fine. Whatever. Who cares? It doesn't affect my life in any way. Why should my personal taste get to dictate what other people are allowed to see or hear? Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that way, and we now live in a world where comedians are forced to apologize to the world for a joke-in-progress they tried out in a club in front of twenty people, or TV shows alter their content because they get a form email from some overly religious whack-a-doodle in Alabama. What's so dangerous about it is that outrage has become an industry in America; and when people start making money off of other people's anger, they will do whatever they can to stoke that anger. Phony outrage is one of the few things America still manufactures, and if China ever figures out how to do it cheaper, I don't know what we'll do.
STAY THIRSTY: How do you view social media like Twitter and Facebook and what purpose do you think they serve?
KIRKER BUTLER: I'm very torn about social media in general. Personally, I find the whole thing to be kind of embarrassing. I really don't share a lot. I don't post pictures of my family, or my vacations, and my Instagram account is just pictures of Starbucks spelling my name wrong. I do think its intent is noble, in that everyone theoretically has a platform to say whatever he or she wants. However, going back to my previous rant, you can't really say whatever you want because if you do, and you offend someone you can irrevocably damage your career or reputation. So, in a sense social media has actually restricted speech in a pretty terrifying way. That being said, please follow me on Twitter @kirkerbutler and like Pretty Ugly on Facebook.
STAY THIRSTY: How has the internet changed satire? Will sites like Funny or Die endure and what role do they play in shaping humor in America?
KIRKER BUTLER: The internet has been great for satire in that the entire history of shows like The Daily Show, or The Colbert Report, or South Park is available at the click of a button. Sadly (or perhaps not), those shows are doing more to educate younger Americans about what's going on in the world than actual news channels. "Real" news programs have become so filled with right/left wing opinion and celebrity gossip that they've become a parody of themselves. Paddy Chayefsky was a prophet in that sense. John Oliver's report on the militarization of the police was infinitely more informative than anything I've seen on any major news outlet, and it was on a comedy show! I think the accessibility of these shows (and sites like Funny or Die and The Onion) is vital to shaping satire in America, and as long as the internet is free and accessible, satire will endure.
STAY THIRSTY: You have said that the movie Stripes changed your life. What was it about Harold Ramis' comedy that influenced you?
KIRKER BUTLER: His movies hit me at exactly the right time. I was about eleven-years-old and stuck between two cornfields in Kentucky. My hometown got HBO in its nascent stage, before it was a 24-hour channel, and it quickly took over my life. After school I would run home, turn on the TV, and wait for HBO to come on at 3:00. I still remember getting our HBO guide in the mail with Animal House on the cover, and memorizing the times it aired. I wanted to see it because I knew John Belushi from SNL [Saturday Night Live]. My Saturday night viewing was Hee-Haw, then Monty Python and Benny Hill on PBS, then SNL. Seeing Animal House was one of the most important things in my young life. It struck a chord deep inside me even though I didn't understand a lot of it. Stripes, however, I understood. Bill Murray was a god to me, still is, and the jokes were more accessible to a kid my age. Also, it was shot in Kentucky and that blew my mind. "They make movies in Kentucky? Holy shit!" Those movies, along with Caddyshack, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, shaped my idea of what's funny. Harold Ramis is on my Mount Rushmore of comedy.
STAY THIRSTY: You have expressed admiration for Philip Seymour Hoffman. What is it about his body of work that inspires you?
KIRKER BUTLER: My wife and I flew from L.A. to New York for a weekend with the sole purpose of seeing him and John C. Reilly do True West, and it was one of the greatest theater experiences of my life. He could do anything, and do it believably. You believed he was Lester Bangs, or a porn set PA, or the founder of a cult, or a sketchy mattress salesman. He was truly an Everyman. Whenever he appeared on screen I knew I wasn't going to be disappointed. I would happily go wherever he chose to take me. And there are very few actors who instill that kind of confidence. I never met the man, but I will miss him.
STAY THIRSTY: Even though it was suggested when you attended classes at The Second City in Chicago that acting wasn't going to work out for you, you continue to do it. Do you fancy yourself as the next male heartthrob?
KIRKER BUTLER: I don't act much at all anymore, primarily because I'm not very good at it. I did do voices on about 10 episodes of Family Guy, but they all sound pretty much like me. You might recognize my work as George W. Bush, or a Star Wars rebel, or Steve Buscemi's tooth, among other legendary one-line characters. I do have a theater degree (from Western Kentucky University), and I did a lot of plays and regional theater, but once I realized I wasn't a good actor, the whole thing became embarrassing. I quickly went from, "Hey, look at me" to "For the love of God, look away!" When I started writing I was still able to do and say funny things, but I was by myself and no one was watching. There was much less pressure. Then I could just give what I'd written to someone and walk away. It was a variation on a theme, I guess, and I found it much more to my liking. And to answer your other question: yes, I do fancy myself as a bit of a heartthrob, an older, less sexy, less talented, less appealing, less interesting Hemsworth brother.
STAY THIRSTY: You directed a music video for the glam metal band Steel Panther. Is directing an avenue you want to pursue?
KIRKER BUTLER: I had so much fun directing that video, and I got very lucky in that it's the only song they've recorded I can play for my mother and children. As someone who likes being in control, I think directing is the next natural step. I've directed some short films over the years, and I'm planning to do another one based on a play I wrote. I might try crowdfunding it, which is intriguing to me. Half of directing is hiring the right people, and I've met some very talented folks over the years that I would love to work with. Hopefully, I can make that happen at some point. If not, I'm very happy being a tired writer.
STAY THIRSTY: In the quiet of the night what really makes you laugh?
KIRKER BUTLER: The things that made me laugh as a kid: Mel Brooks movies, Woody Allen's Love and Death, Eddie Murphy's first comedy album can still make me laugh today. Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. are so good they make me angry because I know I will never, ever write anything that funny. But, if I'm being totally honest, when my seven-year-old daughter farts and blames it on my wife, it just kills me.