[NOTE: To all lost lambs looking for the Betty Butterfield site: Chuck Knipp (Betty's creator) tells me he doesn't own the www . bettybutterfield . com domain, and it looks like the person who was maintaining it is not doing it any more, for whatever reason (too expensive perhaps). Chuck's given me the go ahead to do a new Betty Butterfield fan site and post the movies. I've got some movies up now and will be adding more as time goes on. My new Betty Butterfield site is called: mmmhellooo?.]
The abrupt, convulsive cackles (the Spanish have a great word for them: carcajadas) that lately have been filtering out my window and drifting down to my neighbors’ ears must be rather disconcerting; surely they must think an escapee from an asylum has taken up residence in the house. But it’s only me listening to Betty Butterfield.
What can I say about Betty Butterfield? I could compare Betty’s creator, Chuck Knipp, to Goya or Swift, but some might get confused and take that as a reference to the manufacturers of canned beans and baloney. Even the great Beckett comes to mind (specifically the disembodied “Mouth” that rambles on about her life for seventeen minutes in Not I), but it would have to be Beckett force-fed a bunch of Wellbutrin or maybe a few hits of Ecstasy.
I could make like Rex Reed and string a bunch of inane superlatives together (sheer genius! I laughed so hard my caftan fell off!), but these would not be adequate to convey to you the joy, the hilarity these little several-minute QuickTime movies provoke in me. It’s like eating a box of chocolates without gaining any weight. It’s the Tab (“Only one calorie!”) of self-indulgent pleasures.
Instead of trying vainly to make some generic statements about the superbness of Betty Butterfield, I think it might be more interesting to try to describe why I take the comedy so personally – i.e., why it “hits home.” (And that approach would also have the virtue of turning the conversation to Me, Me, Me.)
The most obvious thing is that I grew up in Texas (San Antonio) and my family lived in a trailer park while my mom was in nursing school. We also lived in a housing project at one point: a bunch of white cubes stacked willy-nilly like a smashed igloo, with a drive-in theater right across the street. (Yes, I know it will stretch the credulity of some of my friends to learn that I grew up in that kind of environment. Or perhaps not.) I could go on, but I think that’s sufficient to establish the impeccableness of my white trash credentials, thank you, and I can tell you that the accent, intonations and character of Betty Butterfield are authentic and dead-on. If you had ever met people like Betty (and perhaps you have?), the over-the-topness would almost seem like an understatement.
Now, I also flatter myself that I am something of a drag connoisseur / groupie. I “ran with” a pack of wild drag queens when I first came out in San Antonio in the late 70s. I continued pursuing my degree in Dragology in Manhattan during the 80s, where I worshipped (and in some cases got to meet) Tabboo!, Miss Hapi Phace, The Lady Bunny, Dean Johnson (of Dean and the Weenies and The Velvet Mafia), RuPaul, Ethyl Eichelberger, Olympia, Glamamore, and others. So, as I mentioned recently to my newest pal of that distinguished dynasty, Maude Chapeau (partner of Dottie DuBois, collectively known as “Les Dames du Soleil” of Palm Springs): I know my way around a drag queen. And Mr. Knipp, in my opinion, is elevating the art.
And finally, by way of cementing my credentials, I myself, on one cold All Hallow’s Eve, transformed myself into a fierce Cleopatra Jones (with some professional makeover help from an experienced drag queen, don’t try it at home, and doesn’t every white gay boy secretly want to be a black woman – if only for one night?) Not only that, but I managed to persuade my Italian-American / gay Republican / stockbroker / drag virgin / pal to accompany me in the guise of Christy Love (“You're under arrest, Sugah!”). A coup by any standards. Someday I’ll show you the pictures.
Excuse me for wandering off there Betty-style. Anyway, if there is any point to all this “rigmarole” (as Betty would say), it is the following:
In laughing at the comic posturings and inane ramblings of this maudlin, pill-popping, liquor-swilling, scatterbrained, self-pitying, ignorant woman, one soon realizes that one is laughing at different versions of these traits in oneself and others: at the repetitive, self-pitying bogs we continually get ourselves stuck in. How can one ever again start sinking into one’s own private habitual “pityfest” without immediately seeing Betty’s white whimpering face and enormous Pagliacci lips looming out of the darkness? Ask any of the sages: this is the kind of laughter and self-awareness that is therapeutic for the mind and healing to the spirit.
But there is also much to admire in Betty: for example, she sees things quite acutely and honestly at times, particularly when it comes to the hypocrisies and absurdities of the people she comes in contact with: the “Vietvenese” doctor who diagnoses every patient’s symptoms as tuberculosis (Betty: “That’s not me – I don’t belong in a sanitarium!”); the Unitarian “preacher” whom she presses to admit that Unitarians believe in “nothing” (Betty: “Lord! Well it’s good to finally meet someone honest”); the Jehovah’s Witnesses who admit to her that if their children don’t agree with their religion they cut them off forever (Betty: “Y’all sound like the most hateful people I’ve ever seen!”).
I’m tempted to speculate that during his tenure as a psychiatric RN, Mr. Knipp had occasion to observe many Betty Butterfields up close, which helped him to cultivate his particularly fine, mirthful and loving form of mimicry. Why would anyone be loving toward a Betty Butterfield? Two reasons: one, because one can see oneself (and probably, one’s mother!) in her, and, two, because the mad spectacle simply makes one happy.
I once tried to explain the meaning of camp humor (apropos of Carole Channing) to a highly literate and intelligent straight man who felt it was some sort of cosmic joke, the punchline of which he simply did not get. I didn’t really know what to say then, but now let me repeat what I’ve written elsewhere:
Camp is like a private garden where one may enter, without any vestige of leaden seriousness, and breathe the rejuvenating air of hilarity. Others may see us as merely laughing, but what we are really doing is surviving.
Last Word: Has anyone else noticed a certain physical resemblance to Elvis in some of the Betty clips?