Meet Kirker Butler ‘No One Cares that You’re Offended’
Comedy writer Kirker Butler was born and raised in Hartford, Kentucky (“home of 2,000 happy people and a few soreheads.”) Best known as a Family Guy writer, he’s also had a couple of Emmy nominations, written for Galavant on ABC, and completed his new novel Pretty Ugly. Also, he once won 2nd place in the Youth Tractor Driving competition at the Ohio County Fair (he competed against one other person). We invited him to play 20 questions with us on topics like censorship, child beauty pageants, Spinal Tap, and Star Wars. Cosmo referenced Toddlers and Tiaras in recommending Pretty Ugly, about which he says, “I’m great with [it]! I hear that show was very popular. And since it’s Cosmo there are also some handy-dandy masturbation tips for women of all ages, so when they speak we should all listen.” One review of Pretty Ugly says the novel provides “Laughter and winces in equal measure.” The best laugh and the best wince in the book, from his perspective, “might be the same scene, which probably says a lot about my sense of humor. When pageant mom Miranda (the book’s protagonist), who is seven months pregnant, gets into a fist fight with one of the other pageant mothers during one of her daughter’s pageants is a pretty great scene, if I do say so myself.” Butler is proud to count himself as one of Hartford’s soreheads, and his childhood there loosely informs the new novel. “When I was growing up my parents were on the county fair board, and for some reason my mother was put in charge of the pageants. So, every year from the time I was nine until I graduated high school, my mom would spend months planning these beauty pageants. Something about that world stuck with me, and when I sat down to write a book, this was the story that came out. I didn’t base any of the characters on anyone there, but I tried to capture the spirit of small town pageant folk.” Also formative in his early years, he says, “I grew up loving Mel Brooks movies: History of the World, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles; and anything Harold Ramis was involved with: Caddyshack, Animal House, Stripes, Vacation. They were huge to me. I loved Eddie Murphy’s comedy albums, and later I got into Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks. The first screenplay I ever wrote was an attempt to write like Woody Allen, but it was just horrible. I think Woody Allen has probably inspired a million terrible screenplays. In terms of books, there’s no one who has made me love books more than John Irving. Even his lesser books are so well written they make me angry.” This seems like a good time to ask him how will the Star Wars franchise end? “Now that Disney owns it I don’t think it will ever end. They’ll milk it like the golden teat that it is. That’s actually a pretty good name for Episode X: Star Wars: Revenge of The Golden Teat. I think it would be cool to see Luke Skywalker’s son go to the Dark Side and become the new Darth Vader. It’s in their blood, so it’s definitely possible. Meanwhile, Han and Leia’s daughter becomes a powerful Jedi (trained by Luke) and has to face and defeat her cousin back on Tatooine where it all started.” What’s his all-time favorite movie scene? “I think the final light saber duel from Revenge of the Golden Teat that I just pitched sounds pretty awesome!” Butler started writing for television 13 years ago, but he didn’t start out as a writer. “When I was just out of college I went to Chicago to be an actor. I was working at The Second City at night while I went through their training center. This was 1994-95. On the mainstage during that time was Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Adam McKay, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, basically everyone who has anything to do with modern comedy. I knew that I could never do what they did because they are geniuses. I told my acting teacher this and he said, ‘well, you’re funny. Can you write?’ So, I started writing. That was pretty valuable advice.” (Perhaps a close second to his favorite piece of advice? “My grandfather also told me once, ‘opinions are like assholes, everyone has one and they all stink,’ which I think is also pretty sound.”) Early experience included a tenure at E! “[The] best interview ever was Spinal Tap. I was their last interview of the day and the reporters who went before me didn’t really understand what was happening. They kept asking Harry Shearer Simpsons questions, and someone asked Christopher Guest about being married to Jamie Lee Curtis. But I started off with, ‘what’s it like to be rock legends?’ and they talked to me for twenty-three minutes. I know it was twenty-three minutes because I’ve watched the tape a thousand times. They sang ‘All the Way Home’ a capella and gave me a Nigel Tufnel action figure, which I still have.” Not all rock legends are equal. At Family Guy, he says, “My first day on the job, I was sent into a gag room, which is a small room of a few writers who would write cutaways, or rewrite scenes that weren’t working. When I walked out, Gene Simmons of Kiss was sitting on the couch waiting to record. As a kid, I was a huge Kiss fan and couldn’t believe that this was my first day! I said something to him and he was an absolute dick to me.” From there, things got better. “When the show came back after being canceled it was a massive hit, and I’d never been a part of something that popular. It was indescribable. Every day I’d get to work with some of the smartest, funniest people I’d ever met and make jokes that to this day are still on TV. A few months ago I was in London for Galavant. I’d just flown in and was exhausted. I got to my hotel room, turned on the TV, and an episode of Family Guy was just coming on. I was curious to see what episode it was so I left it on, and then I saw my name. It was the first Family Guy episode I ever wrote. So, here I am in another country, working on a new show, and something I’d written ten years earlier comes on TV. That was a pretty incredible feeling.” The kind of humor that Family Guy is famous for is also evident in the pieces Butler’s penned for HuffPo, where he has characterized being offended as an “epidemic in America,” adding in one article, “No one cares if you’re offended.” Is there anything going on lately that would support his thesis? “It’s such a daily occurrence now that it’s almost impossible to keep up,” he says. “It’s exhausting. And I wouldn’t mind it so much if people were offended by things that were actually worthy of their outrage, but they’re not. Last week, people were outraged by something Kid Rock said. I mean, who gives a shit what Kid Rock says about anything? He’s not an elected official, he’s the singer of ‘Bawitdaba.’ He wears a fur coat and no shirt! Why are people surprised when a guy who wears a fur coat and no shirt says something stupid? (That being said, his new album is pretty good.)” Are there larger ramifications for this epidemic? “I think the danger is self-censorship. People are going to become so afraid of offending someone that they’ll stop asking important questions, or speaking truth to power. If you can lose your job or livelihood because of a joke tweet or a blog post, then people will think twice before speaking their mind, and that doesn’t benefit a free society. I’m not saying we should all run around trying to offend each other, but we certainly shouldn’t be afraid to say stupid shit. We’re Americans. It’s our God-given right to say stupid shit.” Speaking of celebrities… is he willing to tell us the ones he hates? “How much time do you have? I’ve never seen an episode of the Kardashians, yet I know all of their names and what they look like, which makes me dislike them tremendously. It’s pretty depressing how they’ve managed to seep into our culture the way they have. And I use the word ‘seep’ as I would if I were talking about sewage. But any reality show ‘star’ is pretty hatable. Also, have you noticed that only people who do reality shows and pornography are considered “stars” after doing only one thing? Kim Kardashian has done both so I guess that would make her the biggest star in the world. I’m also not a fan of Ethan Hawke.” We asked him, “what grinds your gears?” And the answer was, “Assholes. Not cranky people who complain a lot about things because that would be me. I’m talking about assholes who make life more difficult than it should be: people who drive the wrong way in a one way parking lot, whose Starbucks orders are unnecessarily complicated, people who yell at waiters, the woman at my kid’s school who insists that her son should get special treatment because he’s “creative” when really he’s just an obnoxious turd, people who overuse emojis, people who think Ted Cruz has something valuable to contribute to the national discourse, Coldplay. You know, assholes.” Butler is headed out on a book tour supporting the novel, and will visit Lexington in April. In the best of all possible worlds, who should run his merch table on this tour? “First of all, let me say that I can’t imagine what a sad merch table that would be, although, a Kirker Butler beer koozie would be pretty cool. I heard somewhere that Chrissie Hynde once ran the merch table at an Urge Overkill show in Chicago because she was such a fan, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. So, it would need to be someone incredibly enthusiastic about me who wouldn’t be embarrassed to aggressively push the merch. I think I would pick my mom.” He is looking forward to being back in the bluegrass state, and adds, “I loved growing up in Hartford, and I try to get back there at least once a year. My wife is also from Kentucky so we try to get our girls there to see the grandparents and experience things we don’t have in California like water and humility.” Butler will be at Morris Book Shop on April 18 to read and sign his new novel Pretty Ugly. This article also appears on page 4 of the April 1 print edition of Ace. For more Lexington, Kentucky arts, food, culture, and entertainment news, click here to subscribe to the Ace digital e-dition, emailed to your inbox every Thursday morning.