Kathy Griffin

Kathygriffin Hello, New York, it’s me, what’s her face! 
(Kathy Griffin, standing in front of Carnegie Hall)

I saw the opening of Season 3 of Kathy Griffin’s Life on the D List this week.  Normally, I watch Griffin with discomfort.  Do celebrities deserve the abuse she dishes out?  (McCracken 2005, below)

But I think Poland changed me.  I’m feeling less sentimental, less charitable, less nice than I used to.  Crawling your way to stardom over the damaged careers of other stars, that now looks ok to me.  (Apparently, it takes Poland to make a Canadian feel more American.  Go figure.)

Is there a grammar to Kathy Griffin?  Can we identify the meaning mechanics that brought her, trembling with gratitude, when not spitting invective, to the brink of stardom? 

Well, we can try.  Here’s what I have so far.  Your comments, please. 

KG is a composite of these celebrity precedents:

1. Bette Midler and the "niche audience" strategy

Midler started her career working in gay clubs, and this helped launch a broader stardom.  KG is working this strategy.  She refers often to "her gays" and claims to "speak gay."

The caveat: the present gay community is different from the one Midler connected with.  I bet some gays resent a patronizing, "my gays" presumption of solidarity.  And I think it’s unwise to think that sexual orientation guarantees any other commonality.  But let’s say diffusion currents do still work to give some unity to gay diversity.  What happens if the resentment of one group diffuses into the larger community?   No doubt, Griffin expects to be well launched by this time.    But if she isn’t well launched, she may be, well, fucked.  (Forgive the language.  I’m speaking Griffin.) 

2. Roseann Barr, and the "talk about anything, and f*ck ’em if they can’t take a joke" approach

Barr was one of the first inventions of feminism, a loud mouthed b*tch who took no prisoners, spared no sensibility.  This came as a shock to the "white glove" feminists, who, unwittingly, sought the exportation of middle class values under the cover of a gender revolution.  And it came as a special disappointment to the intellectuals who insisted that popular culture, and certainly something as pandering as comedy, must necessarily be tame and conformist.  Barr was anything but. 

The wonder is that after so many transgressive comedy (Richard Pryor, Sam Kineson, etc.), there is any powder left in the armory.  The fact that her inquisition is directed against celebrities somehow makes it ok.  They have raised themselves on high, the notion goes, and God choose an Irish Catholic from Chicago to bring them low.   Joan of Art.  The notion seems to be "well, they asked for it."

3. Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, and the anthropological approach

David and Seinfeld like to situate their comedy inside contemporary life.  (Other comedians to hurl jokes from a safe distance, call this the catapult option.)   Their comedy depends upon a kind of participant observation, an anthropologist’s connection to the culture at hand.  Griffin isn’t just making fun of celebrities.  She plays one on TV. 

This makes for some good moments, some real insights, as when she asks the audience to notice when Oprah and Tyra Banks go from mainstream to ghetto.  This is a kind of code shifting that is now common in the African American community.  (I think of Will Smith as one of the most gifted, nuanced, code shifters in this community.   See Men In Black especially.)  Now, lots of people have noticed that "something’s going on here," but it takes a comedian like Griffin to make the thing plain.  Ah, American culture is just a little more self comprehending. 

But the problem here is that Griffin must occupy a sweet spot.  She has to be close enough to celebrity to talk about it but not so consumed by it to become the creature she’s making fun of.  This is where  Life on the D List comes in.  This gives us a semi-transparent, warts and all, portrait that helps keep Griffin in the world even as her celebrity accelerates.  She is surely C at this point, and it looks like B standing is now perhaps inevitable and A not unthinkable.   Hey, she’s already made The View.   

The good thing about Griffin’s anthropology is that it is pattern seeking, but it does not insist that pattern detection must be taken as proof of the essential corruption of the people or culture involved.  This was of course the fault of much of the media commentary of the 1990s and the thing that prevented it from rising to the level of something useful.  And we were so close.  Everyone was better at pattern detection, but something in the temper of the time demanded that conclusions could only be found at the end of a particular sheep run. 

4. Joan Rivers, and the "can we talk" strategy

Griffin lodges her anthropological reports in a particularly potent rhetoric form.  She dishes.  She gossips.  She is the outsider who is prepared to peach, to tell us what happened in the green room at Leno when Lindsay and Paris were…   

This is powerful because it makes the listener an insider too.  (Yes, it’s an illusion, but it’s a powerful one.  Even ordinary moments of gossip build this bond.)  I think Griffin  is much better at this than Rivers was.  The bond of complicity is tighter.  Rivers seemed to loath herself a little for what she was doing.  (She brayed because, you felt, she couldn’t do this in an ordinary voice.)  There is no whiff of ambivalence when it comes to Griffin.  She relishes the punishment she inflicts.  I think she is nastier than Rivers.  This is more personal.  More mean.  And we’re involved.

5. The "most mobile comedian" approach (not sure who deserves this designation, maybe it’s KG)

Griffin is very good at finding her way.  At one moment, she is claiming she doesn’t know what interests kids these days.  The next, she is throwing around the lingo like a champ.  One moment, she’s the star on stage.  The next, she is saying "I know" when the audience reacts, as if this were a personal conversation between KG and each and every member of the audience. One moment, she’s swearing like a sailor.  The next, she’s talking about manners.  But most of all, she is working that D-list sweet spot, and keeping herself suspended between big time celebrity and the rest of us.  This is a shifting border and she works it brilliantly. 

6. the trickster, punk, anarchist approach to comedy.

This is Leora Kornfeld territory and I hope she will forgive me if I offer a few thoughts.  We can put Griffin in that tradition of anarchist comedians: Tom Green, Martin Short as Jiminy Glick,  Sasha Baron Cohen.  This is the comedian who says, in the spirit on Punk refusal, I am not buying any of this.  This is the comedian that pierces the fictions so lovely crafted by the star machinery of Hollywood.  However much we admire celebrities, and perhaps because we admire them so much at the moment, we need this sort of thing as a cultural corrective.  But of course the celebs fight back and they do so with the artifice created in the 1990s, the one that said, "oh, sure, I’m prepared to make fun of myself."  It’s just painful to watch them play along with this attack on their public image.  I just end up hoping that no one’s packing.  I mean, this could get really ugly. 

Kathy Griffin is a rare cultural artifact.  It takes bags of intelligence, cunning and talent to make this kind of celebrity work.  And what’s really odd, there is no trace of the ambivalence that marks the careers of Roseann Barr, Joan Rivers, and Dave Chappelle.  I am not crazy about the act, but I have to say she’s a better comedian than I am an anthropologist.   Well, come to that, she might be a better anthropologist. 

References

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Celebrity Culture: muddles in the models.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  October 21, 2005. here

23 thoughts on “Kathy Griffin”

  1. Grant…i like that it took poland to turn a canadian into an american…but we here in canada don’t let you off that easily….so don’t forget your cereal box french.

    re the trickster/prankster approach to comedy and satire…i defer to jonathan gray, now at fordham university in NY, who is doing probing work in this area, such as his analysis of the simpsons http://www.amazon.com/Watching-Simpsons-Television-Parody-Intertextuality/dp/0415362024

    what do i think? well…
    i think many comedians have taken the ‘we don’t buy this’ approach and made a career out of tossing grenades at celebrities…go back to don rickles or just watch a comedy central roast and you’ll seen how many of today’s comedians are truly gifted in this area. or have a look at david spade’s show. his “there i said it” part of the show goes beyond the sting of letterman’s top 10’s. back in letterman’s early days he was saying the unsayable, but the unsayable keeps shifting. i would argue that colbert’s wrapped in a character critiques are some of the ‘punkest’ things going in this genre. sacha baron cohen as ali G, borat, or bruno was working with one-sided trickery; colbert works with two-sided trickery (both parties are aware) and a whole new form of discourse is the result. now the interviewees are part tricksters too. so it’s not the inversion of the carnivalesque…more like consensual carnivalesque perhaps? just thoughts….

  2. i’m not intimately familiar with kathy griffin, but, from what i’ve seen of her act, you’ve parsed it extremely well. of six strategies you’ve identified, the first strikes me as the most problematic (not your description, of course, but rather the strategy in itself). there’s certainly an established tradition of comediennes playing to gay male audiences (margaret cho and judy tenuta both come to mind), but bette midler seems to be the only one who has parlayed that into any kind of mainstream success…and even that was fairly short-lived (after her “beaches” success, hasn’t kind of drifted back to being “bathhouse bette”?).

    as you note, the gay community that made bette a star was substantially different from today’s gay audiences. griffin’s claim to “speak gay” appeals to a totalizing view of homosexual (sub)culture (i.e., “all homos share a common language”) that’s increasingly dubious.

    perhaps her identification with gay men is a strategy for asserting her “outsider” — or, more appropriately, liminal — status? better yet, maybe it’s another code for her to deploy for destabilizing effect?

  3. I can’t help remembering that the first time I saw Griffin was on Seinfeld. She played the clueless and irritating Sally Weaver. That character returned in a second episode as an unfunny comedian who’s somehow managed to make a name for herself with a show built on how unlikeable Jerry is — I think this was actually based on comments in Griffin’s act at the time. It was an early (and neat) summation of her career.

  4. To start off with i wanna say i am really sorry about ur dad … when i watch ur show it saddends me to see u cry and i have watched every episode of ur show on bravo and thing any other show tha u have been on .. i watch u on the tyra bank show last nite … i know that u r really strong and u will get through this rough time .. acctually something a lil funny i am watching one of ur episodes rite now .. i never get sick of it i have seen this episode like 6 times and i still love it … u r so funny and i hope that maybe we will talk some day … if u want to email me back please feel free

    I love u .. one of ur biggest fans

    Amanda

  5. I LOVE KATHY and everything you say is untrue and unfounded! She’s real, she’s hilariouis!! Stop sounding so negative, serious, and jealous; loosen up and laugh a little!!

  6. i love Kathy too but i think this is way overanalyzing what she’s doing, she is just crazy and gets up there saying the 1st crazy thing that comes to her head. she’s just naturally funny because of the ad libs she comes up with, the analyzation makes her appear scripted which she definitely is not.

  7. Kathy,
    My husband and I are looking so forward to your show in Chicago (October). Just last night we watched 4 shows on Bravo, we were both so tired, but we couldn’t stop!
    My husband says I remind him of you!!!
    Okay, here’s the thing, I’m inviting you,Tom, the assistant and the assistant to the assistant over for a big Italian feast! ( Chicago burbs)…
    so, let me know…claire(a.k.a. crazy Dago)

  8. As you may have guessed, I am an African-American female. I’m in my 30’s, teach 5th grade and love comedy. I thought Kathy was hilarious. I really enjoyed her style of comedy. I laughed and cried with her. I even cried for her when Leno insulted her. Now I feel disrespected. Kathy is often unnoticed and I thought she would appreciate true fans. Guess not. After attending the Irish-American Awards, I couldn’t believe how she snubbed the group of African-American girls. How could she? I’m sure others feel like me. I can no longer,in good conscious, watch her show.

  9. Hi,
    i am a 27 yr old Latina, and I absolutely love Kathy Griffin, i watch her show all the time and she’s hilarious. i think is great that she makes fun of celebrities, and hse’s upfront about it! someone needs to! wish her all the best

  10. HI I’M STEVE MERINO
    AND I’M THE HYPNOTIST AT THE RIVIERA IN LAS VEGAS AND I SO WANTED TO SEE YOU WHEN YOU WERE HERE ON THE 7TH – BUT MY DAD JUST DIED AND THE FUNERAL WAS THE SAME DAY AND IT WAS IN LAKE HAVASU AZ. SO I COULDN’T GO – AND COULDN’T MAKE IT TO NEWPRT RHODE ISLAND – BECAUSE THAT’S WHEN HE STARTED TO GET SICK WITH HIS LUNG CANCER
    I’VE ONLY WATCHED YOUR “FATHER” EPIZODE -HALF WAY THROUGH – COULD GET THROUGH IT TOO HARD – BUT I FINNALLY WATCHED IT AND THOUGHT IT WAS GREAT
    SO THANKS FOR HELPING COPE WITH THE 1ST DEATH I’VE KNOWN AND THANKS FOR YOUR HEALING COMEDY
    NEXT TIME YOU;RE IN VEGAS — COME SEE MY SHOW ?
    ACUALLY LET ME HYPNOTIZE YOU AND HAVE YOU COME ON STAGE (QUACK) YOU WON’T DO ANYTHING STUPID (QUACK) I WON’T MAKE YOU QUACK , LIKE A DUCK!!
    ANYWAY, KATHY – THANKS FOR BEING
    STEVE MERINO- LAS VEGAS

  11. FYI, people, this isn’t Kathy Griffin’s blog. She might google herself constantly and stumble upon this thing, but, uh, I’m guessing she’s not gonna get the heartfelt note about her dad.

    P.S. Kathy, I love your show!!!! Keep up the great work!!!! U R the BEST!!!!

  12. If whoever wrote this is still reading comments, I think this is really interesting. I never thought of taking an anthropological approach to looking at the way Kathy does her thing, but you really hit the nail on the head. She’s a genius, and people don’t give her enough credit. A lot of thought and a lot of cleverness goes into her work, and she thinks fast. The “border shifting” you mentioned is tough to pull off, and she does it brilliantly.

    As far as generalizing gay culture, I think that there is still a very large proportion of gay people who long to be a part of a cohesive cultural group, with shared references. Just because not all gay people are part of that subculture doesn’t mean that none of them are or will be in the future. The straight woman/gay icon hasn’t gone out of fashion yet, and Kathy is the best of the bunch!

    Clearly, you understand Kathy, but you said you’re not a fan. You mentioned that you’re a Canadian, so maybe you’d have to be an American, immersed in American pop culture, to really enjoy her (assuming you are not already immersed in American pop culture.) To people who watch TV at all, these celebrities are in our faces all the time. Gossip is a better way for people to bond than any other type of conversation, and Kathy has found a way to connect personally with her audience by gossiping about people we all feel we know and don’t like. I think she’ll become more and more successful as time goes on.

  13. I think you are the funniest person alive!!! You are so to the point and so honest it’s really refreshing! I’m not gay(haha) but my sister and i want to meet you so bad! She lives in chicago and i in Indiana. If you by some crazy chance you read this, holly shit we have to meet you! But if that never happens, please go to bed at night knowing that you are awesome! We both love to hear what you have to say! I’m very sorry about your loss of your dad, we are dealing with that process(cancer) as well with our dad. We can talk to our parents as can you with yours.(so my deepest sympathy to you and your family!) Anyhow, for what it’s worth…you are one of a kind in the best way!! We love and apprieciate your sence of humor! Never give up because you have definantly have a gift! Much love and respect from the midwest!!!

  14. Kathy Griffin tries soooo hard to seem like she is from some really entitled class. This last episode when she beckoned her maid to “show her how to clean” was so annoying. Let’s just face it…all men can clean, especially the hard looking ones 🙂

  15. Yes I agree with “I bet some gays resent a patronizing, “my gays” presumption of solidarity.” I think Kathy Griffin is very patronizing and is definitely using the gay community to advance her career wake up folks! See My Life on the D List when she goes to Bora Bora and puts her foot in her mouth about gabies and gay marriage. Then on Larry King tires to do damage control by saying the opposite. She is like the politician who clamours for gay votes to get into office. Go to/copy and paste: http://kathygriffin.net/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=15244 if you agree or disagree. It is worth discussing. Also, I am sick and tired of humor being used as an excuse to bash people or that I don’t have a sense of humor because a believe a comedian goes too far, i.e. Michael Richards. Yes, I believe in free speech, but I don’t believe in being used by famous people to advance their career. I am justed amazed at how quick “fans” are to defend her and excuse her and even jusitfy her behavior. Say what you think, but just be prepared to accept the consequences!

  16. Kathy, watching you tonight – your show where senior magazines were interviewing your mom – for some reason I felt sadness for your mother. First, she is an absolutely stunning woman. She looks wonderful. We all should be so lucky. I enjoy your wit – there’s times I get embarassed for you – how stupid is that. But, even though I do, it seems that whatever you do and say, is wonderfully funny. I just thought tonight you went overboard in teasing your mom. You are too sensitive of a person to be like that to her all the time. I would like to see more of Kathy, the loving daughter – just as I know you are. You do great things for her with things you hold in your hands, how about showing us the great things you can do from your heart. I will never forget visiting with a lady one day that was 85 years old. We were talking about mothers. She told me that at her age she still missed her mom each and every day. I thought that seemed so odd. But, since I lost my mom in 98 while trying to do CPR on her and I lost the battle, it has been the same way for me. I will be 59 this yr. I miss her dearly. My mom was funny and I tell stories about her all the time. I know you love your mom as much as I love mine, but, when your mother is gone I don’t want you to look back and think that maybe I could of slacked up a little on the jokes and showed my love more openly to her to the world. This is only meant as a thought for you to consider. I love how you share your every day life and turn it to The Escapdes of Kathy Griffin. Yes, I think your wonderful too – I know there are those people who are Closet Kathy Griffin fans – just bare with them – one of these days they will laugh so hard the closet door will open and they will be exposed. You work so hard for all of us who listen – keep on keeping on – you go girl – hugs to you, your mom and the staff, Jan

  17. KATHY GRIFFIN… YOUR LIFE ON THE -D- LIST!: I WATCH IT ALL THE TIME… IS THAT WEIRD? HAHA. I DON’T KNOW IF YOUR EVEN GONNA READ THIS BUT IF YOU DO YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT I WOULD BE WILLING TO HELP YOU OUT ON THE SHOW AND YOU WOULD BE GETTING ALL THE ATTENTION YOU NEED. I CAN BRING IT TRUST ME. IM REALLY TRYIN TO GET MY NAME OUT THERE TO SO I THINK WE COULD MAKE SOME STUFF HAPPEN.

  18. I have to say that this extremely well done. There is one thing that ties all those things together that I think you may have not listed. She is able to brilliantly act as if she does not have the mental capacity to do any of it.

  19. ok can i just say, i happen to love kathy griffin! i think the same way about the same things as she does. i’m sorry but when a celeb does something bizzar, they’re kind of asking for it. they are in the spotlight and these are people that we are suppose to look up to. so why not call them on their shit when they do something stupid! and it kind of drives me crazy that i read things like “i watch her with discomfort”…if thats the case then why are you watching her? are you out of things to complain about? if you don’t like it and it bothers you then stop watching her. why is it ok for people to get up on a stage and talk about a gang war they were in or what kind of gun they carry, but kathy can’t talk and laugh about the dumb ass things the crazy celebs are doing? and let me aslo ask this…does she say things that doesn’t really happen? no she doesn’t! she talks about the facts and thinks it’s just as funny and bizzar as every one else does! the difference is, she has the balls to get up on a stage and say it out loud! by the way, i just got done seeing her live for the first time and she is even more amazing in person!

  20. “ At the Emmy Awards Kathy Griffin’s acceptance speech said: “A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no-one has less to do with this award than Jesus.” She went on to say: “Suck it, Jesus! This is my God now!”, referring to the Emmy. As a Christian I am offended by her hate speech. What do you think might have happened if she made this speech against Muhammad? Kathy Griffin has the right as an American to say what she thinks. As a Christian-American so do I. Today I will refuse to watch any show that she may be on or purchase any tickets to any event at which she would perform. What will you do? If you delete this, nothing bad will happen to you because of it, but if you pass this on, you will have truly stood up for Jesus Christ. Let’s see what Christians can do. Please forward this message to other Jesus Believers! “

    This email is circulating the ENTIRE WORLD at the moment. I am not the one who wrote it, but I strongly agree with it. I have forwarded it to hundreds of believers and I am confident they will do the same. I am confident we are covering all corners of this earth. Shame on you! Kathy Griffin! Shame on you!

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