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