Kathy Griffin is an anthropological puzzle. She is featured in the present issue of Entertainment Weekly.
What’s interesting about this coverage is that it tells us that Griffin’s adaptive strategy has costs. She has been banned from most of the Talk shows and Award shows. And this is important because it tells us that she is taking risks and that the risks sometimes go wrong.
When I wrote about her last, I couldn’t help wondering whether there wasn’t a contradiction here. How D List could she be when Griffin has risen so high and won such fame? Was this outsider thing really a pose? And a disingenuous one at that. Kathy Griffin, the insider who pretends to be an outsider.
But it turns out the tattle-tale strategy (telling on the celebrities who are your friends) goes badly from time to time. It’s not the case that everyone is in on the joke. Some people are going to hold it against you and some, like Letterman and Gelman, do. (So says the EW article.)
And this gives us a test case. It shows us what happens when someone defies the Sammy Maudlin club (see the SCTV skit that features a talk show in which everyone is way too paly). It helps us find that "fine line" between the gossip and something so apparently scurrilous that there is punishment and the scurriler discovers she will never "trade banter on this sound stage again."
Ok, it’s probably not a fine line. It’s a broad one. But it is still hard to know where it is, or what the costs of violation are. Until someone dares break the rule, we can’t be sure it isn’t something that is in fact forgivable…and costless. The trouble is the costs of exclusion are so high in Hollywood, there is a huge disincentive to take the Griffin risk. Without a Griffin experiment, we can never really know.
But now we do. At Griffin’s cost. And the new question is what exactly Griffin’s bad behavior is going to cost her. Unless of course, the EW article is actually an effort to make us feel bad for her, which it does. In this case, she wins when she wins and she wins when she loses. (That is, she wins when she gets famous and she wins when she gets punished.) But I don’t think that’s it. The EW article makes it seem like she has really been made to pay.
We must hope that she still has options, that she can continue to get work. And surely, in a plenitude, post-network world, that’s possible. I mean, she has a cable show and that is her protection against banishment. Plus, if she can get coverage of this kind from EW, then obscurity can’t be a problem. She won’t ever be A list, but the alternative doesn’t not look very punishing, and, when all is said and done, it will be millions of dollars from the poor house.
But there is till a real problem with this adaptive strategy. Griffin can always find work, but if she is excluded from the corridors of celebrity, it will starve her act. She may make celebrity and riches working her own cable universe. But unless she shares a Green Room with a big star acting like an idiot, she has nothing to trade.
Griffin says in the EW article that celebrities now get that her act is not dangerous, that it is another part of the celebrity game, indeed another opportunity for their aggrandizement. And if she is right, here, and other celebrities become less sensitive to the Griffin treatment, then she can turn the spiggots back on. She is back in the know.
But if Hollywood manages to cut her off, then she has a real problem. The problem, and this is the problem for every adaptive strategy (and creature), is to find that sweet spot, the one between an act sufficiently rude and revelational to persuade fans that Kathy really is telling tales out of school AND an act that is sufficiently discrete to protect celebrity’s celebrity (and of course their self love).
Can Kathy do it?
Fonseca, Nicholas. 2008. The Most Polarizing Woman in Hollywood. Entertainment Weekly. June 13, 2008, pp. 34-38.
McCracken, Grant. Kathy Griffin. This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. June 7, 2007. here.
Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1993. The Fine Line. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.