|A photo of Kathy Griffin from her official website|
10. Comedienne of All Media – Kathy Griffin just opened in New York in Kathy Griffin Wants a Tony (she has a couple of Emmys, has been nominated for a couple of Grammys, and had a best-selling memoir). The New York Times sent a second stringer (who didn’t quite get her show) to review her and Kathy Griffin would have expected no more. She’s also on Bravo this month in her special 50 and Not Pregnant (the latest in a continuing run of stand up specials since about 2002 that usually come between seasons of her reality show My Life on the D-List). So, she deserves reconsideration even for those who don’t like her, can’t stand her, etc., etc.
9. Mimicry – There might not be a better mimic in American show business right now who isn’t actually a mimic first and even then I wouldn’t stake money on it. Danny Gans died young and Rich Little hasn’t been around for a while so I’ll go ahead and say she’s the best. It’s her secret weapon and she never acknowledges it. She has admitted that she cannot capture Cher, but she can do everyone else. At times, Oprah now seems to be copying Griffin’s impersonation of her. I was first taken aback by her mimicry when she told a story about being on the new Hollywood Squares with Anna Nicole Smith, Little Richard, and Triumph the Insult Dog. She nailed every one of them in a quick, off-the-cuff fashion that never underlines her skill in this area.
8. Promoting Guest Stars – She’s opened up her life to others on her reality show, but always to demonstrate her idolization of their talents. Betty White was much funnier as herself having lunch with Kathy and her mother at Sizzler than she has been with good scripts on Hot in Cleveland. (Actually, for the buzz about her on that show, it’s Wendie Malick who knocks it out of the park every week with a dry wit that is embodied in her willowy, ageless presence. The physical comedy routine between her and Huey Lewis last season trying to make wild, crazy love was up there with some of Lucy and Vivian Vance’s work together, but was ignored, unfortunately.) Joan Rivers (way before the excellent documentary about her was released) gave a brief master class over the phone in how to connect with an audience that displayed her intelligence and moxie to far greater effect than the idiocy she doesn’t quite parody on Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best. Liza Minnelli gave acting advice that most MFA acting students would pay $60,000 in cash and loans to secure. This was a far greater testament to Minnelli’s skill than Oprah’s backstage nervousness and onstage pussyfooting interview revealed. Bette Midler seemed to reconnect with why audiences found her such fun when Griffin visited her in Vegas, Lily Tomlin was the embodiment of the buddy or best friend with whom you could share anything, and Jane Fonda (again, on the phone) came across as an elegant enigma you wanted to know more about, but who deftly avoided revealing too much since she’d been burned before.
View Kathy's master class with Liza for her featured guest star role on Law & Order SVU here:
7. Courage – She was one of the first major comics (or any other celebrity civilian and I am including politicians when I say celebrity) to travel into the middle of the war zone in Afghanistan and into the green zone in Iraq. The military officers were concerned for her safety, but she was having none of it. She has gone into Walter Reed and a maximum-security penitentiary and unflinchingly connected with staff, patients, and inmates before performing. Her wit can be even funnier (and more humane) in her pedestrian interactions with people than when she’s onstage. She always pronounces herself a D-Lister (she coined the term for herself), but she’s looking more and more like this generation’s Bob Hope of the USO.
6. Honesty – She has always played the gleeful little girl pointing and screaming “The Emperor has no clothes.” (She may be more like Cindy Lou Who in that she stands up to various Grinches, but more about that later). I think part of the reason people may not like her is because they don’t like to be reminded of their stupidity in not seeing how idiotic some celebrities are or, worse, in having their hypocrisy so blatantly pointed out. However, Griffin has detailed with great clarity her own shortcomings and regrets: failed Lasik surgery, useless plastic surgery, her willful ignorance in addressing what turned into a failed marriage and, most poignantly and shockingly, her ambivalent relationship with her older, late brother. She’s always allowed her failures to be shown, especially her catastrophic show at the Apollo when she had the audience and even, somehow, Al Sharpton, in her hands and then threw it away by refusing to heed his and others’ advice. The audience reaction, which was angrily insulted, was the only time I’ve seen her frightened, but she let it play out.
5. Respect – Her respect for her elders would do her proud in Japan, but is never remarked upon in this culture. I’ve noted professional influences earlier, but she’s also been a promoter of Don Rickles. She’s been compared to him and Joan Rivers, but she works differently. Both of them put themselves down first before putting down others (Rivers puts down types and celebrities whereas Rickles puts down the audience). Griffin describes herself and her lack of importance, rather than putting herself down, and describes others and questions why we find them important. Has any performer treated her parents with as much attention, wit, and adoration as Griffin? Her mother and her late have not only part of her act, but she has pointed out (and with sincerity) over the years that she may be their sidekick and not the other way around. She is also saying that they are as important to her act as the celebrity shtick, even though she knows the audience is there for the stargazer stories and gossip first.
4. Diversity – Front and center, she’s put women’s issues and gay equality as her overarching thematic and political concerns. She locates them immediately in the audience and plays to them, though she never forgets to “Wake Up, Straight Guys” with a long story somewhere in the middle of her show. She’s marched, spoken publicly, and negotiated the corridors of DC for gays to serve openly in the military (since they’re already there as she has hilariously touched upon in her act), and she has always pointed up the extraordinary efforts women have made in the everyday work world as well as in the internationally celebrated one. She acidly noted the reprehensible treatment of Afghan women in a supposedly simple, agrarian culture that we choose to officially ignore since they’re our allies in the struggle against al-Qaeda.
3. Zeitgeist Oracle – She is part of the holy trinity that has its finger on the pulse of the American zeitgeist. Oprah, for the past twenty-five years, is and has been examining how to make our society more open to diversity and honest about our collective past. Ellen has been pushing forward the next generation of talent, though I wish she’d let some of these young celebrities graduate high school first. Kathy describes where we are now and subtly asks whether this is where we should be. One major reason why she is both loved and loathed is that she points out which gods have clay feet and, usually, they’re the ones we’ve questioned ourselves.
2. Talent – She worships talent. She is in awe of Streisand, Whitney, Celine, Oprah, and all those I’ve previously mentioned. She has to consider the likes of Paris Hilton because she doesn’t have a discernible talent, though Hilton’s manners were impeccable when she was a guest on her show and Griffin obviously admired that. She is obviously concerned about how an emerging talent like Miley Cyrus is being handled. Her underlying fear is that Cyrus will be chewed up and spit out by those that are supposedly on her team before she has had a chance to establish her career. I cannot think of an example where Griffin has put down someone without talent. She hasn’t knocked Whitney because she was down, but she has knocked her for betraying her talent while she still demands to be celebrated for it. One major subtext to her act is that she is a teetotaler from a drinking Irish Catholic American background. Most of her stories about celebrities hinge on their alleged, but probably actual, misuse of drugs and alcohol and how that has compromised their talent.
On a side note, Griffin’s treatment of Sarah Palin is based on her incomprehension of her fame. Since Palin cannot coherently express her views and cannot justify many people’s belief in her, then her fifteen minutes of fame should be over, but they’re not. That mystifies and angers Griffin because it wastes the public’s attention and keeps it from connecting with real talent and real issues. My sister, a proud Republican, actually met Sarah Palin about a decade ago. I was hoping for some extraordinary tidbit that would be a metaphor for her celebrity, but my sister said, “She was the mayor of a small town about a half hour’s drive from my home. I sat on a scholarship selection committee for students from Wausilla High and she delivered the applications and picked them up and thanked us when we were done. She could have been anybody.”
1. Work Ethic – From working crappy jobs to auditioning incessantly, teaching improv, booking her gigs and driving herself to and fro, playing anywhere for anyone that will have her, Griffin shows just how much of a grind show business really can be, but she is always upbeat and goes the extra distance to be prepared. She points out in her memoir Official Book Club Selection that this stems from her older, late brother’s refusal to follow through on his talent, instead giving in to his demons and giving up on the gift of a potentially rewarding career. Her realization that fame is fleeting and public tastes are fickle is the greatest divide between those celebrities she skewers and her. However, this realization is the lynchpin between her and her audience. Only real talent and a commitment to do the work is what keeps a professional playing the game, no matter the career nor the setting.