The Passion of Kathy Griffin

There are few people working in standup that are more divisive than Kathy Griffin. It doesn’t stem from controversial remarks, like many other comedians in her peer group, so much as taste. People who love her think that she is tremendous. People who don’t like her think that she’s a talentless hack. There is very little middle ground, and even though she recently became only the third woman ever to win the Grammy for Best Comedy Album, she typically does not get respect from the mainstream.

Griffin’s career has often been compared to that of the late-great Joan Rivers, however their styles of comedy are actually like fire and water. Rivers was an old-school comic, rattling off joke after joke, firing punchlines into the audience with the speed of a gatling gun. Griffin’s sets are usually devoid of punchlines, or setups, or anything that serves as a comfortable guidepost when watching comedy. She tells stories, often about celebrities and pop culture, and you’re either in it with her or you’re totally lost. The one thing their careers have had in common is the ebb and flow. They have both been down before, under the radar for years before popping up on a TV show or news story that catches the eye of the public again.

Griffin has been in a moderate upswing for the last few years, in the spotlight thanks to her near-constant release of specials and CDs (like Rivers, she also never turns down a job as long as it meets her fee), and highly publicized TV specials, such as New Years Eve with Anderson Cooper. She’s been in the news most recently when she went on record as saying she was told by a CBS executive that they were “not considering females at this time” when she inquired about putting her name in the running to take over when Craig Ferguson left the Late Late Show. According to her, she responded to those allegations by telling the executive that the lack of females in late night was “embarrassing,” and that “women who represent half the population should hold half of such jobs.” The executive responded by telling her that women already had their own show: The Talk. CBS, of course, dismissed her claims as false.

These allegations, and Griffin’s public reporting of them, are nothing new. Late night TV has always been a man’s game, and Kathy Griffin has always been a whistle blower of sorts for the entertainment industry. She does this humorously in her standup act; often when she is given a list of words or topics she is not allowed to discuss by the venue or client, she responds by reading said list on stage. In the case of the CBS executive she’s clearly taking a more serious stand, even though she is more well known for making crude off-the-cuff remarks. Many of her detractors point to this as a reason that they can’t abide: she has something to say about everything, it’s not always “ha-ha” funny, and she doesn’t know when to shut up. What gets lost in this critique is that her inability to shut up also provides us an important glimpse about what goes on behind the scenes, and how censorship and misogyny influence the way we engage with media.

I listened to Griffin on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast recently and was floored, as I always am, at her intelligence, honesty, and bravery. On WTF she talked candidly about her conservative upbringing. She grew up outside of Chicago, raised by two “total Irish alcoholic” parents to whom Catholicism was not just a religion, but an infallible social structure. Griffin explains that she “grew up in that Catholic family of ‘don’t say anything, and even if you see proof of something you better deny it, because that’s how we roll.’” She glibly mentioned to Maron that her uncle was a priest who got “moved from parish to parish” before eventually dying of AIDS. She talked candidly about her oldest brother who was a pedophile, who had been abused himself by a coach, and who was friends with the man who had sexually abused Griffin when she was a child. “My theory is that because this guy was my brother’s bestie, I have often had a lot of fear and guilt about, is this something they were doing together for fun? Because my guess is, dudes like this find each other,” she said bluntly of their friendship. When Maron asked if her parents knew, she said yes, but then stipulated that they were in denial:

GRIFFIN: And when my father finally said to him later in life, ‘Kathleen is estranged from you because she believes you’re a pedophile, is that true?’ And my brother Ken said to my father, ‘I do what I do.’ MARON: That’s what he said… GRIFFIN: OK, so to this day my beloved mother is like, ‘Well, that’s not an admission.’ Let me tell you something – do you have sex with kids? MARON: No. GRIFFIN: OK, so your answer isn’t, ‘I do what I do.’ OK? If you asked me, I would not say, ‘I do what I do,’ I would say, ‘Nope, I sure don’t.’

When Griffin first rose to prominence in the ‘90s as an actress and comedian she was, in some ways, the pinnacle of the “un-cool” girl. In her act she talked rapid fire about vapid subjects: friends, dating, celebrities, etc, but she didn’t have the edge of Janeane Garofalo, or the sexual brazenness of Margaret Cho. The only shtick she had was that she was willing to talk about anything with her audience. Her career lulled at the turn of the century, and mostly lay dormant until 2005, when her reality TV show Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List premiered. Nine years later the show is remembered as a prototype for the avalanche of celebrity “candid” reality shows we’ve been inundated with, but unlike the Kardashians or Lindsay Lohan, My Life on the D-List had a near-perfect balance of reality and show. Griffin used every episode to create a character of herself, a hardworking comedian who valued success because it meant security, and fame because it meant success. Usually the episodes featured her contriving a publicity stunt of some sort with her eye-rolling assistants, and then executing it to mixed results. There was a lot on the show that was obviously staged, but the show as a whole was strangely authentic, even in its most put-on moments.

Her comical hunger for fame and wealth came from her middle-class upbringing, where nothing was taken for granted and every penny was put to good use. If you watched the show long enough it became clear that Griffin was not just a social climber, but a smart and successful businesswoman with an incredible work ethic. When she bemoaned her lack of respect as an actress and a comedian, she was both making fun of herself and projecting the unfair public image people have of her that she isn’t someone who deserves the mid-level career that she’s had. Those who watch carefully can see the self-awareness and intelligence behind the show, which won two well-deserved Emmy awards for “Outstanding Reality Program” during its run.

In the midst of the showbiz comedy there was also an intense personal and emotional current that ran through the show. Griffin did not just let viewers into a controlled version of her real life; she was often totally exposed on camera. In early seasons she experienced both a very painful divorce and the death of her father. Where other shows of its ilk would present these subjects in a dramatic and ultimately sympathetic manner, Griffin just told the truth. She sat in front of the cameras and cried, ugly, painful tears. She talked about being embarrassed to have realized that her husband probably never loved her, she revealed the immense pain she felt watching her mother, Maggie “Tip It” Griffin, the frequent butt of her jokes, trying to cope with the loss of her father. These moments peppered the show’s whole run. In an episode in a later season she is thrilled to get an acting gig on Law and Order, and then embarrassed to the point of tears when she gets on set and realizes that her usual funny shtick isn’t going to be enough to cut it. To this day I remember these moments, and I look back on My Life on the D-List as one of the very scant few reality TV shows that portrayed its subject honestly.

There is no vanity in those moments, and they certainly do nothing to help Griffin win over those who think she is immature and lacking in talent. Really, there is no glamour to anything she does, and even though it clearly pains her at times, she has never tried to change that. In her interview with Maron she tells him how she felt ostracized from his group of male comedian friends who all performed together at the time – Louis C.K., Nick DiPaolo, Dave Attell. She laughed about bombing nearly every show for five years straight, and Maron posits that Griffin was never really trying to be a standup in the way that he and the boys tried to be, she was doing something else. I think it is more complicated than that, but Maron is right. Griffin’s whole persona, from the standup, to relentlessly mocking celebrities, to My Life on the D-List, to coming out of meeting with executives and telling the public exactly what was said, is not about pleasing people by making them laugh, it’s Griffin’s form of rebellion.

In her interview with Maron she offhandedly calls herself a militant feminist. It seemed to me to be another one of her self-deprecating jokes at first, given that I know plenty of people who would trip over themselves coming up with things she has said to contradict that ascertain. But when we take a step back and really look at her work as a whole, it’s all about rejecting the status quo, rejecting our accepted notions of what high or polite society is, raising our voices in dissent when something seems not right, no matter how unpopular it makes you. When we strip away our misogynist view of her career as a loud mouth bitch, and choose to see her instead as the Catholic girl who decided to not look the other way when she witnessed abuse, who grew up to be the woman who decided she wasn’t going to stay quiet in the face of the absurdity and hypocrisy of the entertainment industry no matter how many times the patriarchy has told her to shut up, militant feminist is actually a fitting description.

Robert Balkovich is an Oregonian-cum-New Yorker whose writing has appeared in/on The Airship Daily, 7 Stops Magazine, The Park Slope Reader, and He is not from Portland. His other missives can be found @robertbalkovich.

The Passion of Kathy Griffin