Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Catty and Caustic Comedy of Kathy Griffin

Kathy Griffin is a rare commodity in Hollywood. A comedian who is able to bridge the gap between overexposed celebrities and the adoring fans who worship them, Ms. Griffin has built a reputation in Tinsel Town as the “Queen of Mean.” It is no wonder that so many famous film and television stars avoid her like the plague, no doubt fearing any kind of encounter they might have will somehow end up in her act. And they do!

I’ve been a fan of Kathy Griffin for years, mostly because she’s not afraid to talk about the eccentricities and bizarre behavior of some of Hollywood’s finest. Her detailed recollections of encounters with megastars like Whitney Houston, Britney Spears or Liza Minnelli are priceless peaks into a world most of us only dream about. Like a tour guide at Universal Studios, Kathy takes us on a behind-the-scenes journey of the entertainment industry, pointing out important facial reconstructions and peculiar mannerisms as if she were describing the attributes of a studio back lot. And we happily go along with her, perhaps laughing a little too much at the foibles of those we consider much more privileged than ourselves.

And perhaps that’s why Kathy is so successful. She has tapped into a mindset that craves Schadenfreude (taking pleasure hearing about other people’s misfortune). Only in Kathy’s case, she is exploiting the misfortunes of the very fortunate, so somehow we feel better about laughing at them. After all, who doesn’t like a good Tom Cruise joke? Except that Kathy doesn’t really tell jokes. Her brand of comedy is more observational, as she literally recounts her encounters with famous celebrities. And this is when she is at her most brilliant. Because as she describes all the intricate details of her experiences, we feel like we’re right there with her. For one brief moment, we are standing alongside Kathy as she recalls her scary meeting with Whitney Houston. We are right next to her when she hops into bed with Liza Minnelli and asks the famous Diva if she ever had sex with Bob Fosse. And we’re sitting on the couch next to her as she discusses which lubricant is the best with Barbara Walters. (Ms. W prefers Astroglide.) Kathy takes us into that world like no one else.

I first noticed Kathy when she was on “Suddenly Susan,” as Brooke Shield’s sassy and sharp-tongued co-worker. In fact, she was one of the only reasons I watched the show, as her one-liners were some of the only laughs the sitcom evoked. Then I tuned into “The Mole” for one episode and got hooked because of Kathy’s hilarious observations of other celebrities like Steven Baldwin. This was the first time I’d ever witnessed Kathy doing anything akin to her stand-up act. But after that, I was hooked. I watched every comedy special, and enjoyed her frequent stints on the talk show circuit.

But then when “My Life on the D-List” came out, I was finally able to get a good dose of Kathy for at least a few weeks at a time. Her constant search for the spotlight, and her often embarrassing methods of achieving it, are what drives the show forward. By far my favorite episode so far was when Kathy and Mad TV’s Michael McDonald were performing for the troops in Iraq. Not only was it a very touching episode, and a nice tribute to the men and women serving our country, but it also had some of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen on television. The final improvisation section is simply brilliant.

So it was with much anticipation that I went to Madison Square Garden last Saturday to see Ms. Griffin live in concert. Sitting between a cluster of heterosexual couples on one side, and a gaggle of gay boys on the other, I felt like the mediator between two different mindsets. The gay audience, who love Kathy’s ribald humor and catty observations; and their straight counterparts, many of whom appeared to have been dragged there by their wives. At least the guy next to me was. He hardly ever laughed, and had to ask his wife several times what Kathy was talking about. (Apparently a translator was needed for some of Kathy’s more obscure references—like who Clay Aiken was.)

The concert started off a little slow, as Kathy described her mother’s decision to vacate her palatial California home. But once she began talking about celebs like Anderson Cooper and Oprah Winfrey, the audience was right with her. And that’s when Kathy soared. Her implied position as the underdog in any given situation is why we relate to her. She is humility and hilarity all rolled into one. She is us, and we are her. She asks all the right questions, says all the wrong things, and gets herself into hilarious scrapes that could easily populate a sitcom for years. And we’re right there with her, living vicariously through her experiences. It’s this connection and relationship with her audience that makes her one of the most popular comedians in show business today.

But that’s just me. What do you think of Kathy Griffin?


Anonymous said...
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Cynthia said...

Well said.