June 9, 2010

Kathy Griffin gets last laugh with her 'D-List' notoriety

Posted: 09:00 PM ET



Kathy Griffin may have spent most of her life reaching for the stars, but she's finding it far more rewarding poking fun at them.

From her teens till her mid-40s, Griffin's career was a roller coaster of sporadic successes, frequent rejections and protracted periods of limbo. But these days, the pint-sized comedian's professional life is as fiery as her flame-red coif.

At 49, Griffin has become a comedic brand built on savvy promotion, shock humor and notoriety from her Bravo celeb-centric reality series, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, back for a sixth season June 15 (9 ET/PT). D-List has spawned several Bravo specials; the latest, Kathy Griffin Does the Bible Belt, premieres tonight at 10 ET/PT, part of a night-long block of Griffin specials that sell well on DVD.

There are Grammy-nominated albums (For Your Consideration, Suckin' It for the Holidays), a best-selling book (2009's Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin is just out in paperback), film work (a voiceover in Shrek Forever After) and guest spots (Law & Order: SVU).

And she'll perform her stand-up act live at 100 venues by year's end.

"I like to use the term 'late bloomer,' " says Griffin, who lived with her parents until she was 28. "But I really thought there was something wrong with me."

To some, that sentiment still rings true. Her profane observational humor and shocking send-ups of celebrities led to a permanent ban at Harlem's Apollo Theater — she was unaware it was family night — and prolonged exiles from talk shows ranging from The View to The Tonight Show With JayLeno.

Cable's E! issued an apology in 2005 after Griffin, co-hosting a red-carpet event, told viewers that actress Dakota Fanning, then 10, was in rehab. Griffin's 2007 Emmy acceptance speech (for the first of her two reality-show wins for D-List) included a satirical reference to Jesus that outraged religious leaders. And dropping the F-bomb and crude remarks while co-hosting CNN's 2010 New Year's Eve show with Anderson Cooper has made that gig's future questionable.

"It's really just shtick," Griffin says. Though she enjoys ruffling feathers, Griffin says, she's covering the kind of insult territory mined by Don Rickles and Joan Rivers, legends she hopes to mirror in career length. Many of her targets are single-name references, thanks to their TMZ-style behavior (Whitney, Lindsay, Paris). But almost any public figure who screws up is fair game.

"She really pushes the envelope — she doesn't worry about who's upset with her," says Joy Behar, co-host of The View and host of HLN's Joy Behar Show. "She speaks her mind and takes no prisoners. That's the mark of a true comic."

Still, it took years for Griffin to find her footing and fans.

The youngest of five kids, Griffin often entertained her Irish Catholic family and houseguests with her quick wit. In school, she gravitated to musical theater.

"She was a handful at 10. She always had a good sense of humor, but she was more inclined to musicals and choir," says mom Maggie, whose wine quaffing and mother-daughter squabbles have been a D-List staple since Season 1. At 89, even Maggie has a book deal: Tip It! The World According to Maggie is due June 29.

From acting to comedy

Griffin grew up hoping for an acting career; a Chicago White Sox commercial paid her $25 at age 17. But after high school, Griffin moved from the Chicago suburbs to Los Angeles with her parents. For the next decade, the three shared a two-bedroom apartment; Griffin worked as a temp and at mostly dead-end jobs while hustling for auditions.

She studied drama at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and developed comedic skills with The Groundlings improv troupe. She was an "alien extra" in 1980's Battle Beyond the Stars, but her first credited speaking part wasn't until 1990, guesting on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Six more years passed before she got a break as Brooke Shields' sidekick in another NBC sitcom, Suddenly Susan.

"I thought I had made it, but I went from Suddenly Susan to suddenly cold" when the series folded in 2000. Fellow Groundlings Lisa Kudrow, Julia Sweeney and Will Ferrell were already stars. As Griffin progressed from taking Groundlings classes to teaching them, students Will Forte and Chris Parnell joined Saturday Night Live.

"At times, she would get discouraged because so many of the people she knew went on to good parts," Maggie Griffin says.

There were guest spots on other sitcoms and Hollywood Squares, HBO stand-up specials and voice-over work on cartoons. But substantial roles were elusive. "I was back in career limbo, too well known for auditioning with total unknowns, not famous or successful enough to be part of a series," Griffin says.

An early MTV stab at reality TV, Kathy's So-Called Reality, lasted just six episodes in 2001.

But she had dabbled in stand-up for years and eventually wrangled time at L.A.'s Laugh Factory by asking for the club's slowest time slot. She strung together clips of celebrities and provided running wisecracks, an act that began building a local following. As she became more emboldened, the jokes spread beyond wayward A-listers. A Muslim joke attracted death threats. TV executives who saw her perform suggested a starring role in a Seinfeld-style series, but it never got out of development.

By 2004, Griffin had earned a certain notoriety, but not enough to warrant VIP treatment or return calls from talent agents. "It dawned on me that that's the TV show. I'm so D-list I couldn't even get my agents to the pitch meetings to sell a show about how I was on the D-list."

TBS and VH1 passed on her pitch. Bravo greenlighted six episodes. "Bidding war? No one else wanted it," Griffin says.

The start of something big

Even by basic-cable standards, D-List has never been a big hit; it averaged 936,000 viewers last season, down 15% from Season 4. No matter, says Bravo Media president Frances Berwick.

"She manages to walk the line between the world she is mocking and being in awe of it," Berwick says. "It's very clever. She can be hard-nosed and frank, but she can wink to a lot of celebrity nonsense because she's so grounded and self-aware."

Rickles and Rivers have appeared. So have Gloria Estefan, Rosie O'Donnell and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Liza Minnelli and Kristin Chenoweth surface this season. So does Levi Johnston, the pesky 20-year-old ex-fiancé of Bristol Palin. Publicity-seeking Griffin has mockingly referred to Johnston as her boyfriend. He'll be featured when she attempts to visit Sarah Palin's Wasilla home to leave an invitation to her Anchorage show.

D-List also shows Griffin's softer side. Over the course of the series, her father, John, a retired electronics store manager, died, and Griffin divorced her husband, Matt. There were nice moments with Maggie, who has moved from Griffin's home to an apartment. "When she's not on the road, she's a homebody," says assistant Tiffany Rinehart. "But her brain is always working. She's always thinking of the next thing."

Says Griffin, "D-List showed that I'm not this horrible, scary person."

Moreover, Griffin's attention-seeking stunts — such as buying her own promotion ads for Emmy support in trade publications — aren't just self-serving. She recently appeared in a bikini for a poolside pap smear to raise awareness about cervical cancer. She supports gay rights and AIDS research, has visited wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and entertained troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Says former Will & Grace star Megan Mullally, who has become a close friend: "When she's 'on,' there's nobody like her. But there's this misconception that she must be really catty. She's a good person, super sweet and a loyal friend. But she's also smart, and she's making serious bread."

Before D-List's launch in 2005, Griffin mostly played small clubs, once bombing so badly that a club manager asked her to return some of her fee. Now she sells out big-market venues in New York and Washington and is a strong draw in smaller markets such as Knoxville, Tenn., where Bible Belt was taped.

"D-List really changed everything," Griffin says. "For me, it was always a big deal performing in front of 500 people. Now it's up to 5,000 four nights at Madison Square Garden's theater. And you really get the best audiences. They're not coming to heckle you. They're coming to see the thing they see on Bravo."

Notes on a legal pad

Typically, she works off a legal-sized pad with talking points before taking the stage to riff non-stop for up to two hours. She is constantly tuned to news events, reality TV, celebrity happenings and pop culture. She modifies performances between shows, says the lone member of her traveling entourage, Tom Vize, who was waiting tables when he began moonlighting as Griffin's housesitter/dog walker before becoming her tour manager.

Steve Levine, her tour booker, says, "I have offers for 75 markets she's never been in. And her repeat business is amazing. Australia and England have the potential to be as big as America."

On tour, she does her own hair and makeup, and her diva requests from concert promoters are minimal: Diet Coke, sugar-free Red Bull and peanut butter.

It's just about the work and the laughter, she says:

"After all those years of hearing 'no,' if I say 'no' now, it's because I'm double booked. I want to keep it going."

Filed under: Kathy Griffin

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Armando Alvarez   June 9th, 2010 9:30 pm ET

Larry the problem with America now days is people like Connie Mack he and his little group forget who he works for.

Donovan Esquire   June 9th, 2010 10:21 pm ET

I'm thinking about staring a website where we post all the radical Islamist located i the U.S....not there specific address but their state of origin. The military can only do so much. Larry...I know you feel the same way.....I'm a physician... not a dreamer...Larry.....lets help the Gov.

peter saavedra   June 10th, 2010 12:19 am ET

can you save us from our tyranist government jesse, please help us.

Jacob Perez   June 10th, 2010 12:25 am ET

What does BP , yahoos , Hugo Chavez have in common?

maria medina   June 10th, 2010 12:44 am ET

its sad and terrible that people like oliver stone play hugo chavez game" i'll give u a lot of money but you hav to says how good i'm" Im venezuelan he should be ashame of himself saying that our president is great, when he's not, and yes ofcourse he stole the elections, he has all the powers, i would like to see mr.stone going to venezuela just like a tourist, no invited for our monster, we got kill every day more than irak war, he put innocence people in jail, clse radio statios,tv stations, big companys just because. Its horrible that people like him support chavez.

FRANK SAGE   June 10th, 2010 5:38 am ET

Nobody cares if the president is a black angry man.
My question’ where is FEMA in the four states and in Ohio. Did the fishers catch any when fish when Katrina flooded the city? I went through five hurricanes in Florida and my state lost not only people vacating and company’s closed for business FEMA was there every time. Everyone cares about the oil leak and the president should be focuses if he an angry back man but becomes a leader.

gerald Jolly   June 10th, 2010 5:03 pm ET

Correct me if I'm wrong.

But is'nt a comedian supposed to be funny.

The question is, is Kathy Griffin funny??

Any intelligent person would say "NO"

So why do people call her a comidian.

Please explain.

DreaZ   June 13th, 2010 8:20 pm ET

You either love Kathy Griffin or you don’t. I think it would take an intelligent person to realize just how genius she and her producers really are. C’mon everyone knows you need drama and shock value to get the attention of the viewers. Plus, I think she says what most of us are thinking except we don’t have the balls to say out loud. I personally think she is great.

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