So I’m doing this event later this month, and I’m fucking dreading it,” says Kathy Griffin, the celebrity-mocking comedian. “It’s some tennis event at UCLA for MusiCares, like I know what that is. [Tennis star Andre] Agassi is going to play [tennis star Andy] Roddick, and then they’re going to play doubles with [hectoring TV pop psychologist] Dr. Phil and [former lead singer of grunge-lite band Bush and pretty-boy husband to Gwen Stefani] Gavin Rossdale. I hate that fat-ass Dr. Phil, by the way. That fucking fascist.” Griffin speaks with the habitual uptick of a teenage girl, and her slightly nasal, slightly screechy voice is thinned out even further by the crackle of her cell phone as she talks from a car in L.A. “And I’m supposed to be a funny line judge. But I’m pretty sure I’m going to bite it really hard. Because it’s going to be me on the microphone making fun of Andre Agassi’s old hair extensions and then the audience booing me.”
In a world of free-radical stardom, in which celebrities of disparate fame-levels routinely collide, Kathy Griffin’s self-appointed job is to point at these collisions and laugh. Ideally, you will laugh, too. But she doesn’t just mock from the sidelines. She enjoys a pseudo-celebrity of her own. If some stars are famous for being famous (Paris Hilton, the Gen-Y Zsa Zsa Gabor), then Griffin does Paris one better. Kathy Griffin is famous for not being all that famous, and knowing it.
She calls herself the queen of “the D-list,” a phrase she claims to have coined, presumably to create a circle of celebrity hell even lower than those previously charted. Griffin was once a member of the influential alternative comedy scene in nineties L.A., which turned out Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, and Andy Dick. She became well known for a time as the sassy redheaded sidekick to Brooke Shields on the sitcom Suddenly Susan. She later learned, though, that there are few strains of celebrity less resilient than the ex–sitcom sidekick. (For every Lenny that thrives, a Squiggy dies.)
So after watching her fortunes slide, she decided to actively embrace her has-been status. She appeared on the reality show Celebrity Mole Hawaii, along with Stephen Baldwin and L.A. Law’s Corbin Bernsen. (She won, earning $233,000.) She hosted the reality show Average Joe. She pitched a sitcom to NBC called The D-List, about the life of a semi-famous comedian (they passed). This month, the sitcom is reborn as a reality show on Bravo, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, which will air along with her new one-hour stand-up special, Kathy Griffin Is … Not Nicole Kidman.
“I idolize Suzanne Somers. I idolize Jerry Springer. I like working stiffs.”
She’s long since tilted her act away from jokes about ex-boyfriends and toward jokes about celebrity—hers and everyone else’s. She now pitches herself as the woman who will say anything and burn anyone. While hosting the red-carpet coverage of the Golden Globes for E!, she claimed that the cherubic 10-year-old Dakota Fanning was just out of rehab, a joke that prompted a long written apology from the channel and almost cost Griffin her gig. In the course of our conversation, she describes Angelina Jolie’s mouth as “an inflamed anus,” quips Sylvester Stallone’s face-lifts make him look like “a drag queen,” and, apropos Farrah Fawcett’s reality show, libelously says, “The thing with Chasing Farrah is that once you catch her, you find out she’s just a dumb drug addict.” Like most routines that rely on takedowns, Griffin’s comedy, while often funny, can sometimes turn unpleasantly sour. She recalls a scene from her reality show in which, after bombing during a performance, she appears backstage and says of the audience to her husband, “I hope they all get cancer.”
“The producers just said, ‘We’re going to go ahead and cut that. We don’t think anyone thinks that’s funny but you,’ ” says Griffin. “And I’m like, ‘That’s typical.’ ” During her best moments, though—as when she professes her love for Oprah, then turns to the camera and says, “But you know she thinks she’s … ,” then mouths the word Jesus—Griffin is hard not to like. It’s as though your bitchiest friend became a sleeper agent in Hollywood, slowly built a marginal career for ten years, then decided to blow the whistle. Loudly.
“My dirty little secret is that I’m actually really good with money,” says Griffin, in answer to the one question her reality show doesn’t address: How is it that a self-described D-list star can afford what she proudly calls an “A-list house”—an enormous, multi-million-dollar spread overlooking Hollywood. “I actually own three homes,” she says. “My stock portfolio is simple. I’m not like a day-trader. I have a lot of Berkshire Hathaway. And I work constantly. I’m extremely driven by money. I’m really interested in money. I’m impressed by people who are good with money.” For someone who makes her living mocking the most ridiculous of stars, her list of inspirations is surprising. “I idolize Suzanne Somers. I idolize Jerry Springer. I like working stiffs.” She reserves a special awe for, of all people, Baywatch tycoon and perennial punch line David Hasselhoff. “I asked Whoopi Goldberg once how much money she has, and she said, ‘Girl, I do all right. But I don’t have Hasselhoff money. Nobody in this town has Hasselhoff money, except for Hasselhoff.’ ”
Much of Griffin’s public persona seems, at first glance, contradictory. She mocks celebrity, yet she strives to be famous. She ridicules shamelessness, yet she is shameless. She belittles Hollywood’s obsession with plastic surgery, yet has had enough work done herself—which she’s proudly and publicly admitted—to put her somewhere between Teri Hatcher and Orlan, the self-sculpting performance artist. And, significantly, although she’ll scratch and claw at Clay Aiken and Oprah and Celine Dion, she admits to loving them all. “One thing that bums me out is when celebrities don’t get that part of it,” she says. “I can understand that if you read something I say, and you’re Celine Dion, you might be kind of pissed. But I just went to see Celine Dion’s show in Vegas a month ago. Again!”
It’s not surprising that Griffin has a large gay following, since gay culture essentially invented the idea of simultaneously mocking something (Liza!) while earnestly adoring it (Liza!). These entwined strands of derision and affection make up Griffin’s comic DNA. Riffing in her stand-up act, she’s the personification of the celebrity-directed snark that fuels a thousand Websites, on which fans dissect and deride the most obscure citizens of the celebri-sphere, sounding both dismissively superior and hopelessly smitten. Then again, in order to dish, as Griffin does in her show, that Clay Aiken is so obviously a homo, or Oprah so totally has a God complex, or Brad and Angelina are so totally and obviously doing it, you have to spend quite a lot of time thinking about, and caring about, Clay Aiken, Oprah, or Brangelina. Whatever drives that obsessiveness, it’s certainly not hatred.
“I’ve found that life is just high school,” Griffin says. “And I read this criticism of me somewhere that went ‘When Kathy Griffin rants, she sounds like the kid who was picked on in high school and now she’s mad at the cheerleaders.’ Of course! I am! Most of us were! Because there weren’t that many cheerleaders.” Here she doesn’t sound quite so snarky and her contradictions don’t seem quite so contradictory. For if every high-school cafeteria needs a popular clique, with its attendant posse of starstruck wannabes, there’s also got to be a wisecracking girl in the corner, camped out at the misfits’ table. She cracks up her friends by mocking the stupid cool kids, even as she can’t bring herself to look away.