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The Kathy Griffin Effect

The Kathy Griffin Effect — The ”My Life on the D-List” star’s celebrity skewing shtick garners many fans and many critics

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Backstage in a cold, featureless room at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City sits Kathy Griffin. She’s just finished the first of two 75-minute, celebrity-skewering stand-up routines, and she’s hungry. But there will be no steak dinner, no bottles of bubbly, no specially sorted M&M’s at her disposal this evening. Nope — the star of Bravo’s Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List is staying true to form, eating spoonfuls of Jif peanut butter directly from the jar as she recounts the latest in a long line of indignities that seem to make up her entire life. Take tonight, for example. Earlier this evening, Griffin tried to connect with Bill Maher, a partner in comedic crime and longtime friend. Maher was also performing at the Borgata — only in the much larger Event Center down the hall — at the same time Griffin was on stage bashing Miley Cyrus (”How is she 15 and sounds like she’s been smoking for 40 years?”) and Mariah Carey’s wedding (”What the f— happened there? She just got the crazy-for-life pass”).

”They had Bill Maher in the big room tonight,” says Griffin. ”I wanted to bum-rush him because I’ve never been on [Maher’s HBO series] Real Time. But they said, ‘Bill’s in the car at 9:15.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m the only idiot that does f—ing two shows in the same night.”’

Griffin likes to talk about how she has to ”work harder and jump higher” than her peers, and if that’s the case, it’s because she occupies one of the most precarious places in the Hollywood firmament: She’s an insider who bites back like the ultimate outsider. She’s happy to attend any star-studded party that will have her, but as soon as she leaves, Griffin is even happier to share the absurd, hypocritical, and often hilarious tales of the rarefied world behind the velvet rope. Her fans are a particular breed of celebrity-obsessed consumers who lap up her outrageous stories as breathlessly as they refresh their Internet browsers for the latest gossip, and their interest shows no signs of abating. The Emmy-winning D-List returns for a fourth season on June 12, and she’ll also be hosting the cable channel’s inaugural A-List Awards that same night.

But despite the accolades and awards, the 47-year-old Griffin is persona non grata all over Hollywood. She claims she’s been banned from at least eight talk shows. It would probably be best if she never again came within a 10-mile radius of Sharon Stone, Whitney Houston, Star Jones, Ryan Seacrest…well, the list keeps going. Outside of Hollywood, she has just as many detractors. They accuse her of being the ultimate showbiz bottom-feeder, an unfunny has-been who should have disappeared along with the forgettable sitcom that made her quasi-famous. Instead, they say, she shamelessly screeched her way back to hog a spotlight that was never hers to begin with. Ironically, on this last point, Griffin agrees — proudly, in fact. ”They’re totally right,” she says. ”But I believe it’s important to make people laugh. That’s how I sleep at night.”

The launch of Kathy Griffin version 2.0 took place on stage at L.A.’s venerable comedy institution the Laugh Factory in 2002 — two years after the NBC comedy Suddenly Susan had been canceled. Griffin — who had costarred opposite Brooke Shields as a caustic magazine writer — needed a new job and a new identity. ”I couldn’t even get arrested,” she recalls. So Griffin called Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada, asked him to book her during his slowest time of the week (Wednesdays at 10 p.m.), and forced him to charge patrons a decidedly D-list price of 10 bucks. Griffin and her assistant then spent hours at Kinko’s, copying fliers and posting them all over town. Whereas her pre-Susan comedy routines revolved around life as a temp, her tiny apartment, and ”what guy I was banging,” Griffin’s years on the inside had provided scads of new material. Taking the stage now, Griffin morphed into a merciless, self-effacing tattler who tipped over every one of Hollywood’s sacred cows with unabashed glee. The show became a word-of-mouth hit.

However, Griffin had already been thrown into and spit out of Hollywood’s maw once. Afraid this semi-comeback wouldn’t last, she became a fixture on crappy reality shows like Average Joe and Celebrity Mole: Hawaii, slummed in ads for Sierra Mist and Frosted Cheerios, and chronicled her plastic surgeries in People magazine. (Griffin says she’s been ”off the junk” for five years.) She was tenacious, unfiltered, and, yes, irritating. But it didn’t stop E! from hiring her for its awards-show coverage in 2005.

That’s when the problems started. Griffin’s brash style — a gas to some, a turnoff to others — did her no favors on the red carpet. Her wisecrack at the 2005 Golden Globes pretending that then 10-year-old Dakota Fanning had entered rehab caused an uproar, and she was banished to a celeb-free ”media bridge” at that year’s Oscars. By year’s end, the comedian had been dismissed from the network. ”I will never regret that we had Kathy on the red carpet,” says Ted Harbert, president and CEO of E!’s parent, the Comcast Entertainment Group. ”A few times she crossed the line, but I’d rather cause trouble than no trouble.”

”I actually think I got that gig too soon,” says Griffin. ”Now those celebrities would be a little more familiar with my shtick and they wouldn’t think that I’m just trying to be mean.” But plenty of them do think that — and will never forgive her for that brief but controversial E! stint. ”It’s all so stupid,” says Joan Rivers, who, as a red-carpet host on E! and TV Guide channel, experienced plenty of controversies in her day. ”It’s our job to say the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. She’s banned? Banned from what? Everything is a red carpet these days. Who cares?” Well, Griffin does, for one. ”I miss that gig,” she admits, dropping any semblance of attitude. ”Desperately.”

Of course, she’s found plenty of other ways to stir up trouble. Last September, while accepting her Outstanding Reality Program Emmy for D-List, Griffin proclaimed that ”no one had less to do with this award than Jesus…. Suck it, Jesus — this award is my God now!” Griffin, a lapsed Catholic who attended parochial grade school in her hometown of Oak Park, Ill., clearly knew that she was setting off another firestorm. She claims the outburst cost her a guest spot opposite Cyrus and Shields on Hannah Montana, though a Disney Channel spokesperson counters that ”the ‘pass’ on Kathy Griffin in a particular guest role had nothing to do with comedy routines or public comments.” Says Griffin: ”I would [apologize], honestly, if I thought I really did something that hurt somebody. I’m not out to really make somebody sob and ruin somebody’s life. But ‘Suck it, Jesus’?! I know too many Catholics who have a sense of humor and get the joke.”

Still, there were plenty who didn’t, and plenty of others who viewed it as yet another premeditated attention-grabbing stunt. Perhaps that’s why you won’t see the comedian on a number of the talk shows that populate daytime and late-night TV. ”They don’t say you’re banned,” she explains of her perceived blacklisting. ”They are just never available after you’ve misbehaved. The Lettermans and Lenos and all of those guys who are doing just fine will make it such a point to not have me on their shows. They’ll take three minutes to say, ‘No, I don’t want to book her.”’ (An NBC source denies the claim, while Late Show exec producer Rob Burnett says, ”She is not banned. We simply don’t feel she warrants a booking at this time.”) Her ”re-banning” from The View is recounted in her current stand-up routine (a rep from The View declined to comment). And she incredulously discusses a call from the offices of Live With Regis and Kelly, when she was told that exec producer Michael Gelman didn’t want her on the show. ”The phrase they used was ‘It’s a Gelman issue,”’ she says, pausing for a beat. ”Why does that phrase exist?” (A spokesperson for Regis and Kelly — surprise! — declined to comment.)

What irks Griffin the most about her absence from these programs is that it prevents her from promoting her Bravo show. Whether you love or loathe Griffin’s obnoxious, self-absorbed persona, it’s hard not to appreciate the amount of work she puts into D-List. Over the last two seasons, she came under mortar fire during a morale-boosting visit with soldiers in Iraq, met with women on death row, finalized a painful divorce, and traveled to Ireland to spread the ashes of her father, who died in 2007. This summer, she’ll be seen opening a leadership academy in Mexico à la Oprah Winfrey and visiting wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. ”It ain’t Keeping Up With the Kardashians!” she cracks. ”I thought it would be a wacky look at me biting and scratching in Hollywood.” Instead, the program has turned out to be slightly more intense, from both an emotional and time-commitment perspective. ”The show’s f—ing killing me! I’m around the world for five months! It’s the show that never ends.” And don’t get this working-class underdog started on a certain MTV phenomenon. ”I have anger toward The Hills,” she reveals. ”They represent everything that tortures me in my life and in show business.” Which is? ”Which is beautiful, skinny, young girls who have the world handed to them on a platter and now have a clothing line.”

As much as Griffin celebrates being on the outer fringes of fame, it’s clear that she craves recognition and respect. She remains particularly pained over being snubbed by a recent Vanity Fair cover story on ”a dozen of the wittiest dames in showbiz,” including Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, and Wanda Sykes. ”I would put that on the list of three or four things in my entire career that just crushed me,” she says. ”I love those girls. I know many of them intimately. What more do I have to do?” But it’s pretty hard to feel sorry for someone who rebuilt her entire career on talking trash about others and, by all accounts, absolutely relishes it. That’s where her detractors have a legitimate gripe. Griffin may complain about being snubbed by the establishment, but their Foibles — and there’s a never-ending stream — keep paying her bills. She sells out venues as large as the Theater at Madison Square Garden and has a new CD, For Your Consideration, out June 17. And really, if you’re tapped to host an awards show, how bad can it be? ”Wellll…,” she hems, ”I’m kinda full of s—. But I was raised with the belief that I could lose everything and I’d have to live in my car and eat dog food. I guarantee that Conan O’Brien does not have these thoughts.”

”Look,” adds Griffin, who’s moved on to Red Bull as she winds up for the night’s second gig, ”the minute my show’s not getting numbers, I’m outta there. I don’t care what Bravo says. Thank God I sell a lot of tickets, but there’s no doubt in my mind that these promoters will turn their back on me the minute I stop. And when it stops, they won’t take my calls and I’ll be back at the small clubs, handing out fliers.” And beware — Kathy Griffin 3.0 could just be the most dangerous of them all.