At this point, Kathy Griffin’s live performances aren’t so much comedy shows as they are gab sessions between Griffin and her fans, with Griffin as a slightly funnier version of the co-worker who watches way too much reality TV and always has something snarky to say about it. On her latest Bravo special, Seaman 1st Class (taped at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center in California), Griffin brags that she recorded four stand-up specials last year, but that’s not much of an achievement when you consider how instantly dated her material is. Seaman 1st Class opens with Griffin talking about Miley Cyrus’s engagement and later features a long discussion of Demi Moore’s trip to rehab for whippets, and it’s already pushing the limits of topicality by addressing those subjects. If Griffin didn’t produce specials (and albums and DVDs) at such a steady rate, she wouldn’t have any relevant jokes to keep her fans entertained.
Actually, calling Griffin’s material “jokes” is a bit of a stretch at this point. Since becoming a celebrity in her own right thanks to her My Life on the D-List reality show and endless stream of talk-show and TV-hosting appearances, Griffin has gone from someone who tells jokes to someone who delivers gossip in a humorous fashion. Listening to Griffin’s anecdotes about attending the Grammys (where she stole the seat of nice-guy country singer Eric Church) and exchanging Tweets with Cher is like listening to an audiobook version of Gawker, only slightly bitchier.
At least those anecdotes involve something that Griffin did herself, even if much of the time she’s just laying out a straightforward account of what happened, and the audience seems to be laughing more in solidarity than in amusement. The funniest part of the Cher story involves Griffin reading one of Cher’s Tweets verbatim, and both segments seem designed primarily to convey the point that Griffin is personal friends with people like Cher and the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl.
Much worse are Griffin’s recaps of various reality shows, which could literally be typed up and posted on any number of snarky TV-recap websites and remain indistinguishable from what’s already there. Her long explications of Bristol Palin’s Lifetime show Life’s a Tripp and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN series Oprah’s Next Chapter involve little more than Griffin laying out, point by point, what happened on each show, with an occasional incredulous aside or put-upon look. At one point, while describing a particularly absurd moment from one of The Real Housewives shows, Griffin stops and says, “There’s no punchline.” It’s meant to illustrate how over-the-top ridiculous the Housewives are, but it could easily serve to encapsulate Griffin’s current style.
That’s not to say that making fun of reality TV is a worthless endeavor, or that Griffin can’t occasionally say something funny about it. “The Palins just want to be the Kardashians,” she observes about Life’s a Tripp, with the cleverness and expertise of someone who’s deeply familiar with the televised adventures of both families. She describes OWN as having “tens of viewers” and does a pretty good impression of Oprah’s manic intensity.
But those moments are far too infrequent, and more often Griffin simply functions as an intermediary, a way for her fans to process all of the trashy TV she talks about, or to live vicariously through her celebrity misadventures. All of the fan adulation becomes a sort of feedback loop, as Griffin describes her support for the LGBT community, then gets applauded for it. She tells a story about fans supporting her, and then the fans in the audience support it. Two segments in the special involve Griffin just reading letters aloud, one from the religious extremists in the Westboro Baptist Church describing why they want to picket Griffin’s performances, and another from an overly zealous fan in prison. Sure, it’s funny that Griffin is being protested by the Westboro Baptist Church and written to by unhinged prison inmates, but she doesn’t actually have any commentary to add to her readings of their letters.
At one time Griffin’s outsider status among celebrities offered her the chance to speak truth to power, even if that power was just a trashy reality-TV star. But now she’s as deeply entrenched in the celebrity-industrial complex as anyone she talks about, and her observations lack force or authenticity. She can spend as much time as she likes insulting Kim Kardashian and Bristol Palin and Miley Cyrus, but she isn’t doing anything but giving them free publicity. Toward the end of the show, Griffin notes that she lost a People’s Choice Award to Kim Kardashian, which inspires raucous laughter, but the truth is that it was a completely deserved loss. Without people like Kim Kardashian, Griffin would have nothing.