Stranger than Reality.Posted: August 2, 2007
The brilliance of Bravo’s Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List is in how it subverts the genre. (The show recently completed its season; episodes are now in heavy re-run rotation on the channel.) Although the reality show format encourages us to believe we are seeing some semblance of, well, reality, The “Kathy Griffin” we see on D-List–a minor celeb using zany strategems week after week in her indefatigible attempt to climb the ladder of fame–is no more the real Kathy Griffin than the “Jack Benny” that Jack Benny played on the The Jack Benny Show was the real Jack Benny.
True, some reality shows do capture their central figures in genuine moments, often as not humiliating, and with these, the central figures seem not so much the stars of their shows as the victims of them. (Case in point: Paula Abdul.) But Kathy Griffin uses the reality show genre, rather than being used by it. As a standup comic, she’s essentially a writer (a writer who says her own words out loud), and the situations on D-List are no less written than her act.
Just as Jack Benny knew he could use the half-hour comedy format to create a persona for himself that was “cheap” and “vain,” and thereby fashion a comedic character America loved to see get his comeuppance week after week, Kathy Griffin uses the modern-day format of reality show to fashion a persona for herself that is “famewhoring,” “desperate,” and “failing.” The real Kathy Griffin no doubt has friends that she doesn’t have to pay to be her friends, and has some sense of perspective about fame, and some limits on the things she’ll do to pursue it. But those things don’t make for an interesting character to follow on a weekly basis. And so, for her TV show, she created this fictional “Kathy Griffin” persona. Ironically, this fiction is presented as “reality”–but that’s what Jack Benny did, too. It just wasn’t called “reality show” then.
But then, doesn’t practically all fiction attempt to create some aura of reality around itself? How else can we buy into any story? Kathy Griffin’s genius is that she’s the first person to use the “reality show” format to create a dramatic literature that is brazenly, unashamedly, openly fictional. (Although I think there may be some who don’t get that.)
Griffin’s famewhoring dynamo is an inspired comic creation, one that exposes human foibles that seem to afflict an alarmingly large number of people in our culture. As a member of that culture, Griffin is not immune to the foibles. But unlike most, she has the self-awareness and wit to exaggerate them and make art out of them. Nobody on television gives me more pleasure than Kathy Griffin currently does, and if that doesn’t make her A-List, I don’t know what A-List means.