Kathy Griffin and Rosie O’Donnell – thoughts…

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Kathy Griffin Kathy Griffin at the 2015 Television Critics Association’s Press Tour for the NBC Universal TV show announcements, interviews with cast and creators at The Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, CA on January 15, 2015. Picture by: Mingle Media TV

Kathy Griffin announced that she was leaving the E! gabfest Fashion Police after just 7 episodes. Griffin’s departure shouldn’t be a surprise as after original host Joan Rivers died last year, the show’s been teetering on the brink of irrelevance, before it was plunged into infamy when host Giuliana Rancic made some racist comments about actress/singer Zendaya, specifically about her choice of wearing dreds to the Oscars. Rancic’s comments were scripted – the “weed” jokes were fed to the host by the show’s writers, but Rancic still gave a heartfelt and sincere apology, which Zendaya accepted with grace.

Still, Fashion Police – which returned after Rivers’ death to lower ratings, seemed hobbled by the bad press. Then co-host Kelly Osbourne left the show, reportedly unhappy with the racist joke, though her public reason was a diplomatic “moving on to other opportunities” kind of statement. Then Kathy Griffin stepped into the fray with guarded caution by pointing out that she wouldn’t have told a joke simply given to her by a staff writer. Soon after, Griffin also announced that she was leaving Fashion Police, leaving the two with two hosts: Rancic and Brad Goreski.

Griffin’s abrupt quitting isn’t surprising, as I always thought Fashion Police wasn’t a good vehicle for the comedienne. In her statement, Griffin explained that though she was grateful for the opportunity she found that “After 7 episodes of Fashion Police, I discovered that my style does not fit with the creative direction of the show & now it’s time to move on.” In the statement, which was posted on her Twitter and Facebook account, Griffin explained that though her humor was irreverent and barbed, she sought to use comedy as a leveler, citing her LGBT activism as well as her feminism.

When Kathy Griffin had her Bravo reality show, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, she was able to create the perfect outlet for her particular brand of comedy. Interestingly enough, she created the gig for herself because she was having trouble finding work on network television after her four-year run on the Brooke Shields sitcom Suddenly Susan came to an end. Her age, her unconventional beauty, and the general demise of the multi-camera sitcom contributed to Griffin’s struggle to find acting jobs. So though a reality show My Life on the D-List was actually a brilliant sitcom posing as a reality show.

But as with most sitcoms, My Life on the D-List had a limited shelf life because the conceit of the show – that Griffin’s low-level celebrity forced her to toil away at sad and uninspiring gigs – soon became obsolete as Griffin became one of the nation’s leading female comics. Because she’s close friends with people like Anderson Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt, Rosie O’Donnell, Suzanne Somers, and Joy Behar, it proved to be more difficult to believe that Griffin was still a D-list celebrity.

So, she decided to end the show and returned to Bravo with a talk show – Kathy. Unfortunately, the show only lasted two seasons. I was surprised by the show’s failure, especially since it’s actually a very good show and worth looking at. Because stand-up is Griffin’s passion, she’ll never be wanting for work, but I understand the pull of Fashion Police: Griffin’s dear friend and mentor, Joan Rivers, found a new career as an acerbic fashion critic, and parlayed that success into a late-career renaissance that included books, more concert tours, a CD, and an excellent web series (In Bed with Joan).

But what was so appealing about My Life on the D-List was that it combined all of Griffin’s best qualities: her underdog status, her outsider persona, as well as the intellectual. Often comedians won’t highlight their intellect if it’s not part of their persona. Griffin never dumbed herself down, but she also played up the vapidity of Hollywood and celebrity culture. The fact that Griffin’s politically astute, well-read, very articulate, and very brainy was hinted at in her stand-up, but was on display on the episodes of D-List. Fashion Police would’ve been an inappropriate place for Griffin to discuss how important feminism is in the 21st century, or how badly we treat our troops when they return home from war. She’s a fearless activist for LGBT rights and feminism, and when it was just she on the D-List, these concerns got as much attention as did her snarky take down of Hollywood celebrity.

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Rosie O’Donnell at the premiere of I Am Because We Are at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. Picture by: David Shankbone

All of this reminded me of Rosie O’Donnell, another comedian who is often criticized for speaking her mind. O’Donnell had a long-running talk show in the 1990s that predicted Ellen DeGeneres’ successful gabfest. In the show, O’Donnell was family friendly – once the show ended and she came out, O’Donnell remained friendly and lovable, but her persona also became more complicated as she was also speaking out about politics. Her inclusion on The View was brilliant because it allowed for O’Donnell to be outspoken and political – unfortunately, she left early after an infamous dustup with conservative co-host, Elisabeth Hasselbeck. She had a comeback talk show on Oprah Winfrey’s then-struggling OWN, which was canceled after two seasons – again, as with Kathy, I was surprised that O’Donnell’s show didn’t make it. O’Donnell returned to The View after Barbara Walters retired, but like the rebooted Fashion Police, the new version of The View stumbled, and O’Donnell left after a few months (citing personal reasons including a divorce and a health scare).

This all leads to me to one conclusion: like Joan Rivers, O’Donnell and Griffin should look to the Web for their next project. What was so brilliant about In Bed with Joan is that it exploited social media, and proved to younger viewers that a veteran entertainer like Joan Rivers can adapt to new avenues of work. Most importantly, though Rivers invited traditional comedians like Griffin, Aisha Tyler, and Jeff Garlin, she also booked popular YouTube comedians like Tyler Oakley and Hannah Hart, as well. She recognized that comedy doesn’t just happen in a smokey club – YouTube comedienne Colleen Ballinger, who created the genius character Miranda Sings proved she can more than hold her own when appearing with Jerry Seinfeld, Martin Short, and Jimmy Fallon on Fallon’s The Tonight Show. Griffin and O’Donnell should look to the Web to expand their audiences – and they would be free of networks, who would predictably ask them to tone down their personalities.

The Internet is a great avenue because artists can create work that would reach their audiences without the intervention or meddling of studio suits. Griffin and O’Donnell both have such established fan bases, that they would fit the format perfectly. Griffin’s former Groundling pal Lisa Kudrow is a great example of an established comedienne who after years of mainstream success on network television, decided to go to the Internet. After a decade on the NBC hit Friends, Kudrow experimented with darker material, first with the cult classic The Comeback, and then with the brilliant Web series Web Therapy (which was picked up by cable). There’s no reason why O’Donnell or Griffin couldn’t do what Kudrow did – keep an eye on both standard, mainstream modes of entertainment (TV, radio, film), but also looking to alternative options.

What the Fashion Police bump proved was that Kathy Griffin, despite all of her success, is a square-shaped peg in an industry that only has round-shaped holes (I know Griffin would enjoy the double entendre). She’s an original, opinionated, smart, and brave – qualities that aren’t always celebrated in women. She needs a vehicle that promotes all of these qualities and lets them all shine. And just maybe she’ll have to create that vehicle for herself, as she once did before.

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Filed under Celeb, celebrity, Comedy, commentary, Nonfiction, Television, TV

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