Kathy Griffin Swings and Misses
Comedy, as W.C. Fields once quipped, is just a tragedy that plays out on someone else’s stage. It was as true a trope in Vaudeville as it is today in Tinseltown. Try not to chuckle seeing another person slip, or while texting and walking, they trip. Keep a straight face, if you can, when Larry pokes Moe or when Costanza cries. Smother that smile when Chaplin takes a spill or when Kramer catches a cold. The best and oldest comics never could avoid a sewer left ajar or keep from catching their coattail in a moving car. Comedy, like beauty, is forever in the eyes of the beholder and just like a pretty face, there’s a sliding scale of attraction. It begins on one side with innocuous shticks and ends on the other with obnoxious gimmicks, but where the lines should be drawn, like the lineaments on one’s chin, no one knows for sure.
Enter on stage, Kathy Griffin. The comedienne seems to have found these cumbersome lines too restrictive. For those unacquainted, she’s the indefatigable, incarnadine lady who pops up from time to time. She’s always loquacious, less frequently funny, and never slow to squirm into the conversation.
She was recently photographed holding President Trump’s bloodied, decapitated head in her hand. It was a mask, rest-assured, but the countenance was more doppelganger than caricature. It really looked quite real. What it lacked in flesh and bone it made up for in latex. It had every strand of Trump’s wisping golden coiffure, every spray-can splash of his bronze tinge, and every paralyzed pucker of his two pouting lips set just like the man himself—except gruesomely disheveled and stained red. Griffin, for her part, sternly looks into the camera ahead. She wears a stolid, triumphant look, as though she guided the guillotine herself and reaped the result.
Less known for her prop use (particularly when compared with her fellow Carrot Top), Griffin fell completely flat on her face. Instead of laughter, it fomented disgust. But it wasn’t just disgust from the Right, or from Trumpians and Bannonites. Nearly everyone from every political side found the image crass and uncouth. I might add this isn’t an easily accomplished thing to do. To be so tactless as to incite disgust from the literati to the glitterati and the Democrat elites to the GOP is no easy feat. Unanimity is more than ever a rarity in these polarizing times.
All agreed, however, that the image would’ve been better off shelved (or better still, never taken). Feeling the incensed groundswell around her, Griffin wasted no time in doubling down. An explanation was needed for such an abhorrent “artistic” ruse. Her inspiration, if you could call it that, was when Trump shocked all of our sensitivities with his Megyn Kelly comment—the one when he insinuated the former Fox News host was on her period with “blood coming out of her eyes” and “blood coming out of her…wherever”. What Trump said back then is no less louche than it is today (I am of the firm belief that menstruation and douches should have no place in polite conversation), but Griffin is still wrong for having taken this shot.
In the immediate aftermath, Griffin’s corporate sponsors quickly cut their ties. CNN moved to replace her from its annual New Year’s Eve program. Co-anchor Anderson Cooper took to Twitter to express his disgust. Gigs and specials desiccated just like that. And, inevitably, President Trump and the first family took to Twitter to vent their vexations. These included rare remonstrations from the elder Trump sons (including the laconic Eric) and the first lady, Melania. Understandably, this was a family affair and all were upset.
For Griffin, an apology mightn’t have been sufficient, but at the very least it could’ve been a start. By showing she was contrite early, she could have perhaps even saved her face and put herself in the public’s better graces. Maybe that would’ve meant reclaiming a sponsor or two. Instead, she sniffled, let fall a few crocodile tears, and then tore into Trump. She sallied a solipsistic “woe-is-me” assault by saying things like,
“I don’t think I’ll have a career after this…”
“He (President Trump) broke me…”
“They’re trying to use me as a distraction…” and
“A sitting president of the United States and his grown children and the first lady are personally trying to ruin my life forever”.
I’m sorry, the soundbites have confused me. Who is the victim again? Her apology was pitiful, petulant, and just downright annoying. I will say though, that much of comedy is irony, and little is as ironic as a woman whose career built on incessant, idle chatter is being felled by the silence of a photo.
Does the fault lay with Griffin and Griffin alone for thinking this humorless and odious image was okay? It most certainly does. But it must be pointed out that President Trump provides comedians with a challenging task. Perhaps this is because not long ago, he was one of them—a reality TV star jostling for face time and ratings among other stars. This is a role he relished, and one that’s since become sewn into his DNA. In all forms of media—from television, to newspapers, and magazines—he was ridiculed as often as he was revered. On one night, millions would be dreaming to be him after watching Celebrity Apprentice. On the next, millions more would be reaming into him and making him a mockery on Comedy Central’s “roast”. It made for a strange baseline from which to judge and treat the civilian Donald Trump, it’s been made all the more difficult to figure out how to deal the president Donald Trump. Because of this, the late-night shows and stand-up specials need to be especially careful in charting a course.
At the end of the day, love him, loathe him, or simply accept him, he is the president of the United States. So long as he calls the White House “home”, he deserves respect. You don’t need to agree with his personality, his vagaries, or his policy, but he does steer the nation from a hallowed seat. This in itself deserves an iota of courtesy. At the same time, I don’t want free speech—whether it be incisive or comedic—to be stifled. Ribald raillery should always have its place and, if I may offer a solution, “coarse courtesy” toward the president might be the way to go. We’ll only know for certain when the next line is crossed.