Kathy Griffin Suffers The Comedy Consequences For a Joke She Can't Defend

Great comic talents not only cross the line, they move well beyond it into new terrain.
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As a stand-up who has had tomatoes hurled at him by a displeased audience during his act ― and, in the interests of full disclosure, the tomatoes were followed by mixed salad greens and a lounge chair (no kidding) ― I can’t help but feel empathy for Kathy Griffin, or any comedian, who inadvertently pisses off their audience.

There is a big difference, however, between how I bombed and how Kathy Griffin bombed with her ill-conceived severed Trump-head photo. Bombing before a live audience solely because you’re not funny, as I did, isn’t anywhere near as disturbing as bombing before a global audience because you’re not funny and socially tone deaf, and/or crassly insensitive to a marginalized or victimized group.

At the risk of stating the obvious: A comedian who doesn’t transgress by “crossing the line” ― whatever and wherever that ever-shifting line may be ― isn’t a very good comedian. Great comic talents not only cross the line, they move well beyond it into new terrain.

Think Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Louis CK and Jerrod Carmichael, to name a handful of superb comedy provocateurs. They have all been unapologetically outspoken, despite offending many people. Also, at one time or another, they have all made even their most ardent fans squirm with jokes that were off the mark.

Offending people becomes a problem for comedians only when they can’t stand by their material. It is worth noting that Stephen Colbert did not apologize, nor should have, for his recent use of the term “cock holster” in a joke referring to what Donald Trump’s mouth is best suited for in relation to Vladimir Putin. Colbert’s language was crass, but his satiric point was spot on. Knowing that, he was able to firmly defend his comedy ground.

Bill Maher was not able to do that in the tense aftermath of 9-11 when he observed, “Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” However, in his Mea culpa he admitted no error in judgement: “I offer my apologies to anyone who took it (what he said) wrong.” In other words, “don’t blame me.”

What makes Kathy Griffin’s situation substantively different is that, upon further review, she agrees with her critics that her joke was deeply offensive and without merit. That being the case, she felt compelled to post an on-camera apology, in which she admitted with much embarrassment, “I went way too far.”

That doesn’t mean that Kathy Griffin is a bad person, a lousy comedian, or sick in the head; it just means that she made a made a terrible comedy decision, which is humbling, humiliating and potentially career-threatening. Just ask Michael Richards.

NBC via Getty Images

Does anyone know what the former “Seinfeld” star is up to these days? Sadly, he is as much remembered for his memorable portrayal as “Kramer” as he is for his infamously awful stand-up rant at the Laugh Factory in 2006 that devolved into racist tirade. A shell-shocked Richards went on “The Late Show” to tell David Letterman that he was “deeply, deeply sorry,” and years later confessed that the incident had “broke him down.”

Gilbert Gottfried’s career has recovered from his stupefying lapse of comedy judgement in 2011, when in the aftermath of a horrific tsunami in Japan, he posted a series of highly offensive tweets which cost him his gig as the voice of the Aflac Duck. When even Gilbert can’t defend a joke, you know it’s over the line. “I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my attempt at humor regarding the tragedy in Japan,” he said in a statement.

In 2007, Don Imus lost his job at MSNBC after referring to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” It took him a few days, but he finally came around to admitting, “Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, and we are sorry.”

Also very sorry that same year were Opie and Anthony for airing the crude comments of a homeless man who expressed interest in having sex with Condoleezza Rice, Laura Bush and Queen Elizabeth: “We apologize to the public officials for the comments that were made on our show.” Yeah, right.

Kathy Griffin is hardly the first comedian to totally misread the culture and lose her job, and she certainly won’t be the last. Insult comedians, edgy political satirists and shock jocks build careers on their outrageous fearlessness. They all want to “cross the line,” yet somehow remain within the bounds of cultural acceptability. The problem with that is it’s not always possible.

As a comedy writer and performer, I frequently ask myself, have I pushed the proverbial envelope too far, or not far enough? I make my best guess, but ultimately it is the audience that decides.

For what it’s worth, in my 40 years in comedy I have learned at least one thing: When being bombarded by tomatoes, leave the stage quickly, if for no other reason than to get a new shirt. And then, get back out there with new stuff, which is exactly what Kathy Griffin is going to do.

Joe Raiola is Senior Editor of MAD Magazine and Producer of the Annual John Lennon Tribute in NYC. He has performed his solo show, “The Joy of Censorship” in over 40 states.