Al Franken; Bill Maher; Kathy Griffin (Getty Images)

Off-color, off-brand: What Kathy Griffin's and Bill Maher's gaffes have in common

2 comedians and 2 different gaffes enable us to witness the power of a star's brand

Melanie McFarland
June 6, 2017 11:30PM (UTC)

It almost sounds like the setup to a bit. Within the last two weeks three comedians — Kathy Griffin, Bill Maher and Bill Cosby — have been making headlines, seemingly for very different reasons. Two out of the three have something more obviously in common that’s worth diving into here than the third, and no, I’m not talking about the fact that two of the offending parties happen to be men named Bill.

Cosby, it’s well-known, is in the midst of an assault trial underway in Pennsylvania, having been accused of criminal acts far graver than the venal sins Griffin and Maher committed. Those two merely offended vast swaths of people because of what they said and did.


Griffin and Maher, however, violated a crucial unspoken law dominating the American paradigm these days, and it is this: In a single moment, each of them careened off brand, and the way each is separately paying for such a misstep provides an object lesson in cultural hypocrisy.

And yes, this is a story that can easily be explained by viewing each situation through the prisms of gender and political affiliation. Griffin went head-on at President Donald Trump last Tuesday when a photo of her holding a bloodied mask of Donald Trump began circulating, causing an uproar. Griffin tweeted an apology in a short video released on social media that same afternoon. Days later she and her lawyer held a debacle of a press conference where she said that she’s received death threats and admitted, “I don’t think I’ll have a career after this. I’m going to be honest; he broke me.”

That may not prove to be true in the long run, but the immediate fallout includes CNN’s firing Griffin from co-hosting its New Year’s Eve broadcast, a gig she’s had since 2009. The remaining dates on her national tour have been canceled. Even Minnesota's Sen. Al Franken, himself a veteran of comedy, rescinded an invitation for Griffin to appear at a promotional event for his upcoming book.

Maher, meanwhile, decided he had enough cred to offhandedly drop the N-bomb in conversation on his HBO series “Real Time with Bill Maher.” In reply to Rep. Ben Sasse’s friendly invitation to “work in the fields” of his fair state of Nebraska, Maher said, “Senator, I’m a house n****r.” When a few members of the audience groaned in disbelief, the host attempted to defuse the situation with “Oh, it’s a joke.”

Nothing starts trouble like a bad joke, as we see here and have witnessed many times before. Maher himself is the veteran of a career tumble from what was once seen as a great height. Six days following the 9/11 attacks, as he was hosting his ABC series “Politically Incorrect,” Maher said of the terrorists who committed the atrocity, “We have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building — say what you want about it, [it’s] not cowardly."

ABC canceled that show a few months later, in July 2002. Here we are 15 years afterward, and Maher still has a taste for his own foot. Franken backed away from a planned appearance on “Real Time” as well — another triumph Maher can laugh about with Griffin over drinks someday.


This controversy, however, will not break Maher. Instead it will enable him to make hay while the epithetical sun is shining. Friday’s telecast of "Real Time" will include interviews with academic and progressive author Michael Eric Dyson, rapper and film star Ice Cube and liberal activist Symone Sanders.

Any and all of whom can be expected to graciously drag him on why it’s not OK for him to say that word, regardless of how many African-American women he’s plowed in his off-hours. Viewers will tune in, have the chance to watch Maher weakly attempt to defend dropping that epithet casually and on the air — again — and then everyone will move on.


On the other hand, Griffin attempted to play a game that would be considered high stakes for a seasoned political comedian, and political comedy is not her brand. No, she’s the comic who makes punchlines out of being celebrity adjacent.

Griffin became a star by celebrating her status as a supposed D-lister, in fact, building her image around being a sort of bargain-bin, almost famous figure. In doing so, she made herself America’s gossip. She’s the woman who may be fun to sit next to at a stuffy reception, but not everyone would want to have her over for dinner. You know she’ll go through your medicine cabinet and make jokes about your prescription creams over dessert — at someone else’s house.

In 2016 she even published a book titled “Kathy Griffin’s Celebrity Run-Ins,” in which she dishes about the likes of  Leonardo DiCaprio, Kendall Jenner, Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars. “Who would imagine that Kathy was an extra in a Michael Jackson commercial (guess which one)?” gushes the book’s write-up on Amazon. “That she and Salman Rushdie trade celebrity stories? That Donald Trump once drove Kathy and Liza Minelli around on a golf cart?”


See, that’s how we expect Griffin to weigh in on Trump. Not with ketchup-soaked masks. But political comedy is hot right now. Griffin saw an opportunity, took a swing and missed — terribly. Worse, she blew her mea culpa, first in her unvarnished Twitter video, which met with a mixed response, and then in her press conference.

Griffin’s career may not be as broken as she claims it to be. Rather she simply joins a long line of female performers, comics in particular, who are driven into the wilderness by pitchforks for various reasons. That’s the problem with being a Hollywood comedian who works the big stages instead of the small rooms, carrying the sort of old-school comedy torch once borne by Joan Rivers (who had plenty of experience in being hated during her time) and sustaining the level of tarnish once suffered by Roseanne Barr, a serial committer of un-P.C. gaffes in her heyday.

Maher will get away with casually blurting out an epithet because he’s spent decades telling us that this is who he is. His identity was in the name of his ABC show and is on display every week on HBO. He has never implied that he was anything other than who he is.


But make no mistake: Maher will also get away with it because he is a male celebrity with a potent, wealthy media apparatus invested in helping him help his audience to move on. Never mind that Maher violated one of the basic laws of comedy by using his privilege as a famous, wealthy white guy to punch down while Griffin punched up, albeit off balance. He’ll take his beatings with that trademark smug grin of his, maybe turn it into one of his “New Rules,” and his mouth will continue to run, occasionally writing checks he’s in no position to cash.

And why not? The industry and a compliant public allowed Cosby’s career to flourish in spite of longstanding rumors about a string of sexual assault allegations. Who would believe America’s Dad, the nice goofy comedian who works clean and sold Jell-O Pudding Pops, could be a rapist? That’s off-brand.

Our president, too, is a triumph of branding. He sold enough Americans on the myth that he’s a wildly successful businessman, an expert in “The Art of the Deal” (the title of a book he didn’t actually write) and the hard-nosed negotiator they watched for years on NBC’s “The Apprentice,” to secure him the White House. We love a strong brand.

Griffin’s isn’t nearly as fierce, but it does have its fans. A number of celebrities have come to her defense, including Jim Carrey and Jerry Seinfeld. Griffin might also take heart at the news that after Barr spent so many years in a state of ignominy, “Roseanne,” the show that made her a household name, is being revived. Of course, “Roseanne” happens to be a show that occupies a vaunted position in television history, which helps her case.


With time, the anger will die down and Griffin, too, can position herself for a tremendous comeback. In the interim, though, it may help for her to not be silent and to acknowledge what has worked for her. Not everybody loves her shtick, but at least we all got the joke.

Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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