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Kathy Griffin's 'My Life on the D-List' trip to Washington falls flat on humor

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; C01

Kathy Griffin, a relentless publicity seeker who has built her comic persona around seeming less famous than she's actually become, brought her "My Life on the D-List" camera crew to Washington in March to show her support for overturning the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays.

"I'm bringing Chanel and [penis] jokes to Washington," she says in Tuesday night's episode, which airs on Bravo. "It's like a Frank Capra movie."

While here, she meets with congressmen -- Dems Barney Frank, James E. Clyburn, Jared Polis -- and media types, such as married CNN-ers John King and Dana Bash. (There's also a cocktail party with a group that includes a reporter and editor from the Style section.)

Tuesday's episode is worth watching more as an exercise in the meta-rituals of the typical Washington celebrity-advocate visit, and how such photo ops fail to accomplish much. While Griffin's trip feels "behind the scenes," it is in fact just another manufactured scene.

She revels in playing the faux-naif, unaware of the basic branches of government. Thus, King and Bash come by Griffin's room at the Mayflower Hotel, to school her on the concept of a majority whip. (S&M jokes ensue, and fizzle.)

She leads a noontime rally on Freedom Plaza. She is bossed around by staffers at the Human Rights Campaign, who are seen here doing what they do best, which is attempting to micromanage the gay rights movement. "The HRC has been fighting for gay rights since I was calling gay bingo at Hamburger Mary's," Griffin quips, on her way to accept an ally award at one of the group's many fundraising banquets.

If you can't tell so far, the results of her Washington trip fall short on the funny stuff, which isn't surprising, since the show has wobbled for a couple of seasons. "My Life on the D-List" now ironically suffers from Griffin's success on TV and the concert stage, to which her Emmy awards and best-selling memoir attest. The series seems more stagey than ever, as she pretends that fame still eludes her, which is a constant non-complaint she takes to fellow boldface names -- from Bette Midler to Levi Johnston -- who, in turn, pretend to sympathize. Even her octogenarian mother, Maggie, has been commodified into this routine, having just released her own memoir ("Tip It!," referring to the way she drains a box of wine).

So that's the story and Griffin's shtickin' to it.

At HRC's Rhode Island Avenue NW headquarters, Griffin is run through talking points on the DADT debate. Every time she tries to crack a joke, her Washington handlers pretend to glower at her. Accompanied by HRC head Joe Solmonese to Frank's office, Griffin tells the congressman that "I need [DADT] to be repealed by Thursday, because I'm leaving Friday" and if it's not, "that's a bitter pill to swallow."

"My guess, Kathy, is it's not the only pill you've swallowed this week," the Massachusetts congressman replies. The air in the room goes staler than normal.

"It's obvious I'm bombing [with Frank]," Griffin says later. "He doesn't know when 'American Idol' is on? He doesn't care about Liza Minnelli? How is this guy even gay?"

In the car, Griffin tells a Roll Call columnist that she's on her way to "meet with a big queen named James Clyburn." The next day, when Roll Call comes out, the dourpusses at HRC are none too pleased with that quote and ask her to call Clyburn's office and apologize.

It's all theater and the episode pokes along, proving once again the dreary effects that Washington can have on reality TV. Moreover, Griffin's constant jokes about her ardent fan base, "the gays" (as she calls them), start to wear thin. She thinks references to Cher, Liza, bathhouse sex and lesbian golf are still hilarious and fresh. (And why wouldn't she? Everywhere she goes, it seems there are gays and lesbians ready to cackle at her routines.)

At the rally, Griffin is approached by Dan Choi, a gay Army officer and radical opponent to DADT, who asks her if he can come up onstage with her. Once there, he takes the microphone and implores the crowd to walk with him a few blocks to the White House.

"I am in uniform, I am still fighting, I am still speaking out, I am still serving, and I am still gay," Choi declares. "Will you all here join me? Kathy will you go with me?" he asks Griffin, whose face freezes in PR horror.

Griffin answers yes, but she means no. She chooses to stay behind and deliver the crowd a text message she says has just been sent from Cher, which she dangles before everyone like it's gay catnip. Choi marches over to the White House, where he and another soldier handcuff themselves to the Pennsylvania Avenue fence and are promptly arrested.

"Imagine if I had gone," Griffin says. "Two soldiers who have served bravely in silence and one potty-mouthed comedian? It would have looked ridiculous."

What? Kathy Griffin is suddenly afraid to look ridiculous?

Kathy Griffin:

My Life on the D-List

(one hour) airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday on Bravo.

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