Kathy Griffin, Bill Maher: Different 1st Amendment Lessons

@THE GUSS REPORT-Kathy Griffin, the embroiled Primetime Emmy- and Grammy-winning comedian learned an important lesson about the 1st Amendment last week.


With few exceptions, like yelling “fire” in a crowded room, one thing it gives us is freedom of speech. But it neither affords freedom from the perfectly legal consequences of exercising it, nor do those consequences apply evenly to everyone. 

A few days ago, the zany button-pusher, whose television credits include memorable appearances on Seinfeld, made an ill-advised career decision by doing a grotesque stunt with a decapitated image of President Donald Trump. The backlash was swift, hard and condemned by many, even on the left, including Chelsea Clinton, Senator Al Franken (a former comedian, himself), Griffin’s long-time New Year’s Eve co-host Anderson Cooper, and their employer, CNN, which promptly ended its relationship with Griffin, as did other sponsors of hers. Remaining dates on her stand-up tour have been canceled. 

Somewhere therein, Griffin almost immediately did the right thing by offering a curt but direct and unequivocal apology. No make-up, no veneer, no kidding around. Had she stuck with that, and disappeared for a while, she may have been fine. 

But just a few hours later in front of a media scrum in the office of a law firm infamous for exploitiveness, Griffin made a worse decision by doubling-down on the mistake and blaming her troubles on the triple-play of ageism, racism and sexism, suggesting that she is in a war against “old white men,” and not just Trump, but studio and network executives, too. Her troubles were caused by them, not her, she suggested. 

What Griffin actually accomplished was the nearly impossible; she made one of the world’s least sympathetic people, President Trump, a boor by most reasonable standards, seem worthy of sympathy, at least for a moment, and then blamed him for her world collapsing. Ah, victimhood! The real reason for Griffin’s troubles is that she forgot that the 1st Amendment isn’t a pure and absolute concept. She forgot context, circumstances, degree and judgement. 

Making a bad situation worse for Griffin, her attorney Lisa Bloom, the daughter of attorney Gloria Allred, attempted to justify Griffin’s actions by prattling all of President Trump’s offenses and vulgarities going back 18 months and beyond. Bloom also talked of other famous men who had graphic and disturbing performances, but didn’t apologize for them like her client did for hers. But in doing so, Bloom erased the good that Griffin accomplished by apologizing from the get-go. 

Though Bloom’s timing and excuses were ill-advised, she made a good point. A few hours after the press conference, comedian Bill Maher referred to himself as a “house n_ _ _ _ r” on his HBO show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” in response to his guest, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse innocently inviting Maher to help do some work “out in the field.” Maher apologized and may or may not pay as heavy a price, if he pays any, as Griffin. 

But the reason why Maher may sidestep the same severe consequences that hit Griffin is that his was a knuckleheaded comment made off-the-cuff, while Griffin’s was completely staged. Plus, Maher, whose humor may be generally seen as more urbane than Griffin’s – at least prior to last week – is at the prime of his career, while Griffin is long-past hers. 

Maher is also a controversy survivor who may provide a roadmap to recovery for Griffin.

Just days after the 9/11 attacks, Maher stated on an earlier incarnation of his HBO show (then known as “Politically Incorrect” on ABC) that the terrorist hijackers were “not cowards” because they died in the jets they crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, while the U.S. military was cowardly because they “lobbed cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away.” Advertisers immediately pulled out and Maher’s show was canceled, but he survived and reincarnated himself on his now long-running HBO show. 

Griffin, at her press conference, vowed to double-down on making fun of Trump, stating nobody is going to stop her from doing so, though she didn’t show how anyone has tried to do that. Market forces appear to be the cause of her sudden dearth of work. Ironically, her IMDB page says Griffin “has a strict no-apology policy.” 

Journalist Dan Rather and actor Michael Richards are two others who lost everything when they took the 1st Amendment for granted. They are both still around, but only on the periphery of the fame, money and influence they each once had. Where Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher wind up a year or a decade from now remains to be seen.

(Daniel Guss, MBA, is a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has contributed to CityWatch, KFI AM-640, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Magazine, Movieline Magazine, Emmy Magazine, Los Angeles Business Journal and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter@TheGussReport.  Verifiable tips and story ideas can be sent to him at TheGussReport@gmail.com. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CityWatch.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.