Suddenly Kathy

It's been eight years since Kathy Griffin fell off the B-list when her gig as Brooke Shields' Rhoda equivalent on Suddenly Susan concluded. Since then, she's skated the dangerous edge of celebrity by poking fun at her own flickering fame and shockingly mocking the A-list players. Admit it, Kathy's right: Angelina Jolie's lips do resemble an inflamed anus.

Yet Kathy has become a paradox. She sends up her semi-celebrity on Bravo's Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List. But she won the last Emmy for Best Noncompetition Reality Program, and when she was on a competition reality show, she won $233,000. What kind of a loser owns a phat pad in the Hollywood Hills?

Kathy Griffin Gallery

Notoriously, she lost her E! Network red-carpet commentator gig after she jested that Dakota Fanning was just out of rehab. Now Kathy deploys shock more cannily. She used her Emmy acceptance speech to diss Jesus (and stars who credit Jesus for their awards), knowing it would incite a Christian riot good for massive free PR.

Famed for being a tiny terror, taller than Herve Villechaize and shorter than Michael J. Fox, she's become a titan by taking big risks. People watch her to see what comes out of her uncensored mouth, like "Have you noticed that Renee Zellweger is Asian now?"

She's still funny in her show's fourth season, now that ratings are rising and her standup act sells out halls way bigger than the Hoo-Hah Hut. But she's less mean, and a bit less funny. In New York on New Year's Eve with CNN, she vowed to kiss costar Anderson Cooper's privates when the ball dropped. She didn't repeat her old quip: "I love that Anderson Cooper covered Katrina in Prada. He's like, 'I'm up to my knees in human feces, in Prada.'"

It was amusing when her assistants Tiffany and Jessica did a shot each time Kathy called Anderson "Andy." Jessica did an adorable drunk scene, "hurling in the new year" and murmuring, "Five shots, too many. Four OK. Five not good." Kathy's mom adorably murmured maternally, "Oh, that's OK, that's no crime." Kathy adorably reproved her: "Mother!" Then she accused her mom of hurling on many holidays, probably with box wine.

I adore Team Griffin (Kathy's girly assistants and tour manager Tom Vize, with mother Maggie Griffin as mascot). It was fun to visit Tom's and Tiffany's hometowns. Mother Maggie is almost as good a foil as David Letterman's mom. But Letterman has the power to growl, and Kathy has less comic power the more showbiz power she accumulates. She was pretty funny as a sore loser to Planet Earth at the entertainingly cheesy Producers Guild Awards, which some winners don't even bother to attend. But after ripping her rival show, she flashed a dazzling, cosmetically correct smile to show she was kidding.

Similarly, when she gave Today's Al Roker a rather chaste lap dance and contemplated Al in a three-way with Matt Lauer and Halle Berry, Kathy cutely scrunched her nose to show she didn't mean it. Kathy's platonic courtship of Apple billionaire Steve Wozniak on her reality show lacks any realism whatsoever. Their lack of passion reminded me of the Suri Cruise doll on Conan O'Brien's show: you pull the string and she says, "If you think my delivery was silent, you should've been there for the conception!"

I'm still a Kathy fan. But she's up against an unbeatable challenge: to be a fearless female comic. As SNL pioneer Anne Beatts noted, whenever a woman is funny, people think she's bitchy and tune out. A former Roseanne writer told me she once almost got fired for a joke about a gay housesitter who left a video-store receipt at Roseanne's house; her kid finds it and says, "Wait a minute, it's not called Schindler's Fist!" Enraged by the script, Roseanne allegedly accused the male writers, but didn't think to accuse the female of writing it. "They didn't give me up," says the writer.

Can Kathy stay acerbic and survive her hard-earned success? Stay tuned.