A Touch of Sass
AS A STARSTRUCK PRESCHOOLER, she would drag her family into their suburban Chicago kitchen every Sunday night and make them watch not Ed Sullivan but the The Kathy Griffin Show. In front of a captive audience made up of her parents and four older siblings, the little firecracker would swivel her hips and belt out the theme from Valley of the Dolls ("Gotta get off, Gonna get out of this merry-go-round"). "From 5 years old I wanted to be an actress," says Griffin. "I felt I had a really good act." Her parents weren't so sure. "They were like, 'When are you going to be a dental hygienist? You'll never have to worry about pyorrhea or gingivitis, and you can meet a nice dentist.' "
Fortunately, Griffin stuck to her gums, er, guns. Now, as Brooke Shields's edgy coworker Vicki Groener, the flame-topped comic, 30, brings the bite to NBC's sitcom Suddenly Susan. Shields believes when her sugar-sweet Susan meets Griffin's acid-tongued Vicki, the result is positive chemistry. "Kathy's so bright, and her humor is so on the money," says Shields. "We're a good team because we play opposites." Griffin agrees. "I try to make her laugh and tease her a lot," she says. "It's fun being mean to Brooke."
Punishment—and crime—have long been Griffin pastimes. "I don't know how it started," says Griffin (she attended the 1989 trial of L.A. Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, who was convicted of 13 murders). Griffin, who despises Ramirez, was even questioned about jury tampering after chatting with a woman in the ladies' room who turned out to be a juror. In the living room of her airy L.A. apartment, the coffee table, covered with handcuffs and serial-killer trading cards, is a virtual shrine to mass murderers. But it's Lyle Menendez, whose portrait hangs in her apartment, who has captured her heart. "He's smart and sexy, and I love that he killed his parents who molested him," she says. "I'm into all molestation victims killing their parents." Griffin lost her lust to contact him when he got married last year. "I don't think we'd have enough quality time together anyway," she says.
Not surprisingly, Griffin's parents, John, a retired electronics store manager, and Maggie, a hospital administrator, are "put off" by her obsessions, says Griffin, who nonetheless insists her often dark humor came from observing her family as a kid in Oak Park, III. "I come from a veritable Irish Catholic freak show," she jokes. "My parents still think it's the Depression." After she graduated from Oak Park High, the family moved to L.A., and Griffin studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute. In 1988 she joined the Groundlings, an improv group that included Lisa Kudrow, Jon Lovitz and Phil Hart-man. "Kathy's one of the best improvisers I've ever seen," says Janeane Garofalo. "She's queen of the Groundlings."
A switch to stand-up led to "auditions I never got before," she says, referring to roles on ER and Seinfeld and a walk-on in Pulp Fiction. It was her actor pals who told her about Susan. "They were calling me, saying, 'You've got to go audition. This is you,' " says Griffin. They were right. "Once we heard Kathy's voice, the character began to take on her personality," says executive producer Steven Peterman. "She had a brash, tough quality and a vulnerability underneath."
Griffin hangs out with her costars, whom she calls "my big brothers, including Brooke." They in turn treat her like a kid sister and even tease her about boyfriends. Like her TV character, Griffin has bad luck with men. Even her parents aren't optimistic about her latest beau, whom she met at a party but whose name she won't divulge. "They feel sorry for him," she says. One thing is in his favor: He isn't threatened by her crush on Menendez, though maybe he should be. Says Griffin: "I'd be all over Lyle if he were out of prison."
LUCHINA FISHER and SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDINC in Los Angeles