The secret to Kathy Griffin's comedy is the fact that she feels like a friend -- a hilarious friend, great at storytelling, who can recount an episode of ''Oprah" and have us rolling on the floor. That so many of her stories involve encounters with celebrities is almost beside the point; this woman could make her most recent trip to the ladies' room sound rip-roaring.
But nobody's life is as interesting in real time as it is in the retelling, particularly the life of someone who retells with such skill and pitch-perfect timing. So ''Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List," the reality series that premieres tonight on Bravo, almost inevitably falls flat. Griffin isn't a train-wreck like her frequent target, Anna Nicole Smith, or a freak show like Ozzy Osbourne. Her travails, as a minor-league celebrity on a quest for publicity, aren't all that compelling.
And worst of all is the fact that watching the real Kathy makes us less sure we'd want her as a friend. In real life, it turns out, she's not always as funny as she is onstage. In real life, she's sort of a noodge.
Bravo prefaces the series tonight with a stand-up special that explains why Griffin has a certain following. From the start of ''Kathy Griffin Is . . . Not Nicole Kidman," she tears away the artifice around celebrity culture -- pointing out her own fake head of flowing hair, describing the $4,000 rented top she wore to an awards show -- and then goes at the center with sharp teeth. She's all over the idiot banter on award shows and the vapidity of celebrity rivalries, the sudden shift from ''normal Oprah" to ''Ghetto Oprah." Her description of a power-match between Oprah and Barbara Streisand -- ''both strong black women," she says, deadpan -- is pure heaven.
And then, suddenly, we're thrust into the world of real-life Kathy, whose hair is decidedly less coiffed, and whose neuroses tend to overwhelm her observational powers.
The chief conceit is that Griffin, as a demi-celeb, has to constantly work to keep her star afloat, in part by cajoling higher-echelon celebrities into helping her cause. It's supposed to be embarrassing, but in a lovable sort of way; we follow her to an uncomfortable appearance at a Kabbalah book-signing party, see her get the cold shoulder from an ''O.C." star, watch her try to come up with a ploy to get on ''Oprah," (''Do you think it would be weird if I raped [her husband] Matt? That would be unusual.")
Many of the scenes feel self-conscious; you get the sense that Griffin is testing comic material here, and some of it is good. But you also get the sense that the truth is coming out, and it isn't always pretty. For one, it's hard to relate to Griffin's travails when we see her ostentatiously enormous house and her willowy, vaguely masochistic personal assistant.
And while she skewers celebrity culture like few others can, there's an ugliness to the way she exploits it here, viewing a toys for tots fund-raiser as a way to wangle free stuff (''You're raising a lot for charity and maybe you get a free end table") and trying to extort a good deal on a couch by showing off her press clippings.
In her stand-up, Griffin might be able to brush away the ickiness with a well-timed raise of an eyebrow, convince us that it's really all a joke. But here, set in the context of her so-called life, it all looks a little too real.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com