How Kathy Griffin Fought Her Way Back Into the Spotlight
The journeywoman comedian opens up to Marlow Stern about the bloody Trump mask seen ’round the world, the anguish of being a pariah, and ending up back on top.
On the evening of May 30, 2017, Kathy Griffin’s phone began buzzing like a vibrator at maximum speed.
Hours earlier, Tyler Shields, a photographer who trades in empty acts of pop-culture provocation, had leaked an image of his to the gossip site TMZ. It depicted Griffin staring blankly at the camera, her right hand raising a bloodstained mask resembling President Donald Trump. The denouncements were fast and furious: the first son, the first lady, and then the president himself.
“Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself,” he tweeted. “My children, especially my 11 year old son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!”
Griffin, strangely enough, was having dinner with Kardashian momager Kris Jenner and actress Melanie Griffith as the chaos began to unfold.
“Total coincidence,” Griffin recalls. “I’d invited those girls over a month earlier, and I was really grateful because I thought, ‘These two chicks have been through the mill.’”
Jenner, ever the tabloid maestro, suggested a mea culpa. “Just apologize. We go through this all the time.” Griffith, on the other hand, began egging her pal on. “You should do Mike Pence and the whole administration!” In classic Griffin fashion, the comedian floated a $50-an-hour offer to Jenner to serve as her crisis-management rep, which she swiftly declined.
“They were being really good friends and kept saying, ‘You’ll get through this,’” says Griffin.
She almost didn’t. Following the first family’s objections, Griffin’s lawyer informed her that she was under investigation by the Department of Justice for conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States. She lost endorsements, jobs, and lifelong friendships. A tearful apology brought little sympathy. Strangers would approach her on the street shouting, “Traitor!” Even her most liberal of friends took to shaming her in the media. She was persona non grata.
Instead of curling up in a ball, Griffin constructed a stand-up comedy act—some pathos, mostly humor—around her trying ordeal. And, after performing it in several Trump-unfriendly countries, she’s ready to bring the act stateside.
“To be playing Radio City is huge… I’ve never even played it,” Griffin tells me, beaming. “I’m not saying I’m Amy Schumer or Kevin Hart, but as a 57-year-old woman, it’s really nice. You know, what doesn’t kill you makes you funnier.”
For over an hour—or about five hours in Kathy Griffin time—I spoke with the veteran comic about her roller-coaster ride of a year.
You’re pulling off the shaved head look pretty well. I shaved my head once in middle school and it looked terrible.
I’m going for the Mia Farrow look.
You’re kind of living a version of Rosemary’s Baby, so it’s fitting.
And it was covered by the First Amendment, so stop it with the “lock her up,” Sean Hannity! Sean Hannity is obsessed with me. He wrote another blog about me the other day. It’s me, Colin Kaepernick, Jimmy Kimmel, and Michelle Wolf. That’s all he has. And what about how they uncovered that he’s secretly a slumlord? I’m sure those rents are very fair, because Sean really cares about the community. I want something to come out about Sean in the Bill O’Reilly category. He’s gotta pay… That would be a great way for Sean Hannity to go down.
Speaking of O’Reilly, did you see him call Michelle Wolf an extremist for her Correspondents’ Dinner performance? He really needs to delete his Twitter account and go away.
As opposed to you having to pay out all those women you sexually harassed? Enjoy your goddamn mansion, Bill. Plus, I heard he’s touring with Dennis Miller. Ugh.
So you were at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with Michelle. I was very confused by the backlash to Michelle Wolf’s set. It was rather tame for a roast!
Yeah, it was. And honestly, her jokes, you could almost fact-check them. She didn’t go for the jugular but what was interesting was she really quoted them a lot and threw the quotes back in their faces. That’s what I found interesting about the faux pearl-clutching: I was in the back of the room, where I belong, and I’ve played these rooms a bunch of times. It’s a horrible room for comedy because half the people aren’t even facing you—it’s round tables—and people are drinking. A lot of people think a drunk audience is a good audience, but it’s actually the opposite. You want an audience that’s had maybe one glass of wine but you don’t want people so drunk that they start doing stupid shit like the Schlapps did. Those fucking idiots.
That seemed like performative nonsense to me.
And they were the only ones [who left]! I got into a fight with the wife [Mercedes] at the MSNBC party. But anyway, I know the deal, and I thought the program was great. So, she only went at Sarah Huckabee Sanders for a minute and a half, and I’ve never seen anything like this: When she started her routine, the entire dais started giving her this sourpuss face. I used to respect Jon Karl. Jon Karl is someone the president called “stupid” three days prior to that, so I thought that was odd. And the woman who actually hired Michelle, Margaret Talev, told a fascinating story about being the child of Hungarian immigrants, and she got a standing ovation talking about how we’re a country of immigrants. So I thought, OK, this is getting off on the right foot. Plus, there weren’t too many right-wingers there. Wilbur Ross was there, which I thought was just funny. That guy looks like he doesn’t know where he is.
He reminds me of Hans Moleman from The Simpsons.
Yes! He doesn’t even know he has this job! He sits in those meetings and nods off like my dad in church. It’s like, Wilbur, wake up! Have Jared tase you now and again. By the way, Jared is like missing now. Where is he? He’s M.I.A. I’m walking the streets in danger and Jared is in the catacombs. So, the minute Michelle opened her mouth, every face on the dais started giving her a sourpuss face. In my opinion, it had to do with the fact that Michelle looks like someone that is not as white as they’d like her to be. I think they definitely mistook her for African American. And there have only been five women in the history of the dinner who have hosted. Paula Poundstone was the first to host, and she was criticized for her outfit!
And the whole Sarah Huckabee Sanders “smokey eye” thing, I mean, that was not a comment on her “physical appearance,” as many have misstated. It was a cleverly worded joke about how she makes a “perfect smokey eye” out of burnt facts—or lies.
I mean, if that’s where we are, I’ve been called an ugly bald dyke, a cunt, you name it. I would love to be called someone with a “perfect smokey eye!” So, I watched it happen in waves. Michelle starts her set, the dais is looking at her like she’s the enemy, and that energy began traveling like a virus across the room. I could see people that were laughing a minute ago looking over their shoulder.
That can certainly ruin the vibe. But let’s go back to the mask incident.
We got it on Amazon Prime. It was just a mask, and my assistant picked it out.
I thought the head might be the same one that Tyler Shields used in the Marilyn Manson video he directed that was released on the eve of the election, and depicted Manson decapitating Trump. That incident seemed to garner way less backlash than yours.
Maybe that’s where [Shields] got the idea. And you mean none? No backlash? Are you getting to the double-standard part, is that what we’re getting to? [Laughs]
So was this Shields’ idea?
I do believe it was a collaboration. I know he does provocative things, and I truly didn’t think that anyone would make a decapitation or ISIS connection. I’ve performed in Iraq and Afghanistan—two places Trump hasn’t been to or could spot on a map—so that’s why I’ve apologized, for the military. And Rosie O’Donnell called me and said, “What if Daniel Pearl’s mother saw this?” So that’s why I apologized.
I can’t say this enough, whether you believe it or not: I didn’t think anyone would make that connection. The picture went live on TMZ, and I do wish that Tyler hadn’t given it to TMZ of all places, because we now know that Trump is in bed with American Media and it’s my assumption that he’s also in bed with Harvey Levin, because they’re friends and they talk on the phone. How weird is it for a celebrity blogger to be in bed with the president of the United States? It’s so weird. So it’s my assumption that that’s why TMZ, for the first time ever, was broadcasting my tour cancellations date-by-date. And those dates weren’t canceled because of ticket sales; rather, they were canceled because of bomb threats.
So you’re saying that TMZ targeting you came from a TMZ-to-Trump pipeline.
I’m insinuating that, yes. Allegedly. I’m insinuating that the president of the United States is so low that he’d coordinate with the tabloid press. The narrative that got out about me was so insane, and it happened so fast. It was Donald Trump Jr.’s tweet, then Melania’s statement, then…
…On the subject of the Melania statement, she said that their son saw the image of you holding up the mask on television and thought it was his father. That seemed…
…Like a stretch? A bit? Look, the apparatus was there. They’d been doing it all throughout the campaign with “Lyin’” Ted Cruz, “Little” Marco, and all that. But I was the first celebrity where they decided, in Don Jr.’s words, we’re going to “decimate” her. He tweeted that CNN should ban me for life, and I wasn’t even a CNN employee—I hosted a special one night a year—and they did it! They announced that they were banning me for life! I thought, how much capitulating are we going to do here? I’ve never heard of a news organization banning a comedian for life. It really is different. Honestly, there are some of my friends who I don’t want to be photographed with me and post it, because then they’ll get some of the death threats that are all over my timeline. I’m on a brand-new kill list. I just found out. For everyone who’s like, “It’s over! You’ve weathered the storm!” I smile, but inside I’m like, I gotta worry about this kill list thing.
When something like that happens, you find out who your real friends are.
That was fast and furious. I wasn’t Dixie-Chick’d, I was Dixie-Dick’d. The Dixie Chicks had the entire entertainment community wrap their arms around them, feature them as heroines on magazine covers. I had personal friends tweeting against me saying I was ruining the Resistance! And then I had right-wing people saying I was a member of ISIS, because that’s so plausible. Nobody wanted anything to do with me. And then I get a call from my lawyer two days later saying, “The Department of Justice called, and you’re under investigation for conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States.”
What was that like, being under investigation by the DoJ?
That was unique because that’s a whole other level. When my lawyer first told me that, I thought it was a joke. That’s when I brought in Alan Isaacman, who’s my longtime First Amendment attorney. He feels guilty to this day: He was at a funeral when I got Lisa Bloom’d, which was very poor representation, and still apologizes for having his phone off for two days. Isaacman actually won a Supreme Court case, which was Hustler v. Jerry Falwell, and Edward Norton played [Isaacman] in the movie. But we’re talking about two federal agencies—the AUSA and the Secret Service. They threatened to no-knock raid me. They go, “Don’t destroy the evidence. Do you still have the head?” And I go, “It’s not a head!” Matt Lauer called me—I dodged that bullet, right?—and he was reporting on the Today show, “Kathy Griffin was holding up a severed head.” I say this in my act, but really? You thought I had a severed head? Where did I get that, the severed head store?
It really was a Halloween mask, and it really was ketchup. While I’m no Megyn Kelly fan, it was inspired by the “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” Trump line. So, Tyler put it out there, the wall of shit fell on me, and my life was changed forever. That picture will stay with me for the rest of my career. So I said, “Let’s go on the road!” I actually called my stand-up agent at ICM and said, “Can you route a tour on cities where they can’t stand Trump?” And now we’re 15 countries and 23 cities later. Little did I know I’d be detained at every single airport.
Flying is stressful enough. That sounds awful.
So here’s what would happen: They would scan my passport and at every airport the agent’s eyes would widen like pinwheels, they’d take it, call a supervisor, take me into a room, take my passport and my device and leave. And honestly, that’s scary as hell, because you don’t know what they’re doing. This also happened after I was completely exonerated and after my interrogation. So now I’m wondering, “Am I going to be on this list forever?”
Do you think your name might turn up in some of the evidence the feds confiscated from Michael Cohen’s office?
Oh, yes. I honestly think that this came personally from Sessions and Trump. Remember, I’ve known Trump off-and-on for 20 years. I’ve known this fool. The last time I saw him, he put his two fingers together like a sign of the cross and said, “Oh no! Here she comes! Don’t be too hard on me today!” I was on The Apprentice twice, in two challenges. One of the times was to roast him for a “fundraiser.”
And Don Jr. has been accused of having an affair with one of the Apprentice contestants.
Aubrey O’Day! I know. I know. It’s just amazing to me that anybody fucks these guys. I mean, there’s just not enough money in the world! I don’t care how much you want jewelry. I don’t know if they’re indoctrinated, if it’s some Bhagwan Rajneesh cult situation or what. I can’t figure it out!
One of the things that must have been a bummer was the whole falling out with Anderson Cooper.
Fifteen years of friendship.
It seemed to me, from an outsider’s perspective, like Andy Cohen may have played some role in that. Because he got your CNN gig.
Yeah. Also I just wanna say, when is someone going to write the article that no network head who decides the slate—and who fired my ass—gave himself a nightly talk show that he magically picks up every single season? That’s never happened in the history of television. You don’t see Les Moonves Tonight or Bob Greenblatt, Hello! Honestly though, Andy Cohen was just a really brutal boss. I’m proud of My Life on the D-List, my specials there, and my Kathy talk show that was for some reason canceled after two seasons. I don’t talk about Andy Cohen in my show because nobody wants to hear about Andy Cohen. They want to hear about my neighbors, the Kardashians. Did you know that? Kim and Kanye.
It’s pretty funny that Kanye is your neighbor now, because you grew up not too far from where he did in Illinois. You were in Oak Park and he was just across the water in Oak Lawn. You’ve gotta tell Kris to get in his ear a little bit.
Look, I’m doing the best I can in that situation, because it’s minute-by-minute. But one thing I won’t be doing is texting Kanye, because the minute you do he’s going to blast it out on Twitter.
I have this funny thing in my act about a night I spent with Stevie Nicks and Chrissie Hynde, and their advice is hysterical. Chrissie was like, “Do it again!” and Stevie was like, “Now Kathy, I wish you wouldn’t do it, I feel very protective of you.” She’s very nurturing. Some women have literally abandoned me, and with some women it’s been stronger than ever. Out of the blue, I got a lovely call from Jim Carrey, who I don’t even know very well, and he said really prophetic and important things to me, like, “Today, you’re the most famous comedian in the world. Use it. Most comedians I know would give their right arm for this story. You’re not only making jokes about the president, you’ve had the president put his thumb on your life. You can turn this around and make it funny.” So I really took that advice to heart.
So this is totally off-topic, but I’ve always wondered how you ended up in Pulp Fiction.
I was dating him.
Yes! By the way, who didn’t? I think my mom fucked him. Seriously. No, I’m kidding. She didn’t. I didn’t fuck him, actually. But we did cuddle one night. We actually spooned for an entire evening, I’m not kidding. It’s a joke between us that we call “the thing.” I was in the Groundlings and a Kelly Girl temp by day—you’re gonna have to look up Kelly Girl, because it’s so sexist they don’t even have them anymore—and I couldn’t get a job. Quentin humbles himself and comes to my studio apartment. I don’t know why, but I said, “I know you can probably get any girl, so why don’t we just cuddle.” And he goes, “All right.” But then I said, “I gotta be honest: I’m kind of into banging a lot of guys, so can you be cool and tell people we had sex? And say I initiated it and I was on top, but between us we’re always going to call it ‘the thing?’” And he goes, “No problem.” He told me—I think there’s a line in Grindhouse where he wrote “the thing” into the script—and I know he has #MeToo issues, I’m not defending him, but any time a guy gives me the time of day and doesn’t call me an ugly old hag, honestly, it’s meaningful. He would call me when he was writing Pulp Fiction and just read dialogue, and I would listen, sitting there in my $200-a-month apartment. And when I went to the screening, he hadn’t changed a word.
Well hey, you’re in one of the greatest movies ever. That’s pretty cool.
You know, I also dated the Gimp, Steve Hibbert. You think Quentin gave a shit who I fucked on that set? Please. He’s a whore like I am. He’s like the John Mayer of directors. But I’m out of that life now, baby.
Let’s bring it back a bit. You’re on tour now, you’ve got the Radio City and Carnegie Hall shows. You’re back.
Honestly, it’s a miracle I can work again. When you have the president saying, “It’s over, you are never working again,” it’s a miracle. I’m a workhorse. And I’m fortunate that I’ve saved my money, so I had the hundreds of thousands of dollars it cost and didn’t have to do the perp walk, because I didn’t break the fucking law. But it was all about trying to figure out how to pull myself up by the bootstraps. Sorry if people accuse me of whining, but it really was myself.
And you took back your apology to Trump.
Taking back the apology—I will tell you, half of my comedy friends called me that day to yell about it, and I was yelling at people like, “Until you’re under a two-month federal investigation, don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t do!” Like, this is really a whole new level of infamy. But I took it back because it was really directed towards such a narrow group—the veterans. OK, can I brag for a minute?
Griffin shows me her phone. On it is an email to her from Jane Fonda. It reads as follows:
“Dear Kathy, we saw you on The View and we are so proud and happy for you. So happy to see you strong and triumphant over Trump. To have endured this kind of cruelty and come out on top should make you feel righteous and indomitable. We are all so lucky, for now we have you to speak truth to power in a way only you can, especially because you have been put through this Trump tsunami… Love Jane—Lily sends love too.”
This is a really lovely note.
And yes, I cried.
Kathy Griffin is currently on tour. She plays New York’s Radio City Music Hall on June 25 and Carnegie Hall on June 26.