Kathy Griffin ‘Decapitated’ Donald Trump. Will Hollywood Welcome Her Back?
A year and a half after her notorious Trump photo, Griffin premieres a concert film about the experience. Hollywood still won’t take her back, she tells us. What will it take?
Kathy Griffin was spiraling. It was the most nuclear moment in the fallout from her now-infamous Donald Trump photo shoot: The outspoken comedian staring into the lens while holding a Trump mask covered in ketchup, looking like she was presenting his decapitated head. The backlash arrived at light-speed.
People from both sides of the aisle lambasted her. Talking heads nearly exploded on cable news. Her comedy tour was canceled. CNN fired her from its popular New Year’s Eve telecast. She lost every endorsement deal she had, even as the spokesperson for Squatty Potty.
Trump and his family came after her, with the president himself tweeting, “Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself. My children, especially my 11 year old son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!” That ignited an online harassment campaign that led to millions of death threats. She was put on the no-fly list and investigated by the Department of Justice, faced with the real possibility of being charged with conspiracy to assassinate the president.
Her own mother called her hysterical, thinking that her daughter had joined al Qaeda.
To this day, Griffin says she doesn’t have a single paid day of work ahead of her. “I know what it’s like to have your whole life blow up in 12 hours,” she tells me.
At a particularly low point, she went outside to her backyard. Exasperated and emotional, she looked up. There, perched in a tree on the other side of the fence, naked as the day she was born save for a pair of high-fashion stiletto heels, was Kim Kardashian. The mega-celebrity’s nude treetop photo shoot was somehow the least crazy thing Griffin was confronted with that day.
“I’m so committed, I moved in next to my act,” Griffin likes to joke about her real-life next-door neighbors, the Kardashian-West family, and frequent targets of her stand-up comedy.
While their voices may have been drowned out by the outrage, Griffin did have her supporters. Kardashian would frequently text to check on her, and Griffin was actually dining with Kris Jenner and Melanie Griffith when the scandal first broke. Most touching to her, though, was when Jim Carrey reached out.
“Kathy, today, you’re the most famous comedian in the world,” he told her. “You’re going to take as long a time as you need to process [this], then you’re going to put it through your Kathy Griffin comedy prism, you’re going to make the story funny and relatable, and then you’re going to go tell it.”
One year and seven months after taking the photo that changed her life completely, that’s just what she’s done.
“I’ve gotten older and give less fucks…”
We’re in Griffin’s hotel room in Austin, Texas, where she is one of buzziest guests at the South by Southwest film festival. In addition to giving a keynote talk with Kara Swisher, she’s at SXSW to premiere Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story, a concert film of her stand-up act recounting her experience that she performed on her Laugh Your Head Off world tour.
She financed the film herself, after, despite her stellar track record—two Emmys, a Grammy, and 23 stand-up specials under her belt—every network, streaming service, and executive passed on her pitch: a comedy special or reality show in which she recounts the experience of being a target of the President of the United States.
What happened to her, she says, is historic. “Never in the history of the United States has a sitting president used the power of the Oval Office, the first family, the right-wing media, and the Department of Justice to try to make an American citizen unemployable and uninsurable for an absolute non-threat that was covered by the First Amendment.” She calls it being thrown into “the Trump woodchipper.”
The film blends stand-up comedy with activism. She dishes on funny celebrity encounters she had during the scandal and has some choice zingers reserved for the likes of Anderson Cooper, her former friend who abandoned her after the photo published. But she also becomes emotional while recounting how her sister would receive death threats to her hospital bed at the oncology ward right up until the day she died, or how unsettled her mother was to be targeted as well at her retirement village.
She goes into detail about what it’s like to be the subject of a Department of Justice investigation, recalling the experience of being detained at airports everywhere she flew and submitting to an interrogation that, if she said the wrong thing, would end with her in handcuffs. Mostly, it’s a rallying cry to protect the First Amendment and keep what happened to her from happening to another citizen, famous or otherwise. “Not on my watch!” is a repeated refrain, earning raucous applause each time.
Her dream is for the film to serve as a backdoor pilot of a docuseries that would reveal more of her Laugh Your Head Off set, which ballooned to over three hours by the end of its run, as well as what she describes as “gritty and too-real” footage of her breakdowns and anxiety attacks during the tour. But her tour was a hit and, face to face, people have been extra warm and kind.
“I think there’s a sense that people are getting that this isn’t America,” she says. “Regardless of me or the photo, I hoped people would realize that sooner. Very slowly, more Americans are realizing that this isn’t how we roll and that this is truly a slippery slope.”
As it stands, the film has no distribution and she wonders if anyone will actually pick it up. Because she doesn’t have an agent, she’s not even aware if distributors were going to come to the SXSW screening. She may have sold out a world tour, but she returned to the States confronted by a disappointing truth: In Hollywood, she’s still persona non grata. “Here’s something I learned from this experience: It turns out there is such a thing as bad publicity,” she jokes.
“There was such a disconnect,” she tells me. “I’m selling out the Sydney Opera House, and I’m not even on TV anymore. I sold out Carnegie Hall in 24 hours. I started just DM-ing showrunners and literally saying, ‘Can you just give me five lines? I need America to know that I’m not in ISIS and didn’t decapitate anybody.’ The answer has been no. I’ve reached out to so many people. I can’t do it anymore.”
Six months after the photo was taken, a friend of Griffin’s called the head of one of the biggest Hollywood agencies asking if he would be interested in representing her. “Kathy Griffin?” he said. “That’s a ‘life’s too short’ situation.” She was devastated. A month later, the friend called the same agent and said, “What if I bring you a guy who’s made $75 million over his career to be your client. What would you call that?” The agent was ecstatic: “I would call that a high-priority client.” The friend then told him the client was Kathy Griffin. The agent said absolutely not.
Griffin wishes she could be surprised.
She tells me it’s the same agent who, 20 years ago, turned her down because her nose was too big. “I’ve had agents say to me, oh my god you’re the funniest one, but we’re going to go pretty. I have a lifetime of guys saying that right to my face. And you’re in an environment where you can’t say go fuck yourself. You have to say, ‘Well that’s interesting feedback.’ Now I’ve gotten older and give less fucks.”
“I paid the price for something I didn’t do…”
If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that Griffin’s whole career has been preparing her for this moment. “It’s always been a situation where, because of the way I look or I’m too brash or whatever, that I could never get in the front door. From a very early age I tried to figure out how I can get in the side window.”
When she first started out, one of her goals was to have a career that wasn’t dependent on a man. The stories that are coming out now as part of the #MeToo movement make her apoplectic.
She brings up the piece Designing Women creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason wrote for The Hollywood Reporter about how, at the height of her success as the biggest showrunner in television, Les Moonves torpedoed her entire career because she wouldn’t succumb to his harassment and abuse of power.
“It was like a virus,” Griffin says. “I was on Suddenly Susan at the tail end of the ‘90s female-driven sitcom heyday. Then all of a sudden it was like schlubby guys with hot wives from Melrose Place. For 10 years! Then guys got into that groupthink of, female-driven projects don’t make as much money.”
She recently saw Moonves, who was forced to resign from CBS and denied his severance following allegations of sexual misconduct, having lunch at the Polo Club in New York City. The hostess tried to seat her at a booth next to him. Loud enough for the whole restaurant to hear, she said, “May I have a different booth? I don’t want to sit next to a rapist.”
“I’m sure it offends people, but this is why I brag that I’ve made $75 million over my career,” she says. “I’ve worked for every Fortune 500 company and every network and studio you can name. I’ve done Super Bowl commercials. I’ve done all this stuff. To have it all vanish overnight because of a really B.S. reason. If I had really threatened the president, I would obviously own up to it. But I paid the price for something I didn’t do.”
She knows people are interested in details about the threats and attacks she received during the whole ordeal, but it’s important to share the stories about agents, how she’s been treated on the business side, and the fact that she’s facing the reality that she may never have a paid day of work again in her life—all over an attack on her First Amendment rights. That should be the kind of frightening prospect everyone can relate to, not just, as she says, “Hollywood lefties.”
“I want to lean into that stuff, find other like-minded people and try to grow from there,” she says. “Because I’m not going to convince the other team. I’m not going to convince executives saying no until they get fired for pulling their dick out in a meeting.”
“Feckless cunt had it coming…”
A major arc in Hell of a Story has Griffin recounting her experience at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last year, where Michelle Wolf’s roast of the Trump administration irked conservatives so much that no comedian was hired for this year’s event and Wolf, in ways not dissimilar to what happened to Griffin, received targeted harassment. Griffin was in the room. The set killed, and she won’t hear otherwise.
She also staunchly defends Samantha Bee against the calls to have her TBS series canceled over a joke she made about Ivanka Trump. “Feckless cunt had it coming,” Griffin says. “It doesn’t matter how you feel about her or Trump, the president shouldn’t be deciding the programming you get to watch.”
There’s undeniable misogyny she sees in what happened to her—Johnny Depp, Morrissey, and Peter Fonda, all who allegedly threatened the president, weren’t subjected to what she was—and she refuses to let it happen to another female comic.
“I am hoping, frankly, more women come around, because, and this is not going to be popular, it’s that dark side of feminism: When the chips are down, bros before hos,” she says. “Guys still stick together like cops. Republicans are like that, too. Women, when the chips are down, we tend to fracture. When I read that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump…I’m not even talking to white bitches anymore. What the fuck is wrong with them?”
She wants to continue the conversation she hopes Hell of a Story sparks with a public speaking tour—and then maybe another world comedy tour after that. Maybe one of the meetings she has will finally, after 19 months, result in a “yes.” She has no plans to water down her speech in order to make that happen.
In the film, she talks about her stressful DOJ interrogation, which her lawyer prepped her fastidiously for in order to, you know, keep her out of jail. There was one question that they hadn’t practiced. She was asked, “What would you say to the president if he walked through the door?”
She flashed back to a conversation she once had with Martha Stewart, who was publicly bullied by Trump after she took over The Apprentice. Griffin had asked her a similar question. So in the interrogation room, she summoned Stewart’s response: “I would say hello.”
In the hotel room where we are speaking now, however, there are no DOJ officials. So what would she really say to Trump if he walked through the door?
“‘Go fuck yourself. Get out of my room, you piece of shit,’” she responds, not skipping a beat. “Actually, that’s a little soft. I’m having dinner with Stormy Daniels Monday. I’d probably be like, ‘Ugh, leave your mushroom dick in the hall you piece of shit.’ We could do this all day. I could whip off 50 of these. If I do Us Weekly’s ‘25 Things You Didn’t Know About Me,’ it should be ‘25 Things I Would Say to Trump If He Walked in This Room.’”