Kathy Griffin made $75 million making people laugh. But the phone’s not ringing
Kathy Griffin’s uncle was a bagman. Her cousin was a priest who wore blue eyeshadow. Her favorite writer when she was a girl in Chicago was columnist Mike Royko. He hung up on her twice. But she never shut up, she just kept talking, telling stories, especially to the Bowens, who lived next door. They served cookies while Griffin dished family secrets and her mother, who enjoyed an occasional highball, watched in alarm.
Griffin has made a career out of speaking her mind. Her stand-up acts burst and flash like mortar rounds. But it’s quiet these days in her big house in the Bel-Air hills. There is no work. Griffin has always worked. She’s old school, played Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall. She has two Emmys in her foyer. She made $75 million making people laugh. But the phone’s not ringing and the silence skims bone.
It’s been two years since she raised a Halloween mask smeared with ketchup that depicted the severed head of President Trump. The picture went viral. It shocked everyone from Sean Hannity to Anderson Cooper. She was vilified by the right and abandoned by Hollywood. The tabloids compared her to a terrorist. Strangers spat at her; friends disappeared. Death threats poured in, and the feds advised her not to stand too close to her mailbox.
“I’m still totally blacklisted,” she said the other day, sitting in a red dress and taking stock of how a woman who starred on Bravo’s “My Life on the D-List” fell precipitously to the “S” list. “No agency will touch me. No network will touch me. No streaming service will touch me. Nobody. And yet, I’m an earner. I’ve made them all money, and I’ll make them money again. I have to dig myself out of this hole.”
Her new documentary, “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story,” is the tale of a pilloried woman who fights back. It is raw, vulgar and smart. The film, which premiered at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival and opens July 31 for a one-day showing in 700 theaters, follows the comedian on her 2017-18 tour to Asia, Australia, Europe and America, where her stand-up acts detailed how she was investigated by the federal government, turned into a pariah and thrown into the conservative social media “wood chipper.”
The lead-up to the film comes as President Trump has been criticized for tweeting that Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts should “go back” to the countries they came from. Democrats condemned the tweet as racist and a troubling sign of Trump’s attitude toward women who challenge him. Griffin knows about that.
She weeps at moments in “A Hell of a Story,” a comedian shattered by the forces against her. But most of the film is her on the offensive, evoking civil rights and the First Amendment, attacking Trump, befriending Stormy Daniels, comparing Ivanka to “a bag of Xanax” and mentioning Jared Kushner as “soon to be imprisoned.” She mocks Trump supporters for sending her Bibles while also wanting to shoot her. She laughs that many of the death threats she received were mailed with return addresses.
It is quintessential Griffin, a tough, Catholic-raised redhead from Chicago with a sharp tongue and a pugilist’s glare. Middle finger raised, cuss words flying. Her comedy is abrasive; she takes down celebrities with cutting glee. She has angered many — “I’m an acquired taste” — and her critics believe the Trump photo stunt brought her what she deserved. But there’s a street kid’s veracity to her, much of it coming from her father, who told her long ago: “Kathy, don’t take any crap from those people. I don’t care if you ever work again.”
She still books stand-up gigs. She’s been invited on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” But there have been no big TV or film deals. Many in the entertainment industry feel the photograph exploited terrorist iconography that should never be invoked against a president. The image recollected how much Sept. 11, 2001, reconfigured America’s politics and anxieties, even though school shooters and white gunmen are more pressing threats these days than Middle East jihadists.
Griffin is viewed as either a cautionary tale or a heroine in our seething times. She keeps a picture of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in her downstairs bathroom — a sly aside to unwanted snooping — and has endured the onslaught of the Trump administration and a conservative media machine that thrives on spectacle and excoriating opponents. But even those who had admired her comedy over the years have misgivings.
“I had the option to buy her film and passed,” said Brian Volk-Weiss, head of the production company Comedy Dynamics. “I dislike Trump. I think he might be doing permanent damage to the United States. That being said, I thought what she did was disgusting. I don’t think it was funny in the slightest.” Volk-Weiss said he struggled over his decision but ultimately turned down the documentary because he was worried “she’d say or do something horrible in the midst of doing PR for the film.”
Even so, Volk-Weiss agrees with Griffin when she describes herself as an earner. “I guarantee you we walked away from a lot of money. The people that love her and respect what she did with the Trump head are passionate. ... When she’s not doing politics,” he said, “she’s hysterical, absolutely one of the funniest people who’s ever lived.”
Griffin’s front door opens to a view of a pool that shines over a canyon of chaparral and scrub. Gusts stiffen and fade, the sky is hard and clear. Kim Kardashian used to live next door. She signed Griffin’s guest book: “Sorry for the view! My naked spray tans in the middle of the night are a fun sight LOL.” Hanging nearby is a portrait of Griffin painted by Erik Menendez, who with his brother, Lyle, is serving a life sentence for murdering their rich parents.
“He’s a fan,” she said.
Publicists and managers have told her to soften a bit, play a sitcom mom. “That’s not what bought this house,” she said. Her blue eyes flashed. Her disdain for Trump glittered. She said she wanted to shame him for what she called his misogyny and racism, and for disgracing the presidency. The severed head photo was in part a response to Trump’s 2015 comments that former Fox News host Megyn Kelly “had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
“My stunt was on brand,” said Griffin. “I knew it was a strong statement. I also know about the history of that kind of imagery and comedians taking those leaps and going to drastic measures. The photo was pre-Harvey Weinstein and pre-MeToo. It was still a time when it was easier to dog pile on a woman and someone like me. What surprised me most about the blowback was all the people who forgot about the eight years of Barack Obama depicted in a noose. Obama on a cross. Obama with his head cut off.”
Griffin found support the other day when she appeared on “The Boxer Podcast,” hosted by former Sen. Barbara Boxer and her daughter, Nicole. Barbara Boxer said that when she first saw the severed head gag she thought, “Oh, my goodness, that was rough.” But she added that the pressure against Griffin by the Trump administration “shows the power of the federal government. It shows the fragility of the First Amendment. I was totally stunned by what happened to you.”
Griffin is taut and swift, gut-driven and fearless. A news junkie, she can speak about down-ballot voting and the latest atrocity in Yemen. She is easy to laugh with but not always easy to like. She is keen to camera angles and lighting, and especially these days demands firm control of her image. Hide the wrinkle, disguise the blemish, but keep nicking boundaries and never waver. That is what will bring her back from the strange wilderness she has been wandering the last two years.
“I’m very aware that this situation would have not been the same for Gwyneth Paltrow or Ellen DeGeneres, someone who’s beloved and blond. All the things I’m not. I’ve been poking the bear in my comedy for a while, and this was a way for people to put me in my place. That is painful for me to think that I engender in people when I’m just trying to make them laugh. But I think that’s a reality.”
Rise to first chair
Griffin’s career started at Groundlings, an improvisational comedy troupe. She appeared in “ER,” “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and was the comic sting in “Suddenly Susan,” which starred Brooke Shields and ran on NBC from 1996 to 2000. Her stand-up comedy has included HBO and Bravo specials and shows for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. She has dated doughnut shop managers, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who took her to dinner with the cast of “Reservoir Dogs.”
Her quips have gotten her into trouble over the years. Her 2007 acceptance speech at Creative Arts Emmy Awards satirized celebrities who thank Jesus for their prizes: “I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. ... Suck it, Jesus. This award is my god now.” The Catholic League called the comments blasphemous.
Griffin performed a concert recently at Largo at the Coronet in Hollywood. The crowd was a mix of gay fans (she has long fought for LGBT rights), a scattering of the young, a Debbie Harry look-alike in a pink wig and those in their 50s, who were grayer and heavier than they were when they first followed Griffin in the ‘90s, an era marked by big hair, puffy shirts and glowing pastels. Two women took seats and discussed the Mueller report; another scrolled pictures of Jack Nicholson. The lights went down.
Griffin pranced on stage wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt. Her eyes glinted when she edged toward an affront that startled in its audacity and echoed with slivers of truth. She took on everything including the Ridgecrest earthquake, Jeffrey Epstein, Alan Dershowitz, Les Moonves (“I don’t sit near rapists” at the Polo Lounge), “Dateline” and Melania Trump, and she impeccably mimicked Barbra Streisand. She showed a clip of her new documentary and said, “I have to keep up on the Nazis. ... All these nut jobs who come after me.”
She went on for more than an hour and, with a notebook full of typed lines and scribbles, could have played till the wee hours.
“It’s pretty amazing to come back after everyone dumped her,” said Christina Menor, an anesthesiologist who was in the crowd. “She wasn’t treated fairly for the offense. It was very frustrating. I’ve been a fan for 15 years. She’s real, honest and relatable.”
Two days later, Griffin walked into her home office, where a likeness of Joan Rivers, the first woman to host a network late-night talk show, hung on a wall. She also reveres the “Mary Tyler Moore Show’s” wisecracker Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper). Acerbic can be clever, but it is a fine, dangerous line, even for those who learn early how to navigate audience sensitivities and a comedy world dominated by men.
“I won’t do second chair on talk shows,” she said. “It’s bad. I admit it. I was second chair for so long, and then I watched my male counterparts who had the same accomplishments, number of HBO specials, ticket sales [get first chair]. When I finally got my shot at first chair, I made a rule that I’m first chair or no chair. I believe that as a female of a certain age if I go back to second chair I’ll never get back. I’d rather sit home.”
The wind stilled. The moon was gathering. The cameramen had left. Two dogs padded over the marble floor and into the kitchen. It was quiet.
“Trump is going to go down in a spectacular way,” she said. “It’s a fascinating time to be alive.” She stood, smoothed her red dress and with old-school grit plotted her way back.
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