If there’s a word to describe Kathy Griffin as she returns to what for her is the normal, hectic life of a stand-up comic it would probably be one that’s suited her for much of her career: defiant.
As a stand-up in the ’80s and ’90s, she was defiant in the face of what was often a boy’s club of comedy, following in the footsteps of her idol Joan Rivers. Her material sped along with a mix of cutting asides and a tell-all honesty about being both an insider and outsider on the celebrity scale that led to her Bravo reality show in the mid-’00s, “My Life on the D-List.”
But she fell from grace last year after participating in a photo shoot in which she held a bloodied Halloween mask of the decapitated head of President Trump. She didn’t think much of it at first until her friend (and fellow Trump target) Rosie O’Donnell told her, “‘Your photo's taking off and people think you're in ISIS,’" Griffin remembers. “Honestly, I went back to bed for two hours thinking she was joking around.”
She soon learned the stunt was no laughing matter. Even many critics of Trump were outraged by the picture, and Griffin became a media pariah. She lost her long-standing hosting gig on CNN’s New Year’s Eve show from Times Square, and even co-host and close friend Anderson Cooper distanced himself from her. She came under the scrutiny of the Secret Service, venues across the country canceled her concert gigs and talk shows shunned her. Her teary apology did little to quiet the uproar, and she claimed that Trump and his supporters had destroyed her livelihood.
“I learned pretty quickly what I had been thrown into. I call it the Trump wood chipper,” she said recently in a Hollywood office of a concert promoter. “I was really the first celebrity to be thrown in the wood chipper. Like, [Trump] had done it throughout the campaign: Lyin’ Ted [Cruz], Little Marco [Rubio]. I should've not been so naive as to not realize how that apparatus was already up and running and so sophisticated.”
More than a year after the incident, Griffin has returned to the show-biz arena, as outspoken and defiant as ever. She will perform July 19 and 20 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood as part of a national tour she’s dubbed “Laugh Your Head Off.”
really the first celebrity to be thrown in the wood chipper. Like, [Trump] had done it throughout the campaign: Lyin’ Ted [Cruz], Little Marco [Rubio]. I should've not been so naive as to not realize how that apparatus was already up and running and so sophisticated.”
In a free-wheeling conversation that’s been edited for length and clarity, Griffin revisits her experiences as public enemy No. 1 and the road back to performing.
It’s been roughly a year since that image of you holding the Trump mask and all the controversy that followed. Looking back, is that time something that makes you angry, or is it more like there were things you’d do differently?
It's more like resolve. I wouldn't change anything. I thought about this a lot at the beginning, like you know, it's the picture heard around the world. Obviously, initially, that was scary, until Jim Carrey said, "You're the most famous comedian in the world today, Kathy," as I was sobbing, "For all the wrong reasons!" Then he said, "Use it." He actually said, "When you come out of this, you're gonna have a story any comedian would give their right arm for."
I definitely had two very rough days in a ball on the floor sobbing. But you know, I'm just so hard-wired to do comedy that right after that I started, you know, spit-balling ideas. Coming up with the tour title “Laugh Your Head Off,” not knowing if I'd ever be able to tour again. Living under the specter of a federal investigation, which went on for two months leading up to a [Secret Service] interrogation where I could have left in cuffs because they were considering charging me with conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States. I was the only woman who was targeted in that way. They didn't do it to Johnny Depp or Snoop or Morrissey. You know, I get it.
It must have felt pretty isolating.
I didn't even leave my house for the first couple months, honestly, because the death threats were so intense. So during a confusing time, you kind of can't stop a comedian from still thinking, “This crazy thing just happened and hopefully in time I'll be able to make it not only funny, but accessible.”
I thought, maybe I could make this funny also while getting a message out. So even in the darkest day when I said, "This could happen to me, it could happen to you." Look at Sam Bee.
How did you go about defending yourself?
I got my real 1st Amendment attorney, Alan Isaacman, who is the actual guy that Edward Norton plays in “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” Because I thought, wait a minute. I want someone who has won a Supreme Court case on behalf of Larry Flynt. That guy should be able to get me exonerated.
So hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees later, he negotiated the interrogation to happen in his office. That was a big moment, because the administration wanted me to do a perp walk, like a criminal. So you know, cut to all the time I was saying, "Love me or hate me, but this is scary stuff that's never happened in this country, not in my lifetime."
Is that part of what drives you as well?
I've always been on kind of a vulgar and profane mission to be a little bit of a role model for younger women, LGBT folks, people that are disenfranchised of any kind.
But now more than ever, I want all those groups of folks that feel anxiety, anything from the Hispanic community not knowing if they're gonna be safe leaving their home to a young female comedian who's heard, "Chicks aren't funny" her whole life, to the person of color who's afraid to get into their vehicle. I thought, all right, things have gotten so crazy it's time to turn that frown upside down and just kind of blow up the whole thing.
By the way, that was not a threat when I said, “blow up.”
You started this tour last year — what was it like getting back to performing?
I'm so grateful that I got to really work on the show overseas. I started in Auckland, New Zealand. Ended up in Reykjavik, Iceland, which in itself is funny. So we now have a government that can drive a comedian to Reykjavik to make a living or tell a joke.
I actually like explaining the whole process to the audience, because, No. 1, I'm gratified and grateful. They actually want to hear it. Like, they want to hear the down and dirty stuff about the actual interrogation. They also want to hear about how my mother has a new dog that's 9 years old and I told her the dog was 5, because she's 98 …
How was the reception?
Oh, standing ovation every show. There is a genuine thirst in pretty much every other country — except the ones Trump loves — to hear and see an American woman stand on stage and admit how crazy stuff has gotten.
Did this experience change your comedy?
Like, people say, "Have you softened up?" I'm like, ‘No. I don't have a [care] left to give. … So of all my complaining about not being on TV — and I do wish I was back on TV, because that's kind of what my training ground is — I do love the freedom of touring because there's no 75-year-old white guy who's gonna come in and say, "You can't do this anymore, miss." Not even the president. I don't have a publicist, I don't have an agent. None of it. It's just me. You know how I get on talk shows? I DM the host.
You’re still active on Twitter, and back in May created a “moment” that revisited your experience with this. Is social media a tough place for you to be in general?
Oh, vicious. It's a cesspool.
And as a woman comic, I imagine it can get even harsher.
People are becoming less fearful, and obviously the biggest boost I could possibly have is the more this administration melts down, the more people go, "Yeah, in comparison to what Rudy Giuliani just said about shooting Jim Comey, maybe the Kathy Griffin ketchup-y mask thing wasn't so bad.” Like, nobody was really hurt.