A year after a photo, a firestorm and a federal investigation, Kathy Griffin is back… and more political than ever.Our exclusive interview on how she’s surviving — even thriving — in the ‘pearl-clutching era’
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
The voice on the other end of the phone says, “Please hold — I’ll put Kathy on.”
Although we’ve talked more than a dozen times over the years, this time feels different, even historic. “How are you, Kathy?” I reflexively ask.
“I’m … better!” she replies in the unmistakable bubbly, conversational, gossipy way of hers. And I realize, that was the only answer she could give. “Good god, a lot can happen in a year,” she adds.
There’s energy to her that exudes a sense of relief, like someone who has overcome a cancer diagnosis or emerged from a divorce with renewed hope. But it would have been hard to imagine a year earlier that Kathy Griffin could see any light at the end of the tunnel. Except, perhaps, a train.
That train took many forms: The Twittersphere, the pundit class, the Fake News industry (the real one, manipulated by Steve Bannon and Macedonian hackers, not just journalists critical of the bloviating gasbag of ignorance who occupies the Oval Office). It started on May 30, 2017, when, during a photoshoot, Griffin released a snapshot of her holding aloft a nondescript, orange-colored severed head that may or may not have been an effigy of the Commander-in-Cheeto. Anyone with a classical education or even a passing curiosity in art (or even cheesy sand-and-sandal movies) could have spotted it as a parody of Cellini’s statue of Perseus wielding the snake-covered head of the gorgon Medusa. But the universe of permanently offended, humorless trolls declared it much, much more sinister: Treason. A death threat. “Too far.” Even some of Griffin’s friends and allies begged off. Her contract for a once-a-year New Year’s Eve hosting gig with Anderson Cooper was torched; concerts and appearances quickly canceled. It was summarized as a career-killer moment… and possible crime. She found few supporters during this time, though she singles out Margaret Cho and Bill Maher for standing up for her. So much for progressive unity. (More on that later.)
Griffin has never hesitated to speak truth to power, though her jokes on politics were mostly focussed on personal passions — gay rights, feminist causes, generalized hypocrisy and abuse of power. In general, though, she was more concerned with Real Housewives than the White House. So when her pic made her the poster enfant-terrible of the Radical Left, Griffin wasn’t entirely prepared for it. She was more comfortable as the successor to Joan Rivers, not Lenny Bruce.
“Johnny Depp sleeps in his clothes and hasn’t bathed since the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie,” Griffin opines, in the kind of one-liner that exemplifies her bitchy-shady brand of standup. It’s why the gays love her.
But for the moment, she’s gonna have to get political.
On the first day we talk — we’d do a followup chat more than a month later — Griffin was in especially good spirits. She had just heard the news that Michael Cohen, the shady consigliere of Donald Trump, had been wiretapped and it suffused her with hope.
“My new fantasy is that [Mueller’s team] keeps digging until they get to May 30  when the photo posted, or May 31 when the president Tweeted about me, and they find the call where [Trump] says, ‘Let’s ruin her! Let’s decimate Kathy Griffin!’”
The photo did trigger a federal investigation … and that’s no joke.
“In my show, I actually take my audience into the actual interrogation after they tried to perp-walk me,” she says. “I was scared shitless and on the verge of diarrhea all the time.”
But what started as a lark and progressed into a possible criminal matter and career seppuku has, a year later, blossomed into something of a creative renaissance for Griffin.
“The picture that was supposed to ruin my life is the picture that made me the eighth-most Googled person in the world,” she notes, putting the sunniest look on the most devastating period in her 57 years.
Griffin has now achieved a level where she attracts political coverage; she was the biggest celebrity by far at last April’s White House Correspondents Dinner — her first red-carpet event this side of the pond in 11 months. That was the same event where another female comedian, Michelle Wolf, got vilified (even by some liberals) for criticizing Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the administrations chief propagandist — a Ross Dress For Less Goebbels in cheap shoes. Griffin, of course, was one of Wolf’s few defenders.
“I was in a vintage Oscar de la Renta gown which means Oscar OK’d it,” Griffin explains about the dinner, conscious, as always, to include a fashion summary for “my gays.” “I had a train longer than Amtrak; poor Randy [Bick, her boyfriend] was holding my train like an engineer. I admit, I sort of set up shop outside the men’s room,” with the intent of ambushing some of her detractors at the one spot they would all inevitably come to. “All those old farts [have to run there] when the colostomy bag breaks,” she jabs.
It’s where she cornered Fox and Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade. “He said, ‘Would you consider [targeting] half [the time] of the right and half of the left?’” she relates. “I said, ‘You first, fucker.’” She got into a fight with Sarah Huckbee Sanders. Then she went to the MSNBC after-party, where she met up with Michael Avenatti, whom Griffin describes as “Stormy [Daniels’] lawyer-daddy.”
“I also want you to know that I contributed to the Stormy Daniels Legal Defense Fund,” she declares. “We are girlfriends on the pole. That’s what I’m kinda doing.”
That is a position Griffin feels comfortable in. She’s long been the champion of underdogs (an advocate for marriage equality from way back) and stands on principal when others cower behind spin doctors and cultural tides. She uses coarse language against those who attack Parkland shooting student-activist David Hogg and others.
“You have to love that when the pink-haired guy [gay Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie] is in front of Parliament, his shit is tight. Republicans don’t like him [because] he’s fearless and inspirational,” she says.
And she holds no quarter for the hypocrites and haters who piss her off. Take, for instance, Conservative Union lobbyist Matt Schlapp and his wife Mercedes, a Trump administration communications flak: “Here’s what I’m alleging: His wife Mercedes has a beard like a member of ZZ Top. That’s all I’m suggesting. I am my only source for that rumor.”
She’s terribly concerned that something she says — comparing Michael Cohen to a gay man — might be construed as favorable. “Please don’t print that I said anything nice about him.” (Weeks later, when we talk again — after news has broken that Cohen recorded at least some conversations with the president — she can barely contain her glee. “I mean, it’s pure heaven,” she coos.)
Griffin’s comeback actually isn’t as new as you might think. Although the North American leg of her Laugh Your Head Off Tour started only this summer, she has spent months rebuilding all over the world. “Europe, Reykjavik, Singapore, New Zealand … and yes, I got detained at every single airport,” she says. “No American citizen should have to be denied a living for disagreeing with the president. But I’m not bitching, because I’m very lucky. I save every penny, and I have no debt so I was in a position where I didn’t have to make any money for a year, but I was able to tell my story.”
The experience was eye-opening for her as well. “The minute [people overseas] hear an American accent, they start talking about Trump. I played Germany and my beloved Angela Merkel is facing [attacks from the right], and I said I understand — we’re trying to fix it. There were cities like Stockholm or Antwerp [where] I would ask my audience, if my TV specials haven’t been aired here, how do you know me? And they said, ‘YouTube.’”
It was a risk for Griffin to come to the U.S. and try to book a tour schedule, even a year later. Initially, she figured if she could find five cities willing to host her, she’d be grateful. But it quickly rose to 25 cities.
“My first American show was in San Francisco, because I’m not crazy,” she says. “When I was [overseas], people were like, ‘What’s going on in your country?’ and [at] my shows in Canada, which went really, really well, [people said], ‘We love you as a neighbor and to laugh at him with you.’ But now I’m getting audiences who are relating to my story. Now everyone gets death threats on social media! If it can happen to me it can happen to you. It is astounding.”
There’s still tons of backlash — “I tell my audiences, ‘If you post something nice about me, you will be flooded with hate for a half hour…. then real people will come back,’” she cautions — but she’s also noticing that after a year-and-a-half in Trumplandia, people are becoming more aware of the direness of the situation.
“While the nation is terrified every day as we worry about nuclear war — literally — more and more people are coming around, going, ‘Not only did we make too much over the [Medusa] picture, now we see Kathy has something to say.’ I don’t think this kooky phase will be solved by the midterms. I don’t know about you, but my security clearance was stripped today — and I had very high clearance, even though I am in ISIS.”
Her set in Dallas won’t be limited to attacking the conservative straight white men who are the target of many of her jokes, though. She’s fed up on all sides.
At the White House Correspondents Dinner, “Michelle did 20 minutes of the tightest set I’ve ever seen. She went for the jugular, but you could actual fact-check her jokes. But the people on the dais started giving Michelle the stinkeye. They all looked around at their Republican friends and said, ‘Oh is this person not laughing and sitting in the back.’ And even the liberals remained silent. I got on my feet and clapped. I’m someone who has lived through the faux outrage of the pearl-clutching era. As a lifelong feminist and LGBT activist, I am a bitter party of one that so many white women voted for Trump. Those white bitches might get a stern talking-to.”
It’s a magnificent progression for a comedian who was written off barely a year ago. Now, Kathy Griffin is as empowered and as on-message and she’s ever been.
“I can talk to every single person in that beautiful Dallas hall without being told to stay in my lane,” she says. “I’m having the time of my life.”