Comedy, like love, can be a painful process. Sometimes it just comes back and bites you on the ass.
In May of 2017, comedian Kathy Griffin (star of Bravo’s “My Life on the D-List” and decade-long co-host of CNN’s New Year’s Eve coverage) participated in a photoshoot with edgy photographer Tyler Shields. In response to President Donald Trump’s criticism of Megyn Kelly (saying the newscaster’s opinions were the result of “blood coming out of her … wherever”), Griffin and Shields cooked up an intentionally controversial image of the comedian holding a Donald Trump mask covered in tomato sauce with the caption “blood coming out of his … wherever.” Needless to say, the photo made Griffin a high-profile target of Trump’s Twitter ire. (“Sick!” he declared.) Griffin became an early test case for what would evolve into Trump’s regular-as-clockwork airing of apoplectic internet grievances (with targets now ranging from Mitt Romney to Chrissy Teigen).
The conservative backlash that followed, however, was swift and seismic. Griffin was fired from her gig at CNN, her comedy tour (which was poised to stop in Albuquerque) was canceled, and she was effectively (in her own words) “blackballed by Hollywood.” More concerningly, she was investigated by two federal agencies for conspiracy to assassinate the president, had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees, was interrogated under oath and ended up on a federal “no fly” list “like a terrorist.”
Two years have passed now, and Griffin has worked hard to spin straw into gold. She has toured the world doing a stand-up act that has become increasingly political, she has built up her fanbase (which is much more international these days), and she poured her heart and soul into a documentary/concert film called Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story that details “the incident” and the effect it had on her life.
Griffin has been showing off the nonfiction film at festivals around the country. She’s stopping in Albuquerque this weekend for the 17th annual Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Fest (recently rebranded as Way OUT West), which is screening the film at UNM’s Rodey Theatre. Griffin and an ACLU lawyer are tapped to speak afterward about free speech and First Amendment rights.
Weekly Alibi spoke to Griffin prior to her visit about fickle fame, enduring humor, “the unshockable gays” and, of course, The Donald.
Weekly Alibi: We appreciate you talking to us here at Weekly Alibi. Just to let you know: We are an alternative newspaper, so if you feel the need to curse, you can.
Kathy Griffin: I’m in my wheelhouse. I’m on it.
So you’re coming to Albuquerque for the Way OUT West Film Fest.
I’m just so excited. Not to be corny, but I’m really truly honored and humbled. … When the Trump photo scandal happened, a lot of people came to my house for meetings about possibly doing something [film-related], and then they all really truly just got scared or they would kick it upstairs to the old white dinosaur that would be like, “Oh no, it’s too related to Trump.”
I have to tell you one of the reasons I’m so glad that I made this film—and I funded it myself, I wish I didn’t, nobody came through with the $40 million deal that you read about all the time—but I felt so passionately about getting this message out. When I made the concert portion of the film, nobody would look at a 30-second demo reel. I was so persona non grata. Then my publicist got it into South By Southwest [film festival], which was a miracle. What’s been so crazy is the film community has completely embraced it and me.
I fought like a dog, but it was worth it. I’m so glad I could put in the first part of the film [which] is documentary stuff. I took it on myself. There was no crew, there was no microphones either. Nothing. Yet one thing I do know from “My Life on the D-List” or unscripted anything is you gotta catch those moments when they’re real. And I’m so glad people are responding maybe more so to the documentary part of the footage—because it’s real. It’s not great sound,whatever. But I think people know the shit that’s on there is real. It’s literally whatever my boyfriend and I could capture on the road. Then, I thought segueing into the concert portion of the film would be a nice way to let the audience know, like, “OK, not everything is going to be gritty black-and-white Kathy ugly-crying.” I’m really exited and proud. ...
I’m so grateful that the film is still being invited to festivals where people want to discuss it. I’m always happy to impart whatever I can and listen and hear from people. Most importantly I’m glad to be sitting down with a First Amendment attorney from the ACLU. Because it’s just so important to me that people really do know their civil rights. This is a civil rights issue, and we are seeing, daily, the audacity of federal agencies. Remember: My investigation was paid for with taxpayer dollars. But now it’s worse than ever. We’re living in a country that has concentration camps in the United States. I use that term because that’s what they are. ...
One of the reasons I’m looking forward to Way OUT West is obviously the LGBT community is still considered to be a marginalized community. In my “Kathy Griffin: Laugh Your Head Off World Tour”—which started in Auckland, New Zealand—I say almost every night on stage, “You’re next, gays. You better get ready.” And sure enough, in many ways, I think this administration is trying to roll back the civil rights of the LGBT community to basically the Stonewall era. I talk to the young gays—as I call them, lovingly—I say, “Well, there was this thing called Stonewall, and it was really important. And here’s why.” Because I think a lot of us were lulled into thinking, over the Obama administration, that progress doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens.
Then, me personally knowing The Donald and frankly having that used against me—like, for example, during my interrogation, I had to list every single encounter I have ever had with him over at last 20 years.
That sounds like torture.
Oh, it’s funny because when I was doing the [comedy] tour, my access kept ballooning because as I’d be remembering this run-in with him at some NBC-Universal event or this time I had to sit next to him for four hours at a fuckin’ charity event and he wouldn’t shut up with his crazy ramblings. I’ll be honest: Before this went down, I didn’t really tell Donald Trump stories in my act. Because people really weren’t that interested. So, in one way, it’s been a gift. If you know anything about my work, it’s always personal. It’s not written jokes. It’s my own run-ins with this person or that person or some crazy thing I observed personally. I try to make it as personal as possible. And so for me to have known this guy—and I guess I technically still do—lemme tell you: I’m excited to run into him soon. I’ve got a few things to say to him. That is not a threat! I’m just saying: Like a lot of Americans, there are a few things I’d really like to say to his orange face. ... Have you traveled overseas since Trump?
A little bit. Mexico.
OK. I’ve found that everywhere I went, the minute they heard my accent—whether they knew who I was or not—people would stop dead in their tracks and go, “What the fuck is going on in the States?” So that’s another thing that I realized. It just became really important to me once I hit the overseas tour. I admit the photo that almost ruined me was the photo that allowed me to tour freaking Singapore and countries I never thought I would be able to tour in. I’m aware this picture is gonna be on my tombstone. Not my Emmys or Grammy and [other] accomplishments. So I’m “leaning in” as they say. I don’t mean to quote Sheryl Sandberg in a positive way. Cause I’m not even talking to her. Even though I don’t know her.
You’ve always been known as more of a celebrity comic, not a political comic. Has that flipped now? Do you find yourself unable to be concerned about the Kardashians anymore?
It’s kind of both. I’m a little less concerned by the fluff, right? I just don’t watch E! Channel. I just don’t have time. It’s nothing against them. I need to watch the real shit going on. But on the other hand, the thing that really sort of made this, I don’t think that Trump realized he really ended up giving me a gift. Because this is so fucking on-brand for me, because [A Hell of a Story] is a movie about politics and celebrity. He is the ultimate celebrity unqualified dude, who became a politician while in a very Hollywood way saying he is not a politician. So it’s been quite a natural segue. Luckily I have decades of experience and 23 stand-up comic specials where I talk about my life. Hopefully not in a way that is too self-aggrandizing or navel-gazing, but in a way that is amusing to the audience, relatable to the audience. So this kind of makes perfect sense.
Look, I’m 58, you know. I think, like a lot of artists, you reach an age where you go, “Hey I’m still happy to talk about the Kardashians, and I still get a kick out of whoever Ariana Grande is dating. But also there’s stuff going on in our country that my own fans maybe aren’t in the habit of paying attention to.” If I can use humor to get a message through. Because I really do believe what the administration is doing is not above our heads and only for the beltway at all.
Part of my message also is: No matter what I do—if it’s a charity event or hosting something or doing something truly comedic—I do find that I almost can’t get off stage without doing a three-minute spiel about how important it is to vote down-ballot. It’s distracting and it’s fun to talk about the presidential race, but—for example—at Way OUT West, I’ll probably talk about Kim Davis. If you remember, she was the county clerk [in Kentucky] who wouldn’t marry the two gay guys. That is an elected position.
So there’s a lot of the kind of messaging I can’t resist getting it in there, even if I only have two minutes at the end of something. Because I really am trying to get as many folks as possible, especially in the LGBTQA12345 community, to realize voting down-ballot [is critical]. Take a half hour and do a Google search, because each one of those boxes that you may not check because you kind of were only paying attention to the presidential race, trust me, your state/local legislature, they’re gonna decide whether or not you have choice in your state.
As you know, they’re trying to pass state laws where you can get fired for being gay. And the importance of realizing a lot of these civil rights that the gay community has, they’re not federal law. Some of them are state by state. That’s how the conservatives have always wanted it, because they know it’s easier to change state law. So I try to get people fired up about knowing their congressional representative, going to a town hall.
Do you ever worry about crossing that “Dick Gregory” line where you can’t bring yourself to makes jokes anymore and you end up just delivering political lectures instead?
No. Look, I’m a fan of Lenny Bruce because I have to be, because he was groundbreaking. I’ve been saying for 20 years: No matter what, I would never turn into the kind of comedian who’s gonna stand onstage and read their court transcripts. So I’m very conscious of taking the audience’s temperature. I think it’s after decades of touring. Like when the photo happened. I was in the middle of a 50-city American tour. And it was stopped overnight after I was only 25 cities in. … Prior to the photo, I had actually done an 80-city-in-one-year tour, the “Kathy Griffin: Like a Boss” tour. Really, it’s innate now for me to take the audience’s temperature. So I don’t think I’m ever gonna be the Dick Gregory. …
I did a couple red carpets last weekend and every single question was about the photo. Obviously I’ll answer questions, but I can also go, “OK, I’ve got a really great illustration [Kathy Griffin: A Hell of A Story] that’s probably going to answer all your questions, and it’s available on Amazon or Apple or pretty much every place but Netflix and HBO. So you can rent it and check it out.”
Then when it comes to live performance, gosh, I did two last weekend. One of them was part of a 50th anniversary for the LGBT Center in Los Angeles. Once again it was a bit where I didn’t mention Trump at all or anything political. …
I like to stay super flexible. Certain audiences they wanna go more toward the politics of the day, because its such a crazy environment. Certain audiences want to blow off steam, so they want an escape from the political environment. I go, “Great, I’ve got plenty of stuff about that too.” … [Audiences] know, “Well if I go see Kathy and she talks about what happens at the HBO party she’s gonna give it to me real.” That’s what I enjoy doing. So, no, I don’t think I’ll ever fall into the trap of becoming Dick Gregory in that way. Although I do admire how he was able to get people thinking.
Yeah, but it seems hard to live through that.
Yeah. And I’m just hardwired to make people wanna laugh. Call me shallow, but I love—and I’m an egomaniac like anybody—that people are calling me a First Amendment warrior. It’s my commodity, as it is the commodity for “Saturday Night Live” and Stephen Colbert and every comedian. It’s your commodity as a journalist. But also, I just wanna make people laugh more than anything. “Funny first” has never changed, even through this whole ordeal.
And the Q&As are funny. I’m gonna be a god damn riot in that Q&A, even though we’re talking about serious things with a real attorney.
You’re gonna have a great time with the audience at WOW.
Oh, yeah. Of course. Hello. I call them “the unshockable gays.” C’mon. I have done 17 gay cruises, my friend. I’ve done a gay cruise in Mykonos!
Whoa. That’s like the Motherland.
That’s like “Gay Survivor.” I’m not gonna lie—and I may be proud and boastful, so don’t get jealous—but on a gay cruise I’m basically as famous as Britney Spears. I have to, like, hide in my cabin. And when the gays find out which cabin is mine, they decorate my door with boas and “You’re my fierce queen diva.” Believe it or not, I snuck in a gay cruise during the “Laugh Your Head Off Tour.” And here’s the kicker: It was in Mexico! They were not building the wall. It was really fun being able to talk about just being in Mexico as an American. I don’t know about you, but I walked around the whole time going, “Lo siento! Lo siento para Trump!”
Well, I think you’re gonna find a pretty receptive audience among the community in Albuquerque.
Also, what do you think my chances are—and I hope you say it’s 100 percent and it’s a fait accompli—that I am going to win the Irving Thalberg Lifetime Achievement Award at the Academy Awards?
Oh, I think that’s a lock, isn’t it?
I think so. And also, now that I am a film star—and I’m kinda slumming even talking to you—who do you think is more threatened by me: Meryl Streep or Renée Zellweger?
It’s a tough call.
I think they may be teaming up and conspiring against you.
That’s what I think! And if I don’t win the Irving Thalberg Award, I’m gonna write them both an angry missive. Dammit. If I fail to get intimidated by the President of the United States, I’m not gonna be intimidated by Meryl Streep! [Laughs.]
Hell no. I don’t even know her Twitter account. How vicious could it be?
[Devolves into laughter.] It’s just fun. It’s just fun.