When Kathy Griffin was photographed last week holding a bloody Trump head, in many ways, she was just doing her job. As an irreverent comedian famous for expressing her strong opinions, the photo shoot was a visual symbol of the anger both she and many others have been feeling toward the current administration. But when critics lashed out against the image for being crass, crude, violent, and tasteless, even Griffin admitted they had a point, and she apologized. A habitual button-pusher, Griffin had gone too far, and she wasn’t afraid to say so.
Nonetheless, the consequences for Griffin have been swift and severe. In the wake of the scandal, Griffin was fired from her recurring New Years’ Eve gig on CNN, she lost her endorsement deal with Squatty Potty, and most surprisingly, all future dates for her current comedy tour have been cancelled.
Here at BUST HQ, we’re hoping that once the news cycle is done gnawing on this particular bone, Griffin will be able to get back to work making people laugh. Everyone makes mistakes, and one staged violent fantasy shouldn’t end the career of a fearless feminist who has been an important part of the pop culture landscape for so many years.
Enjoy this Flashback Friday reprint of our cover story with Griffin from June/July 2009, then spare a kind thought for our pal Kathy. It sure seems like she could use the support right now.
Her reality show My Life on the D-List may have made her a household name,
but comedian Kathy Griffin is still one of us. Here, she takes a break before her
sold-out show to talk about being bawdy, breaking boundaries, and getting banned.
BY PRIYA JAIN / PHOTOGRAPHED BY CHRIS BUCK
Makeup by Jennifer Montoya / Styling by Leslie LaRue
earrings and necklace: Ten Thousand Things; dress: BEBE
bracelet: Jennifer Miller; shoes: Jimmy Choo; dress: Aidan Mattox;
earrings: Ten Thousand Things
belt: kathy's Own; earrings: Ten Thousand Things; jacket: Current Elliott; skirt: H&M; top: Magaschoni; shoes: Burberry
Kathy Griffin would like you to think she’s a hard-partying, fear-inspiring, drug-addicted diva. It’s a Sunday evening in February, and Griffin is in her hotel room, getting her hair and makeup done for her stand-up show tonight. When I ask the 48-year-old comedian, whose act trades in celebrity rumor and gossip, if there are any rumors about herself that she’d like me to break, she gets excited. “My dream would be that you walked in on something. Like, you could say that you walked in on me doing blow, or you could say, ‘One minute she was nice, and the next minute she hit her makeup artist in the face! And everyone in the room was scared of her!’ I never scare anybody,” she laments. “I always wanted to be that person in the room that people were scared of. Like Barbara Walters, where you have to stay out of her eye line. No one’s ever out of my eye line! So yeah, anything that you could make up that you saw.” She turns to her tour manager, Tom Vize, and instructs him to “go to the pharmacy and get some pills,” before turning back to me. “This might take a minute, but we could stage something really good for you.”
The truth is, though, that when I enter Griffin’s hotel room, she is padding around in pajama bottoms and a hoodie, her shock of orange hair pulled back in a headband, and her face clean of makeup; a less newsworthy but more welcoming sight than what she might have wished. Her tour manager and makeup artist seem placidly unafraid, and Griffin herself is warm and attentive. But her rant is classic Griffin: self-deprecating but also brutally self-aware, revealing a genuine good nature as well as a mean streak. Her wish is simultaneously sincere and mocking of the type of celebrity that gets attention these days: Griffin would like to be more famous—her comedy routine is based on her constant quest for fame—but she’s also a teetotaler who has earned her rising stardom through sheer hard work. She’s staying on the penthouse floor of the swank London Hotel in New York, but when I ask if the room means she’s enjoying the perks of celebrity, she replies, “It means I’ve been staying at this hotel since Suddenly Susan”—the 1996-2000 sitcom in which she costarred with Brooke Shields—“and I’ve been slowly working my way up to this room.”
Griffin’s shameless striving for publicity is familiar to anyone who’s seen her reality show on Bravo, My Life on the D-List. Now entering its fifth season, the show is essentially about Griffin at work. It catalogs her gigs, emceeing corporate events and awards shows, as well as her various attempts at capturing attention. In the third season, she takes to the streets of Los Angeles to give away money, in hopes of becoming the “red-headed Oprah”; in the fourth, she sets out to promote her concert CD—which she released last year with the sole purpose of baiting a Grammy into her growing pile of awards, even titling it For Your Consideration. (She was nominated but lost to George Carlin.) But if Griffin is too good to join the ranks of celebrity train wrecks, she’s also too outspoken to be invited into the A-list sanctum she craves. Her stand-up act, which consists of discursive stories that suddenly break off into others and then loop back around, invariably serves as a report on her most recent interactions with boldfaced names. Tonight, for example, her stories will name-check James Gandolfini (backstage at the Emmys: “I’ve never seen anyone as famous as he is not being bothered by people...I call it the James Gandolfini ring of fire”), Taylor Swift (at the Grammys: “It kind of sounds like she’s taking a crap when she’s singing”), the Jonas Brothers (“I reject their bullshit fake promise rings”), Don Rickles, Mary Tyler Moore, Betty White (“I was just teasing [Rickles], I said, ‘Oh, you never slept with Mary?’ and he goes, “No,” and then Betty White goes, “I fucked him!”), and Cher (“We’d be sitting on the couch, and about once an hour, she’d turn to me and go, ‘Can you believe you’re spending your birthday with me? I’m Cher!’”). And in live broadcasts, she’ll invariably wind up getting herself in trouble (upon winning her first Emmy, for the D-List: “Suck it, Jesus, this award is my God now!”). All of which is to say that Kathy Griffin may be an attention-monger, she might be a rude, brassy, loudmouth—but she’s no sycophant. If she’s going to win this game, it’s going to be on her own terms.
Griffin grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, the youngest of five, and when, after high school, her parents retired to California, she moved with them and tried to break into acting. In the late ’80s, she joined the L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings. While most comedians would stick around for a year or two, Griffin hung on for eight years. “I have a problem with staying too long at the party,” she jokes, but sticking it out proved fruitful. “Eventually, I was in there with Lisa Kudrow, and she said to me, ‘You’re funnier as yourself than when you do other characters.’” Griffin decided to try stand-up. “I did an amateur night at the Comedy Store, and this weird thing happened. It’s gambler’s first luck that the first set I ever did, I killed. Then I thought, OK, I’m a stand-up comedian. Then I went back to clubs and bombed for two years.” Rather than discourage her, however, her poor reception in comedy clubs made her realize that she needed a different kind of venue to showcase her work, and she began renting out theaters for her shows. “[There’s a] difference between people sitting in a comedy club,” she explains, “where they’re getting drinks and they’re talking to each other, whereas in a theater, they’re more in the mindset of seeing a play, and for me that’s what I need, because I don’t tell these one liners, I tell 15-minute-long stories, and if you didn’t hear the first 5 minutes because you were talking, you’re not going to get the punch line.” But even when she was bombing in clubs, her stand-up helped her solidify her comedic persona—as “the annoying girl who says things she’s not supposed to,” which led to TV work, like the recurring character of Sally Weaver on Seinfeld and, in ’96, Vicki Groener on Suddenly Susan, both loudmouth characters not too different from Griffin herself.
Along with the “annoying girl” epithets has come a host of criticism over Griffin’s looks. All female comedians have to contend with being judged as much on their relative attractiveness as they are on their talent, but Griffin, by positioning herself as a critic of the beautiful people, has faced more lambasting than most. She’s resigned to the fact that, no matter what she wears, she’ll be on some tabloid’s worst-dressed list the next day. And then there is Griffin’s incredible openness about her experiences with plastic surgery—another way in which she has both tried to move up the Hollywood ladder, by altering her looks, and buck it at the same time, by exposing the artifice behind all that “natural” Hollywood beauty. “I do think it’s funny that certain celebrities go out of their way to say they’re totally against plastic surgery,” she says, “and yet they’ve had it done and you can see their scars. So when I had it done, I thought, I’m not going to be able to fool anybody, so I just invited People and Entertainment Tonight to come along.” Most of that work—including a nose job, a face-lift, and an eyelift—was done more than five years ago, and since then, Griffin has sworn it off. “This is going to sound assholey, but I’ve gotten more compliments since I’ve stopped,” she says, and indeed, Griffin looks softer, more natural these days. I ask her if she still thinks plastic surgery is an OK thing to do, and she says, “It’s disgusting and gross. But I’ll tell you, I only stopped because it didn’t do anything for me. It didn’t make me one minute younger, and it didn’t make anyone think that I was beautiful. The liposuction was a complete disaster—I ended up in the hospital—and it didn’t make me any thinner. I didn’t know that to be thinner, I had to eat less and work out more,” she says, smiling. “I learned the hard way.”
Those experiences have also helped her draw a line between what is and isn’t acceptable to say in her comedy act: criticizing someone’s looks isn’t OK, but when, say, Demi Moore insists that she maintains her figure by chasing after her kids, Griffin is quick to the punch. “I’m not one to say, ‘This person’s ugly.’ I’ve been called so many names for being ugly. But on the other hand, if someone is going to publicly behave in a way that is just not something anyone outside of Hollywood could ever get away with, then yeah, I’m going to go after them. Because it’s just funny to me.”
From the get-go, says Griffin, she found her audience in gay men. “I call them the unshockable gays,” she says. “I think as a comedy audience, the reason they’re so good is when you’ve been through so much, you’re not going to be shocked by a swear word.” There is also the fact that the celebrities she likes—Cher, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion—have their own gay followings. The other big chunk of her audience is women—in other words, she appeals to the same demographics as Oprah and Us Weekly. (She regularly starts off her shows by apologizing to the straight men who have been dragged there by their wives and girlfriends.)
But you don’t have to be interested in the celebrity lives she details to appreciate Griffin’s comedy. Beneath the fandom and the judgment, she’s a savvy cultural critic, using her own wannabe-famous shtick to riff on Hollywood's rampant fakery. In one of the best, most eye-opening episodes of the D-List, Griffin sets out to win some publicity for her concert CD by driving around Hollywood with Adnan Ghalib, the former paparazzo and Britney Spears beau. Ghalib calls the paps and tells them where he’s going to be, and when they show up, he affects annoyance: “Don’t you guys have anything better to do?” he admonishes, before leading Griffin into Victoria’s Secret amid the jeers and taunts of the photographers. “By the way,” says Griffin now, “I’d like a little credit for that. Every year I lose at the Producers Guild of America to those fucking lazy assholes at 60 Minutes. Let me tell you why I should beat those bullshit assholes at 60 Minutes. Because I said to the producers of the show, ‘This guy is a household name for a week, and I’m telling you, it will create a sensation if I go somewhere with him.’” It did—the photos lit up the blogosphere, even though no one could possibly believe Ghalib and Griffin were really an item and the D-List cameras were recording the whole thing. “And by the way, the paps were not deterred by that,” says Griffin. “It was clearly staged, [but] he was still so hot at that moment, people were hungry to see anything with him.” I ask her if she’s aware of the commentary she’s making on celebrity culture and journalism with stunts like that, and she replies, “No, tell me! I’m just making fun of celebrities, but tell me if I’m doing something on a high-art level!”
Regardless of whether she’s aware of it, her audiences appreciate it. Griffin coined the term “D-list” to describe her scrappy, wannabe status back when she was hustling for ridiculous gigs (like hosting the 2003 – 2005 NBC reality series Average Joe), but these days the term hardly applies. Tonight she’s giving her last performance in a four-night run at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York; in her dressing room right before the show, a venue rep presents her with an award for selling out all four nights (“The only other person who has it is Tina Turner,” the rep says impressively.) She’s won two Emmys for the D-List, which starts its fifth season in June, and a few days after we meet, the news breaks that she sold her memoirs to Ballantine for a reported $2 million. She’s become a fixture on Larry King Live, and on January 1, she became a YouTube star when, while co-hosting CNN’s live New Year’s coverage with Anderson Cooper, she shouted down a heckler with, “You know what? I don’t go to your job and knock the dicks out of your mouth!” The clip, which was, by all reports, the highlight of the night’s coverage, made the rounds quickly. “That was a great moment for me. First of all, CNN got triple the viewership of last year, so they’re happy campers, and I loved it, because I’ve never been a YouTube sensation before. Everybody won in that scenario. Well, my mom did not win in that scenario, because she cried for three days.”
That (mostly) happy ending is surprising—especially given Griffin’s track record. Hired by E! to cover the Golden Globes in 2005, Griffin was quickly fired for joking that Dakota Fanning, then only 10, had entered rehab. Her celebrity heckling has gotten her banned, officially or not, from talk shows like Ellen and The Tonight Show, and Barbara Walters has banned Griffin twice from The View, where Griffin had been a regular guest host. Since New Year’s, reports Griffin, “my banned list has gotten really short, which is great. Once you have a hit show and two Emmys, all of a sudden, they’re not so offended by you. After CNN, when it was the most talked about quote of the New Year’s coverage, sure enough, I got my first booking on Conan O’Brien in 10 years, and Barbara Walters lifted my lifetime ban from The View. So this whole banning thing, it’s not a moral issue at all.”
That said, Griffin hasn’t been reinstated on the red carpet, which she misses. “In my head, it is so clear to me that making a joke about Dakota Fanning going to rehab when she is 10 is so clearly a joke, and yet, when I watch Isaac Mizrahi...Hillary Swank had just announced her divorce, and he was very flippantly like, ‘What happened?’ I would never in a million years do that. There is such a difference between being funny and saying something to be an asshole. But it’s clear to me. Obviously, it’s not to everyone else.”
Her career affects her personal life too, of course. The first season of the D-List showcased Griffin’s relationship with her then-husband, Matt Moline, a seemingly supportive partner who traveled with Griffin and helped her with her hair and makeup, but the couple divorced in 2006 when, as Griffin told Larry King, she discovered that Moline was stealing money from her. And although she’s dated a bit since then—including, most recently, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak—Griffin claims she is “very leery” of relationships thanks to her ex-husband’s “financial impropriety.” She’s about to expand on the theme when her iPhone rings, and Griffin excitedly shows me the screen: it’s Andy Dick calling. (He invites her to a party and assures Griffin that he’s remained on the wagon since graduating from the VH1 reality-rehab show Sober House—the entire conversation takes place on speakerphone.) But despite this celeb connection, she insists that her stand-up limits her ability to expand her social circle. “I don’t have celebrity friends,” she says. “I can’t, because I can’t make anybody a promise not to mention them. But that’s all right. I don’t know what I’d do hanging out with a bunch of celebrities anyway. You’ve met them. You know. They’re not the brightest bunch.”
Later, in the car on the way to the theater, she revisits this theme, wondering why a comedian like Don Rickles can get away with making fun of his A-list friends and Griffin can’t. “I don’t know, I think I get in more trouble because I’m a girl, I really do,” she says. Griffin doesn’t equivocate about what it means to be a woman in comedy. “The sexism in stand-up is absolutely astounding, it blows my mind,” she says. “When Joan Rivers started hosting The Tonight Show and got her own show on Fox, I really thought, ‘Oh, cool, this is it—from now on, we’re going to have an equal number of women in late night as men.’ And then it just ended with her. It’s unbelievable. When I do morning radio to promote a show, there’s always the Morning Zoo guy, and out of one side of his mouth he’ll say, ‘You know, normally I don’t think chicks are funny, but you’re pretty funny.’ To which I always say, ‘Really? Would you say to a black person, “Normally I’d think you were lazy and shiftless, but you seem to work hard?”’ And then they always just go to commercial.”
The other side of that coin is the club and event bookers who seemingly want to support female comedians but don’t know how. “If you call your local comedy club,” she says, “I guarantee you the ratio is always about 10 to 1. It’s unbelievable. It hasn’t gotten one bit better since I started, not one bit. I could show you 30 emails from different charity events or TV specials where they’ll openly say, ‘We’re doing this event, and we’ve already got our 9 guys and we need a girl, so are you available on this date?’ I mean, can you imagine?! Wow! I guess since you’ve got 10 comedians, you only need 1 girl and then everything’s equal. So that is still rampant.”
Part of Griffin’s drive stems from her awareness of this gender divide; she is, she says, acutely aware that “I have to work harder and jump higher” as a woman, and that “the only way I know how to do it is to try to be as prolific as possible. I know that I do more specials than anybody, male or female,” she says, and it’s true; she’s done two HBO specials, five for Bravo, and she’s recording another for Bravo in a couple of weeks, which will be based on the material she’s trying out tonight. “I’ll do two specials a year if that’s what it takes.”
When we arrive at Madison Square Garden, the theater rep comes in with her award, and just before Griffin gets ready to go on, Sherri Shepherd, a co-host on The View, comes by to say hello. Griffin and Shepherd, who’s best known for saying on The View that she didn’t know if the world was flat, exchange compliments and pleasantries, but as soon as Shepherd leaves, Griffin is in mocking mode. “Not all my friends know that the earth is a sphere,” she deadpans. “And you know what? That’s fine. People have choices.”
It’s the kind of moment you could imagine on the D-List, with Griffin delivering the punch line in voiceover. “I think the D-List is more than fair to me,” she says. “I would say they edit me 100 percent accurately. In fact, if anything, they’re kind. I wish I could say, ‘Really I’m this sweet wonderful person’ and they edit me that way, but no, it’s right on.” She can’t help but spill the fact that this is the “celebrity-driven season” of the show, and she giddily recites the list of who will make appearances. “For episode one, we have Bette Midler. No shit! Bette. Midler. Episode two, Lily Tomlin; episode three, Don Rickles. Paula Deen, who has more money than God, Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters, Christina Aguilera, Taylor Swift.” The lineup reflects her new status, the no-longer-banned YouTube sensation who’s not the outsider she once was. That said, she’s not moving up to the A-list anytime soon. “Now when I say they’re on the show, the show’s not about us hanging out because we’re friends! I’m sort of tricking them and then using whatever I can to get them to talk to me.” She laughs. “So you’ll actually see more red-carpet moments of Christina Aguilera running away from me.”
This story was originally published in BUST Magazine, June/July 2009.
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