Among Other Things, The Outspoken Comic Shares How Some Innocent Photo She Posed For With President Trump’s Severed Head Kinda Changed Her Life.
Cover photo via the Winspear Opera House.
Kathy Griffin is trying to see if time plus social media hysterics equals comedy. Or maybe she’s hoping?
More than a year removed from the controversy surrounding that photo she posed for while holding the fake, bloodied head of President Donald Trump, the always mouthy comedian says her life is still very much consumed by that jarring visual and the backlash it sparked against her among political conservatives.
Rather than run from it, though, Griffin is now trying to own that moment. Lately, she’s been touring the world with a new stand-up show called “Laugh Your Head Off,” which directly tackles the photo that turned her world upside-down and aims to defend its First Amendment merits against what she describes an an ongoing effort to blackball her from Hollywood.
In advance of Griffin bringing that show to Dallas’ Winspear Opera House this weekend — head here for more information on that Saturday, August 18, performance — we caught up with the provocateur by phone for a wide-ranging, honest discussion about her battles with Trump and his supporters, her beef with the Dallas-repped photographer Tyler Shields and, most randomly, the one thing that she has in common with the Grapevine-raised musician Post Malone.
Hey, Kathy! How are you?
Let’s talk about what just happened on Twitter.
I saw that you re-twated me, and I’m very flattered.
@PeteFreedman are you ready for the interview of your career?
— Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) August 16, 2018
I’m flattered that you tweeted me at me first! So you really do this, huh? You look up the interviewers beforehand and then blast them on social media right before the interview. It’s a solid bit you do! It definitely threw me off my game right before this talk. You have 2 million followers, and my notifications were going off.
If nothing else, I am a good marketer. I’m not a member of ISIS, though! Let me get that out of the way. I am also not a member of Al Qaeda. But I definitely know how to market a writer for an alternative publication, dammit!
I dig it! How long have you been doing that Twitter call-out? Is it a long, ongoing bit?
It’s been a bit of mine for a couple of years, yeah! It’s just a fun way to connect with the Pete Freedmans of the world — oh, and I also just read your article about that music festival!
OK, wow. Yeah, the one being thrown by Post Malone. Are you a fan?
I really don’t know who that is.
Ah, jeez. Let’s see. So, he’s throwing this festival. He sings this song called “White Iverson” — that’s how he blew up. He’s from the area. He’s very popular. Like, I know that the numbers are kind of interpreted differently now because of modernity or whatever, but he just set a record where his debut album has been in the top 10 of the Billboard‘s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts for longer than Michael Jackson’s Thriller was.
Holy shit! That’s an accomplishment!
I haven’t totally looked into how the metrics work, so I’m not necessarily sure if it’s all the way as big a deal as it sounds after you factor in, like, inflation or whatever. But it’s still super cool.
Right! And I’m sure that it is dated, like how the Nielsen’s are dated.
Yeah, exactly. But let’s talk about you.
Yeah! For God’s sake! I have a busy day today!
Let’s set the table: Are you home right now while we’re talking? On the road with your show?
I am home right now. By the way: I’m sitting right in the scene of the crime. I’m actually in my home, right in the room where the infamous Trump photo was taken. Which, hey, you may have been offended by it, but it’s completely covered by the First Amendment! It was not illegal. I didn’t break the law. But I am the first person in the history of the country to be targeted in this way by the Oval Office, the first family, the right-wing media and the Department of Justice.
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) May 30, 2017
I guess I’m a little surprised you brought it up so quick, though. I was going to ask if you were tired of talking about it, but you brought it up without my even going there.
Let’s cut the shit. I know what people want to hear — that’s what’s in my show. They want to hear about Anderson Cooper. They want to hear who was naughty, who was nice. And they really want to hear my Trump stories, which is great for me because I’ve known him ever since he had three lines on Suddenly Susan, that show I was in back in the ’90s.
Yeah, I read about that on-set interaction recently. You said he wanted you to call him “The Donald” immediately upon meeting him.
He insists on being called the Donald! Then, the last time I saw him, he goes with it again: “Call me The Donald.” I’m like, “OK, The Donald, it’s me, The Kathy. You’ve been saying this for 20 years!” So I can personally attest to his mental decline, even though I haven’t seen him since the campaign started. But I am so thrilled and, frankly, really excited, because not only do I have my historic and unique story to tell, but I figured out a way to finally make it funny, this situation that I would not wish on my worst enemy. In the rear view, though? It’s been kind of great to hear all the revelatory things that come out almost weekly — like, for example, I love all the stuff that finally came out in The Daily Beast article about how Trump is totally obsessed with TMZ, and how Harvey Levin is a giant Trumper — like a Sarah Palin-level Trumper. And he’s a gay guy! That doesn’t make any sense to me! But then I was like, “Oh, that‘s why TMZ is doing nothing but hit pieces on me.” And, y’know, I wouldn’t put it past Trump — or John Barron or John Miller — to just personally say to Harvey, “Do it!” Or maybe Don Jr. did it — or Eddie Munster, as I like to call him. Because, see, I was a test case for what they tried to do with Samantha Bee — to get her, y’know, “decimated.” And that’s the word, by the way, that Eddie Munster used about me on Good Morning America: “We’re going to decimate Kathy Griffin.” Um, thanks? I’m a citizen. They tried to do it to Michelle Wolf too, by the way, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. And I was there. I have a great story to talk about with that. What a difference a year makes!
Wait, you were there?
Yeah, I saw this whole thing and I wrote a thread about it and it was picked up by The Hill and Huffington Post! OK, so, they tried to start, like, this Twitter campaign. It was actually Matt Schlapp and his wife Mercedes Schlapp. Anyone, really, who doesn’t know them should look up those two. They were trying to say that [Wolf] was so offensive that the Republicans in the audience left en masse. But I was there and [they didn’t leave]. I was in the back of the room when it happened, which is where I happily belong as a proper D-Lister. And I got to see the whole thing! So I tell that story on stage during this show I’m touring now. I love telling that story. I love to also talk about all the crazy shit that Trump said to me privately and in front of other people over the years. And I also just love mixing in the other stuff — like, y’know, when I couldn’t get work in this country at all. Thank God for touring, right? Although I definitely want to be back TV, which is where I belong, dammit! But, like, when I was touring overseas, my joke was how this picture that almost “decimated” me is also the picture that allowed me to tour the world. You should know, by the way, that you’re talking to the seventh-most Googled person in 2017! [Editor’s Note: She was actually eighth.]
That’s pretty impressive!
I’m just saying! And I got to go to New Zealand. And I got to go to Antwerp. And I got to go to Helsinki — I went before the summit, thank God. And I got to go to Reykjavik. Listen, I’m a committed bitch! If I have to go to Reykjavik to tell jokes, I’ll do it! But I’m so glad that I can actually, like, work in my country of origin now.
I imagine a lot of your positions were probably well-received overseas, actually.
Oh, immediately! Although, well, I’m on the Interpol list. So I was detained at every single airport. It’s funny now, but it was kind of frightening at the time. But it’s weird because they take your passport, and when all this was going… like, I was on the no-fly list, like a fucking 9/11 terrorist. Now I can laugh at people even thinking for one second that I had joined ISIS or Al Qaeda. But it’s taken a year for 60 million Trump supporters to back off — although, knowing Trump supporters, I’m sure that 59 million of them still think that of me. I’m still a target in, like, all the new ads for the GOP. I’m definitely still one of the people they put in a basket of, to use their word, “libtards.”
But now that you’re on the road, it sounds like your situation is very much a testament to the idea that tragedy plus time equals comedy.
Exactly! But what sucks is I am still getting daily death threats. I still get calls from the FBI, although the FBI has actually been very helpful. Oh, and I was investigated by two other federal agencies too. I tell that whole story on stage. I kind of have to [tell it]. Because things have changed. When I went overseas, it kind of broke my heart because — like, if I was in a cafe or something and they heard my American accent — they would immediately, everywhere I went, they would say, “What the hell’s going on in [your] country? We used to look up to you. How could you guys elect this guy?” And I’d be trying to do, like, a whole explanation. But they often would say, in many countries, “Oh, all the Americans say that.” But I’m such a bitch, I would pick up my phone, I would pull up the picture, and I would say, “Look. This is me.” And they were all like, “Oh. OK!”
It’s obviously a powerful image. I’m not surprised it stopped people in their tracks.
It certainly does that, I find! To this day.
Is it true that you wear the same dress from the photo onstage on this tour?
Yes. By the way: Federal evidence!
Yes! They called my lawyer [asking for it]. Not Lisa Bloom, by the way. She was horrible. I canned her after two days of her fucking horrible bullshit, which included the worst press conference in history. After that, I got my real First Amendment attorney, whose name is Alan Isaacman, who won the landmark Supreme Court case Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. I thought, when the president and the government and Jeff Sessions come after you, you need somebody who has won a Supreme Court case for Larry Flynt! Anyway, it’s been quite a process. But to have things be turning around now, it’s really like a miracle. And I’m not a religious person! But I’m telling you, obviously, when you have people saying, “Forget it! It’s over! You’re never going to work again!” you have to figure out a new way to work. I had to change my my business model completely. And all my agents deserted me, of course. In fact, they kind of turned on me — like, some of them just for no reason put out negative statements about me. Because, y’know, it was so believable that I was a high-ranking member of ISIS — or even, frankly, in the mail room. I think they have a mail room in ISIS? Like I said, I’m not positive. But dealing with all that stuff made me want to come back harder.
Yeah, I mean, you’re lucky that you do have stand-up, right? Not all celebrities or personalities have a touring avenue like that to follow when all else fails. Like, if you were just an actress, being blacklisted like you say you were by Hollywood would’ve cut off all options. You had alternate routes for earning money.
Yes, absolutely. Listen, the only television job I’ve been given [recently] is by my friend Anthony [Atamanuik], who plays Trump on The President Show. God love him, he let me play Kellyanne Conway on his show, and it was really fun. It’s been the only TV job I’ve been offered since the Trump photo. So there’s kind of a disconnect between Hollywood, frankly, and [the public]. Believe it or not, [Hollywood is] always the last to kind of come around. But, like, we were talking about that rapper earlier for setting a record: It’s important to me to try and set a record like that! Because, as much as the right-wing wants to say I’m over and I’m ugly and I’m down-and-out and I’m old and blah, blah, blah, I can’t let them stop me. That’s where it becomes important for me to go, “OK, I can’t come back in the conventional way — because Hollywood is too afraid of me and they think I’m toxic. But I have such a history on television and doing Super Bowl ads and I made all these Fortune 500 companies a ton of money.” So I just thought, “All right, I can still do my job. They just need me.” So I had to change my whole business model. I even hired an analytics company in D.C. — Cambridge Analytica, just kidding! — and I found that they had such much more sophisticated geo-targeting capabilities than LiveNation or AEG or anyone else, frankly. I’ve honestly been selling out this tour — now, don’t laugh! — with my old-timey mailing lis,t which I just freaking started last February.
Hey, I believe it.
The purpose of the mailing list is quite simply: Sign up for this mailing list if you want me to go to your city. And that’s how I ended up routing the entire tour. It’s awesome. Like, it used to be all willy-nilly, like, “Oh, I’ll go to this city because I’ve done well there before.” Now, I’m a different kind of comedian. I’m getting more straight people, I’m getting more resistors. Like, I’m quite well known for saying, “Fuck Trump.” What’s nice is — you’re kind of right — it’s a little bit of a tragedy plus time. But I have to be honest, I’m still on a mission to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. Like, when Trump started this shit with Samantha Bee, I started a whole online campaign. She and I started talking. And, like I said, I wrote a whole thread for Michelle Wolf.
Let’s talk about that. Because there’s an obvious thread there in what you’re talking about.
Oh, it’s only women! Sure, he goes for guys, but only guys that are vulnerable or whatever. Like, he didn’t go for Snoop Dogg, he didn’t go after Johnny Depp — even after Johnny Depp got drunk in a bar and allegedly threatened him, and even though Johnny Depp allegedly beats the fuck out of women, which I’m sure is Donald Trump’s favorite pastime.
To that idea of gender bias: You seem to have caught a whole lot more flack from the photo than the photographer Tyler Shields did. And I bring him up for a reason because there’s a local tie there: He is represented by Dallas’ Samuel Lynne Galleries. Do you feel like he was given a pass there for his involvement in the photo?
I do. Here’s why: We did collaborate on the picture. We kind of tossed around ideas to humiliate Trump, and how we came up with the idea was remembering what he famously said to Megyn Kelly, who I’m not a fan of, but when he said had “blood coming out of her eyes and out of her… wherever.” Y’know, that. But what has been brought to my attention many times, and it’s really true: Tyler Shields has a freaking series on Netflix , and I can’t even get a special. [Editor’s Note: Shields released a docu-series pilot on YouTube Red.] And I have, like, a real [stand-up] show now! Like, there’s meat on the bones of this act, and I’m really quite proud of it. But the thing about Tyler that I take offense to is — considering how it changed my life, how it cost me millions of dollars of income and legal fees — I simply asked him for the copyright. And, honestly, I just though that, as a gentleman… I mean, this photo is so unusual in the way it turned my life upside down. And it’s only helped him. It really, really disappointed me when he said, “I’m not going to give you the copyright.”
What is the status of your relationship with Tyler Shields right now?
Well, it’s not great! Like, I appreciate that artists don’t like to give up copyrights and stuff. But if I had done something like that — like, I am not a painter, but if I had some kind of a painting or a photo that took someone down and almost took down their entire life and put their safety and the safety of their family in jeopardy, and all this other stuff — that would be very easy for me to do. Like, he’s a prolific guy. He’s got, like you said, galleries — galleries and books! So that’s my issue with him. At the end of the day, he’s kind of like a hippy dippy guy and he likes to work without rules and we have no paperwork or anything. That’s the kind of guy he is. And I had no publicist at the time, and William Morris wasn’t there. So when people say, like, “How does this even happen?” I’m like, “What are you talking about? I don’t have a posse. I’ve never had a big team. I’ve never been a franchise. I got fired from Bravo by Andy Cohen after helping build the network.” I’m a one-man band and always have been. So, yeah, that’s the issue with the photo — because it’s affected my life so profoundly and it’s been so manipulated, and they use it in every Trump rally. It’s like, “Kathy Griffin equals ISIS.” Like I said, I can laugh about it now. Except knowing how many people really believe it? And how, when I walk down the street and to this day people will stop me to scream, “You’re a terrorist! You shouldn’t be able to live here!” which happened a week ago? It’s crazy. Like, my well-meaning friends, they come up to me and they go, “Wow, I’m glad you got through this!” or “Wow, that must have been a tough couple of weeks!” Like, no offense, but it’s been over a year. I still can’t get a TV gig. I’m still taking a lot of meetings, and I’m pitching the shit out of a TV show, and I’m feeling optimistic, for sure. But it’s not over for me. At all. We have issues [with protesters] at every show that I do. But, very fortunately, our actual audiences have been outstanding.
So, you mention all these struggles. But is there any silver lining to all this? I mean, in taking a photo like that one, you’re making your opinion of Trump very clear. You got a reaction — and at least you got some reaction, as opposed to no reaction. And you also mention that you have a new audience base — like there’s this Resistance base as opposed to just your usual crowd. Like, I don’t mention this at all negatively, but when I mentioned earlier in the office that you and I were going to be speaking today, it was the gays in the office who immediately perked up. They were fucking stoked! Like, everyone knows you’ve had your main draw. But now there’s a new wrinkle to your crowds.
Yes, and let me clarify that: The gays were the first to stand by me, thank God. I am their hag, and I always will be their proud hag. But, as a matter of fact, yes. The photo that was supposed to take me down really ended up being the photo that allowed me to truly turn global. Like, for real. When you’re selling out Antwerp? That ain’t easy, baby. And, yeah, I haven’t sold this well in years. And I’m playing the great halls. This is not a show that I can do in a casino — it’s not appropriate. And people are always like, “Come play the local Chuckle Hut!” but I’m like, “Sorry, I’m 57, and I’ve really put my time in at the clubs.” To be able to play the Winspear Opera House and places like that all over the world? It’s fantastic!
So it sounds like there is hope for you yet. Like, if you have success on the road, the Hollywood industry can’t afford to ignore you like you say they have been for the past year.
You’re exactly right. Like, I mentioned on Jimmy Kimmel — and I’m actually serious about it — the idea of doing New Year’s Eve live with Kathy Griffin and Stormy Daniels. And there’s actually some interest in it! Which I think is great!
Which network would that go on, you think?
Honey, I would do Pay-Per-View! But, really, any network that is the open to something really unusual. Did you know that no woman has ever hosted a New Year’s Eve broadcast alone? Or even just with one other woman? Once again: I’m looking to break records. And to have fun while I’m doing it. But don’t act like you would not watch Kathy Griffin and Stormy Daniels on New Year’s Eve!
I’m into it! And I look forward to you continuing your trailblazing ways.
I very much appreciate it! And I hope you come out to the show. And — are you ready for it? — I hope you laugh your head off! I promise, this isn’t going to be an hours-long lecture on the First Amendment. I mix the crazy Trump stuff in with all kinds of stuff — like living next to Kim [Kardashian] and Kanye [West], and all sorts of other great celebrity stories. It’s a great night of laughter, and I also tell the real deal. I spill the tea, as the kids say.
Kathy Griffin performs Saturday, August 18, at the Winspear Opera House. Head here for tickets and more information.