Last spring, it seemed comedian Kathy Griffin had torched her career with a tweet of a photo of her holding a ketchup-soaked Trump mask. A little more than a year later, Griffin, who had previously been best known for her Bravo series, My Life on the D-List, and hosting the New Year's Eve party on CNN with Anderson Cooper, has made a rapid comeback, and turned that terrifying time on its head with a sold-out “world tour,” called Laugh Your Head Off, which comes to Hollywood's Dolby Theatre on July 19 and 20. It's a powerful story of resilience — and of capitalizing on the disaster that easily could have destroyed her life.
Not that it's been easy. Immediately following Griffin's tweet of May 30, 2017, Donald Trump Jr. fired back on Twitter, followed by President Trump himself, in what Griffin calls “the tweet heard 'round the world.” There was a domino effect after the news went viral on TMZ. Griffin was demonized widely on social media, denounced by former co-host Cooper and dropped by CNN, at Trump's behest, and by others in the industry. Her tour was canceled, as were sponsorships. The fear, promoted by Trump, that she would never work again in Hollywood, set in, as well as bigger fears about facing criminal charges and endless death threats.
“Never in the history of the United States has a sitting president used the power of the Oval Office and his first family, including Feckless, Eddie Munster, Date Rape and even Melanie, to take down and decimate not only an American citizen but really the first celebrity in this way,” says Griffin, who spoke candidly with L.A. Weekly at her Bel-Air home during a recent break in her tour. Her nicknames for First Daughter Ivanka Trump, the elder Trump sons and the First Lady are back in play since she shed the fears that prompted her tearful and justifiably frightened apology on Twitter, soon after the first stage of her takedown. She has since taken back her apology and her own resolve. “I call it the Trump woodchipper,” she says now, in hindsight. “This apparatus was in place.”
Luckily for Griffin, 57, who cut her teeth in the L.A. comedy scene at the Groundlings and Beth Lapides' UnCabaret, improv is in her skill set. So getting back on her feet after first “curling up in a ball” is what ended up saving her personally and professionally — that, plus the legal aid of First Amendment champion Alan Isaacman, the same lawyer who defended Larry Flynt when he was in hot water. “I didn't break the law,” Griffin says.
That said, being under a federal investigation is no laughing matter, and though Griffin was prepared by “ex–Secret Service and ex-FBI friends” and experts, she admits “it was definitely one of the scariest experiences” of her life. “I was shaking like a leaf, and yet you don't want to look like you're shaking because then you think it makes you look guilty,” she says. “In my act I try to make it funny about how I was sitting there trying to explain to federal officers who are willing to take me in cuffs the reasons I wouldn't really be the right fit for ISIS, and that although the photo may be vulgar, I don't really want to decapitate anyone, even Donald Trump, even though I can't stand him. I couldn't be defensive. I couldn't be obviously cavalier about it. It was surreal. I obviously am not used to speaking cautiously. And I had to be prepared for the question, 'Are you willing to leave the country?'” she says, referring to other once-targeted and blacklisted creative artists, such as Eartha Kitt, who felt forced to live abroad. “How do I say, 'No, I'm not going to let this run me out of the country. I'm an American. I'm a patriot. I performed in Iraq and Afghanistan.' Oh, wait, what? I can't say that. And so it was trying to navigate all those waters, which are obviously completely foreign to me.”
Griffin points to her own white privilege and wealth for enabling her to be in such a strong position during the interrogation and for the ability to have the investigation dismissed, while also noting that she's learned she's been put on yet another “kill list” by Trump supporters. “I think how many women have had to sit in rooms like that, who didn't have Alan Isaacman who won a Supreme Court case, who didn't have the ability to call other people that could at least give them certain tips one way or another.”
Laugh Your Head Off
In her show, which is a three-hour, nonstop performance with no opening act, Griffin takes the audience through her ordeal, which included a two-month federal investigation for conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States; being put on the no-fly list and detained at airports around the world; receiving death threats at her home, which she still gets daily (including some she reads onstage for both gravity and uproarious comedic effect); and being called a terrorist by Trump supporters — that happened when she was walking down the street while on tour in San Francisco last month and recently at a restaurant in Santa Monica.
But filling out what Griffin calls a “two-hour lecture on First Amendment rights” are tales of her former spray-tanning next-door neighbor Kim Kardashian; meeting Donald Trump on the set of her '90s hit sitcom Suddenly Susan (“His first words to me were, 'Call me “The Donald,”' to which I said, 'OK. Call me “The Kathy,”' and I walked away”); and of comedian Jim Carrey, who encouraged Griffin to “seize the moment,” as did Jamie Foxx, among other renowned comics, she says.
“I was so grateful when Jim called me that day, and he said, 'You know, you have a story that most comedians would give their right arm for,'” she says.
“And same with Jamie Foxx. I said to both of those guys, 'I can take it, but I need to hear it from someone who really knows what they're talking about. Is this my moment where it's just over? You can tell me.' And Jamie was like, 'You have to stay in the fight. It is essential.' And then, and I won't tell you names because I told them I wouldn't, but since then about five of the most famous comedians in the world have specifically said to me, 'We are all watching you,' which is comforting to hear from comedians who are much more successful than I am and have much bigger platforms.”
Comedian John Fugelsang, who has known Griffin since they performed together at the first U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen in the '90s, has been awed by her ability to move forward from the experience. “If I had been at that photo shoot, I would probably have begged them to never use that photo — this administration looks for any chance to cry persecution and would use it as ammo. And if they had not used it, Kathy would've been spared a world of heartache that most of us will never know,” Fugelsang told L.A. Weekly. “But not using that pic, she would have deprived us of the best material and performances of her entire career.”
Indeed, Griffin, who in 2013 broke George Carlin's record in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most stand-up shows by any comedian, now is selling out at larger venues on her Laugh Your Head Off World Tour than she ever has before. And she's been receiving multiple standing ovations, even during the middle of her set at the shows, which have included stops at the prestigious Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York. In fact, what could have ended her career is actually saving it.
After seeing Griffin perform at her Radio City Music Hall tour date on June 26, Fugelsang posted a photo on Instagram and wrote that watching Griffin perform her nonstop set onstage was like watching Lenny Bruce “without the heroin.”
“People trust good political comics more than they trust politicians, because for a joke to get a laugh there must be an element of truth to it. Most of us have the comedians — from Mort Sahl to George Carlin to Richard Pryor to Samantha Bee — that we recognize as truth tellers,” says Fugelsang, who hosts Tell Me Everything weekdays on SiriusXM. “Lenny Bruce was unique in that he had legal travails over his content that he tried to turn into art onstage. The difference is that, toward the end, Lenny's demons kept that work from being entertaining. Kathy took the pain and made it hilarious for audiences.
“I can think of no comedian who has gone through what Kathy has gone through — this kind of disgrace and condemnation over a controversial artistic statement just never happens. It would crush anyone. And she turned it into beauty and joy,” Fugelsang adds.
Beth Lapides, a comedian who is a staple of the L.A. comedy scene and founded the experimental show UnCabaret, is a close friend of Griffin. She has watched Griffin's career develop over the years, along with other now-famous comedians including Margaret Cho, Patton Oswalt, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk. “Kathy is a provocateur. It's her nature and she has a vital place on the comedy spectrum,” Lapides told L.A. Weekly. “In order to be a successful provocateur, you need to have awareness of thought and an inner strength.
“At UnCabaret at the beginning, Kathy was one of the best performers, and the work she was doing there was completely unprecedented and raw, and people couldn't get enough of it because there was no guidebook for it. No one knew really what it was, and she was finding it. So that takes a certain kind of courage, and it's playing out now,” Lapides says of Griffin's comeback tour. “The way that she did it then, super raw and super personal, is what she's doing now, and she's comfortable in that zone of going into uncharted territory.”
Blazing Her Own Path
Griffin admits that returning to comedy was what got her through the dark times, and back on the road, literally, although the only tour dates she is likely to actually drive to are the ones this week in Los Angeles and in San Diego at the Civic Center on July 28.
“I put my nose down to my old-timey comedy notebook. I do my act the same way, and I just started writing, writing, writing,” Griffin says of how she started to rebuild after the initial shock wore off. “I took a bunch of meetings with many studios and networks because, frankly, I thought it'd be interesting to do a docu-series around what happened.”
She was turned down by all of them, Griffin says, even by YouTube streaming, and hasn't been able to secure any TV deals. “What I found was, and I will say this openly, I pitched the idea to many, many high-level female executives, who were interested but they couldn't get it past their male, check-signer bosses. And one thing I just want to say to you, because you're the L.A. Weekly and this is a town that doesn't like to hear shit from me, that's for sure, they're making that very clear, but I just want you to know it's honestly like the same like seven dinosaurs that are keeping people like Rosanna Arquette and me and women of a certain age from working in television. It's the same. Leslie Moonves, the same guy who's been telling me for 20 years, 'You're not gonna amount to anything. You're too old, you're too big,' or whatever.”
For her part, Rosanna Arquette, an actress and #MeToo activist, says the castigation of Griffin reflects the dark tenor of the Trump administration. “It seems like the strongest reaction is left for the women, and that's what I think we're feeling here and seeing,” Arquette says. “I aways had Kathy's back and I felt like, come on. She's a comedian. Parody is part of the culture to help us heal. What comedians do for us is make us laugh at ourselves, make us laugh at the world, make us laugh at the craziest shit, and that's what she did. And I think she's very brave.”
Apparently, Hollywood hasn't gotten the memo. Or doesn't care. Or is too terrified to put Griffin on camera.
With no deals on the horizon, she took a grassroots approach, connecting with her fans and supporters using her “tiny mailing list” and social media. She did the red-white-and-blue tour artwork in-house; it depicts the red-headed comic in the same royal-blue dress she wore in the Trump photo, and that she wears on tour (and that is still considered a piece of federal evidence), but holding a globe instead a faux severed head.
“I'm honestly selling tickets. You go to KathyGriffin.com to sign up for my mailing list or text KATHY to 345345. The people on the mailing list get first crack at the tickets, and that's how I sold out Carnegie because I'll just tell you right to your face, the boys at Live Nation said, 'You're not allowed to play Carnegie, you'll never sell it out.' My agent said, 'I'm going to put you in 500-seaters.' And I sold out Massey Hall in Toronto, with 3,000 seats, and I played Radio City, with 6,000 seats,” Griffin says proudly, adding that she has no publicist, so she has to be her own. “By the way, the reason I played Radio City on a Monday and Carnegie on a Tuesday is that no comic has ever done that in history. So once again, it might be hard to sit through, but once I kick the bucket down, there's going to be some young comedian that goes, 'Wait a minute, I can do that.' The dudes said, 'You can't play the Masonic [in San Francisco] and add a second show. You think you can play the Dolby and add a second show?' And to them I said, 'Watch me.' I did both.”
Recent appearances with Dan Harris on ABC's Nightline, with Sam Rubin on KTLA Morning News and on Jimmy Kimmel Live have been arranged by texts from friends or direct messages sent by Griffin or her manager/boyfriend of six years, Randy Bick, who has been by her side throughout, along with friends and her mother, Maggie. Both her mom and her late sister, Joyce, also received death threats mailed directly to them, her sister as she was dying from cancer. Griffin shaved her head in solidarity with Joyce, and as her hair grows in, she wears wigs for photos and public appearances. She often chokes up onstage while telling these stories.
Dancing With Joy
After fearing for her life, Griffin is thrilled to have a platform to perform and by the crowds she's drawing, even in the wake of recent attacks on comic Samantha Bee, who endured a similar shaming and security concern and had to make a public apology; the two female comedians now are being targeted together on a GOP smear TV ad.
“We should all expect more attacks on artists, as bullies always love to play victim,” notes Fugelsang, whose concerns are echoed by Arquette, Lapides and Griffin. “But this redemption narrative about Kathy is bigger than politics or stand-up. It's really a lesson for everyone that any brutal setback can be turned into something marvelous — even if it's just a great inspiring story.”
Griffin's journey from the D-list to the blacklist to the A-list is one to be celebrated, but she puts it in perspective. “I call myself an A-list jumper. There have been moments, like when I presented at the Academy Awards with the great Don Rickles, and I was like, 'OK, this is an A-list day. I don't care how you slice it, isn't it?' But trust me, any hour of the day, I could go from the A-list to the D-list,” she says. “I admit it. Walking out onstage to a standing ovation to Radio City? Yeah, that's an A-list moment. It's a great position to be in. And frankly, it's for doing something that took me from under the radar to be very much on the radar. When I got home and one of my puppies peed on my lap, I was back on the D-list where I belong. But I'm proud of the D-list.”
Grateful for the steady work of the tour, especially after enduring so much uncertainty, Griffin says she is happy to know audiences are connecting with her and leaving her shows feeling uplifted, too. “I feel like if nothing else, I want to be the place where you can go and use me as a case study, or laugh your ass off, or if you can't stand Trump but you're afraid of your cousin because he's going to yell at you at Thanksgiving, you can at least have a couple of hours where you know I'm going to let him have it.
“And I talk about other stuff. I talk about what it was like to live next to Kimmy. I don't want it to be so heavy that audiences walk out of there going, 'Oh God, what she's been through.' I want them to walk out of there going — and this is the response that I get, which is really encouraging — 'It's great to see somebody who not only survived something so frightening that we see on TV every day, but you're literally laughing and dancing across the stage.'
“And I'm going, 'Yeah, I'm literally dancing with joy every single day because I'm allowed to make a living in my own country.' I just want to make people laugh. I'm so shallow. But I really do every show like it's my last.”
Kathy Griffin's Laugh Your Head Off World Tour is at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Thu.-Fri., July 19-20, 8 p.m.; tickets and more info at KathyGriffin.com.
[Editor's note: The number to text to join Griffin's mailing list has been corrected. We regret the error.]