Kathy Griffin on Surviving Donald Trump, Confronting Leslie Moonves and Her SXSW Concert Movie

By Ramin Setoodeh

LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) – By any measure, Kathy Griffin’s comedy tour last year was a big hit. She traveled to 15 countries and played regal venues (such as the Sydney Opera House) as she dished about the devastating fallout from a 2017 photograph in which she posed with a gory mask that looked like Donald Trump’s decapitated head. The redemptive set was called, appropriately enough, “Laugh Your Head Off.” It raked in $4.4 million, and it earned her a rave review from The New York Times.

But when Griffin returned to her Bel Air home last October, she quickly realized that Hollywood wasn’t ready to forgive her. Even despite her touring success, every executive in town regarded her as an unemployable comic who’d crossed the line. She tried to shop around a comedy special, but Netflix and HBO passed. She wanted to do a reality show about what it was like to have her First Amendment rights attacked by the president. That idea was met with crickets. Finally, she took her fate into her own hands. Griffin self-financed her first concert movie, employing a camera crew to record her last tour performance. She hired director Troy Miller and paid for everything, right down to the posters.

This week, she’s debuting that film, “: A Hell of a Story,” at South by Southwest, the annual showcase of buzzy movies in Austin, Texas. Why did they say yes when everyone else rejected her? “At SXSW, we support freedom of speech, so this felt like a worthy story,” says Janet Pierson, the fest’s director of film. “We were moved by her hypothesis that this was a cautionary tale: If this could happen to her, it could happen to anyone.”

The portrait of Griffin in the film is different from the caustic comedian from “Suddenly Susan” or “My Life on the D-List.” She’s still funny, but also raw, furious and a voice of Trump’s resistance. After the photograph — which Griffin later apologized for — went viral, people on the street accused her of joining ISIS. She lost all her income and endorsement deals. CNN fired her from her gig hosting New Year’s Eve with Anderson Cooper, who also ended the pair’s off-camera friendship.

That wasn’t the worst of it. According to Griffin, the Trump administration tried to ruin her to make an example out of her. She was added to the No Fly List of suspected terrorists, which led to detainments at airports. She says she underwent lengthy federal investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Secret Service on suspicion of conspiracy to assassinate the president. If she’d been charged and found guilty, the punishment would have been life in prison. (A spokesperson from the DOJ declined to comment.)

Griffin hopes that a distributor will buy her film at SXSW, which could help cement her comeback. She told her story to Variety in a candid interview, excerpted here.

Kathy Griffin Trump beheading photo

Do people still think you did something wrong?

A lot of people thought that I broke the law. And once the investigation started, I can see how they would reach that incorrect conclusion. We’re now in this information era where Mark Zuckerberg wants to control your news feed, and I’ve had to roll with it just like everybody else has. To this day, all the Trumpies will flood my timeline. I feel a real need to tell this story. In my tour, you could hear a pin drop when I talked about being detained at every single airport.

What would the officials tell you?

I filed a Freedom of Information Act [request], because I don’t know what’s on my passport. But I was so relieved; I went to London recently, and they didn’t detain me. Whatever it was, I think they took it off. I’m hoping someone at the Department of Justice went, “We don’t do this in this country.”

Why do you think Trump went after you so hard?

I “aggrieved” this president. I’m sure you remember there was kind of a Hollywood uproar when Johnny Depp made a comment about the president or Snoop Dogg or Morrissey. Well, none of them went through anything like this. I feel a lot of this is because I’m a 58-year-old woman. I’m a successful stand-up comedian, which flies in the face of everything Trump and his folks believe. And I think my impression is they’re just offended by the audacity that I want to continue to work and be successful and I’m a self-made woman.

Jr. is still attacking you online.

I have a theory that it comes from the dad. Don Jr. doesn’t take a piss without asking Daddy first.

Do you think Trump will be impeached?

I don’t know about impeachment, because of a handful of old dinosaur senators. I don’t know if they’re going to have the fortitude that they did during Watergate, where even all the Nixon apologists finally heard all the tapes and said, “Right is right, and wrong is wrong.”

Your tour was so successful. Why do you think Netflix won’t sign a comedy deal with you?

I don’t know. If nothing else, this tale is historic and one of a kind. And I do have a body of work that speaks for itself and two Emmys and a Grammy. I can tell you a little story, which is a friend of mine called a partner in one of the big agencies and said, “How would you feel about taking Kathy Griffin?” And this was maybe six months after the Trump situation. And he said, “Life’s too short.” So hearing that is pretty devastating. I’ve definitely learned patience through this process. I’m hoping people will be interested in [the movie] because nobody would even consider looking at a sizzle reel. And it was frustrating, because I’m going, “Gosh, I sold out Carnegie Hall in less than 24 hours.”


Do you feel blacklisted?

Yeah. I think I’m living it right now. I’ve been around a long time. I’ve caused a lot of what people consider to be trouble. I’ve been in controversies, real and fake, and a lot of these guys saying no to me are the same guys that have been saying no to me for 20 years. I think there’s still a stigma that can go from ageism to “Am I your cup of tea?” There really aren’t very many well-known female comedians over 50. And I think some of [the executives] are gobsmacked, going, “What’s this chick still doing around?”

How many nos have you gotten?

I’ve gotten all nos. I mean, honestly, at this moment, I don’t have one single day of paid work ahead of me for the rest of my life. When I say it in the film, you can tell the audience is imagining how that would feel if it was their situation.

Were you hurt that Anderson Cooper distanced himself from you so quickly?

I was devastated. It still hurts. I mean, I really loved him. I don’t have a punchline for that one.

Many of your fans would like to see you return to hosting a New Year’s Eve show. 

I’m very upset that no one picked up my genius idea last year of a New Year’s Eve live with Kathy Griffin and Stormy Daniels. I pitched that to about five different places, and they all laughed during the pitch, and then they would kick it upstairs. Stormy works the pole. Maybe I do. We have a couple of visitors. I had the whole thing worked out. I have ideas, if nothing else.

When do you think that things will turn around?

I think it’s going to change sooner than later, because it’s been over a year and a half. I got invited by Oxford to deliver a speech about the First Amendment. I did a big speech at the Upfront Summit in front of a thousand venture capitalists, and I was between Adam Schiff and Gwyneth Paltrow. And I’m getting an award in Sacramento from the state legislature for women who have made statements and put themselves out there. I’m very acutely aware I’m tied to that photo for the rest of my life. People confront me in the street. They think I’m ISIS. And then it becomes funny. At the moment it’s scary, and then I go home and go, “OK, really?” I’ve just learned to accept that. I wish I could go the [Colin] Kaepernick route, where this ends in me getting a $100 billion Nike contract. So I’m sure that’s coming. Maybe with Crocs.

You recently ran into Les Moonves at lunch?

Once you’ve prevailed over the president of the United States and the Department of Justice, you become fearless. I call myself the Mayor of Zero Fucksville. Recently, I was having a power lunch at the Polo Lounge. I got there early. The maitre d’ took me to a section, and the only other person I saw there was Les Moonves. I remember thinking, “Are you kidding me? You’ve got $600 million. Go spend the rest of your life on a boat.” I just turned to the maitre d’ and said, “May I have a different booth?” The look on his face was priceless. I couldn’t care less. I can’t wait until I run into Harvey Weinstein.

This interview has been edited and condensed.