Resilience, thy name is Kathy. It’s been two-and-a-half years since the comedienne displayed a now infamous photo of a ketchup-covered trump mask, a photo that’s plagued the Grammy-and-Emmy winner. One long Hollywood blacklist, a sold-out world tour, a self-produced docu-comedy later and the Life On The D-List star, is ready to return to what she does best: be funny. My time with Griffin was both reflective and insightful of her colorful and lengthy career.
JE: Your self-financed documentary A Hell of a Story came out earlier this year. Can you talk about the documentary, and the situation behind it, in your own words?
KG: “[The docu-comedy A Hell of a Story] is actually a historic story, that’s why I feel so passionate about telling it, and I'm happy that the film is being received so well. [...] I’ve never considered myself to be a political comedian, but I’ve always made fun of powerful people… I punch up, I don’t punch down, so for me [I feel] to make fun of the President is part of a comedian’s job, and this one in particular. I actually feel like if you’re a comic and you're not shining a light on this Administration then you’re kind of being derelict in your duty. So I try to do it in a way that’s funny.
“I am currently what’s called ‘blacklisted’ in Hollywood, in television and streaming in particular, I have two Emmys and a Grammy, but [they act as if] that’s all meaningless because of one picture. When the photo happened it was like a bomb went off in my life, everyone scattered like bugs... My whole landscape changed overnight... my entire 50 city tour I was in the middle of, the remaining 25 cities were canceled in 12 hours due to death threats to the theaters… Obviously the first thing I decided to do was to look into my options for things that even the ‘Accidental President’ can’t stop, and so, thank God he still can't stop people from buying tickets overseas.
“Two federal agencies (the Secret Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office) opened an investigation on me without a call or any warning. I just got a call from my 1st Amendment attorney, Alan Issacman [...] saying there was an open-ended investigation, meaning they can carry it on as long as they want. They were investigating me to consider charging me with conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States of America. That is unprecedented for a private citizen. The investigation [...] was really quite brutal and extremely expensive--I had a lot of security and very expensive legal fees, I was on the no-fly list [and an under-oath interrogation, but now] I have a document from the Secret Service that says ‘you’re exonerated’, unlike The Accidental President [and his] ‘no collusion’. “Once I was finally exonerated I put together an overseas international tour, the Kathy Griffin Laugh Your Head Off Tour, and thank God for all the countries that are very thirsty for a vulgar American woman to stand on stage and be honest about what a fraud Donald J. Trump really is... and hopefully make the audience laugh at the same time. I ended up doing something like 15 countries and 23 cities. At the end of every show I got a standing ovation. We took quite a bit of footage [with her tour manager and boyfriend, Randy Bick]... we didn’t have microphones, we didn’t have a crew. Then I hired an amazing director, Troy Miller, and I thought ‘well, if nobody will give me money to do yet another special (I’ve done 23 already)...’
JE: Why do you think you were blacklisted?
KG: I think, my guess is even the higher-ups are afraid of the ‘Trump tweet’, and what frustrates me about that is I'm just little 58 year-old Kathy Griffin, and I survived that. I kind of figured out my way around it. So I thought, ‘okay, I'm going to go ahead and make a special myself.’ My god, I've made so many, I know exactly how to do them. There were a ton of hit pieces about me from AMI Media and they own OK Magazine and Life & Style and a lot of the weeklys that people in Los Angeles think are news, and people would write articles about me saying I had lupus or that I lost my hair... I would argue that effort made me not only unemployable but also uninsurable, so that's why I think to this day they made the check signers reticent to hire me.
JE: And how did the doc ultimately start out on the film-festival circuit?
KG: My brilliant publicist Alex Spieler said ‘why don't we try and get it in South by Southwest?’ and I was like ‘Oh my God, you think so?’ because when I was a little girl I would go see comedy in movie theaters, you know, Richard Pryor, George Carlin... so we got into South by Southwest, reviews were outstanding, and I did a keynote with Kara Swisher, and it became a [ part of] Fathom Events, that ran in 700 theaters across the United States for one night only on July 31st Long story short the first third of the film is [a] documentary, and then it segues really into a comedy concert. That’s why I call it a docu-comedy. This little film keeps getting invited to more festivals! I call it ‘the little movie that could’ because it really is and I'm just grateful I got to tell the story.
JE: Let’s revisit the photo that started this complicated situation.
KG: I like that it’s left up to interpretation. I like to think of it as a statement, but I have no problem if someone thinks it was just a joke, or just done for shock value.The reason I did it is, I’m 58 years old, and having done stand-up comedy for 40 years, I’ve set records, won awards, and you kind of get to a certain age when you realize maybe it’s better not to give a fuck. And honestly, I don’t think I would have done it if I was 25 years old. When Trump was running I honestly thought ‘he's not really going to run.’ When he came down the escalator [...] I listened to that speech and I thought ‘it's over’ and he is (as the kids say) canceled. He didn't get canceled... as his popularity kept growing so did the sort of alt-right machine which would cover for him.
“The reason I took the picture, and I want to remind you it was pre-Weinstein, pre-Me Too, and I really wanted to take a photo that I knew would shame him. I’ve known him off and on for 25 years and I know enough about him, he’s hired me twice to roast him. I felt like the things he was doing were so shocking, even at that time, that I thought ‘I’m just gonna take this picture’ that I thought would have a shelf life of two days on gay blogs. It’s a mask with ketchup. The photographer manipulated it a little bit--the mask kept folding, so I took a styrofoam wig head, and I wish he had left the wig head in. The amount of people who think I was holding his head, or anyone’s head, finally makes me laugh… though it didn’t make me laugh for a long time. But that shit’s funny.
“But when they decided to manipulate the photo globally within twelve hours, we found it was circulated globally--it was in Arabic papers, Russian papers, French papers, and they manipulated it to whatever they wanted. One of the photos was in Arabic, it said ‘Kathy Griffin, Jihad asset’... the notion that they took a picture and thought ‘this is going to be incendiary if we spin it the right way…’ but then to make the leap that I was a card-carrying member of ISIS… when the ISIS connection happened I wasn’t prepared for it, but then the onslaught, the death threats I received - I receive to this day… They came at me guns a-blazing.
JE: Would you like to explain our shoot with Mike Ruiz, and the concept behind it?
KG: I have worked with the amazing Mike Ruiz, who you guys so graciously hired to do these incredible Joan of Arc photos.The minute I heard the idea I just thought it was fantastic. I wish that I was Colin Kaepernick and I wish that I was seen as a First Amendment hero to the tune of Nike giving me a $100 million deal or whatever, but to be portrayed as Joan of Arc is not bad at all.
“This is going to sound really hokey but that's how I feel a lot of times. I’ve seen three of the images you guys are going to use. One of the three suits of armor used in the shoot, I’m holding a shield and I asked if Mike Ruiz could impose the actual language of the First Amendment on it. I like dressing up as her because in a smaller, comedic, modern way, there are times when I’m leaving my home and mentally I’m wearing one of those coats of armor, because I have to. I don’t know who’s gonna come at me or why. I can’t act like the photo fallout is over [...] I’m always a little bit prepared but I still always want to be open to hilarity, comedy, kindness, and humanity. It’s a little bit of a balance act
I’m flattered that I get to dress up as Joan of Arc because I probably, initially at least enter a situation with some version of that coat of armor in my head. Depending on how the event goes, I’ve either got three coats of armor by the time I leave or, I’m mentally leaving in a bikini.
“The final thought for me: become engaged. I think people think it’s too overwhelming to [become] engaged. Things that never used to happen, that were illegal, things that got Presidents to resign because they knew they [would be] impeached, they’re happening now on a daily basis. We live in a country that has concentration camps and we have to call them that because that’s what they are… I admit I’m one of the people trying to ring the bell saying shit’s changing in a bad way for the average person, but it’s going to affect you sooner or later--it already is.
“Lately I’ve had to spend over two years trying to convince other people I’m a human being, and there are a lot of people who are in that situation, where they’re just trying to convince someone--the Bahamians who were turned away in Florida, they can’t convince three border patrol agents they’re human beings. That’s the sort of place we’re in as a globe, and I’d like us to get away from this false fear [of The Other]. The Accidental President and its cronies do create a lot of false fear of ‘The Others’, and I take a little bit of pride that little-old 58 year old, 5’3” 110 lb Kathy Griffin actually scared the shit out of them.”
In 1928, German director Carl Theodore Dreyer directed The Passion of Joan of Arc, a feature-length silent epic that tells of Joan’s time as a captive of England. Notably, the film is famous for its extensive use of close ups, a novelty in its time, to highlight Joan’s emotional struggles as England attempts to threaten, coerce, and break her. Joan (adeptly portrayed by Renée Falconetti) remains, at the end, unbroken.
What happened to Kathy Griffin--the unprecedented backlash, the attempts to smear, intimidate, and coerce her--provides us a similarly close look at how runaway authoritarian governance can affect us. If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone. At the end of the day, like Joan, Kathy Griffin is unbroken. I’m left with many questions at the conclusion of our interview. Could Joan of Arc tell a good joke? When can we see the rest of her international set? But there’s one fact I have no doubt about. Kathy Griffin is ready to do what she does best: be funny.
INTERVIEW: Jeff Ewing @reeljeffewing
Photography and Creative Direction: Mike Ruiz @mikeruizone
Assistant to Mike Ruiz: Ozzie Guitierrez @__ozzie__
Wardrobe: Michael St. Michael @michaelstmichael
Hair: Johnny Stuntz @johnnystuntz
Make up: Donald Simrock @dsimrock
editorial director: Andrea Allison @_andrea_allison
Production Assistant: Shannon Duffy @westcoastduffy