Photography by John Tsiavis
Kathy Griffin is familiar with the lifestyles of the rich and famous because she’s amassed a fortune mocking them. She knows, for instance, that a fall from grace can clear the path for a comeback. In fact, she’s counting on it, having recently been torn down herself after a photo of her holding a ketchup-covered Trump mask last year nearly tanked her career. “I was punished as if I had actually cut someone’s head off,” she says. “I learned the hard way that it doesn’t matter what you do.” Her blue eyes are steely under her theatrically arched eyebrows as she continues: “This experience has absolutely made me more unfiltered. I’m sorry, Michelle Obama, I worship you, but when they go low, I’m going lower.”
It’s a sunny afternoon in April, and the 57-year-old comedian is giving me what she calls “the bragging tour” of the multimillion-dollar Bel Air mansion where she lives with her younger boyfriend, tour manager Randy Bick, and her three dogs. There’s the “glam room,” with its turquoise barbershop chair and wigs in various shades of red; the expansive white marble bathroom that she says failed to impress former neighbor Kim Kardashian West; and the guest book given to her by her idol Joan Rivers with the rule that only celebrities be allowed to sign it. All of it represents a livelihood that, much like her singular sense of humor, cannot be taken away.
“I might accidentally do my material,” she warns apologetically after unloading the story of how the Secret Service launched a two-month investigation to determine whether she should be charged with conspiracy to assassinate the president (no, they decided), and the travel hassles that resulted from being temporarily placed on a no-fly list. It’s a tale you can expect to hear during her punningly titled Laugh Your Head Off tour, which kicks off stateside June 14 in San Francisco — though Griffin promises that her hyper-politicized mind-set will not render her unrecognizable to fans who’ve come to love her for dishing insider dirt and poking fun at everyone from Steven Spielberg to the Real Housewives.
“It’s very easy to weave my Trump stuff in with material about shallow celebrities because he is one,” she quips. “I know him personally. I don’t know any other presidents.”
At the moment, though, she’s in stand-up withdrawal: “I’m only capable of half-talking and half-seeing if you’re laughing,” she says, acknowledging she’s addressing an audience of one. In a normal year, Griffin would perform in more than 80 cities, making somewhere between $3 million and $5 million annually — but this has not been a normal year.
Last May, within hours of its release, that notorious photo, taken by provocateur Tyler Shields and intended to be a subversive promotional stunt that clapped back at Trump for his vulgar remarks about Megyn Kelly having “blood coming out of her wherever,” instead cost Griffin countless friends (CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live cohost Anderson Cooper among them), as well as sponsorships and her remaining North American tour dates, as venues were overwhelmed by threats of violence. “My lefty friends thought I ruined the resistance, while the alt-right said I was a member of ISIS,” she recalls, curling up on a comfy white chair in front of her bedroom fireplace. “I thought this would be a scandal for two days. I didn’t realize how many people would buy into so many outrageous things.”
While Griffin has spent two decades pulling off an exquisite hat trick, making herself relevant by boasting of her irrelevance — most memorably on six seasons of Bravo’s Emmy-winning Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List — she was ill-prepared to be, as she says, “infamous on an A-list level.” After the incident, she immediately released an apology video, but two days later appeared distraught and defensive at a press conference. She then watched herself become toxic property even as private messages of support poured in, including from Amy Schumer and Jim Carrey.
Lost in all this was Griffin’s opportunity to make the point that, however crude or tasteless the photo — and it was almost unanimously denounced by both sides of the aisle — she was arguably addressing Trump, a man who once bragged that he could shoot someone without losing voters and “grab [women] by the pussy,” on his level. The absence of an apparatus that might have better protected or defended Griffin on First Amendment grounds is in large part what makes her so unique. “People are like, ‘Where was your team?’ You mean my assistant and my boyfriend? Or Maggie? She was drinking,” says Griffin, the latter remark a wisecrack about her 97-year-old mother, who stole every D-List scene she appeared in. “I’m not part of a franchise. I’ve never had a studio be like, ‘Come, we’ll guide you through the process of starring in The Hunger Games.’ I’ve been a one-man band for a long time.”
Griffin identified her niche ages ago: “They hire the pretty girl, they realize she’s not funny, and they go, ‘We need Kathy, even if we have to look at her.’ ” This began in 1996 with her role on Suddenly Susan, the NBC sitcom with Brooke Shields, and continued with gigs like hosting the Daytime Emmys — until in 2015 she was replaced by more conventionally telegenic hosts like Tyra Banks and Mario Lopez. Griffin has responded by carving out her own space: She toured relentlessly, wrote best-selling books, became one of three women to win a Grammy for a solo comedy album (Kathy Griffin: Calm Down Gurrl), and currently holds the record for having the most televised stand-up specials. She estimates that her fearlessness when it comes to skewering celebrities has earned her $75 million over the course of her career.
At the same time, she’s always hoped her targets see her as harmless. “I’m supposed to act like I don’t care what people think, but there’s nothing better than when they get you,” says Griffin, citing Renee Zellweger, whom she once called a “puffy crack whore,” as a particularly good sport. Her act may not necessarily fly with a younger, socially conscious generation, many of whom don’t share Griffin’s admiration for the late Rivers’s caustic brand of comedy.
Demi Lovato (whom Griffin gleefully refers to as Debbie) gloated about her recent troubles, and Griffin’s frequent use of the phrase “my gays” to describe friends and fans has been criticized as well, including by former Bravo boss Andy Cohen. “I’ve been in the [LGBTQ] community my entire life, before the word ally,” says Griffin, who got her start performing in drag clubs. “I know it’s old-timey. I know the possessive is offensive. But to the baby gays who say, ‘You need to stop saying that,’ I’m like, ‘Really? What’s Stonewall?’ ”
Besides, Griffin never intended to be a political comedian. If anything, she only accidentally wandered into controversial topics, like the time she was doing a show outside Orlando when the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was announced. Griffin thought nothing of expressing her dismay from the stage, calling the man who shot an unarmed black teenager a murderer. Then came the boos. “Like, a third of my audience thinks he had cause,” she recalls, incredulous. She swiftly pivoted to a reliable Lindsay Lohan joke and, afterward, ran from the venue to her car.
This time around, Griffin will not be ducking sensitive subjects. She wants this tour to be, in part, both a brief tutorial on the freedom of speech, which she feels the Trump administration is determined to undermine, and a closer look at guilty-pleasure gossip sites like TMZ, which helped bury her and whose founder has ties to the president. “I’m very proud of the material because nobody else has it,” says Griffin, referring to the portions of the two-hour show where she takes the crowd into the interrogation room with her. “I’ve never had what I call a very special Blossom [episode], where I try to be serious.” She gestures to the TV on the wall above the fireplace, which is almost always tuned to MSNBC: “Sorry, this is everybody’s lane now.”
Griffin repeatedly steers the conversation back to how disappointed she is in “a very famous friend” who told her he only spends “a hot 10 minutes” of his act on Trump. And she’s heartbroken by Roseanne Barr, an early mentor who tapped Griffin for Fox’s short-lived, late-’90s SNL rival Saturday Night Special. “People literally say they want to shoot me in the cunt, so I can’t afford to be happy for Roseanne,” she says of the now militant Trump supporter whose rebooted series has attracted more than 25 million viewers. “I don’t think that character should be normalized.”
What remains to be seen is whether Griffin, with her newfound activist stance, will be as popular now as she once was, especially in red states. (She proudly notes that her date at New York’s Carnegie Hall is already sold out.) “I did one of my specials in Knoxville. The big unanswered question is, all those audience members who came to see me for decades — will they always hate me now?” she wonders. Several awful, far-reaching scandals have broken in the year since Griffin’s polarizing photo surfaced, including waves of sexual assault accusations against powerful men, some of whom, like Matt Lauer and Al Franken, were among the first, Griffin claims, to privately chastise her. “I don’t want to be in the Louis C.K. bucket, either,” she adds, offended by friends who’ve compared their situations. “I have never pulled down my pants and crushed a young comedian’s dream.” Griffin takes a rare pause from her torrent of thoughts, struck by a fresh one. “Do I need to be forgiven?”
Styling by Alison Brooks
Hair by Johnny Stuntz/Crosby Carter Management
Makeup by Lisa Coggin