Kathy Griffin has a big mouth. It’s so big that when you get her on the phone for a 30-minute interview, you’ll probably have a hard time getting more than a few words in. But because she’s such a quick-witted and genuinely hilarious storyteller, you really won’t mind.
The “A Hell Of A Story” star, who has been tearing up the comedy world ― and the rest of Hollywood ― for close to four decades and is one of only three women to win a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album, also has a filthy mouth. It’s so filthy that when I asked her to stay on the phone for an extra five minutes for this interview, she refused because she was late for a teeth cleaning. (Though she quickly added, “But you can say I’m going over to Kim Kardashian’s house instead!”)
Before the two-time Emmy winner and New York Times best-selling author dashed to her date with her dentist, she chatted with HuffPost about what life has been like since the release of that controversial photo of Donald Trump in 2017, her thoughts on comedy in the era of Me Too and “cancel culture,” and why Tina Fey did us all a big favor by impersonating Sarah Palin.
You recently hosted the Str8UpGayPorn Awards. Do you personally find gay porn hot?
I do find gay porn hot. I think I’ve only seen two in my lifetime. Years ago, I hosted a different awards show called the GayVN Awards and, luckily, it was captured on “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List.” At the GayVNs, my beloved friend Sister Roma gave me a sword from the Naked Sword porn company, and when the Trump photo scandal broke open and a federal investigation was opened, that sword was suddenly federal evidence.
Oh my God.
Right? When the fever was running so hot and — by the way, it hasn’t really calmed down that much. I’m assuming it was Jeff Sessions himself along with POTUS who initiated the opening of the federal investigation on me by the Secret Service as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Office. But when all of that happened, they had my attorney do a search in my home, and “I was like, OK, fine.” Then, during my under oath interrogation ― because I want people to know I didn’t just, like, get a phone call. I had to actually be interrogated under oath. And they said, “Do you have any weapons?” and I was like, “I actually have a sword,” and they were like, “Oh boy.”
What I explained to them is that I had this sword from hosting the gay porn awards and I ended up describing the plot of this gay porn called “Justice” to the feds. [Laughs] I got that sword and hosted the GayVNs 10 years ago, but it was significant for me to host the Str8UpGayPorn Awards this year. Not only was Sister Roma there again introducing me, which was great, but sure enough, the Naked Sword porn company was one of the sponsors again! I had to half jokingly tell them, “Oh, my God, this is great!” [Lowers voice to a conspiratorial whisper] Don’t give me another sword.” [Laughs] Like, let’s just go with a commemorative plaque instead. But it all came full circle, baby. There was Sister Roma, there was the Naked Sword company and there was gay porn ― and all of it was about defending the First Amendment, dammit!
When that photo of you with the Trump mask went viral, there were a lot of celebrities who spoke out against what you did ― Debra Messing, Chelsea Clinton, Jeffrey Wright, among others. Did any of them ever reach out and say, “You know what? I was wrong. I apologize”?
Debra Messing did and it brought us closer. She said, “I had no idea what you were actually going through.” She was super, super sweet. I’ve known Debra for such a long time that I actually reached out to her because I was like, “Hey, I’m kind of surprised at your response.” She really has shown her support since then. She came to see me at Radio City Music Hall. She posted that my tour was great.
You also got into it with Don Cheadle on Twitter about a year ago. Have you heard from him?
No. [Laughs] I did run into him backstage at Tiffany Haddish’s show and he just blew me off. I was trying to tease him and I said, “Come on, Don! We know each other. Let’s make up.” I was sort of trying to take the higher road, but he just wasn’t having it. But there were so many people who spoke out against me. And it wasn’t just Hollywood people and, frankly, it wasn’t even people that I have known for a long time ― it was just everybody. So one of the reasons that I’m obviously not ever going to be quiet about [the Trump photo scandal] is I truly don’t want this to happen to anybody else. I don’t want this to happen to Don Cheadle!
On the flip side, there were some very famous people who spoke out in support of you. What did you learn about friendship from that experience?
I learned that the weeding out [of people] process was ultimately a really good thing for me. I had kind of gone through something like this before, like when I went from being just somebody at The Groundlings and doing stand-up and then I was on “Suddenly Susan,” a big network show with, like, 23 episodes a year. I became “a public person,” as they say, and I got little whiffs of like, “Oh, OK, some people are coming around that didn’t before.” When I got that job playing Brooke Shields’ sidekick, half my friends were happy for me and were saying, “Oh, my God, this is great!” But then I also had feedback from a lot of my alternative comedy associates who were saying, “You know, that was a sellout move.” That’s actually kind of how I started thinking about the concept of “The D List.” I was like, “If I’m a sellout, where do I sign?”
So when the Trump photo scandal happened, you were suddenly having flashbacks to what it was like being on Hollywood’s radar in a very real and very big way?
Obviously the Trump fallout was just a whole other level. Throughout my entire career ― I’m 59 ― I’ve noticed certain types of people come into your life when you’re hot, and then at some point they’re not still around, but this Trump thing was just beyond anything I’d ever experienced. That’s why I am very candid about what happened to me. Number one: It’s historic in nature ― never in the history of United States has POTUS and the Department of Justice [gone after someone like this], much less a private citizen, who obviously doesn’t have any of the actual earmarks of being a member of ISIS ― which I still, you know, have to laugh about. And yet this administration was able to push out that message through social media disinformation, through the robot troll farms in Macedonia and [Twitter CEO] Jack Dorsey looking the other way, etc. etc.
All that stuff really crashed down in a way that was so rapid that it taught me how to sift through these relationships, whether they’re Hollywood or non-Hollywood, while going through the biggest sort of trauma ― and legal battle ― of my life. They were actively investigating me for conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States, which holds a lifetime sentence, and I was dealing with the fact that about 80% of my friends, people who represented me, people I had been earning money for, people I’ve been hanging out with, people I thought were a little stronger ― they just vanished. And I just kind of went, “OK, that sucks.”
I can only imagine.
It taught me a lot about what friendship is. I think the conclusion that I’ve come to is so simple: It’s actually very easy to support someone who’s going through what I went through, especially if you take a second to realize this: You could be next. Whether you’re in the arts or you’re a journalist or you’re attending a protest ― remember, it’s freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. It’s for everyone! So I think that my little story has become an interesting microcosm of what happens when you speak out against the ultimate authority, but the most important thing that I always want people to take away is they’re still coming at me, and yet, I’m not going down. I don’t want to be a professional punching bag, but I can tell you this: You’re never gonna see me go down ― not with this crowd.
I hear you. And yes, your story is important because it could happen to anyone, but I want to push back a bit and propose that it happened to you, at least in part, because you’re a woman. And not just a woman ― a particular kind of woman. Last summer you told the LA Times, “I’m very aware that this situation would have not been the same for Gwyneth Paltrow or Ellen DeGeneres, someone who’s beloved and blond. All the things I’m not,” and I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
I honestly appreciate you saying that because I’m amazed at people who are presented with that argument and they’re like, “You think so?” It’s like, “Oh, you’re right ― Gwyneth Paltrow and I have a totally level playing field.” [Laughs] So I think that you’re right ― I made a choice to become a certain kind of comic. And one thing I learned very early on is that if you’re a female comedian ― and let me tell you, stand-up is still so male-dominated ― you’re going to pay a price one way or the other. I’ve seen other comedians that are envelope-pushing comedians, and I’ve seen certain ones that just go, “You know what? It just isn’t worth the blowback I’ll get if I speak truth to power.”
When I think of the great comedians, I think of the troublemakers. When you think of the icons of comedy ― male and female ― they’re not the ones who necessarily played by the book, you know? On the other hand, I think there’s room for everybody, right? Not everybody has to be vulgar and crass and say things that are all kinds of wrong. But I also think it’s important that people remember it’s as easy to take a potshot at me now at 59 as it was when I was being bullied in grade school or high school. I think that while people want to act like, “Oh, I don’t even know what she’s talking about” or “She’s gone too far,” in reality, a lot more women identify with me than Gwyneth Paltrow or Ellen or Nicole Kidman or Reese Witherspoon. And trust me, there have been many times that I wished I was a beloved figure. But frankly, I didn’t get into the business of being beloved. I got into the business of trying to make people laugh. That’s really what I like to do.
Do you think comedians have a responsibility to discuss politics or issues that can be seen as political in their acts?
I kind of think in this day and age, a comic that doesn’t address what’s happening with inequality, with the fact that we quite literally have concentration camps in the United States of America, with the fact that we have a president that isn’t funny but is really, truly dangerous ― if you’re not even addressing that, you’re kind of being derelict in your duty. You don’t have to and I’m still going to be your fan, but I do think that artists play a big part in times like this, and have historically when there are certain limitations or fears in place that seem new.
It seems like comedy has changed since you started performing and has changed even in just the last three years since you released the Trump photo. I believe there are a lot of reasons for that ― our current political climate, the Me Too movement, social media, more visibility in media for different identities. Because of how quickly things are moving, we’re seeing a lot of comedians trying to reconcile their earlier work ― work they made at a time when America was a very different place ― with where we’re at now. How do you feel about this lamenting or regretting of past work and the possibility of a comedian facing calls for her or him to be “canceled” if they don’t?
I think that the reason comedy is becoming less of, frankly, what I think it should be ― and by that, I think you’re meaning a little bit more “safe” ― is that I’ve had numerous comedians tell me that they don’t want to be “Kathy Griffin-ed.” I’m a verb now. And I respond to that by saying, “Well, then, you shouldn’t be in stand-up comedy.” It’s like getting into the kitchen thinking you’re never going to get a little burn. Or thinking, “I’m going to get into stand-up comedy as long as I don’t ever bomb.” But that’s how you get good! The more you bomb, the more you do well ― and the more you learn.
What about your own work?
I haven’t seen a lot of my specials in forever, but I guarantee you there’s shit in my old specials that would make me cringe and I’d be like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I said that.” Let’s remember, I’ve been doing this for 25 fucking years! I have a Guinness World Record [for most televised stand-up specials]! But I don’t think you should apply the same standards to comedians that you’re not even willing to apply to your elected officials. I also thank you for noticing the disparity in women that are picked out more than guys because all of the guys that allegedly threatened the president ― you know, Johnny Depp and Snoop Dogg ― they didn’t go after those guys. They’re just fine, right? You know, they’re all working and they’ve got a bunch of bros that have their back.
On the other hand, I’m not down with the old “Louis C.K. didn’t do anything wrong.” I think it’s disgusting what he did, and I know a lot of those guys whipping their dicks out. I have been the girl in the room where a very famous male comedian whips his dick out and all the other bros are laughing because that’s what they do. By the way, you know that straight guys are way gayer than gay guys, right?
[Laughs] I’d love to hear why.
When there are straight guys in a room, they always do the gayest shit. Whenever they’re in a hotel pool together, you’d think it was fucking the White Party. They all want to dunk each other with their shirts off. They all want to wrestle with each other. But believe it or not, that was a common activity back in the day ― male comedians would whip their dicks out, and all of the other male comedians as well as their agents, managers and representatives would be yucking it up. I was one of those young women that was like, “This is not funny to me. I would rather see actual comedy. I’m not whipping out my vulva anytime soon.” So, the Me Too guys, I have no time for them.
Where do we ― and you ― go from here?
I’m very aware of the new Trump’s America we’re living in. And I’m also not one bit afraid of it. So I will admit, I struggle with people who say, “I don’t want to get Kathy Griffin-ed” or “I just don’t really want to talk about politics.” Well, sorry! I also think that often that’s the best way to get a message across through humor.
I would argue that Tina Fey had a large part in saving us from Sarah Palin and her stupid ass. [Laughs] Comedy has a history of doing that ― of making statements. Let’s be honest: I really think Tina’s portrayal of Sarah Palin was a factor in taking Sarah Palin down. And guess what? Now we have the proof. Palin really was a nonserious politician. She was not good for women. I don’t think “thinking women” wanted her to be the first female vice president. So it’s not like what I did [with the Trump photo] was new. Although I’m really mad at myself that because Hillary Clinton beat me to the punch when she said that my Trump photo was obviously a spoof of Perseus and Medusa. So I’m going to tell you that that’s exactly what was going on in that photo and you’re going to print it and you’re going to make me sound like a goddamn Rhodes scholar!
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.