Comedy is the soundtrack of the Trump era. Countless late-night entertainment TV shows and dozens of stand-up specials have given voice to the resistance, but Kathy Griffin occupies a unique niche as the victim of a campaign by the president and his minions to destroy her career, a saga that the comedian revisits in her new documentary, A Hell of a Story.
Griffin’s unlikely emergence as a political symbol began on May 31, 2017, when she posed for a gag photo in which she held a rubber mask of Donald Trump’s head covered in ketchup. When I spoke to her last week, she had just presented a PEN award to lawyer Ted Boutrous, and after the ceremony a woman in the parking lot yelled at her, “You’re a terrorist, you’re un-American, you should be in jail.”
Three weeks earlier, at a Miami event for the super PAC American Priority, a photoshopped video was shown in which Trump’s face was superimposed on a scene from the film Kingsman: The Secret Service. In the video, the president is depicted brutally murdering his political enemies, including Hillary Clinton, Maxine Waters… and Griffin. “Jane Fonda told me that the photo scandal will be on my tombstone,” Griffin says, with a combination of resignation and pride.
Although she had supported LGBTQ causes, politics was never a big part of Griffin’s comic persona, which instead revolved around personal subjects like binge eating, plastic surgery, and her love-hate relationship with celebrities in her roles as cohost of CNN’s New Year Eve broadcast with Anderson Cooper and the star of the reality-TV show My Life on the D-List.
“I thought the photo would have a shelf life of two days. I learned that there is such a thing as bad publicity.” The photographer leaked the image to the website TMZ, whose founder, Harvey Levin, subsequently told The Daily Beast that he is in regular touch with Trump and boasted, “I consider myself to be his personal publicist .”
The president promptly tweeted, “Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself. My children, especially my 11 year old son Baron, are having a hard time with this—sick.” Melania chimed in “As a mother, wife and human being—that photo makes you wonder about the mental health of the person who did it.” On Fox News, Sean Hannity called Griffin an Isis sympathizer—as if the stylized photo was in the same moral universe as actual beheadings.
This was followed by a cascade of cowardly rejections from mainstream show business. Griffin had scheduled 25 stand-up performances, but the offers were abruptly pulled—with each cancellation reported in real time on TMZ. CNN fired her from the New Year’s Eve gig and reported their decision as “breaking news.” Her agency, WME, dropped her as a client, and Anderson Cooper tweeted, “I am appalled by the photo shoot Kathy Griffin took part in.”
Trump followers sent death threats to Griffin, her sister who was in the hospital being treated for cancer, and their octogenarian mother. The Justice Department placed the comedian on the no-fly list for two months and formally investigated her for conspiracy to assassinate the president. After “several hundred thousand dollars in legal fees,” Griffin was finally exonerated by the FBI. On Good Morning America, Donald Trump Jr. opined, “She deserved everything.” Griffin observes bitterly, “George Stephanopoulos didn’t push back at all.”
Given the widespread loathing of Trump in the entertainment community, it is notable that Trump focused so much more on Griffin than on the likes of Robert DeNiro or Bill Maher. The president has a long history of bullying women, but Griffin also thinks “he came after me ’cause I exemplify everything that terrifies him.” Unlike most Trump critics, she is fluent in the populist culture of the Kardashians. The president often complains that he never won an Emmy Award; Griffin won twice. Much of her humor is in the tradition of insult comedians, but she makes the distinction, “I punch up. Trump punches down.”
She had met Trump frequently over the years, including an appearance on Celebrity Apprentice. “I saw him as an over-the-top, fame-hungry, harmless blowhard,” she told me, but was horrified as he brought reality-show tactics into the White House. “The premise of The Apprentice is antithetical to what actually makes a good business. Trump advised the contestants to be as divisive among themselves as possible. That’s not how you run an administration. I’m not a historian. I’m not Michael Beschloss, but I know that.”
Amid the onslaught, Griffin got emotional support from Jim Carrey, who reassured her, “You are going to put it through your Kathy Griffin comedy prism.… make the story funny and you’re gonna go tell it.”
Indeed, there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in talking to Griffin. On one hand, she is a victim; but on the other, she has exploited the situation brilliantly. By the fall of 2017, Griffin had booked an 18-country international “Laugh Your Head Off” tour. She remained on the Interpol list and was detained at every airport. “They’d scan my passport. I’d put on my ‘I’m not in Isis’ face, but they’d send me into a locked room alone for an indeterminate amount of time. Eventually, I would get my stuff back and thank God I didn’t have to miss any of my shows.”
In the wake of European ticket sales (and the short attention span of the news media), Griffin was then able to book an American tour culminating in a sold-out three-hour performance at Carnegie Hall. The shows were filmed and form the core of the documentary.
She is unrepentant regarding the first family. “Trump is aggressively stupid—like Britney Spears stupid.” Griffin met Ivanka on The Apprentice. “I’m not saying Ivanka takes five to 10 Xanax a day, I’m saying she reminds me of someone who does.” She tweeted Donald Trump Jr., “They don’t give you Netflix in prison,” and gleefully told me, “I don’t believe anyone has had consensual sex with Eric Trump.”
Nor has she abandoned her flamboyant style. In early November she posted a picture of herself in her underwear to celebrate her 59th birthday, but Griffin has a new sense of purpose during the reality-show presidency. “I was the test case. I want to make sure that they can never do to anyone what they did to me, not on my watch.”