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Interview: Comedian Kathy Griffin

Grant Walters Grant Walters Interview: Comedian Kathy Griffin
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Surviving and thriving after a controversial year in the national spotlight, the veteran raconteur and comedian returns to the Ohio Theatre on Saturday night

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Whether you applauded or abhorred the protest image of Kathy Griffin wielding a latex mask that resembled the severed visage of President Donald Trump that surfaced last spring, the aftermath of its appearance is an intriguing, and unprecedented, case study of where comedy, politics, and freedom of expression can and should intersect in our current societal climate.

The personal and professional consequences for Griffin were swift and severe, and, in contrast to the myriad of her contemporaries who have boldly and publicly dissented against the President, unique. In addition to losing jobs and sponsorships and drawing public ire that escalated to death threats against her and her family members, she was the subject of a two-month-long investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, who reportedly considered criminal charges before she was ultimately absolved of any legal wrong-doing.

Under duress, Griffin initially apologized for the photo, which she later retracted. But even as she was able to put some measure of perspective between herself and the incident, she admits there were points when she thought her comedic career might be over. Many of those she considered to be close friends and allies in the industry kept their distance. But there were others who unexpectedly offered their support and encouraged Griffin to find her feet again.

“I did get a call from Jim Carrey,” she recalls during our recent phone interview. “And, so, I brag about this call because I don’t know him very well and he did this out of the goodness of his heart. But he called me that day and I was absolutely sobbing. And when you’re in a situation like that, there’s no time for small talk.

So, I go, ‘Jim, I’m a big girl. I can handle it. I just need to hear from someone as accomplished as you…just tell me: is this over for me?

And he said, ‘Kathy. Any comedian would give their right arm to have this story, You have a story that is uniquely yours about the craziest President in the history of this country is laughing at and fearing at the same time.’ And he said ‘put this through your comedy prism and figure out a way to make it Kathy Griffin funny. But get the story out there.’”

Carrey’s urging quickly led to a spark of inspiration that would eventually result in her current world tour and a return to form.

“Two days later, I came up with the title Laugh Your Head Off, and started thinking about the poster, and, ‘Alright, I’ll take away the Trump mask and I’ll put a globe…’”

Griffin spent the next several months deconstructing and rebuilding her livelihood.

She launched the Laugh Your Head Off tour late last year with a series of successful stops in Europe and Canada, still uncertain of how American audiences would receive her return to the stage. When she did finally book a series of shows stateside earlier this year, they promptly responded by selling out dates at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall.

On September 15, the tour will make its way to Columbus and the Ohio Theatre.

Griffin’s excitement to share her recent entanglements with show-goers is palpable as we talk, but she’s carefully calculated the balance between discussing the darker corners of her experiences with the hilariously uncomfortable moments she’s bumped into with fellow Hollywood types that have been her comedic bread-and-butter for decades.

“I really am proud of the show,” she says emphatically. “And I don’t mean to sound high and mighty, as my mom would say, but it’s really a show. And I say that because, God, I’ve played Columbus and played Ohio many times. And yet, this is different. I’ll admit there’s about a 10-minute part of the show where I talk about the interrogation, and it’s pretty heavy. You can hear a freakin’ pin drop.

But then I lighten it up and share delightful stories about, like I said, living next to the Kimyes, or, you know, or running into Stevie Nicks on the road and what an amazing experience that was.”

Griffin’s detractors, and anyone else that may be surprised by her bounce-back, have perhaps underestimated the American public’s love affair with a good story spun by an expert bard. Griffin’s years of dishing the stuff to a salivating crowd have turned her stage time into a masterclass.

And it’s just as fun over speakerphone.

“Now, I need some assurances that I’m not going to get arrested during my show…like my girl Stormy,” she quipped as we began our second conversation in as many years with an unsurprisingly immediate shot of chutzpah.

No worries. I’ll personally make sure of it. That was on my list of questions. I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence as a Columbus writer if I didn’t ask you about that, but you’ve beaten me to the punch.

“You know, I talked to her that night about the whole thing. Oh my God. I went into panic mode and I offered to wire the bail money. I was, like, ‘Something about this doesn’t smell right!’ And then I started tweeting everybody from the police chief to the prosecutor’s office. [laughs] I’m sure I’m the darling of the department over there in Columbus! But damn it – desperate times call for desperate measures!

But, oh my God, first of all, just let me tell you this: as we speak, I am pitching New Year’s Eve Live with Kathy Griffin and Stormy Daniels. And, I don’t know who’s gonna buy it or why I have this fantasy that it’s on pay-per-view. [laughs] But, I have been spending time with her, and she is fabulous and hilarious. I’m already very vulgar – I’m not good on the pole because I tend to chafe. Stormy is an expert, so I call the pitch ‘one can’t stay off the microphone, one can’t stay off the pole.’”

So, let’s talk about the tour. What made you decide to ultimately add Columbus to the list of dates? Because I know you are eventually going to wind this particular show down in another couple of months, so I was actually surprised when I saw the announcement.

“Here’s what it was – and I love this question. I had to change my entire business model. So, just so you know, I had my own representatives and the dinosaurs at Live Nation and, God love ‘em, even the people who are my own agents and stuff tell me, ‘you can’t sell more than 500 tickets in any city.’ So, then, of course, you know, I’ve got a bee in my bonnet – if I can be vulgar – a bee in my bonnet! A bug up my ass – whatever you want to print! [laughs] And then, of course, I said ‘Really? Because I’m going to play Carnegie Hall.’ But, I frickin’ sold it out in 24 hours. And then I said, ‘I’m going to set a record, because I want to be the only comedian to play Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall in the same week.’”

So, for me to play the Ohio Theatre, besides the fact that it’s such a great theatre, is an honor. But the reason I picked Columbus is…now that I’m a ‘lightning rod,’ which…I’m really not – I’m still the same obnoxious Kathy Griffin. Except, boy, do I have a fuckin’ story to tell. With details. I mean, I talk about the interrogation. I freakin’ go there. I talk about Trump. I talk about all the times I’ve met him. Well, of course I throw in living next door to Kim and Kanye the whole time, which – I’m sorry – that’s just comedy gold. Comedy gold, Grant.

But anyway, so the reason I picked Columbus is I couldn’t get through to my Hollywood representatives when they were saying…I mean, they had me doing this show through February, and I said, ‘No, no. This is a story that’s prescient now. I actually feel I have to wrap up the Laugh Your Head Off Tour prior to the midterms. So, what I did is I hired a D.C. marketing firm and they were able to geo-target my fans much better than anyone in entertainment. So, believe it or not, the way this tour is selling out – even though I’m so controversial.

And, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’m a very high-ranking member of ISIS…”

Yes. I believe I’ve read that somewhere.

“…oh good God. [laughs] But, anyway…I laugh every time I say it, but there’s a part of me that thinks, ‘Oh, God. There are people who really believe that!’

So, through this company, so specifically geo-targeted that two things happened: Granny Griffin, here, at 57 years old, finally came up with the idea last fucking February to come up with an email list and a text list. And the purpose of it was very simple: sign up for this email list or text list if you want me to come to your town. It’s not a list where I send a joke of the week or sell my merch, or whatever. And so, believe it or not, that’s how I decided what cities to do – and Columbus was on that list. Believe it or not, Columbus, I had more people respond than Cleveland or even Cincy or other places I’ve played before. So, you guys won! You won the big prize! [laughs]

If we can dig into the photo debacle a little more deeply: clearly, you’ve come out the other side of it with a lot of renewed energy and you’re clearly able to humorize what’s happened to you. But, I know there are still many parts of it that have been difficult and hurtful. I know Jim Carrey’s call was a tipping point, but how did you progress from sitting with the incident and grieving the losses that came with it to being so resolute in telling your story?

“Well, you know, you really described the process accurately, and it really was that kind of process. Initially, it was like a campaign of shock and awe. It was very bizarre. And once again, I’m going to say: you may not like that photo, but there was nothing about it that was illegal. So, when the Trumpies yell ‘Lock her up!’ which they did do online [laughs], you know, they may think I had actually done something illegal or broken the law. So, believe it or not, that was something I had to get past.

So, when the Oval Office directs the Department of Justice to put me…it was a two-month investigation and they were considering charging me with conspiracy to assassinate the President of the United States? You just jump into action, because I had so many things on so many fronts coming at me – you just deal with them.

So, I realize there are all these bizarre things I have to clarify. Like, when you wake up one day and 60 million people think you are in ISIS and you have severed the President’s head. Number one, it becomes, actually, when you step back a little bit, humorous when you walk through the logistics of 60 million people believing that I was able to go to Washington, chop off Donald Trump’s head, fly back to my house in Bel-Air, take a picture of it, and then fly back to Washington unnoticed and sew it back on his necks. And I said necks, plural, because I’m being bitchy.

But that process becomes, in a way, comedic. So, I’ll happily admit that I had two days when I was down, on the floor, in tears, in a ball. And then, I just…I’m hard-wired for comedy. Like, seriously. So, even through the tears, shit started to be funny. I walk the audience through that whole process, because, believe it or not, even though what happened to me was unique…and I don’t know if you know this, but I did a whole thread about Michelle Wolf because I went to the White House Correspondents Dinner and she did a great job. She actually killed, and the Republicans tried to start this rumor that she bombed. And I was in the room. So, that was many months after the Trump photo.

So, I gotta tell you I love that I keep getting material that’s funny. So now I have an additional story about what a difference a year makes, and I’m in an Oscar de la Renta ball gown at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and I’m actually confronting some of these cabinet members that have the nerve to go for me. And that was heaven, because guess what happens when you confront a bully? They crumble. Or, in the case of Brian Kilmeade from Fox & Friends [laughs] – he wanted a selfie! I was, like, ‘No, Brian – go fuck yourself! You used to be the sports girl on Fox & Friends! You don’t do the news!’

And you know my expression, ‘I’ve gotten worse’? People are, like, ‘Has she learned her lesson?’ I’m, like, ‘No, bitch! I’ve gotten worse! I’ve got nothing to lose, I love telling this story, I love making people laugh.

It is, by the way…did I warn you it’s three hours?”

You’ve mentioned that, yes. That’s…a marathon.

“Okay, because I can’t say that enough. I get it – people probably get babysitters and I probably fucked up their dinner reservations. But, damn it, I give them their money’s worth! I don’t have an opener, and I wrote every line myself just like every single one of my specials.”

As I was preparing for our interview, I watched your first comedy special and I also came across some footage of you on Conan O’Brien’s show when he was still doing Late Night – maybe it was from ’95 or ’96? And despite these really bizarre and treacherous circumstances you’re talking about now, your ace has always been that you exude joy when you tell a story. You’re luminous when you get the opportunity to do that, and it’s magnetizing. Was that always your angle as a comedian, or did that evolve over time?

“Well, first of all, where have you been all my life? Because you’re practically making me cry. Because that’s what my wildest hope was, that people would think exactly what you said. The other thing…the other reason I appreciate that so much is that you have to understand for decades…decades…I’ve had every bro…sorry, I mean straight guy comic…tell me I’m not a real comic. Like, my whole career, it’s, like, ‘I don’t know what she does. She talks about herself all the time.’ And I’m, like, ‘No, no. I’m trying to tell stories that are unique, and so when you come see me, I don’t talk about the difference between kittens and puppies in New York and L.A. ‘Cause you can go see that at any comedy club.

So, that’s when I started thinking about how I’d set myself apart. And I thought, ‘Gosh, being a female in this industry already, I’ve got so many strikes against me, and the ladder is higher that I have to climb. So, from the beginning, you know, I started in sketch comedy, so I didn’t sort of have the traditional stand-up training where you have all these crazy rules like, ‘comedy comes in threes,’ or ‘if you’re not getting a laugh every seven seconds, you’re doing it wrong.’ And I remember someone telling me that and thinking, ‘So, that’s what you’re thinking during your act? You’re counting to seven and making sure you’re getting laughs?’ [laughs]

And so, I think I got a great compliment from my friend Sarah Silverman when she said, ‘Kathy Griffin is so great because she’s a raconteur. We’re all up here telling jokes and she’s a raconteur.’ And I thought…well, besides enjoying the group The Raconteurs [laughs]…I really thought, ‘Thank you for saying that because I never said I was anything else.’ And, so, after years of people who said, ‘You know what your problem is? You don’t have any jokes,’ I’m, like, ‘No! I have jokes! They’re just woven into stories. And the reason I tell these stories is because I want the audience to have this unique experience.

I have gone from…you know, I played Radio City a month ago, and two years ago I was playing a racino. D’you know what that is? It’s a cross between a race track and a casino! So, I don’t mean to say I’m the phoenix that’s risen. I’m still a stand-up and I still don’t have any work starting November 5. But, yeah, the storytelling thing has always been my only way of my knowing how to do comedy.

So, I thought…and I’ll drop another name on you: Lisa Kudrow. We were in The Groundlings together many, many years ago. And Lisa pulled me aside and said ‘Kathy, this is your thing. You’re a storyteller, and you’re a comedian who’s a storyteller.’ And, it’s funny because Lisa and I both got turned down for Saturday Night Live the same night [laughs], and we were both going [sobbing] ‘We’re never going to work!’ Next thing you know, I’m doing specials and she’s fucking Phoebe on Friends.

So, just by virtue of seeing this 57-year-old chick on stage, I hope there are other people in the audience, regardless of your field, just going, ‘Hang in there! Figure it out! Try shit! Fail! Get back up! Fall down again!’ And there’s a lot of comedy in that, thank God.”

Kathy Griffin returns to Columbus Saturday night with her Laugh Your Head Off world tour, 8 p.m. at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Downtown. Limited tickets are still available, $28 – $153.50 (plus applicable taxes and fees), and are available through Ticketmaster. You can follow Kathy on Twitter, or visit her official website for more information.

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