Interview: Kathy Griffin
About a half-hour before my call with Kathy Griffin was scheduled to begin, my cell phone dinged with a Twitter notification:
@GrantWalters76 Are you ready for our interview??
Those six words will tell you almost everything you need to know about Griffin’s character. She’s one of the busiest and most renowned comedians in the world, but for the thirty minutes we would eventually spend talking about her upcoming show at the Ohio Theatre on Thursday night, Griffin engaged with me as if we’d known each other for years. That’s, perhaps, why her appeal as a performer, author, and actor has endured over three decades – Griffin makes you feel like you’re her co-conspirator on every shenanigan, backstage encounter, and wonderfully uncomfortable conversation.
Griffin is a two-time Grammy award-winner and a #1 New York Times bestselling author. Last November, she released her much-anticipated second book, Kathy Griffin’s Celebrity Run-Ins: My A-Z Index – a follow-up to her 2010 memoir, Official Book Club Selection. Celebrity Run-Ins is a compendium of the celebrities she’s met over the years, and the outrageous, charming and sometimes bizarre anecdotes only she can tell about them. In 2014, Kathy made history with her sixth consecutive Grammy nomination and first win for Best Comedy Album (Kathy Griffin: Calm Down Gurrl), joining Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin as the only other female comedians to ever win Grammy awards for Best Comedy Album. From 2005-2010, her original reality series, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, aired for six years on Bravo and earned her two Primetime Emmy Awards. It was nominated every single year of its run. The show also won the GLAAD Media Award for Best Reality Program, and was nominated six consecutive times by the Producers Guild of America. Griffin’s other awards and honors include The Human Rights Campaign’s Ally for Equality, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s Leadership in Entertainment honor, GLAAD’s Vanguard award, The Trevor Life Award from the Trevor Project, and a Gracie Award for Outstanding Female Lead.
In 2013, Kathy was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for writing and starring in an unprecedented twenty televised stand-up specials. Columbus is one of fifty cities she’ll visit on her current tour, which is scheduled – so far – to run through the beginning of November. Her work ethic is only paralleled by her unflinchingly honest and unapologetically bold comedic approach – which, to my immeasurable joy, surfaced immediately as we started talking. And, yes – she was as authentically hilarious one-on-one as she is on stage.
“I’m looking at your Twitter,” she reveals. “First of all, I admit – I was sort of going down your feed just to make sure you weren’t, like, a giant Trump supporter.”
No. Definitely not. I’m a Canadian immigrant. While I have a lot of privilege in being so, I’m not terribly convinced the President isn’t eventually going to wall us out.
“Oh yeah. I think that he’s very wall-happy – there could be walls going up anywhere. By the way – I do not appreciate how he decided to meet with Putin before Justin Trudeau! Everyone knows the incoming President meets with the Canadians first. God only knows what’ll happen by the time I actually get to my beloved Ohio Theatre – which I’m very excited to play…and I’ve played before and love it. I just hope the planet hasn’t melted by then.”
I agree with that logic, but…
“You see, I know him. This is why you must come see my show now more than ever, because I have known Trump…I don’t know him well…but I’ve know him off and on for years. I don’t even live in New York, but I work in New York quite a bit…and if you are in New York, it’s almost like you just know him because he shows up to the opening of an envelope. So in my [book] I have a story in there that is a fucking barn-burner about the day I spent with ‘The Donald.’ And he wants you to call him ‘The Donald,’ which is ‘the weird.’ And Liza Minnelli…”
I can’t even imagine.
“Yeah. Top that! So, that is why I still tour like an animal. That is why, after 23 stand-up specials – more than any comedian, living or dead, male or female – why I’m actually in The Guinness Book of World Records. Because chicks are funny…and yet I still have a career where I get bizarre calls from Donald Trump saying ‘can you come host a charity fundraiser at my golf club where most of my supporters will never, ever be able to afford one round.’ But, anyway, that is what I truly look forward to in the live touring – because I don’t want to pick, but it’s my favorite thing to do. I love television, and I will always do television. But, I gotta be honest; the live experience – there’s nothing like it. And with everything that’s happening now, I cannot wait to hit the mic. Like, I just watched the tour last weekend – I had so much fun trying out all this new stuff, trying to see where the audience is with all the Trump-Obama stuff. People are very on edge, and I’m trying to figure out how far people are willing to let me go (laughs). And, it’s pretty far!”
I’ve spoken to a few comedians recently who have resolved to not tangle with politics – or at least not do so at length – in their live shows because they think people are seeking refuge from them when they come to see a comedy performance. I’ve had a handful of others who have asked that I not engage them in any conversation about politics during our interview. But you’ve decided to just take that topic head-on.
“I’m taking it head on. And not to even give him any credit for any kind of a good phrase, but as a 56 year-old female comic – where Hollywood is currently in the process of trying to put me out to pasture… and I refuse to go – I now identify when Trump says to the inner city ‘what do you have to lose?’ I am self-identified as an inner city single mom of four who has nothing to lose, so fuck it – I’m just going to go for it full bore. I mean, going for everything full bore. So honestly, it’s not like my show is just about politics at all, but it is part of the consciousness. So, you’re right. I can’t stand it when…of course, there’s the occasional Macedonian egg that twats [Tweets] me and says ‘stay in your lane! Comedians shouldn’t talk about politics!’ Oh, please. Comedians always have talked about whatever people are talking about around the metaphorical water cooler.”
Well, God bless you.
“Plus, I know him. He’s so nuts. I feel like I have a little bit of an edge, so I can’t not talk about him at all.”
I didn’t realize at first when I was setting up our interview and corresponding with your manager Randy that he was your beau!
“Yeah, we’ve been together for five-and-a-half years. We started working together a year into our relationship. And it’s fantastic – he’s my tour manager and marketing manager, and we travel the country…we travel the world, actually. We’re like Loretta Lynn and Boo. Sometimes I’m really fancy and I fly private, sometimes I fly commercial. And sometimes, Randy and I just rent a Kia and just drive gig-to-gig – and it’s so much fun. I mean, I did 80 cities last year – I’m doing 50 this year…and I absolutely love it. And every city is different. Every venue is different. And, you know, with all the stuff that’s going on, I love changing up my act. I love it.”
Of course, I must ask about your mom, Maggie. How is she?
“My mother has made some announcements in the last few days. And she is uncensored, as always. One of them is that she decided…you know, we get into our political arguments because she watches Fox News because it’s ‘real’. And I try to talk her out of that. But her new take, at 96 years of age…96 years young, is that she feels she does not have to worry about politics anymore because she’s earned the right to do nothing but bitch and moan about her ailments. She announced: ‘I will no longer be pontificating about the state of the union. I now only want to talk about my ailments.’ Let me tell you – she’s not kidding. I mean, you give her a half a box of wine and she will talk about a hip or bone spurs…I mean, old people love that shit. It’s like porn for them. And this is very typical of Maggie when she makes these pronouncements – which she has done my entire life, of course. And of course she has to do it on, like, Christmas Eve – the announcement that she’s ’96 now, but 97’s it.’ What does that mean? Like, what do I do with that information? I’m like ‘what do you mean, 97’s it?’ She just kept going ‘that’s it! 97 years old and I am done!’ Now, I don’t know – she just makes these proclamations and, you know, we just go with it. Of course, she’s doing fine.”
I was leafing through your memoir, Official Book Club Selection, the other day and came across a quote in which you said that your parents had instilled in you a ‘pre-war work ethic.’ I mean, it’s so obvious that you’re incredibly hard-working, prolific, and dedicated to the craft. And you never seem to slow down, which is a gift for people like me who really love what you do. What exactly is it that fuels you day-to-day?
“Well, let me just say this is my favorite interview I’ve ever done in my whole career.”
Wow. Well, thank you!
“Based on that alone, I feel like just hanging up on you – because I can’t get better. But thank you very much – that’s a very nice compliment. Look, I was just raised in a house…I was the youngest of five kids..Irish Catholic…all the dysfunction you can imagine. And, you know, it was a different time. I’m 56 years old. If you didn’t know something at the dinner table, you were embarrassed and you would get to know it. As opposed to now, where it’s sort of like cute that people are stupid, and they go ‘oh my God, I don’t want to read! It’s so boring!’ You know, so (laughs) it was just the Griffin way. And my mom is the youngest of 19 children. They came over as steerage from the old country. Even though my mom says her ethic is more from, like, the Depression…when you’re the youngest of 16 coming over at the bottom of the boat going to Ellis Island, I think a good work ethic is something that’s just second nature. I just grew up seeing my mom and dad working – 40 hours a week for my mom, plus raising five kids…my dad, 60 hours a week. Yet, they had the time of their lives and they were always super duper funny and very engaged in all kinds of pop culture as well as political stuff. And…you can see that I’m a fast talker…everyone in the Griffins – we speak quickly, we don’t suffer fools. And so my wonderful, dysfunctional family was actually a very good training ground to become a stand-up comic. (laughs) It’s all their fault…I mean…I thank them.”
I was talking with a friend of mine, Sarah J. Storer, who is a local comedian – we’ve done improv together on several occasions. I had asked her what question she would pose to you if she had the opportunity, so I’m going to do that on her behalf. You’ve given a lot of voice to the lack of gender equity in the industry. When have you felt like “a woman in comedy” as opposed to just simply being a comedian? How does that inform life, love, and business?
“It’s a great question, because whether you like it or not it informs everything. You know, I think when you’re sort of a career comic like I am, my act has always reflected what’s going on in my personal life. And then I try to make it, obviously, relatable to others – and I only want to talk about stuff that people will find funny, that they can relate to their own life, et cetera. But my act has changed a lot out of necessity. When I started, I really just used to talk about some guy I was banging, or a family issue. And then when I started working in Hollywood, I really shifted my entire point of view because I started working around all of these celebrities – and I couldn’t believe the way they were behaving. And I thought it was really funny – and then that became more of my ‘lane’. Then I think with My Life on the D-List, it was a little bit of a combo – so I was talking a lot about my mom and dad and trying to make that relatable, but also on the show I would have these crazy run-ins with anyone from Warren Beatty, to Brian Wilson, to Ariana Grande.
And so, I would say to your friend that these are things I believe to be true…I can’t wait ’til I’m wrong, but I haven’t been wrong on this one yet: I think the ‘chick comic’ stigma is still alive and well. I know this very well from everything from my own Twitter feed to…I cannot tell you how many times after a show…I’ll do a show where, let’s say, you know, it’s frickin’ Carnegie Hall, right? And I’ll do a meet-and-greet before or afterwards…you know, every venue has different rules. But anyway, every show I’ll meet a couple where, of course, the wife dragged the husband. And he’ll just say to my face: ‘ you know, I really didn’t think chicks were funny before this, but I gotta say you definitely had me laughing a couple of times.’ And that’s not even that bad. That’s better than all the people who think that no matter what, chicks aren’t funny. Or when you’re a woman, you come under completely different criticism – obviously the way you look is the number one thing. So, I would say to your friend that my attitude about that is probably not the most progressive one, but I feel that as a female comic that…as a female comic who’s on television, trying to do as much as I can on television, touring…I have to say that I do have it ingrained in me that I absolutely have to work harder, be better, jump higher, never get a break, never rest. I stay in shape, I work out every single day. I eat well. I sort of train like an athlete (laughs)…I don’t mean to sound like Madonna, but when you’re doing eighty cities in a year – or even fifty – yeah, you’ve got to stay in shape.
As far as inequality…I do a million interviews, right? So I’ll do morning radio…and to this day they’ll still say ‘there’s no more sexism in comedy, right?’ And I’ll say ‘just call your local comedy club. Just ask them for their Saturday night lineup. Chances are it’s going to be about nine-to-one. So, yeah, the pay scale is way off. I sort of have a joke that I’d kill to make eighty cents on the dollar compared to guys. Like, if you think I make a fraction of what Kevin James or Ray Romano makes, you know, or Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell…I’ve had meetings in the last year with, like, the heads of networks where they’re like ‘oh, my gosh! You’ve just done so much! We don’t know what to do with you! You’ve kind of done it all!’ And I just love saying ‘really? Would you say that to Adam Sandler? Let’s call Will Ferrell and hear you say ‘Will! You’ve done so much! (sigh) We’re done, right?” It’s like, ‘no!‘ The guys keep going, so one thing I’d say your friend should do is just keep going. My act of feminism is – if I can quote my friend Gloria Steinem…I just admitted we’re friends – she said every show I do is an act of feminism. How ’bout that? My advice for your friend is keep at it, keep at it, keep at it.”
And if she loves it – that’s the most important thing.”
You’ve also been a relentless advocate for the LGBT community. We’re now on the other side of Proposition 8, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but under the new administration it seems as though we’re in uncharted territory where I don’t think anybody knows or understands what’s going to happen next. You’ve committed to continue to fight for LGBT rights – but what does that look like now?
“Well, it’s interesting because I’ve been thinking about that a lot. During the campaign, I was doing a lot of fundraising, and I had a lot of fundraisers at my house. And I was like, ‘well, this is us united. This is the frickin’ world we live in.’ But now, I’m going totally back to grassroots. So after I get off this call, I’m actually going to be one of those people that calls every one of my representatives. I’ve been very involved with Indivisible Guide, which I think is doing great work. I actually printed out their guide physically (laughs) and I hand it out at my dinner parties and stuff. But yeah, I’ve been calling everyone – in my case – from Kamala Harris to Dianne Feinstein, Governor Gerry Brown to Representatives Adam Schiff and Ted Lieu. And, I’m sure you’ve heard about the Paul Ryan thing where he’s not accepting calls – so people have been sending postcards. Randy and I had the pleasure of having dinner with Cory Booker and his girlfriend on New Year’s Day. It was funny, I was talking to him before then and he asked ‘how do you come down from doing New Year’s Eve with Anderson Cooper?’ And I said ‘New Year’s Day is always kind of special. I like to sleep late, but then it’s almost like I’m still wired from the night before.’ And he was like ‘oh, you know what? Let’s go have dinner.’ It sounds silly, but people should be reaching out to their representatives and be really old-school, hands-on. And once again I’m referring to my age, but that’s the world I grew up in. As the youngest of five, my older siblings were marching against Vietnam, and we were always talking about it in our house. So I’m kind of encouraged – I feel like people are getting involved. And maybe people have a better understanding about Planned Parenthood – that a fraction of their work is about abortion.
As far as LGBT issues – this is going to be…I feel with this group, it’s two things. Number one – and I say this as a feminist and I say it with no shame – women really have to take a lesson from the LGBT community, because they have been so much better than people who deal with women’s issues at really mobilizing and getting stuff done. It’s really true. The LGBT community…we sort of laugh that there might be some in-fighting among us with the various letters and numbers and what you say. But when the chips are down, the LGBT community has really taught the country a lesson. This is what we stand for, and this is what we don’t. So I think my activism will continue. I’m going to participate in the [Women’s] March on Saturday in San Francisco, because L.A. has enough celebrities. And of course I have a show there at eight o’clock, so why not throw in a little activism with my work? (laughs) And I think it’s going to be us being vigilant, but I think if we’re sort of in it together, it won’t be as difficult. And I think the fact that we have to think about Hillary [Clinton] winning three more million votes…it’s something we can never forget, no matter how much that guy tries. I think that’s a big part of activism – not backing down and not being afraid.”
The good news is the communities are getting better at organizing. The bad news is we all thought we weren’t going to go back here. The good thing though…when I testified on The Hill for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ I was actually quite encouraged that fairly soon after that [gay] marriage became legal in all fifty states. So stuff can happen. But we can’t just be optimistic. It’s so simple – it’s phone calls, it’s writing letters to your representative – all that kind of stuff. And it’s also kind of so easy. A lot of people I think feel like they don’t know what to do. I love that all these people are publishing the phone numbers and addresses so we can make our voices heard, you know?”
I wanted to ask you about writing your new book. You clearly love performing live – and I understand that completely from the perspective of connecting with your audience and that feeling of instant gratification. Writing is a more self-contained process, and it’s sort of funny, because you don’t know what people’s reaction to what you produce is going to be until they have the finished product in their hands. Is having space to write and reflect important to you in and of itself, or is it more of an extension of your getting material out to your audience that doesn’t fit into your live show?
“It’s actually both. I find writing really difficult because…well, you’re going to laugh at the reason because it’s not very deep: I’m wildly dyslexic and can’t type. (laughs) So the process of writing-writing takes me, I swear, four times longer than a normal human. But that’s what was fun about writing this book. Yes, it’s a challenge – but once again…I do feel like, as a female who is 56 years old in Hollywood – which as we know means ‘time to go now, bitch!’ – I did feel like ‘okay, Kath…time to do something else. You don’t have a TV show on right this moment. You’re touring like an animal. Let’s do a book this year!’ That was, like, my thing last year – I got a book deal right after New Year’s and I had a great time writing the book because it’s stories that are not in my act. As hard as it was to write the book, it was actually really funny. There are some stories that go back, like, twenty years.
There’s one story I put in there that, for obvious reasons, isn’t right for my act: one time in the 80s when I was a struggling wannabe actress, I had never attended a real trial before. So, I decided to go to the actual trial of the real Night Stalker serial killer. And I spoke to a juror. I almost caused a mistrial (laughs) and what happened was, of course, a comedy of errors where I was the biggest fool. My brother was an attorney and he yelled at me afterwards – he was like ‘what are you doing talking to a juror at a murder trial?!‘ And I was like ‘I had a question!’ It’s a lot of stories like that are just, like, weird stories that have happened. And some of them are almost part of a biography. This is what happens when you’re a comic on the road – you go out and have these wild experiences. And then I have stories that happened as recently as a year ago…I think I put one in there about my pal Sidney Poitier because…people don’t think I’m friends with Sidney Poitier! But one thing I love to do is I really, really value cultivating relationships with the legends that have really been through the fire. So I have kind of a joke. One of the reasons I liked writing the book was…you know, it’s fun to write about Justin Bieber and stuff, but I also really had a lot of fun writing – hopefully – unexpected stories about a lot of these legends I’ve gotten to have a run-in with, or become friends with. Or maybe I had one experience that maybe was not good – there are stories in there that maybe didn’t go so well for the celebrity?
But hopefully, it’s funny above all.”
I can’t not ask about your next-door neighbors, Kim and Kanye. I mean…they don’t seem like the “come over and borrow a cup of sugar” type of people…
“Oh, wait! I’m forcing them to.”
Oh, you are?
“She came over a couple of weeks ago, and I went over a week before that. And I can tell you…the funny part is…I love to say ‘I live next door to my act’…but the funny part is we are so close that it’s almost like we’re those neighbors that are so close that even if you’re just, like, trying to avoid them…there are so many funny things I could talk about in my act because it’s actually not violating their privacy. It’s just me talking about, like, how when I go on my hike every day – I admit…obviously I don’t have make-up on, right? I’ll, like, cover my face as I walk past their house because I don’t know if their crew’s there (laughs). It’s really definitely weird and funny living next door to them.
Oh, she did come over one night – and wasn’t wearing pants. So it was really funny – I saw her in the driveway and I was, like, ‘oh, I want you to see the house. I’ve got it all furnished and it looks really cool.’ And so she comes over and her sort of…I call it her uniform…it’s this big Pablo jacket because her husband thinks he’s Pablo Picasso. It’s like a big camouflage, baggy potato sack. No pants because it goes down to, like, the middle of her thigh. And she wears heels that lace up like Greek goddess heels. I think that’s, like, a normal ‘going to do errands’ outfit. So, you know, any little tidbit I get, I love. But, no, the truth is they’re actually ideal neighbors because truly they’re super quiet because the last thing they want is trouble from me. And also the great thing is that they don’t care about me anymore. Like, when I started making fun of them and calling them every name in the book and God only knows what – they all hated me and would confront me, or whatever. But now, we all get along fine. They just realized they need to keep printing money and not worry about me anymore.”
Kathy Griffin comes to Columbus Thursday night with her Celebrity Run-Ins Tour, 8:00 p.m. at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Tickets are $30.00-92.00 (plus applicable taxes and fees), and are available through Ticketmaster. You can follow Kathy on Twitter, or visit her official website for more information.