Kathy Griffin Made $75 Million Making People Laugh. But The Phone’s Not Ringing

By Jeffrey Fleishman Los Angeles Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) It's been two years since Kathy Griffin raised a Halloween mask smeared with ketchup that depicted the severed head of President Donald Trump. The shocking photo has had serious repercussions for her career. Griffin says she remains "blacklisted" in the entertainment industry for her stunt.

Los Angeles Times

Kathy Griffin's uncle was a bagman. Her cousin was a priest who wore blue eyeshadow. Her favorite writer when she was a girl in Chicago was columnist Mike Royko. He hung up on her twice. But she never shut up, she just kept talking, telling stories, especially to the Bowens, who lived next door. They served cookies while Griffin dished family secrets and her mother, who enjoyed an occasional highball, watched in alarm.

Griffin has made a career out of speaking her mind. Her stand-up acts burst and flash like mortar rounds. But it's quiet these days in her big house in the Bel-Air hills. There is no work. Griffin has always worked. She's old-school, played Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall. She has two Emmys in her foyer. She made $75 million making people laugh. But the phone's not ringing and the silence skims bone.

It's been two years since she raised a Halloween mask smeared with ketchup that depicted the severed head of President Donald Trump. The picture went viral. It shocked everyone from Sean Hannity to Anderson Cooper. She was vilified by the right and abandoned by Hollywood. The tabloids compared her to a terrorist. Strangers spat at her; friends disappeared. Death threats poured in, and the feds advised her not to stand too close to her mailbox.

"I'm still totally blacklisted," she said the other day, sitting in a red dress and taking stock of how a woman who starred on Bravo's "My Life on the D-List" fell precipitously to the "S" list. "No agency will touch me. No network will touch me. No streaming service will touch me. Nobody. And yet, I'm an earner. I've made them all money, and I'll make them money again. I have to dig myself out of this hole."

Her new documentary, "Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story," is the tale of a pilloried woman who fights back. It is raw, vulgar and smart. The film, which premiered at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival and opens July 31 for a one-day showing in 700 theaters, follows the comedian on her 2017-18 tour to Asia, Australia, Europe and America, where her stand-up acts detailed how she was investigated by the federal government, turned into a pariah and thrown into the conservative social media "wood chipper."

The lead-up to the film comes as Trump has been criticized for tweeting that congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts should "go back" to the countries they came from. Democrats condemned the tweet as racist and a troubling sign of Trump's attitude toward women who challenge him. Griffin knows about that.

She weeps at moments in "A Hell of a Story," a comedian shattered by the forces against her. But most of the film is her on the offensive, evoking civil rights and the First Amendment, attacking Trump, befriending Stormy Daniels, comparing Ivanka to "a bag of Xanax" and mentioning Jared Kushner as "soon to be imprisoned."

She mocks Trump supporters for sending her Bibles while also wanting to shoot her. She laughs that many of the death threats she received were mailed with return addresses.

It is quintessential Griffin, a tough, Catholic-raised redhead from Chicago with a sharp tongue and a pugilist's glare. Middle finger raised, cuss words flying. Her comedy is abrasive; she takes down celebrities with cutting glee. She has angered many, "I'm an acquired taste", and her critics believe the Trump photo stunt brought her what she deserved. But there's a street kid's veracity to her, much of it coming from her father, who told her long ago: "Kathy, don't take any crap from those people. I don't care if you ever work again."

She still books stand-up gigs. She's been invited on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." But there have been no big TV or film deals. Many in the entertainment industry feel the photograph exploited terrorist iconography that should never be invoked against a president. The image recollected how much Sept. 11, 2001, reconfigured America's politics and anxieties, even though school shooters and white gunmen are more pressing threats these days than Middle East jihadists.

Griffin is viewed as either a cautionary tale or a heroine in our seething times. She keeps a picture of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in her downstairs bathroom, a sly aside to unwanted snooping, and has endured the onslaught of the Trump administration and a conservative media machine that thrives on spectacle and excoriating opponents. But even those who had admired her comedy over the years have misgivings.

"I had the option to buy her film and passed," said Brian Volk-Weiss, head of the production company Comedy Dynamics. "I dislike Trump. I think he might be doing permanent damage to the United States. That being said, I thought what she did was disgusting. I don't think it was funny in the slightest." Volk-Weiss said he struggled over his decision but ultimately turned down the documentary because he was worried "she'd say or do something horrible in the midst of doing PR for the film."

Even so, Volk-Weiss agrees with Griffin when she describes herself as an earner. "I guarantee you we walked away from a lot of money. The people that love her and respect what she did with the Trump head are passionate. ... When she's not doing politics," he said, "she's hysterical, absolutely one of the funniest people who's ever lived."

The stunt photo Griffin's front door opens to a view of a pool that shines over a canyon of chaparral and scrub. Gusts stiffen and fade, the sky is hard and clear. Kim Kardashian used to live next door. She signed Griffin's guest book: "Sorry for the view! My naked spray tans in the middle of the night are a fun sight LOL." Hanging nearby is a portrait of Griffin painted by Erik Menendez, who with his brother, Lyle, is serving a life sentence for murdering their rich parents.

"He's a fan," she said.

Publicists and managers have told her to soften a bit, play a sitcom mom. "That's not what bought this house," she said. Her blue eyes flashed. Her disdain for Trump glittered. She said wanted to shame him for what she called his misogyny and racism and for disgracing the presidency. The severed-head photo was in part a response to Trump's 2015 comments that former Fox News host Megyn Kelly "had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."

"My stunt was on brand," said Griffin. "I knew it was a strong statement. I also know about the history of that kind of imagery and comedians taking those leaps and going to drastic measures. The photo was pre-Harvey Weinstein and pre-MeToo. It was still a time when it was easier to dog pile on a woman and someone like me. What surprised me most about the blowback was all the people who forgot about the eight years of Barack Obama depicted in a noose. Obama on a cross. Obama with his head cut off."

Griffin found support the other day when she appeared on "The Boxer Podcast," hosted by former Sen. Barbara Boxer and her daughter, Nicole. Barbara Boxer said that when she first saw the severed-head gag she thought, "Oh, my goodness that was rough." But she added that the pressure against Griffin by the Trump administration "shows the power of the federal government. It shows the fragility of the First Amendment. I was totally stunned by what happened to you."

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