Kathy Griffin: Can a Comic in Exile Come Back?
Eight months after torching her career (and friendship with Anderson Cooper) via a not-so-funny photograph of a decapitated Donald Trump, the comedienne is holed up in her Bel Air mansion, talking to the FBI, trying to figure out what happened and pondering if it's possible to return to the spotlight: "When you're a woman, you get one f—up and it's over."
To get to Kathy Griffin’s home, you need to pass through a series of gates. The first, an imposing barrier at the entrance to a private community in a secluded Bel Air canyon, is manned by three stone-faced guards who check your ID and glare suspiciously into your eyes before waving you in. Then you find yourself wheeling around a maze of manicured, British-sounding streets — Stonehenge Lane and Cardigan Court — until you arrive at a slightly smaller gate, where you press a speaker button in order to gain admittance. Finally, you spot the redheaded comic — all 5-foot-3 and 106 pounds of her — standing at the doorway of an enormous Mediterranean-style mansion that looks like it would be right at home on a Tuscan cliff.
“Welcome to my fuck-you house,” she announces.
Kathy Griffin, 57, shares the 13,000-square-foot residence with her 39-year-old boyfriend and tour manager, Randy Bick, and, during the day, a small staff of male assistants (“I like the idea of only having male employees,” she notes). It has nine bedrooms and 12 bathrooms. There’s an elevator, a 12-car garage, an infinity pool with jaw-dropping views, a movie theater (her “gays” are coming by shortly to watch I, Tonya) and eclectic decor (including a portrait of Griffin painted by convicted murderer Erik Menendez, a fan, who sent it to her from prison). She is more than happy to disclose that the house cost her $10.5 million, which she paid in cash a year and a half ago, and that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West used to live next door. The splurge was a gesture of defiance: Look, Hollywood, at what this perpetual outsider and self-described D-lister, a woman who built a thriving comedy career by mercilessly mocking celebrities, has accomplished with nothing but her own mouth and a microphone. The double-gated 24-hour security was a nice bonus to the property, but at the time she pretty much took it for granted.
Not anymore. Not since The Photo. Now those gates are the only things letting Griffin sleep at night.
To recap: On May 30, 2017, a hastily and recklessly conceived photograph of Griffin holding up an effigy of a decapitated Donald Trump’s head started circulating online. Almost instantly, the backlash sent her life into a tailspin. She was abandoned in droves by longtime friends, terrorized with death threats from Trump supporters and targeted by federal agents investigating whether she should be charged with conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States (after two months, they decided the answer was no). Griffin watched as overnight her lucrative comedy career — with virtually zero overhead, her grueling concert schedule was bringing in millions annually — fell apart as venue after venue canceled dates on her cross-country tour and talk shows refused to book her. Despite frantic attempts at damage control — posting a desperate-sounding apology video on YouTube, then retracting the apology in a disastrous press conference with attorney Lisa Bloom during which Griffin claimed Trump “broke me” — nothing worked. She was fired as the celebrity face of “Squatty Potty” (a toilet footstool) and, far worse, was jettisoned by CNN, where she had hosted a popular New Year’s Eve broadcast with Anderson Cooper for the past 10 years. Cooper, a longtime friend, tweeted May 30 that Griffin’s stunt was “disgusting and completely inappropriate.” The two have not spoken since.
Over these past eight months, Griffin’s fuck-you house has become her fuck-you fortress. Or perhaps her fuck-you prison. She’s remained holed up here, plotting her Hail Mary comeback, having escaped for a spell to Europe, where she says she found more forgiving audiences. Mostly, though, she’s been nursing her wounds. “I didn’t commit a crime,” she says defiantly. “I didn’t rape anybody. I didn’t assault anybody. I didn’t get a DUI. I mean, my God, there are celebrities that fucking kill people.”
The Trump photo came out of a May 23 session with Tyler Shields, a 35-year-old celebrity gadfly and photographer who specializes in shock value. “When you’re in between gigs and trying to stay on the map, you have to think of ways to stay in the spotlight,” says Griffin of the shoot, which was meant to drum up interest in a 50-date U.S. tour that already had gotten underway. It was a daylong production, during which Griffin had posed for “many wacky pictures” — another setup had her arching her back next to her pool in a latex bathing suit, doing her “best Kim Kardashian.” She and Shields started batting around ideas for a photo that “would fuck with Trump,” and they landed on the decapitation concept. Says Shields: “The crazy thing is, I had the last roll of film, and there were three pictures left. There are only three slides of film of that picture.”
Afterward, Griffin instructed Shields to “get it out there in whatever way the kids are getting things these days.” He put it on his website and alerted TMZ, which published the image on May 30 at 10:53 a.m. That evening, Griffin was set to host a dinner party for Melanie Griffith, Rita Wilson and Kris Jenner. As the day progressed and the outrage mounted — stoked by tweets from the Republican Party (“Since when did this kind of behavior become OK?”) and Donald Trump Jr. (“Disgusting but not surprising“) — the severity of what was unfolding was becoming clearer and clearer. “I wondered, ‘Should I cancel the dinner?’ And then I thought, ‘No, these are three women who could probably give me good advice.’ ” The dinner party proceeded as planned. “We sat at the table and talked about it,” recalls Griffin. “We hashed out options, and they were trying to make me feel good — getting the laughs going because I was so freaked out.”
Many of Griffin’s other famous friends, however, were not as understanding. Says Bick, who has dated Griffin since 2011: “It’s been really hard. It seems like everybody turned.” On Twitter, Debra Messing compared it to “when people lynched Obama effigies.” Chelsea Clinton called it “vile and wrong.” Bick’s brother, a former Marine, unfriended him on Facebook. Even Griffin’s own 97-year-old mother was appalled. “She said, ‘I am not with you on this one, Kathy. You’ve gone too far,’ ” recalls Griffin. But it was ultimately a pointed question from Griffin’s longtime friend Rosie O’Donnell that convinced her the stunt was a mistake. “What if Daniel Pearl’s parents saw this?” O’Donnell asked her, referring to the Wall Street Journal reporter who’d been publicly decapitated by Pakistani terrorists in 2001.
Griffin certainly is not the first comic to careen past the lines of acceptability and suffer the consequences — comedians have been pushing taste boundaries since Lenny Bruce got arrested in 1961 for using the word “cocksucker” onstage. Bill Maher didn’t get fired for saying the N-word on a 2017 episode of HBO’s Real Time — he later apologized for it on the air — but 16 years earlier his incendiary comments right after 9/11 (saying the terrorists were “not cowardly”) led to the cancellation of his ABC show Politically Incorrect. Joan Rivers, Griffin’s mentor, pushed her luck right until her death in 2015. In 2013, she took some hits for joking of a Heidi Klum photo, “The last time a German looked this hot they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” Unlike Maher, though, Rivers made it a point never to apologize. Comedy, in her view, never had to say it was sorry.
Eventually, Griffin would come around to Rivers’ point of view, but her first instinct was to record a mea culpa and post it on YouTube. Visibly shaken, and without makeup or hairstyling, she conceded on tape that she “went way too far.” Meanwhile, calls started pouring in for interview requests, from the likes of Matt Lauer, Megyn Kelly, 60 Minutes and Howard Stern. Griffin passed on all of them. One call that did get through, however, was Lisa Bloom’s; the two had met in the greenroom at Joy Reid’s MSNBC show and Bloom later attended a brunch at Griffin’s home. According to the attorney, she sent Griffin a text message — “Are you OK?” — to which Griffin replied, “I need you.” The two got on the phone right away. Says Bloom, “She told me, ‘Will you stand with me? I’m getting a lot of private support, but nobody will stand with me.’ And I was like, ‘I will stand with you.’ “
But the chaotic June 1 press conference that came out of that call, during which Griffin had hoped to turn the situation around by retracting her apology and instead defending the photo as a free speech issue, Joan Rivers-style — turned out to be a PR disaster. Griffin appeared flustered and rambling and at times barely coherent, all of which Griffin now blames on Bloom. “It turned out she wanted me to do an infomercial for her,” she says. “When I walked into that room, I had no idea there was going to be a banner above my head that said LisaBloom.com. I didn’t know she was going to Velcro herself to my shoulder so she couldn’t be cut out of any shot. I didn’t know she was going to hand me a mug that said LisaBloom.com. I got all of that in under three seconds.”
Bloom, of course, has her own view of the event. She says she spent hours with Griffin the day before the conference crafting a statement. But once in front of the cameras, Griffin opted to put aside the prepared remarks and speak “off the cuff.” And, Bloom insists, it was no infomercial. “Our mugs have the firm’s name on them. And that sign is always up. It’s pretty standard.”
Whoever was at fault, the press conference only made matters worse, with death threats being sent not just to Griffin but also to the theaters where she was scheduled to appear during her tour. One by one, the cancellations started coming in. “I don’t blame the theater owners,” says Griffin. “These are theaters that are normally playing Mamma Mia! or Stomp, and all of a sudden they’re getting calls saying they’re going to ‘shoot her in the c— live onstage.’ That was the most common threat. And that they were going to ‘cut my head off and stuff it up my c—.’ ” The FBI got involved, determining that Griffin was under “credible threat” and offered her a tutorial on how to deal with the hate mail. “There’s a pile that we think is harmless,” she explains of the system. “And a pile that’s questionable. And then there’s a pile that the FBI says you put in a Ziploc bag and give to them. That’s my life now.”
But just as the FBI was giving her safety tips, the Secret Service was investigating whether she was a threat to the president. Griffin says she was interviewed by two investigators, one female and one male. The man asked her if she kept any weapons in her home. “I said, ‘No. Oh, well, I have a sword. It’s huge,’ ” she recalls. “And my lawyers looked at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ The agents got very interested and were like, ‘What is it for?’ And I was like, ‘It’s not for anything. I got it when I hosted the Gay Porn Awards.’ And I have to say, the guy smirked. He was like, ‘Tell me more about the sword.’ I was like, ‘Well, it’s big. You know the gays.’ And then it was like, ‘No more sword-asking questions.’ “
To get her life back on track, Griffin sought out the advice of crisis experts, which she promptly ignored. “I was hearing, ‘Go away for five years,’ ” she says of the meetings. “I was like, ‘I’ll tell you what: You go away for five years.’ ” Instead, she decided to take her comedy routine overseas, where there’s a longer history of savage political humor. Until the photo scandal, touring had provided Griffin with her main source of income for much of the past five years, although she grows uncharacteristically coy when asked about her finances (sources close to Griffin says she’s worth $32 million). “She’s deeply in touch with her money, like Oprah-level,” says one friend. “She signs every check, knows where every cent goes.”
In October, she launched the Laugh Your Head Off Tour in Auckland, New Zealand, then took it to Australia, Singapore and Europe. The show, which dips heavily into her legal and professional woes for material (just as Bruce did with his obscenity trials) turned out to be a savvy move; venues sold out in markets Griffin had never even dreamed of playing. “In Iceland, at one point I asked, ‘How do you guys even know me?’ And people just started yelling out, ‘The picture!’ ”
The act played so well overseas that Griffin began mapping out a U.S. comeback. She’d ease her way home with a few Canadian dates (certainly they hated Trump as much as she did), then do a show in Mexico City (in solidarity with the Dreamers) before making a return to the U.S. Ultimately, Hollywood would come around and find a place for her back on television.
But then, in late October, while on tour in Europe, Griffin heard that Andy Cohen had been picked as her replacement for CNN’s New Year’s Eve special, and something in her snapped. Cohen had been Griffin’s boss through six seasons of her two-time Emmy-winning reality show on Bravo, My Life on the D-List, but when TMZ caught up with him at LAX on Oct. 27 to ask whether he’d sought Griffin’s blessing before taking her old gig, Cohen responded, “Who?” Griffin didn’t think it was funny and posted a 17-minute diatribe Oct. 28 on her YouTube channel in which she went off not only on Cohen (claiming he offered her cocaine backstage at his Bravo talk show) but also on TMZ chief Harvey Levin (revealing his private cellphone number on the video) and CNN boss Jeff Zucker (claiming he once fired her from New Year’s Eve Live for asking for a pay raise and then hired her back with a 20 percent pay cut), among others. (Cohen, Levin and Zucker all declined to comment for this story, as did Cooper.)
Griffin regrets nothing — not even the cocaine story, which Cohen has dismissed on Twitter as “100% false and totally made up.” She says she shared it “to illustrate a double standard. If it was me [offering drugs backstage], somebody at Bravo would have said, ‘You have to go.’ When you’re a woman, you get one fuckup, and it’s over. When you’re a guy, you get chance after chance after chance.”
New Year’s Eve always was going to be a challenging night for Griffin. Her firing from the broadcast had, after all, been the unkindest cut of all. Her friendship with Cooper stretches back to 2001, when Cooper, then hosting ABC’s reality competition The Mole, appeared as a guest on Griffin’s short-lived MTV show Kathy’s So-Called Reality. They instantly hit it off. “My joke was, ‘I’ve known him since he was banging chicks,’ ” says Griffin. “We were close. I loved him. I really loved him.”
She spent New Year’s Eve at home “with my handsome boyfriend, making love,” she says. The plan was to avoid watching CNN. But Bick had DVR’d the New Year’s broadcast without telling her — he’d planned to “hate watch” it at a future date — and when texts and tweets started rolling in saying the show was “a train wreck” without her, the evening’s plans changed. “Kathy said, ‘I want to watch,’ ” recalls Bick. “I said, ‘Are you sure? It could be painful.’ But we turned it on, and she was like, ‘This is a dumpster fire.’ “
In fact, despite tepid reviews, the broadcast had its biggest ratings ever, with 3.3 million viewers, 8 percent higher than Griffin’s final appearance.
Griffin arrives for lunch at Santa Monica’s Ivy at the Shore in a glittering black Maserati. She hasn’t been out on the town much since the scandal broke, so she’s obviously put some effort into this interview date in mid-January. She’s in full makeup, her hair dyed a fiery red and neatly shorn. (She shaved it off as a show of support for her sister Joyce, who died in September of cancer, and now keeps it cropped.) She’s wearing a tight dress with a plunging neckline, large green sunglasses and carrying a fur-trimmed Chanel purse, which she plops down on the table with purpose. (“I got it at the outlet, but it was still very expensive.”) She orders the spicy corn chowder, of which she will eat three spoonfuls (“Too spicy,” she says). Despite the theatrical entrance, no one in the packed room seems to notice her; if they do, they don’t seem to care.
Griffin seems a little surprised by the low-key reception; nowadays she’s accustomed to “gasps” when she enters a room (as happened at a recent funeral). She is all too aware that she’s trapped in the Hollywood equivalent of a gulag. But not everyone thinks it’s game over. “She didn’t hurt anyone,” says Jimmy Kimmel, who already has offered Griffin a spot on his show whenever she’s ready to talk. He’s predicting a comeback in her future. “She is one of the funniest people in the world,” he says. “She’ll be bigger than ever.”
Griffin tends to agree, and she is plotting her next steps. She’s been reaching out to anyone who might help, including J.J. Abrams — Griffin’s former improv student at the Groundlings school back in the mid-1980s — who met with her recently to discuss her various TV ideas. She spends her days writing, making videos, working on new stand-up material and, lately, feuding with her 60-something-year-old neighbors over their loud music playing (they’re going to court Feb. 16). “I mean, I do normal stuff, like see my mom and play with my puppies,” she says, “but my mind is always focused on the best way to move forward.”
But outside of touring — she plans to return to North America sometime soonish — Griffin’s options are limited and often insulting (she was sent an offer to do stand-up at a “Pop-Up Comedy Club in Beirut, Lebanon”). Netflix, a natural home with its heavy stand-up push, wants nothing to do with her (especially after Griffin accused Lisa Nishimura, vp original docs and comedy at Netflix, of sexism in a Nov. 11 tweet). And NBCUniversal properties like Bravo, E! and NBC won’t touch her, either, at least not at the moment. “It’s still a day-by-day process,” says Bick. “We still don’t know what’s going to happen the next time she does a show in the States. We’re still on edge.”
But Griffin is undeterred. “The minute I do something that makes money, they will all love me again,” she says, slowly stirring her spicy soup with a spoon. “When I’m dead, I’ll be a legend. But not now.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.