Critic's Notebook: Kathy Griffin Comes Back With a Vengeance in 'Laugh Your Head Off' Tour

Courtesy of Carnegie Hall
Kathy Griffin

The comedian displayed the usual entertaining snarkiness but also a surprising new gravitas in her Carnegie Hall show Tuesday night.

After the infamous photo of Kathy Griffin holding a Donald Trump mask covered in fake blood, the comedian's life and career were seriously derailed. She lost lucrative television gigs and endorsement deals, received numerous death threats and was harassed by a federal government that decided that the best use of its law enforcement resources was making sure that the host of My Life on the D-List wasn’t a terrorist. It now turns out that the incident, as painful and traumatic as it was, may have been the best thing that ever happened to her.

After a nearly yearlong period of hibernation, Griffin has rebounded in a big way with an expansive world tour cheekily dubbed "Laugh Your Head Off." It has produced sellouts at some of the biggest venues she has ever played, including recent shows at New York City's Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall. Notoriety, as is so often the case, turns out to be a career booster. Just ask Sean Spicer, who recently signed a deal for a television talk show after spending his six months as White House press secretary lying to the American people.

Griffin was triumphant and defiant Tuesday night at her Carnegie Hall performance, clearly basking in the love and support of her fans who filled the auditorium. She proceeded to vividly demonstrate that, whatever the minuses of her recent experiences, there has been at least one major plus: It's given her enough material for a whole new act. More than enough, actually. While some of the earlier shows on her tour lasted a mind-boggling three-and-a-half hours, she was restricted to a mere two-and-a half at Carnegie due to the venue's strict curfew. You could sense her frustration at having to leave some things out.

"And they said you wouldn't come," Griffin gleefully observed as she came onstage following a video recap of the controversy and her career in general. She immediately made it clear that she would be taking no prisoners. "Everybody's going down tonight!" she announced, adding, "I know what you came for. Everyone wants all the gory details."

Griffin has scores to settle and she wasted no time doing it. Among her targets was Andy Cohen ("a piece of shit") and Jeff Zucker ("He's not that smart"), as well as Anderson Cooper, whom she lambasted for betraying her with his tweet denouncing the photo. She angrily decried several former agents and publicists whom she took pains to mention by name. She revealed that the last time she hosted CNN's New Year's Eve coverage, she was told by Zucker that she could only do one Trump joke per hour. And that years earlier, when she asked him for a raise, he was so resentful that he instead docked her pay by 30 percent.

Relating the story of the infamous photo, Griffin explained, not too convincingly, that it was inspired by Trump's infamous comment about Megyn Kelly that "there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her whatever." She said she had no idea that the picture would cause such a firestorm, first learning about it from Rosie O'Donnell, who called urging her to take it down.

"That picture is completely covered by the First Amendment, by the way!" Griffin told the audience, who erupted in cheers.

"You know how they say there's no such thing as bad publicity?" Griffin asked. "Actually, there is."

There were times during the comedian's lengthy recounting of the devastating aftermath of her stunt that she got bogged down in details. Recounting conversations with her lawyer and delivering lengthy accounts of her legal troubles, Griffin began to resemble Lenny Bruce in the last stage of his career when he spent most of his time onstage bitterly lamenting his persecution at the hands of the authorities.

But Griffin is too savvy a comedian to bore an audience with her troubles. There was one moment when she got emotional and almost lost it, talking about the death threats sent to her elderly mother and sister who was dying of cancer. But for the most part, she was her usual energetic and very funny self, mining her bizarre predicament for sharp observational humor that made the lengthy evening whiz by.

Griffin also took pains to pay tribute to several show business figures who offered support, including Jim Carrey, whom she knew only casually. When she broke down in tears during their phone conversation, he bucked her up by pointing out, "Today, you're the most famous comedian in the world. Figure out a way to make this funny and go tell this story."

It's advice that Griffin has clearly taken to heart. Her show was as much emotional catharsis as stand-up, but she managed to find hilarity in her situation. Receiving death threats by mail, for instance, is usually not something to laugh about. But it is when a third of them have return addresses. And her show-closing description of her meeting with federal agents in which she volunteered the information that she owned a "very long sword" is priceless.

Much like Richard Pryor, who became a truly great comedian when he mined his own deeply troubled life for material, Griffin has stepped up her game. In her current show, she still resorts to her long-standing obsession with celebrities, delivering rambling, less than hilarious anecdotes about such figures as Stevie Nicks and her neighbors Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. But she now displays some gravitas along with her snark. Becoming an unlikely figurehead of the resistance seems to be a role that suits her.