Kathy Griffin is… not Nicole Kidman. That’s not only the title of Kathy’s 2005 comedy special but the simple truth. Unlike Kathy, Kidman has always been A-list, doesn’t tell dick jokes and has never been the subject of a federal investigation (as far as we know). Kathy is a Grammy- and Emmy-winning stand-up comedian who has spent most of her career on the self-proclaimed D-list of the entertainment industry. You might remember her as Vicki on the 1990s sitcom Suddenly Susan (starring Brooke Shields). If you’re a gay millennial with good taste, you know her from her outrageous hit reality TV series My Life on the D-List, which ran for six seasons on Bravo. The show chronicled Kathy’s career and hysterical desperation to become a Hollywood A-lister.
If none of those things ring a bell, you definitely know Kathy for the infamous picture of her holding up a bloody D****d T***p mask. Yes, a mask. It was not a severed head, as the media loved to proclaim. It was a mask with ketchup on it. The image was posted on May 30, 2017, and immediately sparked an explosive backlash. Kathy was fired from every gig she had, including CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live with Anderson Cooper, which she had co-hosted for 10 years; she was the subject of a federal investigation by the United States Justice Department and placed on the no-fly list. She became a show business pariah in a matter of hours. The whole story and its aftermath, including major tea about Andy Cohen and how awful he was to work for, can all be seen in Kathy’s brilliant 2019 comedy film A Hell of a Story, which is currently streaming on Prime. Kathy financed the film herself because no network was interested. It’s an important film because the federal investigation she was placed under, as Kathy explains, was historic.
Kathy made headlines again last week with a bombshell ABC News interview, in which she spoke candidly for the first time about her suicide attempt, perscription pill addiction and her recent cancer diagnosis. As you can see in the interview, Kathy has the kind of fighting spirit few people have, and it’s perhaps this spirit—and that story about ordering a pizza with Cher—that has endeared her to gay audiences since the beginning of her career. Through the tumultuous ups and downs of her life, her gay audience has been a true constant. It’s an unbreakable bond. We see Kathy’s vulnerability and intelligence, and we love her unflinching willingness to always tell the truth about her life, her career, Hollywood and politics.
This week, we’re taking a close look at Kathy’s status as a gay icon, why she is—and always has been—so much more than the desperate D-lister she portrayed herself to be and why she deserves to be regarded as one of the comedy greats.
Tranna: I have vague childhood memories of seeing Kathy on Brooke Shields’ sitcom, Suddenly Susan, and being very drawn to her. But my real introduction to her was My Life on the D-List, which I think is still the best reality show ever because it was actually about something—about someone doing real work.
Thomas: Are you implying that Kris Jenner and the girls are not doing real work? Shocking!
Tranna: That’s exactly what I’m implying! To this day I think D-list remains one of the most insightful and hilarious looks at show business, particularly the way it showed what it meant to be a woman in standup comedy at that time (2005 to 2010). Many things have changed since then and many have remained the same, but it goes without saying that Kathy had to work twice as hard as her male counterparts to get less than half as much. The show never shied away from that reality—and I don’t think Kathy has ever shied away from anything! Like Kathy herself, the show was brutally honest about everything, from misogyny to politics to trying to win a Grammy. One of the funniest episodes was watching Kathy, her mom, her assistants and housekeeper calling up Grammy voters to get them to vote for her. I think My Life on the D-List exists now as this historical document about what it meant to be a woman in comedy pre-social media and #MeToo, but at the time it was just a stupidly funny show. As much as Kathy did so much stupid shit on it, she is not stupid. I think she’s one of the smartest women in comedy. There are two Kathys: the ridiculous balls-to-the-wall Kathy who will do anything for fame, attention and a laugh, and then the Kathy who will learn everything there is to know about the First Amendment and share that knowledge in an address at Oxford University. Name another living comedian who could do both.
Thomas: Kathy is so American and that’s what I find fascinating about her. She is self-made and scrappy and she smiles too much. She will do anything to stay in the limelight, whatever the cost. And her obsession with the First Amendment is as American as it gets. She is the jester of Hollywood, exposing how ridiculous and shallow the whole system is; but she fought hard to be a part of it. From the outside, it looked like there was nothing too crass that she would do for attention. She is brash and loud and blunt. While that’s not necessarily what I’m looking for in an entertainer, I believe she had and has to be like this to get noticed and sustain a career as a woman of her generation. I also often remark that American entertainers, especially standup comedians, have this default high energy because it’s so stressful to live in a country with very little consideration for people’s health and well-being. I’m often exhausted watching them; they are literally fighting for survival and they are being very in-your-face about it. Kathy has made no secret about this in some of her recent interviews.
Tranna: I’ve never thought about Kathy being the quintessential American before, but you’re right. Her approach to everything is so American. She is a hustler who has no concept of when enough is enough. That really shone through on D-List, which was a vehicle and platform that Kathy created for herself because no one else would give her anything. Its success, including two Emmy wins, brought new life to her standup career and led her to breaking the world record for the most televised comedy specials (20), most of which aired on Bravo between 2004 and 2011. She had the best acceptance speech ever when she won the Emmy and told Jesus to “Suck it.” Through it all, Kathy has essentially been a one-woman operation—her memoir, Official Book Club Selection, which documents her rise, is a great read, especially for anyone trying to make a career in show business. She is the perennial showbiz underdog and so I’m sure it’s not surprising to anyone that her biggest demographic has been gay men. I don’t think Kathy could have weathered and survived everything she has in her career without that gay following.
Thomas: It was so hilarious when Meghan McCain recently tried to accuse Kathy of being homophobic because of some Clay Aiken jokes from years ago. Meghan went off on this ridiculous rant on The View, saying what a horrible person Kathy is. Meanwhile, Clay Aiken was on Twitter calling Kathy a dear friend, and wishing her well after the announcement of her illness. I lived for that moment.
Tranna: I love that Meghan, who supports a political party that wants to harm queer people and who is married to a homophobic nightmare of a man, was on TV calling Kathy, of all people, homophobic. The same Kathy who has spent an entire career serving queer audiences the most delicious celebrity gossip. Because Kathy’s comedy is rooted in showbiz gossip and “queer interests,” she’s never been taken seriously as a comedian.
Thomas: Absolutely. Her success is even more impressive because mainstream comedy wasn’t, until recently, a very queer art form. Straight men have been the main audience to consume and elevate comedy, especially standup. They have kept this strange hold on what it means to be a “real” comedian. It’s so satisfying to watch Kathy on stage, showing everyone what a comedian really is! She is a master of the craft. She never joined the boys’ club and, at least from the outside, didn’t seem to care about getting validated by the male comedy establishment. That’s what is so subversive about Kathy Griffin. Now, being daring can lead to a few unfortunate headlines. It’s been four years since that infamous picture of her in a blue pussy bow, staring at the camera and holding a mask of D****d T***p dripping in what looks like fake blood. That picture, and the ensuing media storm, almost ended her career.
Tranna: What a shitshow that moment was. She’s still living with the repercussions today. It makes me so angry that that stupid T***p picture destroyed everything she had worked so hard to build for herself and turned her life upside down. It created the biggest backlash she had ever endured; not only was she the subject of a federal investigation and placed on the no-fly list but, worst of all, she became enemy number one of T***p’s fan base. As she describes in last week’s ABC News interview, she’s been on the receiving end of serious death threats since the picture was released. It didn’t stop with her—members of her family were threatened as well. I wish more people understood the hell that she went through, especially considering the picture was not illegal in any way. People acted like she had beheaded the real person or that this constituted a plot to assassinate the president—give me a break! It was a mask with ketchup on it; his fragile ego was harmed, that’s all. I applaud her for that picture. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it—people, even people on the left, were more upset about a picture of her holding that mask than they were about the absolutely horrific things the 45th president was doing.
Thomas: It’s wild to think that the picture leaked in May 2017. T***p had been inaugurated four months prior and one of the big stories at the time was that his administration banned travellers from so-called “Muslim” countries. Her picture was cathartic because a lot of us felt powerless in the face of blatant authoritarianism. It was also before the fall of powerful comedians like Louis C.K., and before #MeToo took off with the reports on Harvey Weinstein’s horrific sexual abuses. People weren’t really talking about cancel culture then; Kathy was cancelled and silenced, and no one on the right batted an eye because she attacked their guy.
Tranna: I honestly did not remember that the Kathy controversy happened before the beginning of #MeToo—wow! What I found shocking was the liberal elite blasting Kathy for the picture. The hypocrisy of the United States seriously knows no bounds. I thought it was revolting that none of Kathy’s high-profile friends stood up for her, either. Andy Cohen, who she produced so much work for at Bravo, and Anderson Cooper, who was not only her CNN New Year’s Eve co-host but an actual close friend, both severed ties with her. She got her revenge to some extent by exposing what a monster Cohen is in A Hell of a Story, which I think is one of the most important comedy films ever made. Everyone seriously needs to watch it (it’s available on Prime and on other on-demand platforms). It documents the whole story of everything that went down with the infamous picture and all of the aftermath. It’s also a testament to the importance of free of speech and the First Amendment, and a very real cry to protect both those things, which are very much under threat.
Thomas: It’s a wild doc for sure. That being said, people also have to keep a critical eye when watching work produced by the subject of a film. Kathy is very media savvy, and releasing a documentary about the disturbingly violent treatment she received after the scandal was obviously going to get people talking. I love that she fought back! I agree that the doc is important, but it’s also very partial. Some of the criticism about that T***p picture was fair! As much as I hated everything about the previous occupant of the White House, I understand that some found the picture disturbing. Imagine if a comedian had taken a picture of a Barack Obama mask with ketchup: I doubt that we would be defending their right to do that.
Tranna: That’s a fair statement. But I would argue that while Obama is no saint, he’s not the monster that T***p is. In the same way that there would be a difference between a picture of a bloodied Hitler mask versus a bloodied Princess Diana mask, I think there is a difference between doing that to a T***p mask versus doing that to an Obama mask, because of the characters of the people involved. And I probably am looking at Kathy’s film through rose-coloured glasses; there is a critical lens that should be applied to the partiality of it. Also, just to be clear, it is not exactly a doc. There is documentary footage during the first 20 minutes, but it’s really a comedy film. It’s Kathy on stage sharing her truth. And while you’re right that Kathy is unbelievably media savvy and that could definitely be grounds to question her truthfulness, I think longtime Kathy fans know when she’s turning off “Kathy the entertainer/self-promoter/media whore” and allowing us to see Kathy the real person. I admit the line can be blurred sometimes, but I really do think, especially in that ABC News interview, she is sharing the real person.
Thomas: In the interview, she revealed that she was diagnosed with lung cancer. It’s so tragic. In some ways, the interview reflects how we all feel post-T***p: shell-shocked, but also determined to fight in hope that there was a better life for us on the other side of the incredibly difficult time we were going through.
Tranna: I was really surprised to learn about Kathy’s prescription pill addiction. For so long, being straight edge was part of Kathy’s brand. She’s always talked about never having had a drink in her life, a decision which stemmed from her family’s alcoholism. Not drinking seemed to be a source of pride for Kathy, like she had managed to escape something that seemed pre-destined based on her family history. But it turns out she wasn’t able to escape addiction. The T***p situation, and everything it had done to her life, led to a suicide attempt. I was surprised by that as well. I remember watching every interview she did while promoting A Hell of a Story and I kept thinking: “My God, this woman is so unbelievably brave. I would never be able to get through something like that,” because she is such a great interview subject. But the reality is that she almost didn’t get through it. The word “brave” gets thrown around as much as the word “iconic,” but Kathy is the real deal. She is brave. She is iconic.
I also want to say that Kathy has done more for the fight to protect freedom of speech than any other comedian has in the last 20 years. There are so many straight male comedians who are always going on and on about freedom of speech, but all they’re trying to protect is their right to say demeaning, horrible things with impunity. The straight male comedians who are always going off about cancel culture are completely self-interested and want to hold onto their power. They’re not actually interested in protecting freedom of speech, they’re interested in being able to remain misogynistic, homophobic, racist, ableist assholes. Kathy used the horror of what happened to her to educate herself and, in turn, educate others so it doesn’t happen to them. Again, she did nothing illegal. The picture was protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The picture, regardless of what you think of it, was truly fucking harmless. Look at how her life was turned upside down when she didn’t even do anything wrong. Both T***p’s and much of the Republicans’ response to it was tyrannical. And the reason she was so viciously attacked has a lot to do with the fact she was a woman over 50 with a voice. The thought of this self-made, older, rebellious woman being able to speak her mind and make a fool out of powerful men was crossing a line and she was beyond punished for it. It’s a real life horror story that reflects where we’re really at as a society. It is not pretty.
Thomas: Oh absolutely! The hypocrisy was through the roof. I personally didn’t think much when I saw the picture back in May 2017; it was clearly a stunt. Part of the genius of the conservative media ecosystem, as we can see from Kathy’s story, is that they’ll do anything to make themselves appear as victims of the left. Politics, business and media are driven by the narcissistic drive to always spin a story in one’s own favour, including a dumb picture with a mask and ketchup. Pundits and so-called internet provocateurs on the right and the left are in the business of manufacturing outrage. Kathy’s picture was an easy grab. I’m surprised she didn’t see it coming.
More importantly, that story also reminded me how the media weaponizes trivial stories to score points about our culture and cultivate loyalty among its bases. It’s very apparent in the ways that American conservative hosts will use anything to attack the LGBTQ2S+ community; the most recent case being Gonzo, the Muppet Babies character, who revealed they are non-binary and wore a gown to a ball. The right is mad! Whether it’s this story or Kathy’s mask picture or the more serious policy attacks on trans youths, the Fox News crowd will weaponize everything to rally their viewers.
Tranna: You’re right and it’s so terrifying to me. The controversy of the picture literally brought Kathy to her knees but she’s still here. She’s still hilarious. Her spirit may be battered but it has not been destroyed. I do not know a single person—especially not a man—who could have survived what she has over the last five years. Can you imagine Jerry Seinfeld surviving that experience? The thought honestly makes me laugh. All of the Seinfelds of the world would have been annihilated by that experience. But, of course, the Seinfelds of the world have not had to work half as hard as their female counterparts. They’ve never put their lives on the line for their work because they don’t even have a fucking point of view worth fighting for. Kathy has always put everything on the line. She has a depth of experience to draw on in these hard times that male comedians don’t have because they’ve never needed to have it. Kathy and every woman in comedy has to fucking fight for everything. I’m getting emotional writing this. To me, Kathy is a true hero and deserves to be recognized on the same level as George Carlin, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. Kathy is an original. Her guts, her bravery, her tenacity and her ability to make people laugh through the hardest times are unparalleled. I want to scream her name from the rooftops!
Thomas: Kathyyyyyyy! Don’t leave us just yet! And please, please, after you beat cancer, go on tour. We need you.
Tranna: Normally I would say, “Leave her alone, don’t tell her to do more work, she’s done enough!” But there’s nothing Kathy loves more than being on stage, and I can’t wait for her return.
Montreal-based comedians Thomas Leblanc and Tranna Wintour’s podcast Chosen Family streams on CBC, Apple and Google; new episodes drop every other Thursday.