When Kathy Griffin met last summer with a surgeon to discuss the removal of the upper lobe of her left lung, and the cancer in it, she got right to the point. “Can this wait?” she asked. “Because I’ve got a gig.”
She was expected in New York, to film a four-episode role for “Search Party,” the HBO Max cult-hit dramedy about the bizarre travails of a group of 20-something friends, whose final season was released this month.
It wasn’t a run-of-the-mill opportunity. “Search Party” would be Griffin’s first TV role in five years that wasn’t based on the notoriety that enveloped her after she posed for a photograph holding a Halloween mask of President Donald J. Trump’s severed head doused in blood-like ketchup in May 2017.
Griffin — known for humor that is by turns bawdy and biting, abrasive and self-deprecating, but always skewering of celebrity culture — was never the biggest star on television. But for decades she was certainly ubiquitous.
She played the snarky second banana to Brooke Shields on the NBC sitcom “Suddenly Susan” from 1996 to 2000 and was the star and an executive producer of “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List,” which aired on Bravo from 2005 to 2010. She was a regular on late night talk shows with David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel, and performed in 20 comedy specials on HBO, Comedy Central and Bravo.
As a comedian whose job is to push boundaries, Griffin had courted controversy before. While accepting a best-reality-series Emmy in 2007 for “D-List,” she said from the stage, “Suck it, Jesus, this award is my god now.” In 2013, while hosting CNN’s New Year’s Eve program from Times Square with Anderson Cooper, she mimicked a sex act on Cooper.
But the Trump photo landed her in a different kind of trouble.
There was fury from the right, including from the president himself, who tweeted that Griffin “should be ashamed of herself,” while Donald Trump Jr. told “Good Morning America,” “She deserves everything that’s coming to her.”
For others, here was an opportunity to show that they wouldn’t always disagree with the new president. She was rebuked by figures like Chelsea Clinton (“this is vile and wrong”) and her (now-former) close friend Cooper (“I am appalled by the photo shoot Kathy Griffin took part in”).
Griffin received thousands of death threats, including dozens left on her aging mother’s answering machine and others called into the hospital room of her sister, Joyce, who was dying of cancer. Griffin was investigated and interrogated by the Secret Service, and her lawyer heard from officials at the Department of Justice.
“I wasn’t canceled,” Griffin said, in her Malibu, Calif., home a few days after she “hate-watched” Cooper and Andy Cohen, the new co-host of the New Year’s Eve show that she was fired from amid the 2017 brouhaha. “I was erased.”
Griffin, now 61, has been trying to make her way back since then, brushing up against a litany of obstacles: partisan rage, sexism, Hollywood’s fear of getting pulped-by-association, the pandemic, pill addiction, lung cancer and her own reputation.
All the while she has tried to puzzle out who among the culturally damned gets a second chance in our society, who doesn’t and why. She feels cast out in an extended Hollywood exile and believes it’s because she is a middle-aged woman who doesn’t have a big agency, film studio or television network financially invested in her professional rebirth.
She does not lack for money — she says her net worth is $50 million — but she craves the one thing that has driven her for decades: work.
“I just want to get back to making people laugh,” she said. “More than anything else, that’s what has been robbed from me.”
No Shortage of Enemies
Griffin’s house is a modern, boxy white structure of 8,200 square feet sitting on 1.8 acres in the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. She bought it in 2020 for $8.8 million, which I know because Griffin sent me the Zillow listing before I visited. It is all windows and clean surfaces, and is decorated in homage to its owner.
On the entry table are her two Emmys (for outstanding reality program) and her Grammy Award (“Calm Down Gurrl” won for best comedy album). Magazine covers and promotional posters adorn the walls in the front entrance and around the house, including one for “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story,” the 2019 documentary she produced and financed in the aftermath of the Trump photo. And prominently displayed by the powder room on the main floor, there is a portrait of Griffin painted by Erik Menendez in prison.
At the kitchen table, eating chocolate chip banana bread made by her husband Randy Bick, Griffin was biting and regretful, irreverent and chastened, angry and vulnerable. Her voice was soft and breathy after lung surgery. But her words were crisp, those of a woman who has hustled for every bit of her good luck since she moved from Oak Park, Ill., when she was 19.
Before the Trump photo she was on the road an average of 100 days a year, performing standup shows that made her a favorite of L.G.B.T. fans, among others — transforming herself from the daughter of parents raised during the Depression into a rich businesswoman.
To become a success in Hollywood, she said, she had to be a tough and demanding minder of her own career. But her willingness to assert herself, sometimes loudly, could be a double-edged sword, and she has alienated plenty of entertainment industry executives. (In her home office sits a framed transcript of a conference call led by her erstwhile CAA agent, in which he told her “This is why your career isn’t more successful” and that he hopes she will “go back and die at William Morris.”)
“I honestly never had a desire to make enemies,” said Griffin, dressed in a blue pajama set and sneakers, her four dogs (Olivia Benson, Elliot Stabler, Maggie and Mary) scurrying about. “But I keep making enemies.”
She learned to “four-wall” her live shows, meaning she cuts out promoters as much as possible. She refuses to audition, because people should know her humor and her affect by now. And she only takes meetings at home, because that’s how she can tell whether agents, producers or directors are serious about making a deal.
She had a long relationship with a stand-up agent but otherwise tries to avoid hiring handlers who take a chunk of her money but don’t have the same incentive to fight for her as she does for herself.
The battles she has chosen to wage, however, can backfire. In 2016, 10 days before the New Year’s Eve show, Griffin contacted Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN. She told him that she was carrying more of the prep work than Cooper and felt she deserved more than the $80,000 her contract called for.
Zucker “got very offended,” Griffin said. “He started yelling at me and he literally said something like, ‘Who do you think you are calling here demanding a raise?’ And then something came over me. And I just lost it. I just started screaming. I’m Kathy [beep!] Griffin, Jeff, that’s who I am.” She then said to him, “I would really feel a lot more comfortable showing up if I got paid what I deserve.” Zucker took that as a threat to bail on the show, and in a call to Griffin’s lawyer, fired her.
Griffin called Zucker again, begging him to take her back. Zucker rehired her, but she said he cut her pay by 20 percent.
Zucker said this month that he had supported Griffin’s career for years, especially as the former president and chief executive of NBCUniversal, the parent company of Bravo, where he gave the greenlight to “My Life on the D-List.”
He called her demand for a raise so close to New Year’s Eve “completely out of line.”
“It sounds like she is acknowledging that, insofar as Kathy Griffin acknowledges she has ever done anything wrong,” he said.
A Joke Gone Wrong
In late May 2017, Griffin was at home, on a break from a stand-up tour. Most everything Griffin does is in service of booking the next gig, and her plans to spend a day posing for the photographer Tyler Shields (known for provocative images like one of a Black man tying a hooded Klansman to a tree with a noose) were no different. Maybe a photo could gin up attention and lead to a business opportunity.
Shields took pictures of her dressed in latex, posing like a Kardashian. For the last setup, they decided to satirize Trump’s dismissive comment about Megyn Kelly, then a Fox News anchor, made after she moderated one of the presidential debates in 2016. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” he said, a comment taken by many as a sexist reference to menstruation.
Griffin’s assistant procured a Trump mask from a costume shop, and they put it on one of Griffin’s wig holders to give it shape and then drizzled ketchup on it. About a week later, Griffin gave Shields the OK publish the picture. Within 30 minutes of it being posted on Twitter, it appeared on TMZ, the website founded by Harvey Levin, by then a known favorite of Trump’s.
The headline read, “Kathy Griffin Beheads President Trump.”
“Once TMZ had the picture, it was out of all of our control,” Shields said.
The reaction was swift.
CNN fired her the next day. Twenty-five theaters announced they were calling off her upcoming shows. And Griffin’s mother, a devotee of Fox News, told her she didn’t support what she had done.
She also had to deal with law enforcement, as the Secret Service began an inquiry and asked to question her under oath. Her lawyer, Alan L. Isaacman, said he knew that the photo was considered protected speech under the First Amendment, but nonetheless he and Griffin approached the situation as if there were a real threat she could be charged with conspiracy to assassinate the president.
“The idea that he might be able to induce the Justice Department into bringing a charge was not beyond belief as a possibility,” Isaacman said. (Press officers for the Secret Service and the Department of Justice declined to comment.)
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in security and legal fees later, Griffin was exonerated.
Some who work in comedy said they saw Griffin’s situation as not dissimilar to their own experiences, though without the widespread censure fueled by social media.
Griffin “tried to tell a joke, but the joke wasn’t clear and it bombed,” said Bill Prady, the co-creator and an executive producer of “The Big Bang Theory.” “It has happened to me a million times — the joke was a misfire, because unless you knew the reference she was making, you were looking at an image that was hard to interpret.”
The director and producer Judd Apatow said that if America is still mad at Griffin, its priorities are messed up.
It is “seriously out of whack,” he said, “that she is struggling to get things back on the rails because something went too far in a photo” meant to satirize a polarizing politician who was making life-or-death policy decisions.
Griffin spies a double standard in the whole situation, noting that other rebuked figures, like Dave Chappelle and Jeffrey Toobin, have seen their careers relatively unaffected or have regained their professional footing more easily. Or maybe it’s the patriarchy, which Griffin frequently invokes, amid expletives.
Earlier this month, she was scrolling through tweets about the actor Jeremy Strong, the subject of a profile in The New Yorker that portrayed the “Succession” star as taking his job, and himself, a bit too seriously. The article generated a lot of chatter and rebuttals from Hollywood insiders who felt it unfair.
“When you’re an artist known for being ‘difficult’ and you’re a man, they write New Yorker profiles about you and then Aaron Sorkin writes an open letter in support,” she said.
“But when you’re ‘difficult’ and you’re a woman, they call you a pain in the (expletive).”
The day I spent with Griffin in early January, social media was filled with chatter about CNN’s New Year’s Eve show and Andy Cohen’s comment about Bill DeBlasio, who was serving his final day as mayor of New York. Cohen said De Blasio did the “crappiest job,” before adding a “sayonara, sucka” for good measure.
CNN stood by its man. “Andy said something he shouldn’t have on live TV,” read the network statement. “We’ve addressed it with him and look forward to having him back again next year.”
Griffin found this galling, but not surprising. “Apples to apples,” she said, explaining that Cohen made a political statement just as she had.
This example exercised her more than most. Griffin and Cohen have been feuding for years since their days overlapping at Bravo. In October 2017, after being named to co-host the New Year’s Eve gig with Cooper, Cohen was asked by TMZ if he had talked to Griffin about taking the job.
“Who?” Cohen asked, repeatedly.
Griffin is still angry. “This is a guy that I think kind of wanted to be me,” she said, likening Cohen to Eve Harrington from the movie “All About Eve.” “And now he’s halfway there.”
Cohen declined to comment, but a Bravo publicist pointed to an interview he gave to Howard Stern in 2018 in which he said of Griffin, “I got the job that she had on CNN, I’m on Bravo all these hours, I get it.”
To Prady, comparisons between Griffin’s photo and Cohen’s rant are imprecise. Cohen, he said, “made a mistake. In Kathy’s case, the world made a mistake.”
On the Comeback Trail
One of the comedians who reached out to Griffin in the early days of her crisis was Jim Carrey. His advice: What she was living through was material, important material, and that when she was ready, she needed to make it funny, and share it with audiences.
As the death threats and vitriol continued in the U.S., in late 2017, she headed out on a 17-country tour. In front of large crowds at venues like the Sydney Opera House, Griffin performed three-hour-plus shows detailing her experience at the intersection of free speech and partisan rage. When not onstage, she washed laundry in her bathtub and cried through panic attacks at night, all of which is captured in the documentary.
By the end of the year, Griffin and Bick were back home. She got her first bite from a network, booking a role on Comedy Central’s Trump spoof “The President Show” (she was cast as the president’s aide Kellyanne Conway). Spending hundreds of thousands on security and fronting all the production costs, she played 24 cities from May to November 2018, including shows at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall.
But the physical and emotional strain further eroded her well-being. She and Bick began to fight, even temporarily separating, and Griffin said that a dependence on pills turned into a full-blown addiction.
Though she said she has never taken a sip of alcohol in her life, by the time she left for the international tour, pills like Provigil, Ativan, Klonopin, Vicodin, Xanax and Adderall had became one of her primary food groups. Borrowing from recovery adages, Griffin said pills went from “magic to medicine to misery.”
She continued to hustle, trying for a distribution deal for the documentary (on which she spent $1 million) and pitching television show ideas. No one bit. Then in March 2020, her mother died.
On June 25, “I wrote a note to Randy and then I took a bunch of pills, and I just thought I would go to sleep,” she said. “I really thought he’d be better off without me, that the world would be.” She was hospitalized and in July, began an at-home rehab program where sober counselors came to her house daily.
Without the pills to mask her body aches, her back pain became so persistent that she saw a doctor. Last July, she was diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer. (Griffin said her lung surgery was a success and no further treatment has been recommended by her doctors.)
The diagnosis was terrifying news, but a more promising harbinger arrived in an out-of-the-blue phone call from Charles Rogers, a creator and showrunner of “Search Party.” Rogers had seen Griffin on her “Hell of a Story” tour and had been mesmerized. And he thought she would be perfect as Liquorice Montague, an unhinged Svengali who takes under her wing one of the show’s characters. “She is very grounded, sensitive, smart and thoughtful in her approach,” he said of Griffin. “It didn’t feel like we had a diva on the set, at all.”
Griffin didn’t tell Rogers about the lung cancer, or that an operation was scheduled. “I was just afraid they would say I couldn’t do it if they knew,” Griffin said.
As she recuperated from surgery this fall, she got other nibbles too, appearing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” this past November. (Kimmel — who was supported by ABC amid criticism in 2020 for performing in blackface earlier in this career, for which he apologized — introduced Griffin as “an incredibly resilient human being.”)
Through the tumult Griffin has made new friends, including women who have fought publicly with Trump, like E. Jean Carroll, a journalist who is suing him for defamation.
She has also grown close to Sia, the Australian pop singer-songwriter, who landed at the center of her own media storm in early 2021. “Music,” the movie which Sia wrote and directed, was criticized by disability rights activists for its depiction of autistic people and for casting someone not on the autism spectrum. Sia was the target of hostile comments on social media; online petitioners called for the movie’s release to be canceled.
“I was suicidal and relapsed and went to rehab,” Sia said. Griffin helped her get through the experience. “She saved my life.”
A few months ago, Griffin confided in Sia about one of her most shameful memories, something you wouldn’t have been surprised to see on “My Life on the D-List.” Back in 2017, she told Sia, she had asked Apatow if he would go with her to Craig’s, a West Hollywood restaurant that is a favorite of paparazzi.
“I just need one good picture out there besides those that say, ‘Kathy Griffin is a jihadist,’” she said she told him. (Apatow said he does not recall Griffin’s request.)
Sia told Griffin she would go to Craig’s with her. So last November, they drove together to the restaurant, strategically timing their arrival to be “caught” by photographers.
“We were joking that we were on ‘Survivor: Hollywood,’” Sia said. The photos ran in the The Daily Mail.
Prady has kept in touch, too. On New Year’s Day, he texted Griffin to say they should create a New Year’s Eve show for this Dec. 31.
She replied enthusiastically, but Griffin — always looking to turn any opportunity into a bigger one — let him know that a one-off appearance wasn’t exactly what she was looking for.
“Hey, NYE is fun,” she wrote, “but if I’m calling in a Bill Prady favor, make it a cast member of something.”