Kathy Griffin Keeps on Surviving

By Chris Azzopardi

Photos: Jen Rosenstein

Kathy Griffin has been through even more than you probably know. She lost a lung to cancer, lost her mother and lost many of her close friends. In 2020, the same year her beloved mom Maggie died, she attempted suicide. All the while, she was being investigated by the Department of Justice for a viral 2017 photo that depicted her holding up a severed model head covered in fake blood that resembled Donald Trump, resulting in a career-dismantling fallout. She is also now in the middle of a divorce.
So much has happened to Griffin in just the last seven years that it’s easy for something like her three-year-old court battle with Tennessee resident Samuel Johnson to slip under the radar, which Griffin says it has. The comedian is being sued by Johnson, who is blaming Griffin for losing his CEO-level job after she tagged his employer in a post on X, formerly Twitter, in response to his recorded altercation with a teenage boy in downtown Franklin who he called “disgusting” for wearing a long red dress to prom in 2021, reports The Tennessean.

During our recent call, Griffin, hoping to reach LGBTQ+ advocacy groups like GLAAD and the ACLU, spoke with a sense of urgency when she called attention to her court case, imploring the LGBTQ+ community to understand that this fight that she says she is fighting alone could be any of us. “The decision could have broader implications on the jurisdiction — and legal liability — of free speech in online platforms,” writes Angele Latham, a First Amendment reporter for The Tennessean. In an era when more than 470 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures nationwide over the past few years, many of them targeting queer youth, who can blame Griffin for standing up for a bullied kid in a dress? Even before her Emmy-winning hit Bravo show “My Life on the D-List,” which aired from 2005 to 2010, gave her a major platform to be the LGBTQ+ activist she is, that show of allyship came naturally to Griffin.

On her first tour in six years, aptly titled “My Life on the PTSD List,” which stops at the Royal Oak Music Theatre on April 19, Griffin isn’t just giving play-by-plays on Paris Hilton and her vacation gone awry with Sia — she’s using her stage to get people to vote. Because if anyone knows that the stakes are high this year, it’s her.

How are you doing, Kathy?

I have PTSD, Chris. Complex PTSD, which I thought was only for combat veterans. Holy shit, I can’t believe it… I was diagnosed by my oncologist and my psychiatrist, and I’ve got to laugh about it, because I’m somebody that runs around on stage making jokes about the Kardashians, and now, I’ve got this crazy diagnosis. I decided to make the show about it, because once again, like oh so many things that have happened to me in the last six years, I just did not think it would happen. I start the show with the laundry list. Are you ready?

Yeah, give it to me.

Because people want to know, “Come on, how did you get complex PTSD? You’re exaggerating, blah, blah, blah,” which is also always so pleasant, when people are like, “You’re lying.” Obviously, the Trump thing started six and a half years ago. I was investigated by the Department of Justice, which seriously considered charging me with conspiracy to assassinate the President of the United States — it’s never happened in the history of this nation to a comedian. No-fly list, not able to tour, my own industry turning its back on me. Most of my friends turning their backs on me permanently, by the way. And then what do I do? Leave it to me to be 57 years old and then become addicted to fucking prescription pills, like “Valley of the Dolls,” and I was Neely O’Hara. Well, naturally, I wanted to be Neely O’Hara, but I was probably more like Susan Hayward. I love that you get that reference. I was ripping my wig off in the bathroom and ready for a cat fight. Then, of course, I have to get into recovery, but before that, I tried to take my life.

I know it sounds dark, because what isn’t these days, but I even talk about that in the show. I won’t tell you what I did, but the way I tried to take my life was so over the top that I actually just started cracking up. I do it in front of the audience, and they actually laugh. The reason I do that is because I firmly believe truly, at your lowest, darkest moment, you have to somehow find the humor. It’s there. It’s there, and sometimes, it’s dark as fuck.

Then I get sober, and a year after I’m sober, I get diagnosed with lung cancer, even though I never smoked, which my dear departed mother Maggie would call the luck of the Irish, which means bad luck. By the way, Maggie is in heaven having a box of wine, or Two Buck Chuck with the Lord Jesus. She died during that period as well. Then I was on a 5150 psych hold, which was crazy. And then, during my lung cancer surgery, they took out half of my left lung. Chris, I don’t like how you’re flaunting your two lungs in my face right now. I think it’s rude.

This is why I said we’re doing this as a phone conversation, not a Zoom conversation.

See, because I can hear you breathing right in my fucking face, Chris. I have feelings.

I’m trying to hold my breath.

I have half a lung now and I can hear your breath. I got injured during the lung cancer half-a-lung removal, so I have a permanently paralyzed left vocal cord. It’s not like I’m a comic and use my voice for a living or anything! I have an aperture above my cords, so my voice is a bit altered, as you can tell, but I wear this very sexy headset microphone.

I feel like you’ve gotten some of the voice back, though.

Yes, I’ve had five surgeries on my left cord so far. I’m making my life sound real fucking dreamy right now. By the way, I’m getting texts from Rosie O’Donnell right now. She’s like, “Griffin, it’s O’Donnell. Are you awake? I’m awake.”

During this period in which you felt abandoned by some people who were really close to you, did you at least feel like your gay friends were standing by you as they have in the past?

You saw Anderson [Cooper] and Andy [Cohen] take my [New Year’s Eve] gig. You saw it.

But you’ve had so many close LGBTQ+ people in your life. Did they rally around you? Did you feel loved and supported by close queer friends and your queer fan community?

No. The power gays absolutely abandoned me, and I say that with such a heavy heart. I’m going to try not to cry. For example, I would say the civilian gays 100% rallied around me. My friends that aren’t in the business who are gay were appalled, and they buoyed me, and they held me up, and they were my friends, and I owe them for the rest of my life. But the power gays in Hollywood, the ones who could have lifted a finger, the ones who could have just given me five lines in anything, the ones who could have put me in just a little part in a TV show or a movie or directed a comedy special or something, anything, they did nothing.

Honey, I showed up and hosted every free charity event. I’ve had so many legal issues since this MAGA thing. I have a case in Tennessee federal court right now, and I’m asking for your help, because I need the gay community to support me. I don’t think they know I’m fighting this fight, and I’m out there flapping in the wind by myself. Now, there’s a video, you can look it up. Write this down: Samuel Johnson. If you look up “Kathy Griffin, Samuel Johnson,” this is a CEO, and the video went viral. You probably saw it. He’s a MAGA guy that was harassing two trans kids at their prom photo shoot. One of the boys was wearing a red dress, and he was bothering them. I tweeted about it after it had already gone viral on TikTok. I wasn’t even on TikTok at the time; I am now, but I wasn’t then. It had already been seen by millions of people, and millions of people said he should be fired.

Then I said he should be fired. He got fired, and he’s suing me. He goes on Newsmax, and he goes on Fox, and says, “I’m going to be the one to drag Kathy Griffin to Tennessee federal court, and let’s see how she does with her Hollywood elite attitude in a Tennessee witness box.” Nobody’s helping me. I’ve been fighting this case for three years by myself. Thirty years of performing and showing up at [LGBTQ+] events, and I’m left all alone, and I don’t know why. Lambda Legal, anybody? ACLU said, “No, we don’t want to help you. We don’t care.” I said, “This is just me fighting for these two kids.” They were minors being harassed at their prom photo shoot in a hotel lobby. This guy should have been fired. It’s like a Karen video. He’s basically a Karen. But because it’s Kathy Griffin, and because Trump keeps coming for me, I’m the target, and I’m out there fighting this thing by myself. You hear the kids in the video; they’re so scared. They keep saying to the guy, “Leave me alone. Leave me alone. Go away. Go away.”

These kids are scared in the video. Being an ally isn’t just showing up at a parade with a rainbow shirt on. Sometimes, being an ally means being in Tennessee federal court for three years, and being in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, where I just lost a motion.

Let me tell you, if I lose this case, it has real repercussions for anybody posting about anybody who’s harassing gay people. If I lose this case, it has real repercussions for the gay community. This isn’t about me. I’m not fighting for me. I could have said nothing, but I’m a real ally, and I’ve been one since I was in grade school, for Christ’s sake. I need people to know I’m fighting this fight, because this guy is out there shooting his mouth off.

What you’ve gone through in the last seven years, and are currently going through, is a real testament to your resilience and survival.

That’s what I want it to be. I don’t mean to come off as woe is me, and honestly, that’s why I do make the show funny. I even talk about all my wacky treatments that I get for the PTSD. After this, I’m having Kundalini yoga, and I don’t even know what the fuck that is. I don’t know if Kundalini is a person, if I should meet him or her, but I just fucking do it. I get that cupping — remember when Gwyneth Paltrow was getting those fucking scars on her back? Well, I do that shit, I don’t even think it works. I get acupuncture, I don’t even think it works. I talk about all of it in the show, because I think in a way, our country is going through a bit of a PTSD. Let’s face it, Covid was not our finest moment. We did not handle that well.

I’m going to get serious for one more minute, which is, these shows are so important to me, and having gay people show up to my shows, because I do feel, and you know this, your civil rights are being rolled back. The Supreme Court is now illegitimate. I want to make gay people laugh, and I want to stand there and go, “I’m OK.” I might have a bit of an altered voice, and it sounds like I have a cough, but honestly, I’m not in one bit of pain. My voice is just like this now, and the headset mic really helps a lot. Don’t be fooled. I do a rant every show, and my agents don’t like that I do it, but I don’t care. I say, “Gays, remember, elections are not just every four years, or every two years. They are every year, and often, the down-ballot is more important than the presidential. Go to your gay organization that you trust, and they’ll do the work for you, but get your voter guides, because the sheriff matters, the judges matter, the congressman matters, the local senators matter, the U.S. senators matter.”

The great Gloria Steinem… I spoke to her recently, and I’m bragging, but I did. She said, “You tell your gays, this is it. This is it.” As you know, your own civil rights, if Trump gets reelected, not only kiss marriage goodbye, it’s going to be real fucking hard to be an out gay person in Trump’s America. There’s my rant. I’ll go back to the funny, but I just think, because I’m talking to you, I just want you to tell, especially the young gays that think their vote doesn’t matter, your vote matters even if you live in a blue state.

Are you really doing two hour shows on this tour?

The other night in Phoenix, I accidentally did two hours and 20 minutes. Don’t be late. Whatever time the show starts, that’s when I start, and I do two hours if I’m a good girl, and I do two hours and 20 if I’m a bad girl.

This is your Eras Tour.

[Laughs.] By the way, let’s just cut the shit. Taylor Swift is amazing, but you know Pink wants to blow her brains out, because Pink is looking at Taylor Swift walking around the stage, and Pink is singing upside down on fucking ribbons. Give me a break. I love Taylor, don’t make the Swifties come after me. I’m terrified of them. I love Taylor. Haha, I’m kidding. I didn’t mean anything. I love them.

How do you feel comedy can serve as a tool for LGBTQ+ advocacy and visibility in this climate?

Look, the greatest compliment that I get, and I get this a lot and it really makes my heart swell with love, is — I can’t tell you how many gays and lesbians say, “I came out while watching ‘My Life on the D-List.’” Something about that show. I didn’t say it was a gay show, because… it’s like my mom and dad were activists in their way without coming out and saying it. My mom and dad, they literally went to gay bars for happy hour, because as my mom would say, “The gay bars had the best free appetizers.” They just were always around gay people, and accepting of gay people. It wasn’t like the reality shows today, where people are fighting. It was really a comedic reality show. It didn’t hit you over the head with a hammer, but for some reason, lots and lots of people have come up to me over the years, saying, “There was something about the humor of that show that made me feel safe enough to tell my mom or dad that I’m gay.” I think the humor, when couched in a certain way, sometimes it can be humor with a little activism thrown in. Sometimes I write stuff that’s just shallow.

I don’t even mention Trump in my new show. Newsflash: I don’t even mention him. It’s not that I’m scared to, but I made a whole movie about it, called “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story.” But I have a great story about going to Paris Hilton’s Christmas party, so there’s lots of celeb gossip. I have a great story about going on vacation with Sia, where everything went wrong. It was like Lucy and Ethel take Mexico. I think just getting people to be around one another, because as I get older, it’s funny, my audience has become gay guys, lesbians, straight women, and also, I’m getting more hetero couples. They’re a little older, but that’s OK, because I love it when I’ll have a heterosexual guy say to me after a show, “Man, I didn’t think I knew any gay people, but I’m sitting here in the audience, and now, I feel like I know a thousand gay people.” And I always say, “You do.” Sometimes it’s the simple act of just gay people and straight people just laughing together that creates a bridge. I know that sounds silly, and philosophical, but it’s true. Laughter is a unifier.

Look, people don’t know this, but I have plenty of Republican friends. I just saw George Conway last week. I teased him about being a double agent, but we’re friends. Kathy and Rick Hilton, I’ve known them for years. They go to Mar-a-Lago. I wish they wouldn’t. We have a two-party system, and we should. There’s ways to remind people that we’re going to get through this crazy phase. By the way, for shits and giggles, I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it in my whole career, as divided as the country is. We need the laughs. We need to laugh right in its face, but we also need to gossip about Paris Hilton.

Speaking of gossip, do I need to come to the show to hear what in the world is going on behind the scenes of “Queer Eye?

Yes, you do.

You know something I don’t?

No, I don’t, but there’s some shit going down, and there’s trouble in paradise, and those gays better get it together, or else they’re going to lose their gig. Listen to Aunt Kathy — once you have a gig, you want to parlay that gig into as many seasons as possible. If I was on that show, I’d get along with everybody and take the check and buy a house.

It was recently announced that you’ll be playing Carnegie Hall again and breaking a significant record in the process.

For the sixth time. I’m so thrilled.

What would Joan Rivers say?

Joan would be my biggest supporter because Joan and I were tied for the record of the only single female comedian who played Carnegie by themselves, five times in a row. I matched Joan’s record, and now I get to break our record. I miss her every day, and I think of her all the time. I learned so much from her, and trust me, Joan would say that about the “Queer Eye” boys in a heartbeat. She’d say, “Don’t be ridiculous. Do whatever it takes. Get the check, get the money. Screw the ones you don’t like. Who cares? Go have your friends off set. Who gives a shit? Take the check. Cash the check.”

Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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