Kathy Griffin (AP/Chris Pizzello)

Kathy Griffin is used to the death threats now. And she's not backing down

"They will track down your sister with cancer and they will torture her as she's dying," the comedian tells Salon


Alli Joseph
December 9, 2018 12:30AM (UTC)

Kathy Griffin has been making audiences laugh, squirm and react for more than 20 years — on TV, from her sitcom days on "Suddenly Susan" to her reality show "My Life on the D-List," in addition to her stand-up shows and live hosting gigs.

She just wrapped her tour, "Laugh Your Head Off" — so named for her infamous Donald Trump mask photo — and is currently offering unique, Trump-themed holiday gifts on her website KathyGriffin.com.

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Griffin sat down in the "Salon Talks" earlier this week to talk about being targeted by Trump, investigated by the FBI, and proving herself to the doubters when her tour dates sold out. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Tell me about the tour. I think in Dublin you told the crowd that you wouldn't stop until you were arrested. And then you went on for two hours, and then you fainted on stage.

I did, I fainted. I have a flair for the drama, but I really did go down. I had been in London that day and I did a Scandinavian talk show. So, then I flew to Dublin, got to the show in time, and I just hadn't eaten or something like that. I usually do like a three-hour show. I have a lot to say.

You think?

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I have no opener, but the audience is invited to take pee breaks or leave early and go get dinner if they have a babysitter or something. But I just have a lot to say and a couple of times I've gone as long as three hours and 40 minutes. Like, if there's not a curfew penalty I will just go on and on and leave it up to the audience. Hopefully, if they like it, they stay.

Also, the story's kind of ever-changing. So, for example, one thing that would make the show go longer is on October 29 I had the FBI visit my home yet again to tell me that I was under what they deemed a credible threat. And now when the FBI comes over it's like "Cheers." I'm like, "Hey, Norm. Good to see you guys again, how are you?"

Do you offer refreshments?

Yes, of course.

Like what?

Coffee — "who wants coffee?" And this last time though, the female agent was shaking. She had to read me this thing called a Duty to Warn Letter. And it was about another credible threat. Then the male agent left his card and I said, "OK, well, what do you suggest that I do? Because I'm now getting a little bit used to these death threats." And they said, "Be vigilant, bye." So, I am vigilant as much as one can be, but it is an ongoing thing.

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So, one thing that I do sort of feel compelled to clear up is it's not like it was this sort of a week of hell and then it went away and everything's normal and fine now. Much like the country's political situation, it goes on and on, and the Trump family and their own — I call it the Trump Wood Chipper, their apparatus — they have a way of magnifying these things to try to benefit themselves, and I was perfect fodder for them.

So, we're not gonna show the photo in question, but it's sort of the elephant in the room if we don't talk about it.

Oh, you've seen it, it's global.

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Most of the viewers will remember it, the photo of you, as you mentioned earlier, holding the Trump mask covered in ketchup. Tell me about the moment that you realized it went viral?

This is actually sort of accidentally funny because when I took the photo it was one of several wacky photos I had taken. And the photographer, Taylor Shield, I don't know why he did this but he gave it to TMZ of all places. And Harvey Levin, who runs that website, is very much in bed with Trump. I think it's weird that he's a gay man who's a MAGA, like a full-on Trump supporter.

So, the photographer for some reason gave it to TMZ. He won't give me the copyright. I asked for it, because it is a photo that irrevocably changed my life, sometimes I think for better, sometimes for worse. But it's a photo that I'm going to live with the rest of my life, I totally understand that now. So, I wanted to try to figure out how to make it funny and relatable as quickly as possible, but I am happy to admit that I did spend the first two days on the floor in a pool of my own tears and urine.

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I had to get up and figure out what to do. And of course nobody would hire me and everybody scattered like bugs and a lot of people just threw a lot of animosity on me and many of my friends turned on me and enemies just were more emboldened. And then I became part of algorithms now for the troll-bot farms and all that other stuff. And I had to learn about all this stuff, I didn't even know what any of this stuff was at the time.

It sounds like you have gotten a tech education.

Yeah. And by the way, that's kind of my new thing. And I don't mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I know feel like Sheryl Sandberg and [Mark] Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are really as responsible as anyone else for manipulating this election. I mean accepting the money of those false ads in Rubles, first of all.

But also, I actually didn't realize, I was reading Clint Watts' book and I was listening to him say how, I didn't know that Putin was practicing this disinformation campaign on his own people for years, so that's one of the ways they knew how to do it. And they found the perfect pawn in Trump because he's such an idiot, and then he found the perfect pawn in me because I've known him off and on for 20 years and he is very well aware of my brand of, how shall I say, in your face humor. And in fact had hired me twice to roast him. So, I found his outrage a little shocking, meaning I knew it was a fake pearl-clutching moment.

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But when the President of the United States tweets that you should never work again and the First Family, Eddie Munster and Date Rape — Don Junior and Eric — and Melanie the First Lady, I call her Melanie 'cause if he does then I'm going to also —

OK.

When they tweet and then you're breaking news and it's on the CNN ticker that I'm hired from CNN, where I never worked, I only did one night a year there —

It was great night though.

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It was fun and the first two years I did it it didn't even occur to me to ask for a salary. So, to this day, every single Trump rally there's someone holding a sign with the image, the famous image of me with the mask, and it says, "Kathy Griffin = ISIS," or, "Liberals = ISIS." And I have to say, it's taken me a while and I've had quite an education, but it all happened so fast that none of it was making sense.

I've had bad press before, a lot of bad press, and I'm obviously not really afraid to say anything and call people and hopefully they don't get offended, they laugh more than anything, but this just didn't feel the same in any way. Meaning, not only the presidency, which is obvious, but the amount of coordination that it would take to get TMZ to be doing hit pieces on me, David Pecker has now flipped for AMI so all of a sudden these pieces coming out on me in The Globe, in The Inquirer and US Weekly, which in Los Angeles they think is the news, saying I have lupus or I'm bald. That makes me instantly unemployable, it makes me instantly uninsurable. And so I really feel compelled, and I feel like I would be derelict in my duty as a comedian, if I didn't tell the story.

So, then I just started thinking, well, thank goodness, the one thing that even the fake president — or accidental president, you can decide — or precedent, as he wanted tweeted . . .

Precedent.

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I thought the one thing that's great and that I felt fortunate about was he can't stop people from buying tickets. So, I was quite confident that I couldn't sell any tickets in my country of origin, so after I think a couple of months I called my then stand-up agent and I said, "It's an unusual to route a tour but do you think we can find countries where we know they can't stand Trump?" And then in two weeks I think I had 15 countries and 23 cities.

So, I started out in Auckland, New Zealand, [went] all over Australia, all over Europe, sold out the Sydney Opera House, sold out the London Palladium. Audiences were fantastic. I played the Nordic countries, ended up Reykjavik, Iceland.

I've been there.

Right?

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Yes.

Come on.

Yeah, it's fabulous.

And then I took a little bit of a pause 'cause I've learned, it's definitely taught me patience because it's taken a long time for my beloved country to, quote, "forgive" me. And when you're dealing with Fox News which oversees the news fake and here my own mother thinks is legitimate, my own mother. Anyway, it's still a feeling where people think they're kind of doing me a favor by now killing me.

To this day people spit on me at the street or scream at me that I'm a terrorist and stuff like that and it's very bizarre. But I think things are kind to start turning around. So, when I started playing the States I had all the old boys, you know, all the guys that have taken 10 percent of my earnings my whole career, telling me, "You can't sell more than 500 tickets in any city." And I just had a feeling that wasn't the case. I just had a feeling that there was a thirst for someone to be honest about Trump. My situation is historic in that never in the history of this country have we had a sitting United States President single out a single citizen, much less a 57-year-old female comedian, and try to decimate not just their career but their entire life and their safety.

And I was also put under a two-month federal investigation by two federal agencies. And a lot of people thought I'd just got a call from the Secret Service or something. But no, they investigated me for two months. I was on the no-fly list, like I was a 9/11 terrorist. And I ended up being interrogated under oath. And they wanted me to go downtown and they wanted video of me doing a perp walk in downtown Los Angeles.

So, things got so out of control that I've really just been in the process of trying to figure my way out of it. So, I kind of got back to basics. So, while this was all happening I was touring overseas, came back, and then my ticket sales started doing really, really well. So, the old boys in the promotion world, in the concert world, don't like me too much 'cause I started promoting my own shows. And then I just wanted people, especially women and younger folks and gay folks and people of color, to see that no matter what, this 57-, now 58-year-old chick, at least she didn't go down, at least she remained standing.

And that's when I started taking more control, I had to change my whole business model. The Los Angeles team didn't know how to market me and I hired a marketing company from Washington, D.C, and really geo-targeted the fans. 'Cause I thought they were out there and I thought there is a thirst for people to be really honest about what's going on with this administration, what happened to me. It was important for me to tell as many people as possible. If you have a 13-year-old kid and they took that picture and put it up on Twitter, they should not have to go through this. And I know the First Amendment very well. I don't know the other ones that well, but I know that First Amendment back and forth, wall to wall. And so I knew I hadn't broken the law, but they were putting me through all the paces.

And when I was overseas I was also put on the Interpol list, so that was frightening to be detained at every airport.

So frightening.

Yeah.

It sounds as though you've taken all this adversity and all of this challenge and frankly real fear, understandably, being investigated, and harking back to P.T. Barnum, "I don't care what you write about me, just spell my name right." So, all of this is really great publicity for you, you're here, you had an opportunity to do a tour in a very clever way it sounds like.

I became global.

You are now global, Kathy Griffin.

I'm a true global artist, they all know me.

They all know the crazy lady from the picture.

You know, I think you'll maybe get called by some strategy companies to ask you if this was all intentional because if you look at it . . . I like to work backwards.

OK.

So, I think it was a really interesting process. But did you feel like you were forced into apologizing or did you really regret the photo at the time?

No, I didn't regret the photo. But I got a really baffled call from my friend Rosie O'Donnell, and she is the preemptive expert at being trolled by Donald Trump, he's been after her for 12 years. So, there's no doubt in my mind that they're gonna be coming after me for the rest of my life. And she called me and she said, "What if Daniel Pearl's mother saw that photo?" That's honestly the reason I apologized. You know, I performed for the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and Uzbekistan and Kuwait and Walter Reed. It hurt very much when the veteran community turned on me. But when she said that sentence to me, I thought, "OK, that makes sense."

So, the apology video was sort of tragic and sloppy, and I've never apologized for a joke before. And it was like half a joke, half a statement. Comedians have a very well documented history of making statements as well as jokes about things. And the photo was also pre-Weinstein, pre-#MeToo. I mean, it was ahead of its time. Hello? Do you get it?

So, that was the apology situation. And then all my community of friends called me and then they were giving me a beat-down on, "You shouldn't have apologized." And then the investigation started, and then I called them all back and I said, "You know what? When you're being investigated by two federal agencies . . ." And they were considering charging me with the crime of conspiracy to assassinate the President of the United States, which holds a life sentence. I said, "Then you can complain to me about my sloppy apology."

So, I then have been happily rescinding the apology ever since because what I found out, the whole thing has been such an education, when I found out about what the Trump Wood Chipper was, that they were literally coordinating with TMZ and tabloids and obviously Fox News, and I had to educate myself on . . . I didn't know what The Daily Stormer was, I didn't know what The Daily Caller was, I didn't know the difference. I didn't know that all these Nazis had YouTube channels that are popular. I had to learn all about Cernovich and Kessler and all these guys coming after me. And how members of the administration are retweeting proud Nazis.

And so I became on their radar and I became a part of algorithms. So, if I post certain words automatically I get flooded. For example, if you were to post something positive about interviewing me, you're gonna get flooded with a lot of troll-bots saying things like, "ISIS lady be bad," and then you might get some actual humans. And you'll get some real Trump people who hate me and stuff.

So, it's also odd because I don't mind starting over, and my show was called "My Life on the D-List," I'm a proud D-lister, but under this kind of actual security pressure, [that] has been a challenge. And yet I thought if I could just get back to basics and tell the story and try to make it funny and relatable, that's the best tool that I have. It was also the only tool at my fingertips, meaning to this day, and I'm not trying to get pity, but I don't have one single day of paid work ahead of me for the rest of my life. So, my inner Joan Rivers is dying because like her I wanna know what gig is coming down the line and I'm a television animal and I would love a presence on television again.

I taped my show and no one in Hollywood is interested in buying it, and also no one came to see it. So, I played, gosh, Radio City, and I sold out Carnegie Hall in 24 hours. And once I took over the promotion part of my business, it forced me to learn and change my whole business model. So, now, whether I like it or not, I'm like a firebrand comedian. I'm sort of a political comedian now, for better or worse. And that's OK with me, I'm very interested in it, I always have been.

And I don't really think we're necessarily in a time where, at least my fans don't necessarily wanna hear about the [Real] Housewives constantly anymore. Now, there's so much crazy stuff going around. My audience . . . really now it's resisters and soccer moms and gay guys, and everyone's acutely aware of what's going on.

So, I think if nothing else, if I could say to people, "Like me or don't like me, this shouldn't happen in this country." I've never seen anything like it. I remember watching the Watergate hearings as a kid and thinking, "OK, well, that's never gonna happen again." And here we are with a worse situation. So, I thought, "Well, I might as well tell the story, be as candid as possible." So, I made the film, it's three hours long —

Of course it is.

. . . 'cause I have a lot to say. And I'm gonna actually try to get it into film festivals. Because if the networks still think I'm scary or too ISIS-sy, which is —

It's now a verb.

Right, too ISIS-sy. And, you know . . . 'cause they're recruiting a lot of 58-year-olds red-haired female comedians. For all of the female comedy clubs, they have an ISIS. But there are still people that really do believe that and I can't change their minds. But what's nice is there are also a lot of people that at first were incensed by the photo and offended and, "How could you ruin the Resistance?" I mean, everybody turned on me, left, right and center. So, it's taken a lot of time and a lot of work and a lot of different ways to try to get the message out, everything from silly items in a merchandise store to . . .  I'm really proud of the fact that I just bought back my entire library.

So, I'm gonna put it on iTunes. I'm not gonna make really a fortune or anything, but I decided why . . . men often own their licensing agreements and they own their TV shows and they have ownership, and women rarely, rarely do.

And I did wanna ask you, is there sexism at work here? 

Yes.

And had you not known Trump before? 

Yes.

And you had met him in the '90s on ["Suddenly Susan"] the Brooke Shields vehicle sitcom.

Oh my gosh, I met him. That's right. I met him. He had three lines on "Suddenly Susan." And I'll never forget, the first time he comes up to me I said, "Hi, my name is Kathy Griffin, on the show, welcome to the show," and he goes, "Call me The Donald." And I always think of him going country to country as a world leader—

Going, "Call me The Donald."

"Call me The Donald." Like Kim Jong Un is gonna say, "Call me The Un."

So, he's just an embarrassment, but — 

And you said, "Call me The Kathy."

I did.

Did he respond?

No. He doesn't really . . .

It went over his nest, it went right over his nest.

It was interesting when I was being interrogated by the feds and they said, "We understand you have a preexisting relationship with the President." I didn't wanna get in trouble so I didn't wanna go, "Well, relationship is in big air quotes." I said, "Yes, I have met him several times and we've worked together." But believe it or not, he was someone that we really all thought was a joke. I don't mean to defend the Hollywood elite or whatever, but I personally always just thought he was like an orange version of one of those idiots on "Million Dollar Listing" or something.

So, remember all the trouble that he caused Rosie O'Donnell when she called him out for going bankrupt all those times? And we know that Fred, his father, gave him four . . .  How much? $40 million?

$400 million?

I may be out by a zero, but it wasn't one million.

And he's a terrible businessman. And when he was doing "The Apprentice" he was just reading prompter. I was on the show twice as part of challenges, but I was never on as a contestant, thank God. But I would run into him at NBC Universal events and I would kind of tease him, and like I said, he hired me twice to roast him. Like every bully, the last time I saw him was at his stupid [inaudible 00:20:22] gold course that we're all paying for and I remember walking toward him and he was like, "Uh-oh, here she comes, I'm scared of her, don't make fun of the hair too much." Like every bully, right? I go, "Calm down girl, you'll be fine."

And the reason I could sort of give him the business, as my mother would say, is he just doesn't listen. He's so myopic, he's so aggressively stupid. He's like Britney Spears stupid. He is just prideful about how ignorant he is. And now we all know, but I think at the time we just kind of thought he was, I don't wanna say a lark, but like a harmless, blustery character. And I didn't know he had real political aspirations. I didn't know any of the racial stuff. I'll be honest, I forgot about The Central Park Five stuff. And, you know, he was just someone that wasn't really on my radar in particular and I would just kind of run into him the way I run into many different people in ... I've been in the business, you know, I did my first commercial when I was 17 so I've met almost everybody at this point.

And you've met everybody, and yet you said that you feel like an outsider in the industry.

Oh yeah.

Hence "The D-list" and targeting the rich and famous. But you've spent a lot of time talking about them, considering, right? That's sort of part of your stock in trade. But at this point today, what do you feel your role in comedy is, given everything that's gone on?

I think I honestly have a message that has some meat on the bone. So, I think that my role, having gone through something truly historic and unique in a bad way, is to, and I've put a lot of thought into this, is to try to tell the story in a way that is kind of a journey. So, I tell the real stuff and there's some serious parts, like the death threats, very intense. I remember my mom getting death threats at her retirement village, which really terrified her.

Oh, I'm sorry.

My sister got death threats until the day she died. She passed away of cancer last year during all this. And I think it's important for me to go out and tell as many people who will listen, "This is how serious these folks are." So, whether it's a crazy call from St. Petersburg or a Trump fan from Tuscaloosa, that's what they will do. They will track down your sister with cancer and they will torture her as she's dying. And I feel like I would be derelict in my duty as a comedian if I didn't tell people that. So, yeah, that's a heavy, heavy bit, right? It's not a comedy bit. So, I'll mix it in with something about the Kardashians and stuff like that.

But I like to keep bringing the message back because everyone can see it happening around them, so it's not like I'm telling this story that no one understands. Everyone knows the photo. I mean, if you're playing Reykjavik, come on, they know the photo. And everyone does wanna hear the backstory, they do wanna hear about the apology and the disastrous press conference with Lisa Bloom, which was a huge mistake. And I'm very open about all the mistakes I made and all the things I learned, and many things I didn't learn until far down the line, like how organized this campaign was against me. And when I started, it was a few days I think after Mueller had been appointed. So, I now realize I was just a shiny object to dangle and deflect as usual.

Well, when it happened to me it was relatively new. But now we see Trump and his cohorts doing this on a daily basis. So, when you're that deflection but you don't have any support, I'll be honest, one thing that's been most painful for me is that to this day I've never had one significant public advocate going on television. You can make fun of Michael Avenatti if you want to, but I would have given my right arm to have some First Amendment attorney going on cable news five times a day saying, "This is America. You may not like Kathy Griffin, but this photo is covered by the First Amendment and you all know it and this shouldn't happen because it can happen to you." And that's something that I'm kind of left out on my own to try to do.

And so nobody has stood up for you — 

No.

— in the way that you feel that they should have.

Yeah.

Even some of the most lowest of the low have advocates and I don't see why nobody came out for you.

I know. And it would be so easy, you know what I mean? It would be so easy for so many people. I know so many producers and I've shown up for all of their charity gigs over the years and —

The machine perhaps is so powerful that people are diverted it sounds like. And I'm just sitting here listening to you without having a deep dive other than the research that I've done, and I'm really struck by all that you've done to at least try to advocate for a position and I think that's very respectable.

Absolutely. I am determined that it doesn't happen again on my watch. So, I was actually at the White House Correspondents' Dinner when Michelle Wolf did her set, which was hilarious, and the Republicans were trying to start an online campaign saying that she had ruined the White House Correspondents' Dinner and that she didn't do well. I was there, that's BS, she did very, very well.

I was a test case, and, as you know, the accidental president tried to get Samantha Bee fired and she does a political satire show called "Full Frontal," and good for her and she's hilarious and she's great, and I advocated for her and started an online campaign and tried to pressure TBS to not fire her. The President shouldn't be deciding what the television programming is, and he certainly seems to have a problem with powerful and smart women.

Absolutely. So there's sexism at work here and — 

Major misogyny, major.

And there's so much misogyny, so much sexism. And also the fact that he does attack people that he personally has vendettas against.

Yes, yes. And I think in a way I was the perfect target because I didn't have a network supporting me, I'm not part of a movie franchise, I didn't even have a publicist at the time. And knowing that he was coordinating with all parts of the media, traditional network media, cable media, and even the Hollywood tabloid media, and how many people believed it? I can't tell you how many people believed I was holding a severed head of any kind. Like, I went to the severed head warehouse. That's like my life now, is explaining to people . . . I'm not in ISIS and I've never been to Raqqa. You know? So, I try to make it funny and there is a lot to tell, so using humor is the only way I know how to communicate.

Are those reserves from childhood, from Chicago, from your mom?

Yeah. Yeah, my mom and dad. My dad passed away but he was kind of the funny where, comedian funny, where he could be funny on cue. My mom is hilarious and she doesn't know why, she's just a character. So it was kind of the perfect combo so I was born to be a comedian. And I come from a funny family and we had very politically engaged dinner conversations. And I'm from Chicago so there was always an alderman on the take and we all had to know who it was and you had to bring your A game to the dinner table, while we were having Hamburger Helper by the way.

It was just the kind of house I grew up in. So, one of the things that has kind of been a challenge is when people started coming at me saying, "Who do you think you are to become a political comedian? You don't know anything about politics." And I would say, "Well, I'm not saying I'm an expert but I have grown up with a deep interest in politics my whole life and prior to the photo I was having fundraisers at my home for Booker and Franklin and Bennet from Colorado," and that all ended overnight. Really, every group turned on me.

So, it was difficult and just been trying to figure my way out of this rabbit hole pretty much on my own. So, hence the buying my library back and putting it on iTunes and silly little merch store. And then when it came to touring and I sold out Carnegie Hall in 24 hours, I swear, I did Radio City Music Hall the night before just to be an asshole and like a middle finger to all those guys who said . . . "You can't sell more than 500 tickets."

So, are you living on merch proceeds? 

Is it selling well?

It's selling pretty well. Look, it's just a little venture. Like I said, I've made his film. I hope I can sell it somewhere. I really think it's a story that needs to be told. If it's told after I'm dead that's fine too, but it is a pressing story. And as far as my income, no, like I said, it terrifies me to not have a day of paid work in front of me. I got fired very famously from CNN and Anderson Cooper calling me disgusting on Twitter didn't help and everything was so magnified.

And yet, I have to be honest, after a year and a half most of those folks have not come back. I'd say about 75 percent. So, I'm just trying to figure out, I've never been someone who got in the front door so I'm trying to figure out how to climb in the side window. And that's really been the story since I started. So, in a way, I know how to go back to basics. But yeah, it's scary not to know exactly what my future is. So, thank goodness for live touring. I probably won't tour again for a while because this show really was quite different for me. And I'll wait to see what's next and I'm trying to stay optimistic and hopeful.

The thing I like about the merch store is it's important for me to show folks I still have a sense of humor. So, for example, I have air fresheners that are a picture of Donald Trump in a prison suit peeing himself and crying.

Did you bring me one?

Yes, of course.

I'm gonna hang it up.

Thank you.

So, no more shows?

No more live shows but, like I said, I paid for the film to be in the can myself and I'm optimistic and I got a great director. And since no networks or streaming services have seen the material and they're just saying no for the moment, I'm learning patience. And, like I said, all of a sudden it occurred to me a week ago, I thought, "Maybe some little film festival will let me show it there and maybe people will start to buzz about it." Because the live audiences were on their feet and they were into it. So, I thought, "All right, there's a disconnect there, let me see if I can figure out a way to bridge those two."

Well, America likes a comeback. We know that from every politician in history. This is Kathy Griffin, thank you for joining us.

Thank you, my pleasure.

 


Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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