Kathy Griffin still gets death threats: "They got me, but they never got me down"

Salon talks to the comic about her "ugly-crying Kathy raw" new movie and being "the mayor of Zerof*cksville" now

Published July 21, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)

 (Tanne Willow)
(Tanne Willow)

She's been pushing buttons for three decades now as a comic, a reality star, an actress. But with one incendiary photograph, she became something else: an alleged credible threat in the eyes of the FBI and a vocal authority on the First Amendment rights for all of us. The owner of the second most famous blue dress in presidential politics has a hell of a story, and she's turning into a new documentary performance film, "A Hell of a Story." It's premiering for a one night only special Fathom Event on July 31. 

Griffin joined us for a recent "Salon Talks" interview, where we discussed comedy, death threats and the movie nobody thought she'd make.

You went through a period two years ago where it didn't look like any of this was going to happen.

No. I still don't have a day of paid work ahead of me the rest of my life. For God's sake, go see this movie. You're going to laugh, or cry, or whatever.

It's a docu-comedy. At first it was a comedy concert film, because nobody in television would touch me or even look at a 30 second demo reel. Then my publicist Alex got me into South by Southwest and they played the concert movie there and it did well. Then Fathom Events — thank you, Fathom Events — decided to show it as this one night, one showing only thing, which is very popular. I begged, and they let me have the first third of it be documentary footage. Honey, I'm telling you, this is raw. This is iPhone, ugly-crying Kathy raw. Raw, but truly in the moment. Get ready.

I want to talk about that. Because it is fully in the moment, ugly-crying Kathy. You called the tour "Laugh Your Head Off." When you look at this movie, you run out dancing onto that stage of your tour every night in the blue dress [from the photo]. Kathy, it seems at a certain point, something in you decided, "I'm going to take full ownership of this."

Well, I had to. I did every show like it was my last and I still do. The death threats are still coming. The reason I wore the dress is I just thought, I want the audience to know what they're getting. Because I had a lot of really, really bad advice initially.

Some of it in the form of public letters.

Yes, many, many public letters from Trump supporters, or invasion of the body snatchers or walking dead, however you want to refer to that group. I thought, OK. I want to wear the blue dress on tour because, first of all, I played a lot of countries I've never even played before because of the photo. The photo actually allowed me to play countries that I never could. Non-English speaking countries, Singapore, the Nordic countries, Australia, the great halls. I played the Sydney Opera House and London Palladium.

The poster was similar to this. It was a play on the photo. I thought, you might as well let the audience know I'm not going to run away from this. When the wall of sh*t fell on me, I would have very powerful Hollywood idiots going, "Here's what's going to work. Never say the word Trump again. Don't curse. Don't swear. Don't ever bring up this picture again." I was like, no, no. This picture is going to be with me the rest of my life. I decided to lean in, not in a Sheryl Sandberg way.

I name names now because I have zero f*cks left to give. I'm the mayor of Zerof*cksville, thank you, reporting for duty. I have a standup comedy disorder and the show started two hours. There were some times that I would do three hours and 40 minutes. One time I passed out in Dublin and the New York Times was there, which I didn't know. That made me feel fancy that they sent someone, but I passed out in the wings. I'm happy to be alive every minute. Trust me.

That is a big thing for you. Because, as you say in the film, your sister was receiving death threats.

My sister was battling cancer and, unfortunately, she lost the battle. One of the things I did was I had shaved my head in solidarity because I knew it would make her laugh, and it did. She would always play with my head. Then, the right wing media would see a photo and they'd say, "She's become more unhinged, she shaved her head."

I was in a place, and still am, where I'll do anything for a laugh. It was an illustration of life goes on. I tried to shield my sister from as much of it as possible, but these Trumpers are so hardcore. I have been doxxed so many times since that photo that there were Trumpers that actually tracked down my sister in the hospital and she had to deal with death threats until the day she died. They tracked down my mom, who is 99, in her retirement village. That scared the hell out of her. And me, of course, they tracked down very easily.

It was an eye-opening thing. I'm eternally an optimist, but it is something like I've never seen and experienced. A large group of people, though the minority, have such vitriol that this is what they would consider some sort of badge of honor.

And that this would then be a full time job for them.

I don't know what's going on. Roseanne Barr, who I used to know as a normal person many years ago, I heard her say that she doesn't troll on her official account anymore, but she keeps opening other troll accounts so she can troll people. God forbid any of you post anything positive about me. I apologize in advance. You're going to get a lot of robots in broken English, or Roseanne, I'm not sure. These are grown people. I'm a 58-year-old woman. I was confronted by people my age, older, younger, and it still goes on.

I actually was in England where I got to give a speech at Oxford University. Perhaps you've heard of it. I gave a speech about the First Amendment, because now I'm a political, First Amendment comic and that's fine with me. I love them both.

I was in England to give the speech and very honored. The driver who took me from London Heathrow to the hotel told me that he recognized me from the photo. I immediately started apologizing for Trump. He said, "He's the greatest president ever." I said, "You're from Morocco. You know what he said about Africa being sh*thole countries?" He said, "I don't believe that." It's kind of a long drive, and it was raining, and it was on a freeway. And he said, "If we were in Morocco, I could cut your tongue out." That was just a few months ago. People are having a hard time getting over my little photo.

But you have chosen, as you said, to lean into this. You have said, "I'm not going to go away. I'm not going to hide. I'm not going to go into seclusion. You want to bring it up? I'll bring it up first." That has been your methodology from a very early point in this. Yet as you talk about in the film, even in spite of all of this taking control of the narrative, people always ask, 'You probably have like no regrets, right?'"

Ton of regrets. I have a scroll of regrets. That's how you learn.

This has been a process of you learning and evolving in real time in front of the world. I know you have regrets, but what are you proud of about all of this?

The most important thing and the reason I made the film is, it's just so important to me to show to younger people, gay people, people of color, marginalized groups, that they got me, but they never got me down. My joke is, long after I kick the bucket, some young person is going to see this movie and go, "That crazy redhead. They knocked her about a little bit, but she got back up again."

I think that's really what life is. You have to keep getting back up. That's what I love about comedy. When you've had decades and decades of bombing, and then doing well, and doing OK, and then not so well, you do learn every time and you learn how to get back up. This was such a giant event. The fact that it was historic is why I was so hellbent on making the film.

I was so disappointed when nobody would make it a comedy special. I have the world record for more TV comedy specials than any comedian, male or female. I thought, OK. I can't go in the front door, I have to figure out how to slide in the side window again, which is my whole career.

I think that's the story of women. I think that right now we're seeing more than ever that the browning of America that is scaring the sh*t out of these guys. A lot of the guys that came at me after the photo, the Jeff Zuckers, and the agency heads, and the studio heads. I almost laugh because these are the same guys who told me 20 years ago my nose is too big, or I'm too old, or I'm too ugly. I've generated billions of dollars of revenue for all these companies. I've worked for every network you can imagine. I've made probably about $75 million in my own career. I'm an earner. My tour made $4.4 million gross. I spent most of it on security.

I thought, I have to keep proving it in ways that different groups can understand. If I can make people laugh, that's always the first and foremost. But I still have these old white dinosaurs that I have to give all the analytics too. The stuff they say to my face to this day is just unreal. These gross, middle-aged, ugly guys with the trophy wife telling me I'm never going to work again; I'm a failure; I'm too this or I'm too that. I'm just saying, well, you were happy to take the 10% all those years. It's a real bite and scratch back.

You and certainly people in your wake are coming along and saying, actually, you know what? Maybe we could do things a little differently.

Let's all collaborate. But my goodness, to be spending all this time telling people that they're nothing, or worthless, or never going to work again. Also, I'm 58 years old. I wouldn't be doing this if I was 28. I wouldn't have the balls. I'd be too scared. But, at 58, I'm going, if you're not going to stand up for something, sit down.  I'll take the heat for it. I always will.

But this one is important. This administration, there has never been anything like it in my lifetime. I remember watching the Watergate hearings as a little kid and being riveted. I can't imagine we're going through something even worse than Watergate now. Everyone's complicit. Everyone is bored, or they're blaming the Democrats because they don't understand what a whip count is, and it's all Nancy Pelosi's fault. Well, she doesn't have the votes yet, even though it's the Democratic House. It's these simple things that — I grew up where you had to know by the time you were at least like 12.

I think Trump and his administration, they embody the dumbing down of America. I'm just a comic, but the stuff that I talk about in this movie, it's information people need to know. People need to know they can take your phone at the airport. They can take your sim card, no questions asked. No elected [official] can get you out of it. I was put under a federal investigation by two federal agencies. I had to testify under oath. I was on the no fly list for two months.

I want to ask you about that, Kathy. You talk about the part of what you had to do, testifying under oath, and what they wanted you to do. Can you just describe a little bit about what was floated to you?

They started the investigation without even calling me or saying anything. I actually made phone calls to the other folks who allegedly made a threat towards Trump. Snoop Dog didn't pay a price. Johnny Depp, the singer Morrissey, Peter Fonda, and some of them got a call from the Secret Service, maybe. Bette Midler got a call from the Secret Service. I said, "Please tell me they're not putting you under investigation," and she said no.

With me, they just put me under an open investigation by the Secret Service and the U.S. Attorney's Office ready to prosecute if they found anything, searched my home and did no-knock raids like I'm Paul Manafort. Put me on the no fly list for terrorists. They made it very clear to me that they were considering charging me with conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States.

It's never happened in the history of this country. I even called Jane Fonda and she said, "The local PD got me, but not the feds." I talked to David Steinberg and he said, "I was on the Nixon list. But those were secret, which is a little bit different." The great Lenny Bruce was bothered by local PD. I talked to a great First Amendment attorney, Ted Boutrous, who's going to do the Q & A with me after the Fathom screening on July 31st. He did the legal heavy lifting. He said, "Yeah. I looked it up and it's never happened like this before."

I never even had the opportunity to say "Hey, hey, hey, I'm a comic. I do outrageous things." I think that was very much on purpose. I think it came directly from the Trump family and from Jeff Sessions, to be put under investigation by the Secret Service, the Department of Justice.

I have to say the FBI was fantastic. They were over at my house many times talking to me about different levels of threats. The day that I filmed the concert part of the movie, the FBI did what's called a no-knock raid. They were letting me know that there was a new threat and it was Cesar Sayoc, the pipe bomb or the MAGA bomber. Three weeks prior they had called me to say that I was on his kill list, so I knew that. They came over that day to say that while they were interrogating him, they discovered that he had a different list and he had shared it with like-minded people.

I said, "I have a performance tonight. What should I be worried about?" They said, "We can't say. It's an open investigation." Most of my death threats are people want to kill me on stage. So I've got the wands, and all the metal detectors. I found out that, when my tour was canceled, it was mostly robo-calls and stuff like that. But the lengths people will go to to make whatever point it is they think they're making is still something I'm trying to work through.

When you think of what happened with Amy Schumer, these insane people really will go out there and commit acts of violence. Acts of violence, particularly against women. That is a very real thing.

You go through that and you talk about how they wanted you to perp walk, which is astonishing.

My lawyer called me and said the Department of Justice was calling his office every single day for two months saying, "Will she come in? Is she coming in today?" I kept saying, "Wait, what am I coming in for exactly?" That's when he said, "They're looking to possibly charge you with conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States." I didn't know anything about the system. I've never been arrested. He said, "I'm negotiating with the U.S. Attorney's Office." I said, "When did they get involved?

He negotiated a situation where I could be interrogated under oath in his office, because they wanted me to actually do a perp walk in the jumpsuit and the cuffs to the jail in downtown L.A. to get the footage. That's when I lost it. That's when it did cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. But truly, I was just not going to do that perp walk because I thought, well, that's going to live forever. Who knows who's going to see it in the future and what they're going to think? More importantly, what kind of police state message does that send?

By the way, if I had violated the law, I would. If I violated the First Amendment, I would. But I didn't. I knew, if I did that perp walk, people would think I did, and people already thought that I should be locked up and had broken the law. It's just very important to me to let people know, if you've got a 13 year-old kid and they put that same picture up on Twitter or something, they shouldn't have to go through a federal investigation and go through the no fly list and things like that. It was really just harassment.

Kathy, before we go, I want to do a lightning round with you. I'm going to say a word or phrase and I want you to give me something.

Love it.

Mike Pence.

Goebbels. Watching those men in the cage doing nothing, nothing, but saying, "We've been here 40 days," and with his arms folded like, good job. Appalling. Very glad that video went viral.

"Saturday Night Live."

I watch the show. I'm a fan. It would have been nice if they had just thrown me five lines just to  let the world know I'm network friendly and I've worked for that network a long time. But it didn't happen.

Jack Dorsey.

Oh, I can't stand Dorsey. I have been begging friends for his cell number because I've got to take him down to Chinatown. He has way too much power. It seems like he has very far right leanings that are very frightening to me. The folks that he lets spread their venom on Twitter, and yet he acts like he doesn't quite know how dangerous it is, I don't believe it for a second.


I'm all about the down-ballot. I think we're way too obsessed with the presidential candidates. We have an amazing stable, so don't let the Republicans convince you we're a mess. We have a great stable. But I'm all about the down-ballot. Your local representatives, your state senators, your United States senators, your congress representatives, your county supervisors, these are all elected positions. Twenty minutes of research for your district, I swear, and you'll know how to vote. Vote down-ballot. Change the Senate.


I'm down to three. You're one of them, so I have four now. I'm going to just be honest about that. I lost about 75% of my friends and they just didn't come back. I'm still in a phase where I'm toxic. I've been a one-man band my whole career anyway. I've never been someone that was like cloaked with a studio, or a movie franchise, or anything like that. So, thank God for stand up, and thank God that nobody can stop people from buying tickets.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams