In June a photograph by Tyler Shields went up on TMZ. It featured the comedian Kathy Griffin holding a Donald Trump mask doused in tomato ketchup. It looked like she was holding the president's severed head. Griffin thought it was going to be fine.
“I’ve done similar stuff before,” she says. “I’m not the biggest star in the world. It’s not like I’m Ellen [DeGeneres], where everyone is watching me . . . I have a few million followers. I have a couple of Emmys. I’ve done TV shows. My joke is I’ve been fired more than I’ve been hired . . . It’s very rare that I do anything that catches the attention of more than just my own fan base.”
But all hell broke loose. Trump tweeted about it, and before she knew it she was being investigated by the Secret Service. "I hope you're ready for the charge," she says. " 'Conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States. ' Me, Kathy Griffin."
The investigation was dropped, but she's on an Interpol list now, she says, which means that she has been stopped at every airport she has travelled through. She was, for a while, on a no-fly list. What happens then? "You f**king don't fly!" she says.
Worse still was the reaction from Trump supporters towards her and her family. Thousands of death threats flooded in. Her sister Joyce, who died in September, had cancer. (Griffin shaved her head in solidarity. "I looked like that character Eleven, from Stranger Things.") "The deplorables would call my sister and give her death threats while she was f**king dying."
But she apologised. Why? "The picture goes out and, I'm not kidding, I went back to bed," says Griffin. "My assistant runs into the room with the phone and says it's Rosie O'Donnell and it's urgent. Who is the preeminent expert on being trolled by Donald Trump?" (Trump has been attacking O'Donnell for years.) "And she says, 'Take it down. Apologise.' And I'm like, 'Whaaat? Calm down, girl.' And she says, 'What if [the assassinated journalist] Daniel Pearl's mother sees this?' And I thought, Oh, f**k. And having performed in those war zones [for US troops] – and having never witnessed an actual situation like that, thank God – I apologised."
But then she changed her mind. As time went on her apology rankled. "The pile-on started to not make sense," she says. "The over-reaction. The fake outrage . . . Trump started doing things where he was actually killing people. We've had 22 soldiers actually killed under his tenure, and I'm sure you're aware of how he's treating the widow of La David Johnson . . . [so] I went, 'Yeah, I'll be taking that apology back right quick, because that is some bullshit."
When you meet Trump he goes like this . . ." She does a Trump impression. " 'Call me the Donald.' Which I think is the weird. So I'm going to the make fun of him
Now she's "100 per cent leaning into it", she says, taking her story on the road with her trollingly titled Laugh Your Head Off tour, the posters for which feature Griffin holding a globe in a pose reminiscent of the offending photograph.
"I've been doing this for my whole career . . . I've a history of this. I offended the academy when I won my first Emmy and said, 'Suck it, Jesus, this is my award now.'" She laughs. "I've been in fake Hollywood trouble before, but to be on the Interpol list and to have the president personally coming at me?"
She's now ashamed of Hollywood complacency about Trump, she says. "I've known President Moron Nazi Cheeto. for 20 years. You can look online and see pictures of us together . . . He would bullshit me into hosting a charity event in New York, and then I'd find out later that he never gave to the charities . . . He likes to be called the Donald . . . When you meet Trump he goes like this . . ." She does a Trump impression. " 'Call me the Donald.' Which I think is the weird. So I'm going to the make fun of him."
She is, she says, still doing plenty of material on celebrity, which before this year was more familiar territory for her. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are her next-door neighbours, she says, and since the controversy they've been really nice to her. "I said this to Kim's face: 'You know I've been calling you dirty whores for 20 years? Why do you like me now?' And she says" – she imitates Kardashian's voice – " 'I get it.' " She laughs. "Thank you. I'll take whatever friend I can."
She also has a lot to say about the entertainment industry’s attitude to women. She recalls getting angry and upset with a CNN executive, for whom she worked on an annual New Year show with Anderson Cooper. A male colleague said, “If you want to keep this job you have to call [him] back and cry. And you know? I did it . . . When you’re a woman in this business and someone says, ‘If you want to make a living you have to call [him] and cry’ you do it, and I’m ashamed of it.”
She has, since the Trump photograph, been fired from CNN and has fallen out with Cooper. “It f**king hurts.”
Later she says: “Women do not run shit in Hollywood. The powerful women still have to report to a white male. I call them cheque signers. Hollywood is all about the money, right? Women are doing better, and I’m not saying there isn’t progress, but there’s not a woman in Hollywood who can sign a cheque, a woman Murdoch.”
Does she think there’s going to be a culture change on foot of the Harvey Weinstein revelations? “As long as we stay focused,” she says. “It isn’t always purely sexual. I’ve been communicating a lot with my friend Rose McGowan, who I think is a very, very brave woman, and her narrative is that she was literally assaulted by Weinstein . . . Of course I’ve been sexually assaulted, and I don’t say that lightly . . . but my thing is, ‘Hey, don’t forget, there’s all kinds of abuse that happens to women just because we happen to be born with a vagina and want to dream and want to make a living.’ I’m also all about exposing the guys who said to me, ‘You’re so ugly, you’ll never work again.’ ”
Griffin is particularly exercised by the gendered ageism of an industry where a 56-year-old woman with two Emmys and a Grammy can’t get a TV gig. “They’re like, ‘Bitch, you’re supposed to be dead at 35. You work in Hollywood!’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know, but I tell jokes, and it’s not supposed to be about my age.’ ”
Currently joke-telling is what's saving her, she says. "My trainers in life [were] Don Rickles and Joan Rivers. They raised me, in a way. Joan would always say, 'As long as you have a brain and a mouth and a microphone you can make a living.' . . Thank God for foreign countries and open minds."
Now we have got this president who is what I call aggressively stupid
There are ongoing consequences for Griffin’s Trump-baiting stance. “Fox News came at me again yesterday. That’s our state television. We have state-sanctioned television now, like RT,” she says, referring to the Moscow-funded Russian international television network.
Why did Fox come at her? "I did this live [Australian TV] show called The Project. I said the president was a Nazi in a jokingly loving way, except that he is . . . I can't stand how all these American so-called journalists are dancing around it. This is a guy who sanctioned a Nazi rally in Charlottesville where a woman died."
She sees Trump as evidence of a grievously dumbed-down culture. "I grew up on Dick Cavett, " she says. "I seek out the advice of people like Phil Donahue, Marlo Thomas and Gloria Steinem . . . I remember the time when people read newspapers and it was frankly embarrassing to not know something. And now we have got this president who is what I call aggressively stupid . . . He loves how stupid he is. When you try to correct him you're the asshole. My whole life I love being corrected. If I say something that's inaccurate, or I meet someone who's obviously smarter than I am, I want to listen. So I've been a sponge my whole life, and that's probably why I'm a comic." She laughs. "And now I'm wringing out the sponge and everybody gets to see all the dirty water."
This attitude, she says, is partly down to coming from a family of "filthy Micks" – "I hope I don't offend," she says – originally from Cork and Kerry. She tries out an Irish accent and wonders if we might be related. "At our dinner table you had to f**king bring it . . . You had to know what alderman was in trouble, and you had to know what Mayor Daley had done that day."
She finds it funny when people tell her that politics is none of her business. “I love when people say, ‘Stay in your lane.’ Honey, the president put me in this lane. I couldn’t get out of this lane if I wanted to.”
Trump and satire: keeping up with reality
In a recent Irish Times interview, American cartoonist Tom Tomorrow complained that it was getting increasingly difficult for satirists to compete with reality. Furthermore, in the immediate aftermath of the election columnists were noting the failure of political comedy to have an effect on the outcome. John Oliver and Samantha Bee were singled out as examples of cutting edge satire that had spoken almost entirely to the converted.
Most of the American late night hosts decided that they were going to fight on nonetheless. Some, such as The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, lost credibility by pandering to Trump (Fallon famously ruffled his hair during a very soft pre-election interview). Others, like Stephen Colbert on CBS’s The Late Show, and Seth Meyers on NBC’s Late Night, refocused their gaze on the administration and gained new relevance.
Meyers, in particular, might have felt like he had something to atone for. Some say his comedic attack on Trump during the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner partly set the seed for Trump’s presidential run. John Oliver, the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, might also be feeling guilty. He once begged Trump to run for president thinking it would be a hilarious folly.
These comedy moments may well have had some sort of impact. Trump is clearly not impervious to satire. He has tweeted criticism of Saturday Night Live more often than the average television reviewer. That show has also regained its mojo. It was criticised before the election for allowing Trump a guest appearance but Trump has been angered by Alec Baldwin’s depiction of him and Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of Sean Spicer.
The trick for contemporary comedians seems to be in keeping up with the ever changing news. The satirical website The Onion has been a cathartic touchstone for many while scripted dramas and comedies have, in contrast, floundered. Recent seasons of House of Cards and Veep struggled to find relevance against the unpredictable new realities of a Trump presidency.
Indeed, the creator of the latter, Armando Iannucci, seems to have found a more accurate parallel for contemporary politics in 1950s Russia with his new film, The Death of Stalin.
"I am relieved I am no longer working on Veep," he recently told Donald Clarke in The Irish Times. "It's so hard to keep up. Comedians like John Oliver or Seth Meyers or Samantha Bee have become like journalists. They go through Trump's speeches. They present the facts as they happen and the comedy comes from those facts. Doing Trump with a funny voice, the danger is he just becomes a clown. Clowns are dangerous, of course. We know that. Ha ha. But he's more than just a clown."
- Kathy Griffin's Laugh Your Head Off tour is at Vicar St, Dublin, on Wednesday, November 8th