WASHINGTON — If you’re looking for Kathy Griffin to apologize, stop reading right now. She did apologize once, after the image of her posing with what looked like the bloodied head of President Trump went viral in the worst way possible two years ago (the head was a rubber mask, the blood was ketchup). She won’t say sorry again, calling her tearful mea culpa “a horrible mistake” in a recent conversation with Yahoo News.
For that matter, don’t look to Griffin for a feel-good story about political reconciliation, either. “Hey folks, for the time being, the hope for civility is over,” Griffin said, shattering the hopes of so many a David Brooks op-ed. “We gotta let that go.”
Griffin has certainly let it go. That much is clear from “A Hell of a Story,” Griffin’s new standup comedy special, which arrived in theaters Wednesday. It is the story, seemingly hellish indeed, of what happened in the hours, days, weeks and months following 10:53 a.m. PT on May 30, 2017, which was the precise moment when TMZ — a gossip site run by Trump ally Harvey Levin — published an item titled “Kathy Griffin Beheads Donald Trump in Shocking Photo Shoot.” It is the story of tweets from both Trump (“Sick!”) and his son Don Jr. (“This is the left today”), a story of being ghosted by would-be friends Andy Cohen of Bravo and Anderson Cooper of CNN, both of whom get flayed nearly as hard as the Trumps in “A Hell of a Story.”
More substantively, there was a Secret Service investigation that put Griffin on a no-fly list, which made every trip to an airport a prolonged bureaucratic nightmare (a documentary portion preceding the standup set chronicles those difficulties). And there were the death threats, which Griffin cheerily summarizes in “A Hell of a Story” as “lots of ways to shoot me in the c**t,” describing with disconcerting cheer the bullying missives some supposed Trump supporters sent her way. Some of those letters, she notes dryly, contained actual return addresses.
That at least made it easy for law enforcement to track down the would-be assailants. It also gave Griffin one of her many jokes at the expense of the president and his most enthusiastic supporters. “The Trumpers are not like… academics,” she says in “A Hell of a Story,” savoring the chance to skewer her tormentors.
“If it wasn’t a historic event, I wouldn’t have made it,” she says of the photo outrage, and her movie about it.
Not every person who reached out to Griffin regaled her with gruesome images of sexual violence. She remembers supportive calls from Jamie Foxx and Jim Carrey, two of the very few people in Hollywood to show compassion. And, in one of the show’s highlights, she reads a letter from “Bobby from Sarasota,” a gay fan — Griffin has many gay fans — who sent her a copy of the letter he had sent to Cooper, with whom Griffin had hosted New Year’s Eve specials on CNN. Cooper publicly disavowed Griffin, in what many saw as a cynical public relations ploy.
If that’s what it was, Bobby wasn’t fooled. Griffin, who tells the story of meeting the outraged Bobby during a Sarasota, Fla., show, says he told her, “Bitch, you got a raw deal.” And as Griffin makes perfectly clear, she believes as much herself. (The contents of Bobby’s letter are otherwise too profane to quote.)
That raw deal, paradoxically, made Griffin genuinely relevant in a way no work she had previously done could have possibly predicted. She casts herself as a soldier in “a battle for democracy like I’ve never seen in my lifetime,” as she put it. It may strike some as a ridiculous statement, coming from a former reality-television star, but not nearly as ridiculous as another reality-television star becoming president, or a New Age self-help guru challenging him for the White House. At least Griffin is funny.
Pain has given her purpose. It has also stripped her of any pretense. “We have to just get more honest about it being shirts and skins,” the newly combative Griffin said, “and this being a time when things have to be called out for what they really are.”
You may not agree with Griffin, but after watching “A Hell of a Story,” you will know exactly where she stands. You may have a better sense of where you stand too on issues like the First Amendment, the limits of comedy and — for all the David Brooks fans — the uses of civility.
Griffin’s candor, by turns angry and lighthearted, self-deprecating and self-righteous, is what makes “A Hell of a Story” so enthralling. It is like watching the proverbial train wreck, only the trains are passing through a surrealistic landscape, and one is being driven by the president of the United States and the other by a comedian who appeared with him on “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Griffin appeared on the second season of the program, which cast Trump as a benevolent chief executive who presides over contestants eager to win his approval. She says that “Celebrity Apprentice” was so heavily scripted that Trump’s lines were piped in by earpiece. But if she saw the image of a freakishly capable businessman as a heavily produced sham, most Americans saw Trump exactly as he wanted to see them. The result is, well, just check your Twitter feed or turn on the cable news.
“We have a president without an earpiece,” Griffin concludes.
Critics will inevitably bring up a photograph of Griffin with Trump at one of his golf courses in 2010, at an “Apprentice” event involving Liza Minnelli. Standing next to Trump, Griffin looks perfectly happy, though he was by then espousing the “birtherism” that gave him traction with the Fox News crowd.
“I just knew him as a buffoon,” Griffin says, pointedly referring to him almost exclusively as “the Donald,” as opposed to “Trump” or, God forbid, “the president.” She says that “every time I would see the Donald, I saw him as nothing but material.”
She has plenty of material now. “A Hell of a Story” is an angry, personal and at times embittered diatribe against Trump and his supporters. “This is what’s before me, and this is what’s here now,” says the former “My Life on the D-List” star, who now peppers her conversation with references to the scholar Timothy Snyder, a historian of the Holocaust and World War II, and Washington Post political reporter Josh Dawsey. “That’s why I go so hard, maybe, against the base.”
“Hard” might be an understatement. When asked whether she thinks support for Trump is motivated by racism and misogyny, she doesn’t hesitate. “I think they are true believers when it comes to racism, misogyny, ageism ... and also, frankly, education.”
Some will hate this, will hate Griffin even more than they already do. “Once fourth rate comic, now just a troll,” went the title of an IMDB review of her new film. “She advocated violence as a publicity stunt for her failed career,” the review itself says. Movie aside, Griffin’s comeback is bound to stir unease. “Instead of going on an apology tour,” complained the Washington Examiner, a conservative publication, “Griffin is doubling down, turning to literally any other source than herself to place blame.”
Griffin does cast herself as a martyr for freedom of expression. She believes that Trump and his supporters picked on her because she is a female comedian in her late 50s, one without much institutional power of the George Clooney variety. Never before, Griffin says, had the force of the presidency been exerted to effectively punish a comedian. That’s why she feels no regret about the photo, or her new comedy, which is perhaps less viscerally offensive but, in another way, is a more devastating critique of Trump. “I always punch up,” Griffin says, reminding me of her D-list status.
At least she is not on the no-fly list anymore.
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