Kathy Griffin still has plenty to say, and in her intimate and revealing new stand-up film “A Hell of a Story,” the embattled comedian and actress is hoping that people are willing to listen. The self-financed documentary, directed by seasoned comedy filmmaker Troy Miller, will premiere at the SXSW film festival this week, where audiences will be treated to a project that serves as both proof of Griffin’s still-kicking standup career and the insanity that ensued after she posted a photo depicting her holding the severed (and fake!) head of Donald Trump in 2017.
As Griffin explains, while she had to make the movie herself because no one else was willing to sign on for the project, she’s hoping the snappy 80-minute feature will catch some eyes at the festival. And she’s got some big ideas for what it might lead to, from a possible television comeback to simply spreading the word about what happens when half the country turns against you.
“Nobody would even watch a two-minute sizzle reel,” Griffin said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Nobody would talk to me. It’s kind of still like that, I’m still pretty blacklisted. … It’s been a struggle the last, I guess, year and seven months. I could not get a nibble. I filmed a three-hour special, because I’m insane and that’s how much material I had by the end of the worldwide Kathy Griffin Laugh Your Head Off tour. And I thought, ‘This story, like me or not, is historic.'”
After the now-infamous picture was released online, the professional fallout was intense (and that’s to say nothing of the hate mail, the death threats, and a social media war she says is still going on). Griffin was dropped by both Squatty Potty and CNN, publicly lambasted by former friends like Anderson Cooper and Al Franken, and placed under federal investigation by the Justice Department. Her tour dates got cancelled, show by show, news that Griffin had to see reported almost instantaneously on cable news stations.
“They had all made their fucking grand gestures,” she said. “People love to make grand gestures about me. Enough with the grand gestures, with CNN and their fucking grand gesture, I’m banned for life. And the Mirage Hotel, ‘She’s banned for life!’ I’m like, ‘Oh, for god’s sake, I played there two nights a year. I’m not Celine Dion with a residency.’ Squatty Potty dropped me. When you’re dropped by Squatty Potty, it’s a fucking life lesson.”
But Griffin still wanted to tour, and it’s those same stories — some she’s already able to find funny, a few that still make her cry — that ended up as the material for her ultimately very successful Laugh Your Head Off tour. “I knew I couldn’t tour in the States, I knew it wasn’t safe,” she said.
She made the Laugh Your Head Off tour possible by taking on the nuts and bolts of touring herself: she learned how to promote her shows, how to rent theaters, even how to hire her own ushers. She started her own online merch store — she says her number one item is her “Fuck Trump” mug — that can pull in up to $15,000 in a day. Her globe-trotting took her from Iceland to Australia, and Griffin did eventually return to the States: in April of last year, she played back-to-back sold out shows at Radio City and Carnegie Hall. In October of last year, she filmed the Los Angeles show that is the centerpiece of her film.
“I’m hoping to kind of remind people, I’ve been at this a long time,” she said. “I’m not Kevin Hart. I’m not Amy Schumer. I’m not a stadium artist. I never will be. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna just let them wipe me off the face of the fucking earth. And as Donald Trump said on ‘Good Morning America,’ ‘Oh, we don’t just want to ruin Kathy Griffin’s career. We want to decimate her.’ They ain’t kidding, honey. They are still going at it.”
The comedian is loaded with stories about powerful people turning her down, even those she’d reach out to personally seemingly easy asks: just come see the show.
“I emailed this one very, very powerful executive personally, and I said, ‘Look, I have two sold out shows in Los Angeles at the Dolby Theater’ — which is where they have the freaking Academy Awards! — ‘just come check out the show. Whatever issues you have, if you laugh, you laugh. If you don’t, you can leave.’ No harm, no foul. And it was just, ‘No, no, no. I’m not gonna come to the show, I’m not gonna take a meeting. I don’t want to hear anybody pitch you.’ That’s kind of where I am in Hollywood.”
Rejection like that would sting anyone, but more than being hurt, Griffin said she was confused. While her reputation (or her brand, her persona, whatever you want to call it) may have been tainted, the numbers told a different story. People were coming to the shows. The tour was a success. Griffin said it didn’t matter to the people holding the purse strings.
“I have become, ‘toxic in Hollywood’ and ‘unhireable’ and ‘scary,'” Griffin said. “The fans came out. My tour grossed $4.4M. When nobody would even talk to me for two seconds on the phone that was a check signer, I was like, ‘Okay, there’s a disconnect here. Because if I tried to do this tour and nobody showed up. Trust me, I’ve had many, many rejections in my career, but I’m sitting here going, ‘I sold out Carnegie Hall in less than 24 hours. I think I’m on to something.’ When I couldn’t sell [the film], that’s when I learned, there’s literally like six old white dinosaurs that for real control all the money. You have to educate yourself on whatever your field is. You have to know who is behind the curtain, who is controlling the money.”
Griffin’s decision to finance the film herself — she’s also the sole credited writer and one of three producers — gave her back some of the control she felt she had lost. Now she’s hoping that “A Hell of a Story” will lead to some other opportunities. She’d be happy to sell the film, but she thinks there’s “more meat on this bone,” the kind that could land her back on a lot of television screens.
“The thing that I’m hoping for, and this is, look, it’s out of the box, it’s a pipe dream,” she said. “The only analogy I can kind of think of is, did you ever see the original doc, ‘Catfish’? So to tell you the truth, secretly that’s what I want. … Maybe somebody will see it who has the potential to sort of be like ‘Catfish’ where it started with the film and then they realized, ‘Hey, this can be a series.’ … I have so much footage, I kept thinking, ‘Look, this could be three HBO hours, with like each one ending like a cliffhanger that runs maybe three weeks in a row.'”
Griffin said that, while her touring show tended to run about three hours, there were some dates where she went for nearly four. She has plenty of material from that, plus more documentary-style footage, and she thinks it could make a compelling package, even if it’s one different from the finished film that will screen at the festival.
“My ultimate would be kind of like the ‘Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath’ model, where season one would be my story, and I have all kinds of like super-amateur but very, very gritty footage from the road,” she said. “I think there’s potential for someone to show maybe a little more of the standup and maybe a little more of the documentary footage. Maybe there’s a two-hour version. Maybe there’s a ‘Jane Fonda in Five Acts’ version, where it can be split up with documentary footage and other people’s stories.”
While Griffin frequently jokes about “not giving any more fucks,” it’s clear she does, at least when it comes to helping other people who might have found themselves in similar situations. Griffin still thinks she was lucky, and she’d like to hear more about the people who, quite frankly, couldn’t afford a pricey lawyer or to self-finance their own comebacks.
“I like to do stuff with humor, so I would love to do something like that where I hear other people’s stories and how they dealt with it,” she said. “Because, you know, not everybody can call [lawyer] Alan fucking Isaacman and say, ‘Help, help, help.’ … I want to tell people, it sounds crazy, but this could fucking happen. They threatened me with a no-knock raid like I’m fucking Paul Manafort! I’m just trying to tell my dick jokes.”
She’s going back to her roots next month, care of a free five-week run at the Laugh Factory, where she’ll debut an hour of all-new footage every Monday. She’s done it before: Griffin said it’s the same way she landed “My Life on the D List” after her sitcom opportunities dried up. “I remember calling the Laugh Factory and I said, ‘What’s your worst time slot?’ and they said, ‘Wednesdays at 10,’ and I said, ‘I’ll be there!,'” she said. “I would do five brand new hours every week. … Like, ‘Do your regular show until then, and then have it be a new hour with Kathy Griffin and maybe the fans will come. Maybe they won’t. I don’t know.'” The fans came, and she’s hoping they will this time, too.
And although Griffin would love to sell the film at SXSW, she’s not hanging all her hopes on it. “If I don’t sell it, I can do other festivals,” she said. “All I know is, at least I have a chance for this film to be seen and get people’s reactions. … But I don’t know what’s gonna fucking happen. It’s not gonna play in movie theaters, probably. I have no idea what the future is. I’m gonna do my Laugh Factory shows for free. I’m gonna do public speaking for free. If I have to go to 10 film festivals on my own dime I will. I’m always gonna want to do standup. I would love to have some kind of a consistent or semi-consistent television presence again, because for me, that’s the winning formula.”
If nothing else, she’s been able to do it her way. “I’m just grateful to be able to sort of get it out and have worked around the old white dinosaurs,” Griffin said. “One guy literally goes, ‘Kathy Griffin? That is a life’s too short situation,’ and then I go, ‘Really? Because I’ve made $75M over my career, so ten percent of that is a life’s too short situation?’ And he had no answer.”
“Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story” will have its world premiere at SXSW. It is currently seeking distribution.