No Apologies: Kathy Griffin Is Serious About Comedy

About the Author: Anne M. Russell is the editor in chief of VIVmag.
Kathy Griffin

Kathy Griffin’s trademark is her subversive, yet in-your-face, humor.

There I am, kicking back in front of the TV, tuned to Showtime to watch Dave’s Old Porn, when up from behind Dave’s couch pops Kathy Griffin, looking fetching in an orchid-colored shift. (Hey, don’t judge! Everyone’s entitled to one secret cable vice.)

In one regard, Griffin’s Old Porn guest appearance is surprising, since Griffin has way more star power than most of comedian-host Dave Attell’s guests, who tend toward the cultish. But in another respect it validates what I already suspected, which is that Griffin actually lives the cliché about being the hardest-working person in show business. And, unlike the equally ubiquitous Ryan Seacrest, she will go almost anywhere and say almost anything for a laugh.

It is a point of pride for Griffin that her mouth has gotten her disinvited to any of a number of shows, including The View, as well as made enemies of fellow Hollywood luminaries like Barbara Walters. “I just love Barbara and I don’t care that she hates me,” says Griffin. “There are a lot of people in Hollywood who don’t like me and I like them.” (Of course, joking in her 2010 Bravo special Straight to Hell — one of 15 since 2005 — about Walters’ preference for Astroglide over K-Y Jelly could be seen as an unusual way to show it.)

While Griffin has never reappeared on The View, most of the other prohibitions on her have lifted: “I would typically do a show, get fired, they’d ask for an apology, I wouldn’t give it, and I’d get invited again,” says Griffin. “What I’ve learned over the years is that people don’t want to admit you’re banned. It makes them look uncool.”

Still, Griffin manages to shock. Last year, during the first season of her Bravo talk show Kathy, guest Jane Fonda (who is herself known for being mouthy) said to Griffin after the taping, “This show can’t really air, can it?” It can and it did and it featured Griffin, Fonda, Lisa Ling and Sharon Osbourne shooting the breeze about anal sex and blow jobs — not too different from the topics on Dave’s Old Porn, as a matter of fact.

But Griffin’s underlying intentions are quite serious. “I’m trying to do a show that goes a little deeper in an era of YouTube. I have an actual attention span. TV doesn’t always have to be 15-second sound bites.” Kathy is now in its second season as a weekly one-hour show featuring Kathy and her band of “civilians,” regular people who join Griffin to chat up the celebrity guest.

Heir Apparent

If Griffin’s shtick was simply potty talk, it would get old in a hurry, but part of the reason for her longevity and success — she’s 52 and has been working since she was 17 — is that she’s so dead-on in saying what others are merely thinking about media-seeking celebs like Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Oprah and Dr. Phil. (While introducing Jimmy Kimmel’s appearance on Kathy, Griffin joked that the reason she’s been on Kimmel’s late-night show 33 times is that she’s the backup guest they call “if Demi Lovato is cutting or Miley Cyrus flashed her crotch again and it’s too breezy down there.”)

Griffin is often described as Joan Rivers’ rightful artistic heir: Their raw, celebrity-scathing styles are similar and their commitment to their craft is equally obsessive. Watch the wonderful 2010 biographical documentary about Rivers, A Piece of Work, and you’ll witness a work ethic that bridges on mania. “Joan and I share that tenacity,” says Griffin of Rivers. “I am on the road so much I almost prefer it. Why would you ever travel if it weren’t for work? I’m happy to get on a plane to Tallahassee and then a do casino in Oklahoma.”

Asked if she ever relaxes and takes time off, Griffin concedes vacations are “OK,” but only for a couple of days. If she doesn’t have steady gigs lined up, she adds, “I think I’m going to end up living in my car and eating dog food.”

“I have no desire to stop going on the road. I’m going to die on stage,” she says, meaning it literally. Also like Rivers, Griffin is meticulous about saving the written notes that serve as prompts for her live routines. “I have a little notebook I bought at CVS and a few minutes before I go on, I dictate 10 phrases; it might just be ‘Cher,’ or ‘Cher wants Raisinets,’ ” she explains. “I’m kind of the anti-hoarder — I’ve even thrown out my birth certificate. But I’ve never thrown away a notebook.”

Little Girl, Big Impact

Griffin grew up in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, IL, the youngest child in an Irish-American family of five kids. It’s cheap and easy psychology to surmise that little Kathy needed a big personality to get seen and heard in the crowd, but for whatever reason, Griffin loved being in the spotlight from an early age. Griffin doesn’t seem small on stage — far from it — but in person she is tiny, and as a child she used her sense of humor to avoid trouble with schoolmates at her parochial school.

At 17, she took off for Los Angeles, accompanied by her parents, determined to get into the comedy biz. She found her way to L.A.’s famed comedy troupe The Groundlings, where she befriended Phil Hartman and got her start in improv comedy. She then moved on to stand-up. Griffin is probably still most widely known for her role as Vicki Groener on Suddenly Susan from 1996 to 2000. Out of that grew a genuine friendship with Susan star Brooke Shields, who served as Griffin’s maid of honor in 2001.

Griffin cites Janeane Garofalo as a friend and mentor as well. “I called her one night when I had bombed horribly,” Griffin recalls. “She told me, ‘You’ve got to figure out why you’re bombing.’ ” Griffin follows that advice to this day: “If [an audience] isn’t political, then I’ll start talking about a horrible date I went on. I’ll do whatever it takes. If I can’t get them, I’ll just sweat it out. I wait until there’s a decent moment, and I say ‘thank you very much and good night!’ ”

In 2005, Griffin starred in and produced her own reality show, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, which was spun off from her previous Bravo comedy specials. It ran six seasons, until 2010, and won two Primetime Emmy Awards for “best reality show” (2007, 2008). Her five-sentence acceptance speech at the 2007 ceremony got her cut from E! Network’s broadcast of the event and remains immortalized on fact-finding website Snopes as in, “Did Kathy Griffin really say that about Jesus?

Yes, she did, and it went like this: “Now, look, a lot of people come up here and they thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. He didn’t help me a bit. If it was up to Him, Cesar Millan would be up here with that damn dog. So all I can say is, Suck it, Jesus, this award is my God now.’” Griffin says she has “a no-apology policy when it comes to jokes,” and she made good on it at the time, despite a public firestorm over the comment.

During the course of D-List, Griffin divorced from husband Matt Moline, whom she had married in 2001. “It was — and is — a struggle to maintain a private life,” says Griffin, “but I really do have one. I would never allow my actual divorce to be on TV.”

Makeover Madness

Although Griffin is circumspect about her current romantic life (she’s reportedly been dating 33-year-old Randy Bick for about a year), she is much more open about her extensive adventures with cosmetic surgery. Looking back on it today, she says, “I really thought liposuction would turn me into Jennifer Aniston. In real life, nothing was accomplished that I thought would be accomplished. I realized [viewers] are not tuning in because of what I look like. I stopped it all cold turkey.”

Although her nose job did arguably make her more comely, LASIK correction left Griffin’s vision in one eye permanently compromised. She underwent four subsequent corrective surgeries, but the damage was done. “That was a serious, life-altering negative thing,” she says. She says she’s done with the knife and jokes that for women who feel so inclined, “I would encourage them to get a few pieces of tape and a string” to pull things into place.

Griffin opened up about another source of personal angst on Rosie O’Donnell’s short-lived OWN show Rosie in January 2012, talking seriously about her struggles with disordered eating, a practice she started in high school with binges on Pringles and cake. “Because I know Rosie so well, I showed up for that taping knowing the BS wouldn’t fly,” she says. “When I left the interview, I felt like I had revealed too much, yet people really appreciated it.”

As far as what’s next (other than eventually dying on stage), Griffin is mulling a sequel to her New York Times best-seller-listed 2009 book Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin (Ballantine Books), co-authored with ghostwriter Robert Abele. What a second book would contain, Griffin doesn’t yet know. In an uncharacteristically New Age moment she says she’s waiting for direction: “I’m a pretty big believer in doing what the universe tells you to do.”

The universe, however, better hope Griffin doesn’t decide to tell it what to do. Because it probably wouldn’t be pretty.