The Playboy Interview With Kathy Griffin
The controvesial comedian on surviving one of the most precipitous falls from grace in history
No matter your opinion of Kathy Griffin, this much holds true: Today she is one of the few people in our collective consciousness who is as beloved as she is despised. Ironically, it’s a quality the 57-year-old comedian shares with her greatest adversary: President Donald Trump. The important distinction, of course, is that Kathy Griffin is not the leader of the free world.
Griffin—two-time Emmy winner and New York Times best-selling author, one of only three women to take home a Grammy for best comedy album for solo work, Guinness World Record–holder for “most stand-up specials by a comedian” and 2017’s most unexpected enemy of the state—has few, if any, regrets. Absent from that list: her decision just over one year ago to share a photo of herself clutching a synthetic Trump head slathered in ketchup. Captured in Griffin’s 10.5 million-dollar Bel Air mansion, the image triggered a rare instance of bipartisan condemnation across a nation severely bruised by 2016’s tumultuous election. Somehow, in a time of widespread political discord, Americans agreed that Griffin’s satire did not qualify as such and thus was unworthy of the First Amendment protections that have empowered and shielded American truth tellers from Lenny Bruce to Joan Rivers.
Citizens, pundits and celebrities on both sides, including her former friend Anderson Cooper and former first daughter Chelsea Clinton, joined the sitting president, then suffering one of the lowest approval ratings of his term thus far, in denouncing Griffin. The fallout included a canceled tour, an ouster from CNN, whose New Year’s Eve special she had co-hosted for 10 years, a spot on an Interpol watch list and a two-month Department of Justice investigation into whether the U.S. government should charge the comedian with conspiracy to assassinate the president. All this, despite the fact that Griffin captioned a tweet of the imagery with an antiviolence disclaimer and issued two public apologies immediately afterward—one in a Twitter video, in which she admitted the image was “disturbing,” and another during an ill-conceived press conference organized by former Harvey Weinstein lawyer Lisa Bloom.
After learning she had been exonerated by the Secret Service on July 27, 2017, 58 days after she released the photo, Griffin has had no choice but to adapt to a surreal and perilous new life. At the same time the Secret Service was investigating her, the Federal Bureau of Investigation stepped in as well, this time to ensure Griffin’s safety from “credible threats.” Death threats against Griffin, her then 97-year-old mother and her sister, Joyce, then hospitalized with terminal cancer, became commonplace. Talk shows refused to book her, and Hollywood’s powerful ignored her e-mails. Griffin, whose career has fed off her ability to redraw the lines of political correctness and free speech, had become a pariah. Today, she estimates that the stunt has cost her as much as five million dollars in the past year. But her only regret since that fateful frame went live is having apologized at all.
Kathleen Mary Griffin was born on November 4, 1960 in the most typical of Midwest families of the Irish Catholic faith. She grew up in Chicago’s middle-class suburbs with one sister and three brothers; their father, John, worked at a Radio Shack; mother Maggie worked as a cashier in a hospital. At the age of 18, Griffin moved to Los Angeles to pursue comedy, juggling jobs as a busser and a bank teller with classes at the Groundlings school. In 1996 she debuted on TV in her first notable role, on Brooke Shields’s prime-time NBC sitcom, Suddenly Susan. Griffin continued to perform stand-up, increasingly basing her act on her real-life awkward encounters with celebrities, which landed her a string of hour-long comedy specials on Bravo and her own reality show, the Emmy-winning My Life on the D-List. In the past decade, Griffin’s résumé has included stand-up (she has filmed more than 20 specials), albums (six, including the Grammy-winning Kathy Griffin: Calm Down Gurrl) and TV hosting jobs such as E!’s Fashion Police (where she replaced Rivers), an eponymous talk show and the Daytime Emmy Awards.
Last June, Griffin decided to heed the advice of Jim Carrey, who told her she had to harness the power that comes with being the most talked-about comic in the world; after all, Griffin ranked as the eighth most googled person on Earth last year. So she began writing her comeback. This has manifested as the Laugh Your Head Off tour, which, after cycling through an international run, is now warming up its North American leg. One of the tour’s first stateside shows, at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on June 26, reportedly sold out in one day.
In the midst of a changing tide in the public’s perception of Griffin, Playboy.com executive editor Shane Michael Singh spent an afternoon at her sprawling residence to find out why she’s confident we’ll buy what she’s selling this time. Singh reports, “Griffin didn’t hesitate in offering her bedroom, nestled in an upstairs corner of what she refers to as her ‘fuck-you house,’ as the location for a lengthy conversation about both her exile and her comeback. On her nightstand, a copy of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. On the television, MSNBC. And in her eyes, hope. As caustic as her comedy is—and as ferocious as she likes to appear when the camera blinks red—the purported traitor is warm and well-spoken. Glimpses of her damaged ego reveal themselves briefly between long diatribes about First Amendment rights, sexism and the man she calls our ‘accidental president.’ Griffin is anything but weathered; she expressed her most human qualities, vacillating between humility, heartbreak and resilience—all while landing quip after impeccably timed quip.
“Griffin is eager to perform in America again because she believes that what happened to her can happen to any law-abiding citizen. Say what you will about the propriety of her comedy, but if patriotism remains defined by one’s love of the Constitution and the freedom to harness the soul’s fire against the odds for a better tomorrow, few people are more patriotic than Kathy Griffin.”
The Laugh Your Head Off tour has booked some of the country’s most famous theaters, including Carnegie Hall, the Dolby Theatre and Radio City Music Hall. This follows an international leg across 15 countries and 23 cities. In the spring you booked your first stateside talk-show appearances since the controversy, on Real Time With Bill Maher and The View, and in April you attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C. Are you feeling vindicated?
No—but I am feeling a change for the first time. America is taking its time “forgiving” me. Just last week a woman came up to me in a very fancy Santa Monica restaurant. She had wine sloshing and felt bold, I think, because she was with three friends. She came to my table and said, “Terrorist.” So I don’t feel totally vindicated, because I know this will be with me for the rest of my life. Every airport, every public setting—I never know who’s going to come up and say something. There’s still a feeling among the public that it’s okay to do literally anything to me. If nothing else, one of the reasons this tour is important is that it’s allowing me to go city to city and tell people they can hate the picture all they want. I have no problem with that. But I want everyone to know that if your 13-year-old kid takes that same picture and puts it on Twitter, he or she shouldn’t be put under a two-month federal investigation.
I found out last week that I’m on another kill list. At this point I’m just like, Oh, again?
Do you believe the investigation by the Department of Justice was unfounded? If a non-U.S. citizen fake-beheaded the president on social media, the DOJ would likely investigate.
Truly, I didn’t think the photo would be a big deal. I thought it would be on the same level as when I said “Suck it, Jesus!” after my first Emmy win, which was the first time the industry got mad at me. But the trolls love to reprint the photo and pixelate the mask as though it’s a real human head and then hashtag it #WeWillNeverForget. That was the banner of 9/11, you unoriginal fucks! I’m not Mohammed Atta. I’m not one of the 9/11 hijackers. Calm the fuck down.
It’s important that I defend the photo. We still live in a free society. What is arguably a piece of art—however you want to define that picture—shouldn’t be subject to what, in my opinion, was an abuse of power by the White House and the Department of Justice. It was overreach. I’ve been doing stand-up so long that I’ve actually seen the change; we’ve now gone so far to the right that it’s confusing for all of us. A lot of people have told me if I’d taken this photo post–Harvey Weinstein it would’ve been different. People forget that the photo came out three weeks after James Comey was fired. So the timing worked for Trump’s team perfectly. I wasn’t conscious of it; when you do a wacky photo shoot, even if you’re making fun of the president, you don’t check his schedule. You don’t ask yourself, “How could this serve him?”
Are you suggesting the president had something to gain by denouncing you on Twitter?
The timing is obvious to me, but I’m obsessed with this stuff. I’m obsessed with the news. Trump knows how to keep the chaos going. For example, my little story was a big giant story and then it was forgotten by a lot of people. That’s his stock-in-trade. You know, it’s almost like the way he is with money. He gets it, then he loses it. He gets it, then he’s in debt.
It should be said that you knew President Trump well before his presidential campaign.
I was on The Apprentice twice as part of the challenges. I’m going to be honest: I didn’t hate Trump at that time. I just thought he was a kook. Trump absolutely loved it when I would give him shit at NBC events. He would show up for the opening of an envelope. Now people get mad at me. They’re like, “Why didn’t you know this about Trump?” First of all, I wasn’t looking. I’ve had these Trump stories for 20 years, but nobody wanted to hear about Donald Trump back then. You get a bunch of gay guys and soccer moms together and they want to hear about Real Housewives. They want to hear about the Kardashians. They want to hear about my mom. So to be able to resurrect these stories is honestly a fucking wet dream. One of the two stories in the show—besides my personal experience—involves Joan Rivers the day she called me to be on an Apprentice challenge. Of course I would do anything for Joan, so I spent the day with the Donald and his “lover” Ivanka, listening to those two fucking airheads. Talk about dumb and dumber.
Did you feel any compassion for Barron or Melania Trump following the stunt?
I think Barron has seen far worse, especially since the photo. Now that we’ve heard Karen McDougal talk about Trump walking her past Melania’s closed door, saying she’s having her quiet time, when she reads? Like, okay.
You’ve retracted both of your public apologies. Do you want the country’s forgiveness?
It’s not that I want forgiveness; it’s that I’ve recognized there are folks, primarily white women, who believe Fox News. They think they have to forgive me—and they think I care. The truth is, my whole brand is about not giving a fuck. I’m the mayor of zero fucks, and that’s what bought this house, cash outright. Obviously, I’m learning a lot. One of the things I’m open about is I understand that I absolutely have white privilege. Yes, I have earned every single penny myself, but if I had not been in my position when this happened—if I was still a bank teller or a busser—I don’t know how I could have recovered. I certainly think of myself when I was a young comic pulling a restaurant job five days a week. A stunt like this would have absolutely ended my career. That’s another reason I’m on a mission, aside from trying to make everybody laugh. I do want to be funny first, no matter what, but this is different. That’s what I keep saying to people about this particular administration: It’s just different. We can’t be having these conversations in the way we had them before. I was not a George W. Bush fan, but it was nothing like this during W.’s presidency. During W. you could still make jokes about the president.
Why did now feel like the right time to tour again in the States, where you’re still receiving death threats?
You know, I talked to other people who’d been in scandals, trying to negotiate how much time I would need. Sharon Stone said, “You’ve got to leave the country for eight years.” I said, “You first.” I think Paul Reubens told me five years. Then I was like, “Wait a minute!” What I’m finding in this experience is if you give people a minute—and I’m happy to indulge all questions—I can usually explain it. I’m trying to explain what happened to me in such a way that people can put themselves in my shoes and say, “You know, she might be annoying, but this is not right. I don’t think I’d like it if this happened to my mom, or my aunt, or my sister, or my cousin or my kid.” Having lived through it, I feel I’m on a comedy mission to tell people that we need to talk about this.
Ninety percent of the Laugh Your Head Off show is going to be ridiculous jokes and hopefully laugh-out-loud stories. But I take a couple of five- or 10-minute breaks where I get real, which I’ve never done before in an act. I tried it the first night in Auckland, and if it hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t have done it again. Then I tried it the second night at the Sydney Opera House, and I found it to be the part of the show people remembered the most. Typically, that’s not my thing. I shouldn’t stop and take a serious moment. But because it’s real, because everybody’s watching this stuff, I thought, Okay, I’ll let people in. And I’m selling tickets now.
Even so, you’re still banned by some theaters, right?
This is the fight back. My own representatives, who I love dearly and who are all middle-aged white men, didn’t think I could sell a ticket. Originally, after going overseas, I was like, “Let me take some time. Let me see how it feels.” We’re now in a world so divided that I understand I have to reach out to the people who have strong feelings about me, my comedy, my body of work, or people who just come to get the story. There are those people who come because, in a way, buying a ticket is their way of resisting. Whatever gets them there, as long as I make them laugh, that’s fine. But Carnegie Hall is a big deal because they kept saying no. Now I’m going after my audience because I know I have to. I can’t just go to friendly cities. It has been a knock-down, drag-out fight—fights I’ve been having with these guys my whole career. One of the many reasons they all think I’m an intolerable bitch is because I get on the phone and scream and say I’m not stopping. I said, “I’m going to play the Kennedy Center,” and they said no. I said, “Well, I’m going to announce it on Bill Maher, so you’d better figure it out.” And the Kennedy Center said no. The four times I played there before, I actually played as a guest, which means the rent was much lower. Now I have to pay 75,000 dollars rent. You watch me sell it out.
I’ll tell you right now, the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood initially said no. They finally said yes when they saw those tickets coming in. Radio City was the fucking battle royale. After I kick the bucket, I want some baby gay or young female comedian or young person of color who has a dream to say, “This bitch did it at 57! She did Radio City and Carnegie in one fucking week.”
What could have changed the tide faster in your favor?
The show runners could have, with the flick of a switch. I’m not friends with Lorne Michaels. I don’t think he’s a fan of mine. Maybe he is, I don’t know. But let’s cut the shit: If he had put me in one sketch on last season’s Saturday Night Live opener, it would have changed everything. I truly didn’t predict it would take this long. When I finally was on Comedy Central’s The President Show, I was practically crying. No one was trying to threaten me. [Creator and star] Tony Atamanuik is so talented and collaborative. I told him, “Tony, you’re the one who lifted a finger.” It’s not that I didn’t get support: Judd Apatow tweeted positive things; the same with Adam McKay. I respect Adam tremendously; he’s a fucking genius filmmaker. He was being very supportive, e-mailing me, “Man, what’s happened to you is fucked-up. It’s abuse of power. It’s not what this country’s about.” On the fourth or fifth e-mail, I wrote him a bitchy note back: “If only you knew someone who was maybe in the film or television industry who could give me 10.”
So yeah, I got down in the mud. I was begging. I was pleading. I was hinting. The message I got very clearly was to get back to basics, honey. For some of the gigs I did overseas I was literally handing out flyers. My boyfriend and I would just do it for fun. We would be walking around Amsterdam; people are having delicious homemade sweets, and we’re looking for a Kinkos. I would have walked a fucking sandwich board. I still have that whatever-it-takes mentality. I’m happy to admit I’ve failed many times.
One thing that bothers me is how the Milo Yiannopouloses of the world have coopted the term ‘free speech.’ The march in Charlottesville? Not the free speech we’re talking about.
You’re referencing, I assume, the press conference you held with Lisa Bloom three days after you released the photo.
It exacerbated things. Cindi Berger, the famous publicist, was calling and screaming at me, and she wasn’t even my publicist anymore. I’m in the middle of a shit storm and she’s screaming at me to do an apology tape. So I put out that apology tape, which turned on me. Lisa Bloom was the only one who called, and that whole thing was a -disaster, so fuck her and the horse she flew in on. She’s awful. She was representing Harvey Weinstein at the same time and didn’t bother to mention that.
You didn’t know?
The right wing likes to attack me. They’re like, “You knew about Weinstein.” I met Harvey Weinstein one time, sitting next to him at a roast for Quentin Tarantino. That’s it. I don’t have his cell number, you know? That’s how crazy the wall of shit gets. It’s not just “You said something that offends me and here’s why.” It’s got tentacles that reach out: “You’re in the Weinstein Hollywood crowd.” I’m like, “Um, no.”
What’s your relationship with the First Amendment? Does the country need a refresher on it?
It’s the amendment I know the best, that’s for sure. It’s how I make my living. It’s how you make your living. One thing that bothers me is how the Milo Yiannopouloses and Ann Coulters of the world have coopted the term free speech. The march in Charlottesville? Not the free speech we’re talking about. A woman was murdered by a Dodge Challenger driven by a guy named James Alex Fields Jr., and Jason Kessler organized the rally. I think about that woman’s family all the time. Not only were other people seriously injured that day, but Heather Heyer was brutally mowed down. Then it became about the marchers’ right to assemble, and then it became funny because they had tiki torches. I’m like, Heather Heyer is dead for a truly peaceful protest.
Is the alt-right’s definition of free speech different from the rest of the country’s?
I had no idea about the Nazi YouTube channels. How are young people even exposed to people like this? When I was that age, that kind of verbiage, or even that kind of thought, was something we laughed at. It was what the older aunts and uncles said, and we’d all be like, “Yeah, whatever.” That is what surprises me. Who the fuck thinks a guy as young as Milo Yiannopoulos is the face of free speech? And what’s going to happen to all the ladies who were giving me a standing ovation in Kentucky three years ago? I don’t know where they stand. I don’t know where they stand with the country, and I don’t know where I stand with them.
What was the most invasive question the Secret Service asked you during its investigation?
They said they were tapping my phones. I couldn’t prove it, but of course I had to turn that into a joke on day one. I was having dinner downstairs with Kris Jenner, Rita Wilson and Melanie Griffith, and I’m like, “All right, if anyone’s listening, we’re starting dessert! Not looking to hurt anybody!” Until I was exonerated, it became this thing where I’d tell anybody who came over that they might be surveilled. And not one person cared. It’s interesting; I was proud of myself when they raided Paul Manafort’s home—I was like, I know exactly how this works. The feds would call my lawyers every single day and say, “You know, we could do a house call 24/7.” I was determined not to have that happen, because I was fearful they might try to drum up a charge. The feeling of having the country so against me—I thought, Kathy could go bye-bye real fast and nobody would give a shit. They would think I had it coming.
Your mother, Maggie, has been a hallmark of your stand-up for more than a decade and was ever-present on your reality show. How has your relationship with her changed in the past year?
The good news is that even my mom doesn’t take Fox News seriously anymore. It did take me about two hours to convince her I’m not “an ISIS,” because she doesn’t like to wear her hearing aids; she feels they’re not flattering. So that moment of having to explain to your 97-year-old alcoholic mother, who’s watching Fox News with the sound off and seeing pictures of me—I don’t know what she saw or heard, but my favorite line of hers was “Well, I was watching Fox News, and do you know not one of those guys had your back?” I go, “Mom, let’s break it down. First of all, guys.” We joke about it now. I’m happy to commit voter fraud with my mom and just dangle the chad for her, because she can’t be trusted at this point.
Do you think her decision to still watch Fox News, despite personal knowledge that it can range from slightly biased to outright incorrect, represents this country’s generational divide?
My mom gets a pass because she’s so old, but that wasn’t the Maggie Griffin, or any other Griffin, I grew up with. We’re from Chicago. We were considered middle class. My mom always worked, even after she had kids. My dad worked 60 hours a week in a retail store. Our dinner-table discussions were always political conversations about what alderman was on the take and who was on the front page of the Tribune. I don’t know if you remember the Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois, but that was the biggest story in Chicagoland for 10 years. We argued about it at our dinner table a million times. As Griffins and as Irish Democrats we agreed they had the right to march, but it’s offensive, so you have the right to stand on the curb and yell at them. I don’t really know why my mom has become the way she is. I have theories, but sometimes I honestly think it’s because Fox News has bright colors and the ladies look like the Real Housewives. Maybe my mom finds that comforting. Also, they project. They’re the loudest channel because they know Maggie’s listening, so a lot of their broadcasts are shouting. She likes that too.
One of the first moments you realized the photo was a mistake was when Rosie O’Donnell phoned you and asked whether you had considered how the image might affect the mother of Daniel Pearl, the American Israeli journalist whom terrorists beheaded in 2002. Did you ever call Pearl’s family to apologize?
Oh gosh, no. Number one, the last person they probably want to hear from is an obnoxious comedian. And as much as I love to be an activist in my own way, that would be very much out of my lane. What was interesting about that was having performed for the troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Uzbekistan—all gone. I really do try to walk the line. I’ve come under criticism my whole career because I do an atypical type of stand-up. I do stories more than jokes. Also, I’m a woman, and I’m not an attractive woman. I don’t talk with a baby voice. I don’t have a big studio behind me. I’ve performed at Walter Reed hospital and all this other stuff, and it’s nothing but a win for the person performing. To perform in a war zone for the troops is different. That’s something I struggle with all the time: the Ellens of the world who think I’m classless. Yeah, but you could maybe give me a little credit for performing in war zones. Or not. Okay, I guess not.
In the midst of dealing with the Department of Justice, you were also fired by CNN, and your tour was canceled in every city. As this played out, your sister, Joyce, was in the hospital, battling terminal cancer, a fight she lost in September. How did you comfort her while dealing with your own crises?
You compartmentalize like a motherfucker. Just so everyone knows, Joyce was the focus. I knew if I was going to see my mom or my sister or my brother, that we would talk about my situation for 30 seconds. Then it was pretty much off the table—though my sister would pipe up every so often and be like, “You know, this is bullshit.” And until her dying day, she had a pussy hat on. She was gay, and she was a schoolteacher when you couldn’t be out. So she’s got a great story herself.
That’s one thing I have a lot of practice in. After all these years, there have been many times when I’ve had an eight p.m. show and gotten some bad news in my life at 7:40 p.m. I’ll be crying, and then I flip the switch. During this experience I’ve had to do a lot of flipping the switch. When you’re facing somebody in the hospital with cancer, it’s quite easy to put everything aside. You talk about perspective: Okay, really, my little problem? One thing that made those worlds intersect, which was painful, was that my sister got death threats in the hospital.
What has been the extent of the death threats?
I found out last week that I’m on another kill list. I can’t say the agency, but it’s a federal agency, and they contacted my lawyer and told him there’s a kill list of 40. I’m on it and they want to make me aware. At this point I’m just like, Oh, again?
The fact that this stuff is happening to a comedian? It doesn’t matter if you like me or my comedy; you shouldn’t want this to be happening in your country. These folks don’t play. When I started getting stuff delivered to the house, at first I thought, Okay, you can google where celebrities live, but at least I’m safe. Nobody can get in. But then you get into the category of what to reveal to family members and when. And what do they want to know, and when am I forcing too much on them at a time when they’re dealing with something much more real? At the same time that two federal agencies were investigating me, my lawyer was negotiating the situation with the FBI, which keeps us abreast of what they call “credible threats.” And those are still coming in. But fear is one of those things you just deal with, you know? I know this shouldn’t make me laugh, but I’m now laughing at the most twisted shit, because the situation is so crazy and continues to get crazier. When people come up to me and say, “I’m so glad that whole Trump thing is over,” I have to correct them and say, “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s not.”
In the past year, did you ever find yourself leaning on your Catholic faith?
Oh, no. I’m a fallen Catholic who fell so hard I woke up in Beijing. But many times I would just walk around being like, All right, higher power or whatever you want to be called, if you exist, help. I’m not a religious person—which, by the way, has become anathema. There was a time when you could stand onstage at any comedy club and say, “I’m an atheist. Here are some jokes about it.” Now Americans are so fucking freaked out about that.
In July 1972 Jane Fonda famously visited North Vietnam, where she was photographed with an anti-aircraft gun. That photo, which earned her the nickname Hanoi Jane, sparked outrage across the country, and Fonda still has to apologize for it four decades later. Do you identify with her?
Yes. I reached out to her many times. I would have times during this period when I was up and down. Sometimes I just wanted to focus on something else. I did a ton of writing, and every so often I would shoot out an e-mail. I wrote Fonda, “Where the fuck have you been?” It was so funny. I sent one to Gloria Steinem too. I love Gloria—we’re not besties, but we’re friends and I respect her tremendously. I grew up wanting to be her. I met her when I turned 50 and cold-called her to take her to dinner. It was the greatest 50th birthday I could ever have wanted. I thought, I hope I know Steinem well enough to do this. I just wrote, “Hey, it’s Kathy Griffin. Where the fuck have you been?” She immediately called me back, saying “I’ve been thinking about you,” and blah, blah, blah. She was one of the first people I told, “I need you to say something publicly.” She was like, “I thought you were covered by your comedy friends and your Hollywood friends.”
Why do you think you deserve the support of celebrities when so much of your success has been based on mocking them?
Because those same celebrities know that when the chips are down—and when they have been down—I am absolutely there for them. It was painful when certain people I was happy to take calls from during bad times didn’t feel the same way. And it was harder when I would reach out and say, “I need you,” and some people were just not having it. Most people avoided me. Al Franken literally called me that day and said, “I can’t be associated with you.” And I was hosting two book events for him for nothing. I’ve had fund-raisers for him at this home. I thought I was being nice and being a good Democrat.
Along with O’Donnell and Carrey, Aubrey Plaza, Jimmy Kimmel and Katt Williams are some of the few public people who offered you support or advice. As you’ve said, in addition to celebrity friends, many people on the management side of your career denounced or ignored you. Whose support or abandonment surprised you the most?
Well, obviously Anderson Cooper, because I really thought we were solid. Everybody knows that feeling of “Oh no, not that guy.” I don’t have a funny spin on it, because it’s part of CNN firing me. A lot of people know me only from the CNN New Year’s Eve special. I got my second book deal because of that show. I wouldn’t wish having one’s entire body of work erased overnight on my worst enemy.
Would you be open to mending things with him at this point?
I don’t think it’s me who has to do the mending. That’s how I feel. Remember, this is a guy who let five months pass before he texted me.
So he did finally reach out to you.
Yeah, and it was a bitchy text. He was like, “Well, I guess you’re mad at me,” and, “After I’ve defended you for years.…” That’s another thing: If I hear one more person say “I’ve defended you.” You know what? Clean your own side of the fucking street. “I’ve defended you” implies they’ve had to defend me. It’s such a backhanded compliment. “I’ve defended you.” I wouldn’t say it to my cousin.
I’m chairman of the Time’s Not Up Yet campaign. Time’s Up is a cute slogan, but the new day is not tomorrow.
If she were alive today, what do you think Joan Rivers would have said about all this?
You’re not going to believe this shit—and I’m going to try not to cry—but Joan told me at our final dinner, “Don’t make an enemy of Trump. Don’t ever go up against Donald.” But Joan and I were politically diametrically opposed. She was Republican; I’m a Democrat. Who cares? I loved her and respected her and hung on her every word. And she was as dreamy as you would imagine. If you recall, there was a long time when she was viewed as the most evil bitch in the world—“How can you even like her? She’s mean.” I would talk to Don Rickles about it. Believe it or not, Rickles, until the day he died, said, “Honey, I hate when they call me an insult comic.” I watched how Joan was vilified. Luckily, in the end she got the respect she deserved.
The profiles of many comedians, especially television hosts including Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee, have soared due to their criticism of Trump. Jimmy Fallon, however, has been faulted for not taking a harder stance against the Trump administration on The Tonight Show. Do you hold any bitterness toward comics who have played it safe?
Yeah, I think that’s bullshit. I’m sorry. I think comics who don’t talk about Trump—it’s like the old Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan, you have enough money now; it’s time you have a LeBron moment and do something important. I really think it’s the responsibility of a comedian to push the envelope. On the other hand, I respect all kinds of comics. I’m just saying, in this day and age, it’s different. Chelsea Handler is not a big fan of mine, but I don’t care. It’s not about that. When Chelsea achieves something, it’s a fucking benchmark. I really admire her. You know what she’s doing now? She’s fucking dropped out and doing real activism. She’s going Alyssa Milano style, town to town. And she’s a different person. I loved her on Girls Behaving Badly, and I loved her E! show. And trust me, I wish I would have had the opportunity to get the support of a network and all that other stuff I’ve yet to experience.
On the topic of women supporting women, you’ve said you haven’t felt welcomed by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Why?
I have no issues with #MeToo and Time’s Up. I think they’re both amazing. Keep going. But I have to admit I’m a little bitchy and insulted, because they haven’t really reached out to me or embraced me in any way. Sharon Stone did a great interview on CBS Sunday Morning, I think, where the interviewer asked about #MeToo, and she just laughed. I thought, Yeah, she’s not comfortable. I can tell you I’ve talked to many other actresses of a certain age. You would know their names, and if you start to ask yourself, “I wonder why this person hasn’t come forward?” I think there’s a reason Sharon just laughed. I think she’s still scared. And that used to be unimaginable to me. Prior to this experience happening to me, I would have thought that Sharon Stone was fucking untouchable, that if Sharon Stone wanted to talk shit about any politician of any party, she just could. And I watched it and thought, She can’t. She can’t.
So you don’t think #MeToo and Time’s Up will effect real change for women?
Time’s not up. I’m chairman of the Time’s Not Up Yet campaign. I’m just saying, ladies, gays, people of color—time’s not up. Time’s Up is a cute slogan, but sorry, the new day on the horizon is not tomorrow. I’m trying to manage expectations as someone who has lived through it. And let me be clear: I don’t think this is entertainment-focused at all. When I worked at Polly’s Pies, it happened there. When I worked at a bank, it happened there. It happens everywhere, and it happens more outside the entertainment industry, because there’s no spotlight. But in the middle of #MeToo and Trump and Time’s Up, Tony Robbins is in a fucking stadium [during a March 2018 seminar in San Jose, California], physically pushing a woman, when, I assume, she’s been closely tied to #MeToo and all that that implies. That’s the sort of thing that makes me think our work here is not done. I kind of thought it was funny at the time, but he’s saying that he’s sticking up for his poor CEOs, who can barely hire a gorgeous woman now. And the way he keeps turning to the crowd, like “Am I right?” And then the lemmings are in the middle. I would be on my feet. I would be in jail. I’m not strong, but I’d take him out at the knees.
But many men, such as Matt Lauer and Billy Bush, have lost their careers.
Billy Bush got a nine million-dollar severance package when he had to be fired from Today. Also, he’s a middle-aged white guy. He’ll probably be back and be fine. By the way, Billy Bush did send me a card, and I read it live in the show. I call it accidentally hilarious.
Let’s talk about a different man. Randy Bick, your boyfriend since 2011, is almost two decades younger than you. He’s also your tour manager. What’s different about dating a younger man? One of the reasons Randy and I get along is because, being 18 years my junior, he didn’t grow up in the same sexist environment I did. He didn’t come to the table thinking women weren’t equal. I understand why so many younger people can’t fathom that time, but I’m happy to tell them about it, because we may be on the brink of it again. We also work well together because we have our work relationship and our romantic relationship. He’s a mellow, calm, smart guy, and that’s what I like, because I’m a high-strung motherfucker.
What happens on November 3, 2020? Oprah Winfrey has confirmed that she won’t run, but is she still the Democrats’ best hope, mere months before a strong candidate needs to emerge?
Compared to Trump? Hell yeah. One of my dreams is to have Trump name state capitals. See if he even knows basic state capitals. I’m convinced he doesn’t know where he’s bombing. I’m convinced he knows nothing about the geography of Syria. I don’t think he can name five cities in Syria. He hasn’t been to Afghanistan, Iran or Iraq, which is unbelievable because he’s the most militaristic person ever. Why don’t you go there if you’re so militaristic?
As much as I love to make fun of Oprah, in this environment I don’t see how she wouldn’t come out of it just eviscerated. I fear they would spread so much false information about her, and people would believe it. If the question was whether she could start in five minutes, I’d say absolutely. But it wouldn’t be good for her. Can you imagine the shit they would make up? If Hillary’s killing children in a pizza parlor, imagine what they want to do to Oprah. They freaked out with a black man. A black woman? They’re going to fucking lose their shit. They’re going to start sending missiles to countries they can’t name.
So how does this chapter of your life end? Or is this only the beginning?
I’ve got to take whatever gigs come my way. I’m proud that I’ve built my whole career. I’m my mother’s daughter. My dad was the same way: Be professional. Be on time. Know your material. As a comic, I’ve done more televised specials than anyone. I wanted to be in the Guinness Book of World Records as an inspiration to younger folks. To have that stuff go away overnight.… I don’t know if I can get it back.
One of my dreams is, at this age and at this level, typically most comedians have done one seminal film role. Robin Williams was in Good Will Hunting. Alan Arkin won an Academy Award for Little Miss Sunshine, and he was in Second City prior to that. George Carlin would show up in movies. There’s a real history there. That’s one dream. I’m definitely still hopeful. But do you know what my real dream is? I would love to do a speaking tour.
Like a college speaking tour?
Yes, because I have decades of straight-up experience about a lot of shit. I’m certainly not from a famous family or a wealthy family, but I’m happy to share any and all of it. I’m so grateful when folks share it with me, not just Joan and Don but anybody. Aubrey Plaza’s younger than me, and the stories she shares are so important. When I talk about supporting women and gays, it’s like the women have gotten knocked out. It’s one of the reasons I’m a fan of Suze Orman. She has helped me tremendously with financial advice. She’s never steered me wrong. Her premise is that women have to start talking about money honestly and not lying and acting like they get paid more.
One thing that’s frustrating to me: When are people going to connect the dots, just as citizens? The idea that local small-time newspapers are going away? I want to reach out to people and say, “Please fight for this.” I try to follow as much broad news as possible. People don’t understand how it affects them until it affects them. I feel this is my responsibility. I would love to sit down in schools of any kind with a First Amendment professor or the women’s studies department and talk to them about anything, from my case to previous experiences. Because when I do talk to younger women and tell them about my experiences when I was their age—I think I did my first commercial when I was 17—younger folks in the industry sometimes think I’m making it up.
I’m all for aspiration. I am a capitalist, but you’ve got to put the work in. And you should enjoy doing it. It shouldn’t be “Ugh, I have to work.” It should be “I’m going to find something I like to do, and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.” What I’m benefiting from, and what I’m really enjoying, is the fact that people have stopped this bullshit about staying in your lane. Everyone understands it’s all mixed now. We have a pop culture president. This is something that personally happened to me. It’s historic. It’s unprecedented in the history of the United States. My act has always been about what’s going on, and now I really, really have a story to tell.