From the beginning, Kathy Griffin’s comedic appeal has come from her unabashed willingness to say and do pretty much anything. Griffin is snide, flamboyant, cruelly honest but deeply relatable, all qualities that TV executive Jeff Zucker noticed when he saw her stand-up routine at a Los Angeles comedy club in 2003.
Until then, Griffin, the fifth child of Midwestern, Irish Catholic parents, had achieved little more than sidekick status to other celebrities. But if she harnessed her candid, self-deprecating narrative, Zucker thought she could graduate to comedic “leading lady,” he once said in an interview.
Griffin’s success hinged on her ability to balance the qualities that made people both love and loathe her.
“Those who don’t have thick skin will never understand Kathy,” Zucker told the New York Times in 2008. “She does not have a seven-second delay in her head, which is part of Kathy’s charm and also what’s dangerous about her.”
Until this week, the comedian had managed to make a living inciting career-threatening controversy, then artfully flipping it into another cheeky bit.
But her most recent act — a mock photo of a bloodied and beheaded of President Trump — inspired no dismissive jokes, but an uncharacteristically solemn apology.
“I’m a comic,” she said. “I cross the line. I move the line, and then I cross it. I went way too far.”
It’s an extraordinary sentiment from a woman who has ruthlessly mocked celebrities in her stand-up routines and Emmy-winning reality TV show, “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List.” Her snark is meant to emulate her late mentor, notorious fashion critic and comedian Joan Rivers, and has earned her labels as a “professional trash talker” and “relentless publicity seeker.”
What shouldn’t surprise anyone, though, is Griffin’s enthusiasm to pull off this Trump stunt.
According to the photographer who took the gruesome shot, Griffin said she was “not afraid to get political if you want or make a statement if you want.”
“… This was her first thought, ‘Will you bail me out of jail?’” Tyler Shields, the photographer, told Entertainment Weekly before Griffin’s apology.
That brazen attitude accompanied many of the personal and professional spats Griffin has incited with her foul-mouth and propensity for insult.
She has been banned from numerous talk shows and performance venues, censored at award ceremonies and reprimanded by CNN for dropping an f-bomb on live TV while hosting the network’s New Year’s eve countdown with anchor Anderson Cooper.
Griffin breached her contract in 2009 with the f-bomb incident while talking about a 6-year-old boy in the news. (His first name was Falcon; she called him something else beginning with F.)
She was forced to return her paycheck to CNN, but the network still renewed her contract the following year. The deal was not without a stern warning, though: another accidental expletive would get her yanked mid-broadcast, executives said.
But Griffin turned the reprimand into a joke, nicknaming the segment “Yank-watch 2011.”
“If CNN dares to pull me live, I’ll be walking right over to New Year’s Rockin’ Eve to give Dick Clark a lap dance,” she told the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s up to you America.”
Her other CNN New Year’s Eve antics — simulating oral sex on Cooper, saying something unprintable to a heckler, stripping on camera down to a lacy bra in Times Square — never got her fired.
The Trump mock beheading photo, though, was even too much for the network accustomed to Griffin’s absurdities. CNN called the picture “disgusting and offensive” and announced Wednesday it had ended its agreement with her.
The New Year’s Eve segment is just the latest in a growing list of TV shows from which Griffin has been banned: “The View” (for joking about Howard Stern having sex with Barbara Walters), “Today” (for mocking several hosts), the “Late Show with David Letterman” (for swearing too much in the nineties) and possibly the “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
Griffin’s Hollywood path began right after high school, when she convinced her parents to move from their Chicago suburb to Los Angeles and live with her in a two-bedroom apartment while she tried to find work.
Years passed and by 2004, she had studied drama at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, honed her comedy with The Groundlings improv troupe and starred as Brooke Shields’ jokester sidekick in the NBC Sitcom “Suddenly Susan.” Then the show folded, and all her friends — Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow, Chris Parnell — got famous without her.
Griffin had found enough notoriety to be known, but not enough for anybody to really care. True fame seemed far-fetched.
“It dawned on me that that’s the TV show,” Griffin told USA Today. “I’m so D-list I couldn’t even get my agents to the pitch meetings to sell a show about how I was on the D-list.”
“Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List,” premiered in 2005 and ran for six seasons. It took her across the country, where she advocated for the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military with Washington, D.C., insiders and got a public, poolside pap smear in a bikini to raise awareness for cervical cancer prevention.
Her parents, Maggie and John, were regulars. It chronicled her father’s death, her mother’s grief and Griffin’s divorce.
“D-List showed that I’m not this horrible, scary person,” Griffin told USA Today.
She went on to win two Emmy’s for the show, but even her accolades came with controversy.
Griffin hasn’t been a fan of religion since grade school because of nit-picking nuns. So instead of thanking a higher power while accepting her 2007 Emmy, Griffin said this: “Suck it, Jesus. This award is my god now.”
Her comments angered Catholic leaders and were later edited out for the public broadcast.
A few years before that, Griffin was fired from her gig as host of red-carpet coverage for E! Entertainment after she joked that actress Dakota Fanning, then only 10 years old, had entered rehab.
“After the broadcast, people at E! told me Team Fanning was furious,” Griffin said in a New York Times interview in 2008. “To me there’s something hilarious about a 10-year-old girl having that much power. Hilarious to the point where I got fired.”
After Joan Rivers died, her daughter, Melissa, invited Griffin to join their trash-talking red carpet team of fashion critics. But Griffin only lasted a handful of episodes before choosing to step away. She issued a statement about her comedic style not meshing with the show, which incensed Melissa Rivers.
“She kind of s— all over my mother’s legacy in her statement on leaving,” Rivers said.
A long-running feud with Sarah Palin prompted the former Alaskan governor to label Griffin a “bully.” Griffin called Palin’s daughter Bristol “white Precious,” and Palin invited Griffin to come to Alaska and bully her in person.
Griffin later suggested in a tweet that Palin’s targeting of members of Congress (including Giffords) for defeat using a crosshairs symbol was responsible for the shooting of former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.)
Watching the news? Congresswoman in AZ,who is ON Sarah Palin’s crosshairs map was SHOT in the head 2day. Happy now Sarah?
— Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) January 8, 2011
It set the stage for the political war Griffin would later wage against Trump.
In a Billboard interview a year before Trump’s triumph in the 2016 election, Griffin took on the topic of a celebrity in the White House. She admitted that she hoped to inspire one of Trump’s “hate tweets.”
“Like, the littlest things get under his skin and so even though I’m a comic he’s not going to take it in the spirit which it’s intended,” Griffin told Billboard. “He’s kind of like the Amanda Bynes of candidates. Remember when poor Amanda Bynes was sending all those tweets to people saying ‘you’re ugly, you’re ugly’? He’s no different. So do I want him to be president? No, but as a comedian I’d love it.”
After she posted the simulated beheading photo, Griffin got her wish.
“Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself,” President Trump tweeted. “My children, especially my 11 year old son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!”