I had a bunch of questions ready for my recent interview with Kathy Griffin. Preparing to speak with the Grammy- and Emmy-winning comedian, actress, author and talk-show host, I researched the ins and outs of her career. I dug into her early days with the Groundlings improv theater in Los Angeles, her career-breaking stint on the NBC sitcom "Suddenly Susan," her time hosting the Bravo reality series "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List" and her often outrageous appearances with finely coiffed CNN anchor Anderson Cooper on their New Year's Eve TV specials. I wanted to talk to her about her LGBT activism and, of course, about our experiences as kindred ginger souls.
Griffin had other ideas.
The comedian, who appears at the Flynn MainStage in Burlington this Friday, October 30, began our 20-minute phone conversation by grilling me on recent articles I'd written. It seems she does her homework, too. From there, the conversation took all sorts of twists and turns, and I essentially threw out my notes in an attempt to keep up with her manic pace.
In a way, the interview was a reflection of Griffin's live act. Schooled in improv, she prides herself on making each of her shows unique. Just as the dignified Cooper can never be sure what might come out of his cohost's mouth on NYE, audiences at a Griffin standup show can expect only the unexpected. As I learned, that goes for journalists, too.
Take it away, Kathy.
SEVEN DAYS: Hello, Kathy Griffin!
KATHY GRIFFIN: Hey there, Dan. I googled you, and I love that I'm speaking to a fellow ginger.
SD: [Laughs] I'm glad you mentioned that, because being a fellow redhead was my first line of questioning.
KG: First, let me say that I also love that you're a real journalist.
SD: I don't know if I'd go that far...
KG: Let me tell you this: I did this interview a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I was really funny. But the interviewer emailed my publicist and was like, "These are the four questions I was supposed to ask her." Do you want to know what the questions were, 'cause you're an actual journalist, which makes me giddy?
SD: Yes, I do.
KG: The questions were: "When did you know you were funny?" Like, really?
SD: Oh, no...
KG: And then: "What comedians influenced you?" Like, why don't I just send you a printout? But I do have a question for you. Based on your Bernie Sanders piece, are you pro-Bernie? Do you feel it's your Vermont duty? Are you open to Hillary? Are you excited about President pro-temps Trump?
SD: That's an interesting question. If I don't say I'm pro-Bernie, I'd probably get run out of Vermont.
KG: In the same vein, as a woman, and a woman in a male-dominated field like standup comedy, I also would be run out of town if I'm not pro-Hillary. So I am hashtag ReadyForHillary.
SD: Right. I think I'm most excited for the debate season.
KG: Hosted by my boyfriend, Anderson Cooper!
SD: Speaking of that, I had a friend at his birthday party last week. Were you there?
KG: I'm sure he invited Madonna and not me. I've been texting him, like, Way to dump me for Madonna, you shallow Hollywood sellout! Ninety-nine percent of my texts to him are evil, like Dear fucker who dumped me for Madonna. I'm on to you. Then there's an awkward pause and he writes back, LOL. It's like he's slowly dying inside because he's not sure if I'm kidding.
SD: Well, you're probably not the first woman to be dumped for Madonna.
KG: And she's probably one of the only women I'd allow myself to be dumped for. Anderson was probably giving Madonna a lap dance while I was at home in my pajamas crying and looking at his early catalog modeling.
SD: [Laughs] Aw, that's so sad.
KG: Whatever. His mom [Gloria Vanderbilt] is so much cooler than he is.
KG: Oh, yeah. One of my favorite things to torture him with is reminding him that he'll never be as much fun as his 90-year-old mother. He does that thing where he runs his hands through his perfect gray-fox hair and goes, "I know." Tell Madonna that, once she meets your mom, it's over! It's a very mature exchange we have. Hey, do you have any real questions?
SD: Kind of! Here's one: Are you a natural redhead?
KG: Does the carpet match the drapes? Yes. And the crown molding.
SD: I'm not even sure what that means. I ask because I get asked that all the time. And I feel like there's this weird interest in redheads lately.
KG: Here's what happens when you try to oppress a people. And I'm gonna go ahead and put redheads in with all oppressed groups...
SD: Oh, Jesus...
KG: I actually think that the "war on gingers" — which was, of course, a joke on "South Park" — I think people feel a little bad for us now. I've had people be like, "Are you OK with the war on gingers?" I'm like, "Yeah, I'm good."
SD: Have you heard Tim Minchin's song "Prejudice"?
KG: Is there a song about prejudice against gingers?
SD: Oh, yeah. It starts out as this moody piano thing, and he's talking about this terrible word that carries so much hurt.
KG: And you think it's the N-word?
SD: Yup. But it's ginger.
KG: There could be a Selma-style march with you, me, Ann-Margret...
SD: This is really going to a dangerous place right now...
KG: Back to me and my fame and my tour!
SD: Right. So in a recent interview with National Public Radio, you said that you do two new hours for every show. That doesn't seem possible.
KG: Oh, really, Dan? Are you assailing my genius?
SD: [Laughs] Well, I was just thinking about how a couple of years ago everybody made a big deal about Louis CK writing a new hour every year.
KG: Oh, wow. A new hour every year! That really knocks my socks off.
SD: [Laughs] So you really do two new hours every show?
KG: I have an improvisational background, so it's innate. I came up through the Groundlings improv group, and I even taught there. I was in the Groundlings with so many giants that you fucking had to be good. I was in the Groundlings with the late, great Phil Hartman for a short time. I was in it with Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri, Jon Lovitz, Molly Shannon. Those were my contemporaries.
SD: So you learned improv before standup.
KG: I did it, as my mother would say, ass-backwards. I was in the main company, and it was very competitive. We had four shows every weekend, so I'm used to working nights and live performing, and I loved it. I've never really done jokes. It's more stories with jokes in them. Sarah Silverman called me a raconteur, which I love.
Anyway, I was doing the Friday late show at Groundlings, which is an experimental show. And I had a director come up and tell me, "We're running late. Just go up and talk." So that was the first time I really did standup. Then every week I would open the show with a funny story that happened to me. So that's how I got in the habit of making each show different. I didn't want to hone, like, a perfect five- or 10-minute chunk. It was an improv thing, because it was unacceptable to do the same thing twice. And I found that I was way better at that than being a sketch artist.
So Lisa Kudrow came up to me one night and said, "I think you're really good in the Groundlings." And I was like, "Where is this going, Lisa?" And she said, "But I think you're way funnier as yourself." And that was really encouraging to me.
SD: So Phoebe from "Friends" is the reason you started doing standup?
KG: Sort of. Then I hooked up with some other fledgling comedians named Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho, and we put on these shows in theaters. And because we were so desperate to be seen, we would charge a dollar. And the hook was that every week it would be a whole new show. So I've only known the kind of standup that is different every night.
SD: Still, there must be some overlap in the stories.
KG: I'm doing 80 cities on this tour. So, no, I don't mean that I'm doing a new two hours. It just means that every night there will be some new stuff, and each show will be different.
When I did my Broadway show, Kathy Griffin Wants a Tony — it was very subtle — one of the things that I had fun doing was challenging myself to do at least a new 15 minutes. And I don't have an opener, because I can't shut up, as you can probably tell from this interview.
SD: That makes it way easier on my end, actually.
KG: [Laughs] The other thing is that someone like Louis, his act is way more polished. I do so much touring that I have to come up with new material all the time. I've done 23 standup comedy specials. I'm in the fucking Guinness Book of World Records more than any of those boys. I've had years when I did four specials for television. So when you have to do a new hour every three months, you get in the habit of switching up the material. And I love it. And this year, with the political landscape, it is beyond an embarrassment of riches.
SD: The whole thing does seem like a real-life "Saturday Night Live" sketch.
KG: I call him president-elect Trump. Because the very notion of the Donald, while funny, is mostly horrifying. And the idea that I have female friends who think they're being feminists because they think Carly Fiorina really knows how to stick it to the boys, until I remind them that the day she let 30,000 people go from Hewlett-Packard and ruined 30,000 lives, she also took her $42 million parachute. Maybe she's not the feminist hero we thought. So there's that. And on top of that, I have to keep track of the Duggars and the Kardashians.
SD: That alone is a full-time job.
KG: I'd like a little credit. I was on to the Duggars when they were 13 and counting. So don't start with me, Louis CK. Now that there's 19, I'm still on their ass. And I'm afraid to use the expression "on their ass," considering what we now know.
SD: Aaaand that's my time.
KG: What I have to tell you is that what I'm looking forward to about Vermont is that it's a smart state. They read the paper, and they're up on everything. When you're doing 80 cities, you have to adapt for each place. And I think I'll know the tenor in Burlington. But you guys will let me know within the first minute. And I will be on my phone up until the show starts, making sure that people I was going to talk shit about are not dead. Because that's happened. I start doing a show, and by 10 o'clock the person is dead. I live on the edge, Dan!
The original print version of this article was headlined "Red Herring"