As part of this week’s cover story on income disparity for women in Hollywood, Kathy Griffin revealed how she’s fought to receive equal pay as a female comedian. Her struggles began on 1997’s NBC sitcom “Suddenly Susan,” where she learned that she was the second-lowest paid member of the cast, and continued through co-hosting “CNN’s New Year’s Eve” with Anderson Cooper, where she intends on asking for a raise this year. Griffin talked to Variety about her experiences going head-to-head with male executives (armed with two Emmys as proof of her worth) and what women can do to demand more.
Kathy Griffin: I was recently thrilled and honored to be one of the presenters of the Mark Twain Prize to the great Eddie Murphy. I also was the only girl there. Let me just say, in the field of stand-up comedy, it’s like being a f–king welder. I do a ton of interviews. I still have so many people say, “There’s no more disparity in income anymore. That’s all over with Amy Schumer, right?” I was surrounded by Chris Rock (makes more money than me), Dave Chappelle (makes more money than me) and George Lopez (makes more money than me). So if you want to know what I’m faced with, I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t in a situation where my male counterparts didn’t make more money than I did.
I’m someone who has been very open about asking for raises and trying to get equal pay. You’re just simply told, “No.” It’s brutal. I guess I became aware of it on my first paid job. When I was on a sitcom in the ’90s, “Suddenly Susan,” I made the second-lowest salary on the cast. Judd Nelson, who I liked, made four times what I made, and he ended up getting fired. And I went on to get two Emmys, a Grammy, three television shows with my name in the title and a New York Times best-seller.
If you’re a woman and you think your agency is going to have your back, think again. I’ve never been in a situation where I had a Lorne Michaels or a Judd Apatow have my back. Or a studio. Or a network. I’ve been doing this s–t on my own forever. And I’m 55. I’ve never been paid what the guys get. No, it’s not getting better for me. It might be getting better for Jennifer Lawrence. But I’m not 25 and a movie star.
I didn’t start making more than $20,000 a year until I was 36. I was the definition of a late bloomer. I come from a very middle-class family. My mom worked part time at a hospital in the administrative office for 20 years while she had five kids. It wasn’t like today, when people switch jobs every three years, and the millennials want more vacation time. That’s not how I was raised. But the reason I’m so outspoken about it, before I finally started getting paid to be funny, I was literally a temp. I know for a fact I was making less than the guy next to me in the cubicle.
And yet, I was going to Lee Strasberg acting classes and taking any job I could get. I worked my ass off, and I’m a big student of my pal Suze Orman, who fully believes women should be honest about what they are making. I think it’s part of the male industrial complex to keep women quiet about what their salaries are. If the guys make more, I guarantee you they are told to shut up and not tell the girls.
On “Suddenly Susan,” I went door-to-door and asked. I was very curious because I had a good experience on that show. I got good reviews. I started doing a lot more stand-up. I did a HBO special and a lot of Comedy Central specials, and guest spots on “Seinfeld.” I didn’t get a raise after season one, two or three. But after three years, I said, “In all fairness, I think I should make equal pay.” I went to the head of Warner Bros. TV. I’m not kidding. I went to Peter Roth’s office myself. I said, “Look, I’ve been on the show for three years. You’ve got to give me some kind of raise.” It was an all-out brawl. I wrote down a number on a napkin, because I was making a joke about how it was like a car sale. I got a raise. I still didn’t make equal pay to what the guys were making.
When you’re me, this isn’t a comedy situation. But I still have to do it with a wink and my tongue in my cheek. If I go there as a ballsy chick, it turns guys off. Because they are not used to a self-starting woman like myself who truly came from working as a temp in Forest Park, Ill. I try to do things that they really can’t argue with. If I’m trying to get equal pay, I take my f–king awards and accomplishments, and I bring them to the table.
When I was on “My Life on the D List,” I took my Emmys with me to a meeting with NBC’s co-chairman Ben Silverman. I said, “I have these. Can I have a raise now?” I think the answer was either a very tiny one or no. But let me tell you, there’s no backend deal on “The D List.” I’ve never gotten a parachute or a severance in my life. I’ve been fired more than I’ve been hired. I’ve been hired, and I’ve been cancelled on. I’ve had great success and then they’ve come to an end, and I’ve had to think of my own next project.
I like to think I’m a big part of CNN’s “New Years Eve with Anderson and Kathy.” It’s never been done where a cable news channel takes their gorgeous, wildly successful anchor and pairs him with a comedian. That started with a guest spot. The next year, Anderson said, “Can you stay around?” And then I approached them and said, “I think you should make an event out of this.” Do you think I make what Anderson makes? I mean, give me a break — of course not. I’ll try to get a little more money this year. I might. But I might not.
The way I combat this is: I’m all about volume. I’m doing 80 cities of stand-up comedy this year on my “Like a Boss” tour. I write my own material. I don’t have a team. I’m very aware there hasn’t been a female on network late-night since Joan Rivers in 1987. All those network executives can say they believe in equality all they want. Look at your fucking DVR. There’s an African American man, there’s the gay guy, there’s a bunch of white guys.
It’s a struggle. For me, I love what I do. Luckily, I have a work ethic that’s bordering on unhealthy. Nobody is scared of me. I have no leverage. I just keep grinding away and working my ass off one laugh at a time. I have no fear talking about this because I’m beholden to no one but the audience. I don’t have to tow the line. It’s real. I’m living with it every day, babe.