Kathy Griffin Reveals a Lifetime of Unequal Pay as a Female Comedian

Kathy Griffin AARP Awards
Michael Buckner/Getty Images

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.

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  1. oh boo hoo – my name is kathy griffin and i could only affrod a 10,000,000.oo home in BEL AIR.

    entitled white woman! shut up.

  2. Judy Johnsen says:

    Ginger Rogers said the same thing in her book.She needed a powerful advocate to help her get her raise, (Hermes Pan, a producer) to help her get her raise. The business was tough then. It is not much better now, sad to say.

  3. Anonymous says:

    As a woman I appreciate what Kathy is saying. However, as a woman, I don’t think she is funny anymore – she used to be funny but for the last several years her style comes across in my opinion as rude and whining – which isn’t funny. Her message here would have been better received if it was funny but it seems like whining. Amy ShumER and Joan Rivers are very funny. Sorry Kathy!

  4. Leo Sigh says:

    She is absolutely correct. Women in America do not get paid equal salaries to their male counterparts in any job. Never have, and it’s looking like they never will. And oddly, most American women seem to be fine with being treated as second class citizens. I wasn’t. So I left.

    And as for the comments on here, most are from men who a) say she’s not funny — well, men who aren’t that intelligent are usually threatened by women who are, so I understand where they are coming from. Besides, she is hilariously funny and b) I’d like to see what they would say if they suddenly found out they were making a massively reduced salary compared to the women doing the same job as them.

    All of a sudden pay inequality would be a ‘real issue’. Honestly, the idiocy of some of these commentators is hard to bear.

  5. Sorry Kathy. But you are NOT funny. Never were, never will be. About par with Andy Dick. Lots of funny women comedians out there deserving equal pay but your complaint is like someone with a C average asking for a scholarship to Harvard. Sorry. You may be working hard but not hard enough.

  6. Tom says:

    To compare: I gave Joan Rivers delivery a ‘9’ and her material a ‘9’. I give Kathy’s delivery a ‘9’ as well but her material 4-5. Always waiting for a killer punchline but more often than not peters out and you’re left wanting. I’m confident she was hurt plenty in her career, but if she had the leverage – she or her rep just didn’t know how to employ it and it had nothing to do with her sex.

  7. Ken says:

    Curious: which one’s the “gay guy” you’re griping about, Ms. Griffin? Dish.

  8. 85wzen says:

    Well come on, this dumb bitch isn’t actually worth it, she’s not a big player anyway… angie is worth big money and not because she married pitt but because she is more talented than most women. The truth is that most women, like most men just aren’t worth the big dollars. Now you know!

  9. Broke Shields says:

    Internet has her net worth estimated between $15-$20 million. STFU Kathy.

  10. Rick says:

    All the comments on here that say Kathy Griffin isn’t funny are from men…I’ll bet they all think they’re great at THEIR jobs too. Kathy Griffin is VERY funny, and she’s a smart cookie. Forge on, Ms. Griffin!

  11. Aga says:

    The reason you are not getting paid equally is cause you are not as equally funny.

  12. shaun Eli says:

    Nowhere in this article is mention of an agent. Isn’t it their job to make sure you get as much as possible?

    • Lisa says:

      To a point. Somewhat like real estate, their are comps. So if female talent is paid less across the board, it’s hard to negotiate a rate that’s higher than comparable female talent. A good exception to all of this was the cast of Friends who ultimately all received the same pay per episode.

  13. Nancy Membrez says:

    Don’t listen to the naysayers, Kathy. Your awards speak for you. You are indeed one of the funniest comedians out there. Never doubt that. Your fans have your back. Obviously there is a pay hierarchy but to deny you a raise when you deserve it, is stingy at best and discriminatory at worst. I wish you every success and look forward to seeing your next show and/or the New Year’s ringing in with you and the Silver Fox. I expect to laugh myself silly.

  14. Lynn Shepodd says:

    It is tempting to beat up the messenger, but not that great for pay disparities in all industries. Pay and talent don’t always equate, by the by.

  15. Lisa says:

    Why is it that if a female celebrity complains about her salary men say ‘Well, she’s not funny enough or she’s a crap actress’? Wth?! It’s so subjective. And if you’re going to get objective about it, she’s still co-hosting the New Years Special, so she can’t be THAT boring! I can name many male comedians who aren’t funny. Still, I bet people would argue with me that every single male comedian is the cat’s freaken’ meow just because they’re men. And for some unknown mystical reason men are ‘just funnier’. Pffft

    • Nanny Mo says:

      But, she’s really not that funny and her agent should have pushed to get her more money. It’s not societies job and frankly as poor as most of us are, we don’t feel bad that she’s 1 million dollars poorer than some guy she hates and is funnier.

  16. john says:

    Jennifer Lawrence has literally shown how powerful one voice can be!

  17. You mean she didn’t have to pay a fee to appear?! I’d consider her way too lucky just to be in the others’ same breath.

  18. What is disparaging……is that this no talent hack got paid at all.

  19. Dennis Burton says:

    Hate to break it to you, but all the above mentioned male comedians are still funnier than you. TV makes the perfect battleground for equal pay. If you’re the “star” you get the big bucks. But if you’re down the line in the pecking order, you should get a check equal to your role/place/draw within the show be it a sit-com, drama, “live show” host; not just because you are listed at a certain point in the credits. I’m all for equal pay based on the the contributions of actors. Maybe there should be a set scale for time on the screen. You do a three minute walk-on in a supporting role, you get $3,000 per. You’re the star and main draw, you get $10,000 per minute for the 15 minutes of the 22 minute show you were on the screen. Kind of like the “no haggle” car buying. Here’s your check, man or woman.

  20. Eddy says:

    I would assume the highest paid cast member of “Suddenly Susan” was a female — therefore your argument is invalid. If you adjust the numbers for talent and audience draw, she may end up owing money.

  21. lindsey says:

    “If the guys make more, I guarantee you they are told to shut up and not tell the girls.” There’s no club, at least not a club with rules. People don’t talk about their salaries because it’s considered gauche, but that has to change to close the wage gap. Also don’t feel too bad for Kathy – I’m sure she’s still got a big house and a pile of money.

    • Lisa says:

      Oh Lindsey, you are so naive.

      • Lisa says:

        Also worth noting that these women often *make more* than the men they work(ed) with:

      • lindsey says:

        Also worth noting that these women often than the men they work(ed) with: Chelsea Handler, Mindy Kaling, Whitney Cummings, Lena Dunham, Ellen, Oprah, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, the hosts of the View, Melissa Benoist, Jane Lynch, Brooke Shields, Melissa McCarthy, Allison Janney, Julia Dreyfus, Rachel Bloom, and plenty more. #1 on the call sheet gets the biggest bucks.

      • lindsey says:

        My bad. I just googled the Illuminati handbook and right there, rule 42. Never disclose how much money you make, especially to a woman.

  22. Buckaroo Lennox says:

    She didn’t get paid what she wanted because she’s a terrible comedian. It’s a merit thing.

  23. Nate says:

    What a crybaby. Yikes.

  24. merr says:

    Kathy Griffin, telling it like it is. Great article–shedding sime real light on Hollywood.

  25. Goodbyenoway says:

    Lol. She gets paid less because she’s not funny.

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