What was Kathy Griffin thinking when she posed for a portrait holding what looked like the severed head of Donald Trump? That’s the question the comedian’s fans most want to hear answered in her self-produced feature, “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story,” which is her courageous attempt to soldier on after her career got “Dixie Chicked” by the scandal. But unlike the country band, who suffered blowback after Natalie Maines announced, “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas,” Griffin got heat from not just “Make American Great Again” supporters — whom she dubs “Maggots” — but the government itself.
Still, picking a fight with an insult comic is never a good idea. When Trump personally came after her on Twitter, he may have made Griffin’s life difficult, but he was also giving her material for which any stand-up would gladly go to Guantanamo. And though many whom she considered friends (including New Year’s Eve co-host Anderson Cooper and celeb turned senator Al Franken) distanced themselves publicly, instead of destroying Griffin’s morale entirely, the experience actually made her a better comedian. If Griffin seemed outrageous and seemingly unfiltered before, now she had reason to go on the offensive, drawing directly from what happened to her.
Prior to the controversy, Griffin was a self-described “D-list” celebrity with a predominantly gay following, whose shtick centered largely on skewering Hollywood and fame-seeking bottom-feeders. In that category, Trump was certainly fair game. Her act was often autobiographical; apart from her outspoken support of feminist and “LGBTQA2345” causes, and hosting gigs on behalf of her favorite Democratic candidates, she was seldom political. The Trump photo changed all that.
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Virtually overnight, Griffin saw her stand-up career implode as the belligerent bully-in-chief mobilized his apparatus — what she calls the “Trump woodchipper” — to silence her. Before she knew it, the suddenly blacklisted comic was being investigated by the Secret Service and threatened with charges of conspiracy to assassinate the president. She lawyered up and tried to recover as she knows best, opting to stage her comeback — both literally and figuratively — via a round-the-world comedy tour, which serves as the documentary portion of this film.
Despite being put on the terrorist No Fly List for three months and detained at nearly every airport she visited thereafter, Griffin kept working, incorporating the humiliation of what was happening to her into her act. By the time the overseas shows were done, she was ready to tell her story stateside, and the doc — technically, more of a tightly edited 80-minute stand-up movie, set up by about 25 minutes of candid, behind-the-scenes footage — reflects the final night of the ensuing U.S. run, recorded at Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center nearly 17 months after the controversial photos were taken on May 30, 2017.
Now, had Griffin been approached by Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, the way the Dixie Chicks were, maybe we’d get a more objective — or slightly less self-serving — documentary, à la “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing.” Instead, Griffin took matters into her own hands, hiring “Arrested Development” director Troy Miller. With 23 stand-up specials to her credit, she did what she knows how to do, and that’s to make comedy of the situation. If humor is tragedy plus time, as Mark Twain observed, then “A Hell of a Story” didn’t waste much of the stuff before spinning it for maximum hilarity. Or to quote Jim Carrey (who, according to Griffin’s monologue, was one of the few to offer her support), “You’re going to take as long … as you need to process it, and you’re going to put it through your Kathy Griffin comedy prism, and you’re going to make the story funny and relatable, and you’re going to go tell it.”
And that’s exactly what she did. With nothing left to lose — at least, that’s the attitude she adopts, although it clearly could have gone far worse for her — Griffin unleashes whatever restraint she may have shown in the past to deliver “a night of sh— talking and scalding hot tea.” How does she really feel about Anderson Cooper’s betrayal? She had the newscaster’s back when he was still in the closet, and calls him out for abandoning his “f— hag.” Why did she make the apology video? Out of respect for those who had actually been beheaded, and in response to a tweet from Trump that his young son Barron was traumatized by the image.
Looking back, she rechristens the first family “Eddie Munster” (Donald Trump Jr.), “Feckless” (Ivanka) and “Date Rape” (Eric), before eviscerating several prominent Trump allies, like “gay Republican and full-on Trump-supporting ‘Maggot’ Harvey Levin,” whose site TMZ leaked the photo in the first place. Although such scathing repartee is consistent with Griffin’s celebrity-roasting past routines, here she’s doing more than just name-calling. Listening to Griffin let ’em have it is like taking the lavender pill and finally being able to see through the Gay Matrix. She may not have been a political comic before, but now, in the punchy, caustically cynical terms with which she once love-hated Hollywood, the justifiably indignant comic reveals how the system runs and the strings are pulled.
Of course, she wasn’t the first or only celebrity to skewer this president, but what happened to her was “unprecedented” — or as Trump has been known to spell it, “unpresidented.” If he intended to make an example of her, instead of being chastened, Griffin turned the tables, positioning herself as the unbreakable poster girl for First Amendment rights. So what was she thinking when she made that photo? It was the last setup of a long portrait session, and intended to get a laugh. The whole idea, of holding up a Trump mask smeared in fake blood, was to parody the president’s own faux pas, to depict America’s boss with “blood coming out of [his] eyes … blood coming out of [his] wherever.” Was it funny? Not really, but at least she has learned to laugh at her mistake, while the genius that is her “Kathy Griffin comedy filter” allows us to do the same.