Last year, Kathy Griffin caved. In the wake of what must have felt like an avalanche of furor over the release of a picture of her holding up a Halloween mask made to look like the severed head of Donald Trump, she apologized repeatedly. Going into it, she knew what she was doing—video footage of her on set after the photo was shot on May 23, 2017, still in the blue pussy bow shirt she wore in the picture, shows her discussing it with its photographer Tyler Shields. “We have to move to Mexico today, ’cause we’re going to go to prison,” she joked to Shields. “Federal prison.”
But it took the public’s reaction to see precisely what she had done. Or at least, that was the narrative of the day—Griffin’s story about this photo would prove so slippery, inconsistent, and opportunistic over the next year to be, well, Trumpian. The compilation above captures many of her public statements on the photo since its release.
In her initial apology, delivered via video hours after the photo hit the internet on May 30, 2017, she literally begged for forgiveness, explaining she had “crossed the line.” Of course she had—it was clearly part of her and Shields’s intention. What transformed a provocative joke to a grave matter was, clearly, the immediate backlash, which Griffin acknowledged in her video apology: “I am just now seeing the reaction of these images.”
A few days later, during a Lisa Bloom-assisted, disastrous press conference, the uselessness of which was immediately apparent and has only been underscored as Griffin has shifted away from its rhetoric, Griffin announced: “That apology absolutely stands. I feel horrible. I have performed in war zones.” It seemed Griffin was flailing to save her career—“I don’t think I will have a career after this,” she said before breaking into passing tears while repeating, “He broke me.”
It appeared that Griffin’s conviction was fickle. She took a strong creative stance with that photo (which, however tasteless it may have been, depicted the rage our miserable president has inspired widely), but when the public responded loudly and negatively, as the public is wont to do at strong stances, she deferred to popular opinion. And then she flip-flopped again.
By the time an overseas tour of over a dozen countries was announced a few months later, late last summer, it was clear that Griffin was not persona non grata on a global level. Her story had changed and so she changed her story. She was no longer sorry, she announced on a variety of talk shows in Australia and New Zealand, where she was scheduled to perform. She supported her turnaround by explaining that the outrage was “complete B.S.” and citing “all the things [Trump] and that administration have done since that photo.”
Granted, the outrage was bullshit. Venues canceled Griffin’s scheduled shows and CNN fired her from her gig co-hosting New Year’s Eve programming. According to Griffin, she also experienced death threats, an interrogation by the Secret Service, a federal investigation that she says cost her hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills, and temporary placement on a no-fly list.
Backpedaling the apology was logical if Griffin were willing to concede that it was crafted as insincere damage control based on negative response. It would then make sense to get fed up when the response clearly outsized Griffin’s offense, a dumb and First Amendment-protected picture, and then retract it. Fuck ’em. But Griffin was not willing to concede that about her previous statements. Quite the contrary, in fact. During a November episode of the BBC’s HARDtalk, Griffin had insisted the apology was sincere “at the moment” and that she hadn’t been motivated by fear for her career.
That month, on the Swedish/Norwegian talk show Skavlan (and then later), it was a call from Rosie O’Donnell that prompted her to apologize. “She said, ‘What if Daniel Pearl’s mother saw?’” recalled Griffin, referring to the Wall Street Journalist who was beheaded in Pakistan in 2002 by men linked to al-Qaeda. “I said, ‘I get it,’ and I apologized,” said Griffin on Skavlan. “Then I started hearing the fervor, and the White House and the Department of Justice, they started blowing this up more and more and I realized I was really just a distraction for the Russia investigation and his other improprieties if you will.” And then she repeated her history of performing in war zones, branding herself a patriot.
But see, that doesn’t track. The resolution there has nothing to do with the premise. It’s not like Daniel Pearl got his head back, or that his family was directly involved in Griffin’s persecution and thus proved themselves ultimately unworthy of apology. Contrition regarding Pearl cannot be undone by Trump. And anyway, wasn’t this initially framed as a reaction to the public’s reaction?
Griffin has made all sorts of claims about her motivation for staying in the game, for not going away when it seemed like the world was telling her to do so. This has regularly involved her framing herself as a hero. To explain why she does what she does, Griffin told a garbled story at that June 2017 press conference about a gay fan who only felt he could be himself at her show. “It’s not for me, it’s for them,” she said through more tears, as if her orphanage of baby gays were facing foreclosure from a ruthlessly greedy local government.
In interviews since that first round in August 2017, she says she’s telling her story because similar persecution could happen to anyone, because she’s out to burn the Trumps once and for all, because she wants to overturn some apparently held notion that a woman is allowed to make one mistake in public before being exiled (the careers of Roseanne Barr, Lena Dunham, and Griffin’s own supposed hero Joan Rivers, though, beg to differ). But her actual narrative has been most consistent in both its gesturing toward and failure to execute conviction. In the meantime, she has invoked #MeToo (as if a picture of her holding the bloodied head of Trump has anything to do with sexual assault and harassment), and after being “I don’t know her”-ed by Andy Cohen, told a story about him offering her cocaine behind the scenes of Watch What Happens Live (as if, after decades in Hollywood, where it’s practically pumped into the tap water, she could still be scandalized by the mere suggestion of coke).
It all seems kind of like a sleight of hand by someone who repeatedly assures you that she’s real while not contending with, well, reality. I get the sense that in her explaining and re-explaining, Griffin’s doing what a comedian does: Reading the crowd and making her best attempt at generating a positive response. Some nights you might have to pivot; some nights you do nothing but pivot.
Perhaps it’s just as well. Though Kathy Griffin’s method seems predicated on the notion of an audience too distracted to follow her logic closely (and thus insults the intelligence of those who actually have done so), it has been effective. It’s not like she should have suffered anything beyond criticism for her audacity, so it seems that Kathy Griffin’s world has corrected itself. She’s appeared on three major U.S. talk shows this week—The View, Late Night with Seth Meyers, and The Wendy Williams Show—and her North American tour is set to stretch well past the summer, including a stop at Carnegie Hall that sold out in less than 24 hours. She’s talked a lot about the photo and its backlash on her press tour, and promises to do more of that during her comedy trek. Life gave Kathy Griffin lemons, and she made lemonade—I just wish she were a little more honest about her recipe.