Home Arts Kathy Griffin ‘finds the funny’ on new tour

Kathy Griffin ‘finds the funny’ on new tour

Kathy Griffin is not convinced macaroni and cheese is a vegetable, and she said as much during her 2011 Lexington appearance at UK’s Singletary Center after a trip to Ramsey’s for “the veggie plate.” 
The comedian is on the road again with her “Life on the PTSD List” tour and will visit Lexington’s Opera House on Derby Eve, May 3, 2024.
Her new two-hour set weaves around the bullet points of the eponymous diagnosis. She obligingly ticks off, “Pills; a suicide attempt; sobriety; lung cancer; and…” she concludes with a deep breath, “three and a half months ago, I decided to get divorced.”
She clarifies with a laugh, “Don’t worry. It isn’t a how-to. This isn’t going to become the next Tik-Tok cinnamon challenge.”
She doesn’t want to “spoil anything for the audience,” but anyone who comes to the show not knowing what a 5150 is will be fully aware by the time they leave.

Road Warrior

In a recent interview, she was midway through a bruising tour schedule, headed for Austin’s Moontower comedy festival where she’d be following Amy Sedaris at the Paramount the next night. Her Dallas set at the Majestic that same week was interrupted by an audience member’s (literal) show-stopping medical emergency (which turned out to be the result of a harmless overindulgence in edibles and alcohol, and not a stroke, as initially feared).  She then played her hometown of Chicago, where she squeezed in lunch with pioneering attorney Jill Wine-Banks, before taking in an August Wilson play at The Goodman. 
Winding down from all that, she sits for a contemplative live insta in her hotel room, sawing into an uncooperative forest of a caesar salad while she vividly invites fans into the vulnerability and loneliness of her broken heart mid-divorce. She confesses to the digital audience, “my brain is telling my body I’m going to die of loneliness.” 
Her tour manager and her dog wander in and out of the insta frame as she continues to tackle the recalcitrant romaine with knife and fork. 
Just before signing off, she smiles and wraps up with the saving grace assessment of it all — that she’s “never been funnier.”
She admits to having “shaky days” on the road, and has “babysitters” who take designated “shifts” with her on most legs of the tour. Some are celebrities and some are mortals.  
Inspired by a long-running Stevie Nicks habit, she’s now accompanied by one of her four dogs on each leg of the tour — Olivia Benson, Elliot Stabler, Mary, and Maggie. (Mary is along for the Chicago homestand.) 
When she was profiled by the New York Times, only three of the dogs made it into the photo, and the NYT caption read, “Olivia Benson: not pictured.” 
Her voice is  a little higher, and a little more breathy these days.
After surviving a 2021 battle with lung cancer, her vocal cords were injured in a subsequent surgery. She and Jimmy Kimmel initially affectionately dubbed it her “Minnie Mouse voice,” but she’s much improved after last summer’s surgical repair. She pauses to explain the injury when her voice cracks a few times during the lengthy interview, the first of half a dozen press calls rolled for her on a busy Monday morning.

In a comedy tenure that includes four seasons on a 90s sitcom; six seasons of reality TV; two seasons as a talk-show host; early work as an extra in Michael Jackson’s Pepsi video; three lines in Pulp Fiction and two on ER; and more than 20 standup specials, Kathy Griffin was never especially known for political humor prior to 2017. An occasional Bill Clinton joke made it into her act here and there, along with obligatory material about Dick Cheney shooting his buddy in the face — but that was true of nearly every comic working in the 90s. 
According to Neal Brennan, Chris Rock once described her as one of the most influential comedians of the current generation, because before her, nobody actually talked about their celebrity run-ins in such detail. It was a closed club, and she named names.
She was delighted to pierce the veil, and she relished every opportunity to bite the hand that fed her. She made a career of it, always punching up. 
Nikki Glaser, Whitney Cummings, and Melissa McCarthy all credit Griffin as a significant influence, and HBO showrunners have long mined her standup for series like Hacks and cult favoriteThe Comeback (Lisa Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish even wears Kathy Griffin hair; both were Groundlings in the early 90s.) 

For the uninitiated, she explains that the title of the current tour, “My Life on the PTSD List,” is a play on the title of her Bravo series, “My Life on the D List,” which chronicled both her life on the road as a busy comic and her exploits on the self-described D-List, encountering celebrities in situations like the Emmys and Grammys and Oscars. (Louisville’s vice mayor presented her with “the key to the city” in an early episode). Her late parents were the stars of the show — lovable Irish Catholic alcoholics who took occasional onscreen umbrage at her D-List self-deprecation. Mom Maggie described her daughter on camera as “more of a B,” a “solid B.” The two authentic and charming Republican wine-tippers comfortably hazed Ray Romano in the first episode, which aired two decades ago.
Maggie grew up as the youngest of 16 children, and Griffin says today her mother’s childhood would’ve easily provided enough material for a Frank McCourt book. She credits dad John as an early feminist, and her childhood was peppered by a steady TV diet of Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, and Maude.
Kathy is the youngest of five. Sister Joyce and brother Gary both died of cancer. (Her estranged oldest brother Ken remained a largely unrepentant criminal until his death in 2001.)
The suburban Griffin kids were no strangers to mac and cheese as one of the four food groups, and she fondly recalls the cuisine of her childhood in Oak Park, where Hamburger Helper made frequent appearances at the dinner table. “As if hamburger needed a helper,” she laughs. For birthdays, Maggie would make the “stroganoff-flavored Hamburger Helper. That was heaven,” she adds unapologetically, her voice rising a few registers on “heaven.” Cake Soup was a menu staple on her long-running series.
Asked if she’d like the secret to the perfect beef stroganoff, she jokes bluntly, “not unless it’s going to sell tickets. We have eight minutes left.”

Voice Over

The current tour is a return to her roots, in that she credits her parents when she describes her ability to “look for the humor at the darkest moments,” adding that her career “has always been about ‘finding the funny.’”
Her prolonged career sabbatical and exit from the public stage came in 2017 after she released a staged photo attempting satire that badly missed the mark, misjudging the violent polarization of the political climate at the time, as both the right and the left responded to her in surprisingly united hatred.

Although her decades-long brand was to always be in trouble for something (swearing alongside a bemused Anderson Cooper on CNN, for example, and using the phrase “suck it,” in an Emmy acceptance speech), most of her previous flirtations with cancel culture were innocuous enough, leaving no permanent scars. The 2017 uncharacteristic misstep was an odd professional miscalculation, and a strange hill to die on for a comedian known primarily for dishing on celebrity culture (she literally lived next door to Kim and Kanye for a time).
The ensuing international controversy came with job losses, death threats, and a federal investigation. In 2019, she produced the documentary/concert film, Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story, which she self-funded, struggling to find distribution. Reminded of the obvious comparison — just like J. Lo. — she laughs.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” she says, going down the list of circumstances contributing to the PTSD diagnosis, “It was not a great kickoff to 2017.” Having spent subsequent months on a no-fly list and years in court, she says now, “I wasn’t canceled. I was erased.”
Extracting the humor from the dark moment, she laughs, before adding good-naturedly, “please don’t confuse me with that psycho chick from The Mandalorian.
As Nora Ephron’s mother famously put it, “everything is copy,” and seven years later, Griffin is gratefully gathering traction as she claws her way “back to the middle.”

Treatment and recovery occupy the lion’s share of the subject matter on the current tour. She’s blunt, “I was a pill girl,” adding, “Look, it’s no secret I come from a family of addicts. But since I’d never had a drink in my life — and still haven’t — I didn’t think addiction was on the table for me. Who goes to rehab for the first time in their 50s?”
She says, “You usually don’t think of comics when you think of PTSD,” but “for 10 months, I couldn’t stop vomiting.”
Now on the mend and on the road, she has no problem “finding the funny” in the lengths she goes to when it comes to getting healthy. She’s mastered the cat-cow pose in yoga, proudly brandishes the marks she has from ‘cupping,’ and doesn’t even flinch during acupuncture.
Still, she says, “the best medicine is to be on stage,” pausing before adding, “I didn’t think it would take seven years though.”
Longterm, she has compiled enough material for a new memoir and/or a new special —death, drugs, and divorce are the trifecta — but hasn’t inked the deal yet. She’s hopeful, but describes the industry as “still squeamish” when it comes to working with her.
Short term, asked if she’ll be leaving her Lexington set early for Louisville’s Barnstable Brown Derby Eve Gala, she laughs, “it’s adorable you think I get invited to parties.”

Michael Jansen Miller contributed to this story.

Kathy Griffin is scheduled to perform Friday May 3, 2024 at the Lexington Opera House.

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