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There are two distinct sides to Kathy Griffin's career: There's the wacky, redheaded second-banana on Brooke Shields' NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan, and there's the foul-mouthed, hard-hitting comic who belongs to the alternative-comedy clique (dubbed "The Comedy Posse") that includes Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, and the talent behind the brilliant HBO comedy Mr. Show. Griffin recently spoke to The Onion about Suddenly Susan, guest-hosting on Regis & Kathie Lee, her hipster comedy friends, and her work on bad TV shows.
The Onion: How are you doing?
Kathy Griffin: I'm doing great. I just had a meeting with the head of HBO, planning my HBO one-hour special. I'm going to do it on this hiatus [from Suddenly Susan], which will be May, June and July. We're just trying to figure out where we're going to film it, and then exactly when they'll air it. Of course, I want them to turn it over in, like, three weeks, but they've got to get back to me on that. [Laughs.]
O: This will be your second HBO show, right?
KG: Yeah, it's kind of a promotion, though, from a half-hour to an hour.
O: What is it going to be, stand-up?
KG: Well, I don't really have a set act. It's going to be all stand-up, but I never know exactly... When I do stand-up, I change my material almost every single time, so I don't know. But as I get closer to doing the hour, I'll have to work on stuff a little bit more. I like to do a different set every time I do stand-up, because I didn't really go about stand-up the conventional way: I never really went on the road and did the same 20-minute set seven shows a week. I've gone on the road, but I really get to mix it up. Luckily for me, I went about it all ass-backwards, because the more well-known I become, the more I'm able to do stand-up. Luckily, now, when I do stand-up, I get to headline, and audiences are nicer because they might know who I am. And then I can experiment and try different stuff. Stand-up has been really pleasant to me, because I was an actor first, and then went into stand-up, and I would only do [stand-up] in venues that I thought would be friendly. I never really did improv-type stuff that much in the beginning; I did more coffeehouses and theatrical venues—gentler places.
O: Your live act isn't known for being gentle.
KG: No, it's pretty rough-and-tumble. [Laughs.]
O: How does that fit in with a coffeehouse setting?
KG: Well, the coffeehouse audiences never know what they're going to get, and all the comics are different, as opposed to when you go to a club, and they're pretty much all telling jokes with set-ups and punchlines. Coffeehouse audiences are the most forgiving: They really listen, which is the best part. That's all I ask of an audience: Just give me a chance. Put the drink down and listen.
O: There are two distinct elements to your career right now: You come from that sort of alternative-comedy clique, with sort of a rough-and-tumble stand-up act, and on the flipside of that is Suddenly Susan...
KG: The most conventional, middle-of-the-road show ever. [Laughs.]
O: And Regis & Kathie Lee guest-hosting appearances...
KG: Oh, that blew my mind. I thought, "Nobody watches this; it's a free trip to New York." I told them I wouldn't do it unless they gave me another ticket for [my boyfriend], because they called me, and I was, like, "Who watches that?" I called my manager and said, "Look, if you can turn it into a fun trip, I'll do it." And they said, "Kathy, that is not a good negotiating point." But sure enough, that's what happened. So I did the show, and I had more messages on my machine from that than from anything I've ever done. I just met Christopher Guest, and he was like, "Oh, I saw you on Regis." I was like, "You? You watch Regis?" It's just one of those weird things. Who knew?
O: Do you find that you have to sort of reconcile the family-friendly Kathy Griffin—the NBC-Monday-night-line-up Kathy Griffin—with your act?
KG: Well, the beauty of it is that they are both incredibly snobby about each other, so nobody on Suddenly Susan... None of the writers ever see me do anything. They never come to see me do stand-up, and they don't know anything else I've ever done. I was actually just on Seinfeld... They don't know.
O: They don't watch Seinfeld?
KG: No! They don't! They don't have to watch Seinfeld, they work ridiculous hours, they're in their vacuum, and their whole life is Suddenly Susan. And that's great. Luckily for me, I get to go home, and none of my friends watch Suddenly Susan. None of them would be caught dead admitting that they know who the Friends are. So for me, I can say anything in my act, and do my pussy jokes, and nobody from NBC or Suddenly Susan even hears about it. It's great. The only person who ever heard about it was Jerry Seinfeld, who saw my special when everyone said he wouldn't, and ended up writing me a part on his show based on that. That was great.
O: He doesn't watch Suddenly Susan, does he?
KG: No. I was trying to pin him down, and he kept saying stuff like, "Okay, what's different about your show from this show? Number one, script." And then I go, "You've never even seen our show, right?" And he's like, "No, you're very good." "Okay, what was your favorite episode?" And he goes, "Um... The one where you have the job interview?" "No, I have a job on the show." "The one where the photographer tries to get a date?" "That's every week." So I decided that the extent of Jerry's experience with Suddenly Susan is watching a Suddenly Susan commercial during Seinfeld. That's probably what he's seen. It's amazing: There's no crossover in my life, which is really great.
O: Do you have a non-defamation clause in your contract that says you can't say anything bad about Suddenly Susan?
KG: No, but I've certainly gotten in trouble many times. [Laughs.] Because my threshold for distaste is way higher than Brooke Shields', as you can imagine. She's, like, the sweetest person in the world, and I used to do this thing in my act where I'd say, "You know, I can get you a hand job from Brooke Shields." You know, just saying hideous things. And, of course, finally it gets back to her, and she's like, [imitating Brooke Shields] "Um, I'm uncomfortable..." You know, in her really sweet way, telling you to keep your mouth shut. So, being on the show has sort of stopped being in my act; it's not the same as when I first got on the show and that was all I was talking about. I just sort of moved on, so I don't really refer to being on the show all that often, unless something really funny happened at work that week. I don't think it's that interesting to people: "Here's my life as a sidekick."
O: Can you be honest with me and tell me: What do you think of the show?
KG: Mmmm... I think it is the greatest job in the world. It is a dream job. It's an extremely nice group; they're really, really great. And I think they write the best lines for me. I think I have the best part. You know. I think it's a... You know. I think it's a good show. I think it's a solid show.
O: Are you proud of it? Is it something you want to be known for?
KG: Yeah. Actually, yeah. You know what I mean? It's a respectable show. I prefer being known for my stand-up because I write it. I love being an actor, and saying other people's words is great. But then, when I do stand-up, I love getting my own point of view out there. It's my own material. But I guarantee you, when I was doing nothing but stand-up and wasn't getting any acting work, I hated it. I started as an actor, and I was like, "I want to act. I want to act." It's pretty dreamy right now.
O: It seems like the projects you've done in addition to Suddenly Susan have been relatively strong.
KG: Yeah, I've been really lucky that way, because those are my friends [who do those projects], and that's my other life, and I kind of like it being separate. I tried to integrate my Suddenly Susan friends with my comedy friends, and they don't mix.
O: I like the fact that Suddenly Susan and "comedy" don't mix.
KG: [Laughs.] I think of there being the Comedy Posse and the Suddenly Susan Posse. But being around my obnoxious comedy friends... I really love that, and my Suddenly Susan friends are more like, "Well, your friends are on all the time." I'm just a nerd who loves that. I'm never happier than when I'm at the back of a comedy club, and I've already done my set, and I'm watching everybody else. I've never been one of those comics who just does a set and leaves. So much of the fun is watching my friends: They're really my friends, and I really find them genuinely funny. That is kind of the good part of the clique-ishness: We all do stand-up almost exclusively with each other. And all the comics I admire change their material a lot, so it's not like, "Oh, I have to watch Dana Gould do the same boring set again. Dana went up last night and fucking blew the roof off the place, and most of it was new. It's just a joy, and with my Suddenly Susan friends, I don't think they get why I love that stuff so much. They're like, "Okay, we've been here two hours, let's go, it's smoky." And I'm like, "But wait, there's more nerd comics I want to listen to!"
O: A lot of people in that Comedy Posse have their own shows, and some of those, like Mr. Show, are extremely acclaimed. Do you get lip from them about the show that you're on?
KG: Oh, yeah. They're always so full-of-shit and snobby. But the thing that's such bullshit is that those guys will give me shit for being on a really middle-of-the-road sitcom, and then they'll do a guest spot on another one. That's kind of bullshit, but even if [my friends] don't like the show, they'll say things like, "You really deserve this," or "You've worked harder at this than anyone I know," or "God, you were in the Groundlings [an L.A.-based improv-theater group] for so long, and it finally paid off." Even the most cynical comic is like... Ben Stiller said this quote about me that I thought was so nice: He goes, "I think it's really cool that Kathy Griffin is on TV every week, reaching a lot of people." And in a way, it's a good step for our cause, you know what I mean? Of course, the beauty for me is that I can do Suddenly Susan, and then, because of that, I can do cool stuff on Comedy Central and HBO. I love that stuff. I go to the tapings of Mr. Show all the time, and they [stars Bob Odenkirk and David Cross] would never come to a taping of Suddenly Susan in a million years.
O: Most everyone in that Comedy Posse—people like Ben Stiller, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross—has experience writing and/or performing in failed sketch-comedy shows. Give me your worst horror story about [Roseanne's short-lived] Saturday Night Special.
KG: Oh, God. I mean, the... The horror stories are more that it was a bad show. But the irony is that it was a huge amount of fun to be on. That's one of those things... People give me shit, like, they think Suddenly Susan sucks, but I'm like, "Fuck you, this is a great job." I go to work for 60 hours a week, and David Strickland, one of the guys on the show, makes me laugh all day long. He's super, super funny, and I'm pretty friendly with Brooke Shields, so it was like, "Oh, I have a new girlfriend." You know what I mean? There's no downside. With Saturday Night Special, you know, I don't have much bad to say about it, because no matter how bad the show blew, you'd get to see Roseanne pitchin' a fit, which I love, or there'd be something great going on. I guess probably the only downside would be the table-read every week, when people would be reading the sucky sketches and then laughing too loud. That's kind of a drag when you're sitting there, like, "What are you listening to?"
O: We once did an interview with Bob Smith, who was one of the writers on that show...
KG: Oh, yeah! He's a nice guy.
O: He was saying that the problem with that show was that people were too receptive to ideas that didn't work; that it was almost too supportive an environment.
KG: Yeah, to me, that is the earmark of every bad show I've ever been on. I've done a lot of guest spots on a lot of incredibly sucky shows, and you sit there, and they're roaring at the table-read. I always want to slap them and go, "Shame on you! Shame on you for having such low standards that you think this is as funny as it gets." But there you go. That's why I don't run the world.