Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story (2019) – Movie Review

Kathy Griffin in A Hell of a Story

Let’s do something different today. Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story is nominally a feature film, although it would be more specific to say that it’s a short-form documentary attached to a stand-up special. It is also -we can’t say we weren’t warned- a hell of a story.

If you’re familiar with Kathy Griffin, then you knew her as a prolific stand-up comedian, whose trademark style of telling personal stories and celebrity gossip at breakneck speed differs from the setup/punchline style of other comics. I discovered her via YouTube videos in 2007, when I foolishly thought my command of English was solid, and marvelled at her digressing tales of proudly D-list experiences that I had to listen to three or four times to fully comprehend.

If you aren’t familiar with Kathy Griffin, then you may know of her as the woman in the blue dress who caused an enormous controversy in the United States by taking a picture holding up a fake severed Trump head.

We see these controversies come up and then die down, and then we move on to something else, but in this documentary Griffin shows contemporaneous videos, shot by herself or recorded from the news, that tell the incredible repercussions she suffered for the crime of taking a picture in poor taste, long after we’d all forgotten about it.

The universal condemnation of the photograph, from Trump supporters and detractors alike, and the sudden disappearance of many of her friends is really only the beginning of Griffin’s story, and not even remotely the worst (although, as usual, she is more than happy to name the celebrities that shunned her as well as the ones who stood by her). What’s really astounding is the extent to which the American government persecuted a comedian: we learn that Griffin was the object of official investigations by the FBI and the Secret Service, and was put on the international no-flight list, which resulted in her being detained and interrogated for hours at every single airport during her world tour. Even worse, it seems that the right-wing media dregs up the controversy whenever they need an easy jolt, and every time it results in Griffin receiving dozens of death threats that sometimes require police action.

This harrowing reality is presented through starkly different lenses in the film. The documentary section, made with footage recorded at the time, show Griffin distraught, often in tears, recounting the cancellations of her tour or the avalanche of threats. Watching this, I was reminded of A Piece of Work, that fascinating documentary about one of Kathy Griffin’s mentors, Joan Rivers: that, too, showed a woman who was terrified, more than anything, of a blank schedule (Griffin says she has “not a day of paid work ahead of me”; in her own film Rivers said “I’ll show you fear”, and presented the empty pages in her diary), but what they also have in common is that they both still felt the urge to make people laugh, even through their own hardships.

The standup section, meanwhile, presents a Kathy Griffin that has come out of the worst part and has been able to structure that experience into a coherent and sharp act. She is candid about her own mistakes, and openly talks about the toll the experience took on her and the time it takes to be able to crack jokes about traumatic experiences. Her act has definitely evolved over the years; she was already doing more political material before the photo, and now it must of course be a central part of her story. She talks about the first amendment and the government’s overreach, helped by craven media conglomerates, and then for a second she gets lost in a story about the Kardashians and suddenly it feels like one of her classic shows -except now the Kardashians are painted in a sympathetic light, surprisingly to us and definitely to Griffin herself (who could have guessed!).

This is certainly a film for a very narrow field of interest, but it’s a sobering account of what can happen when a government seeks to crush dissent. It’s also very good standup: Kathy Griffin can say the most outrageous things with absolute ease and then act like you’re the odd one for being shocked, and I’m always fascinated by her talent to weave together three or four different stories and keep the plates spinning, as if she just remembered one more thing, and yet manage to come back to each one. I hope her diary gets filled out soon.

Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story can be seen on Vimeo.