REVIEW: “Fun and Insightful, But Ultimately Just Another Stand-Up Special” – ‘Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story’ (2019)

★ ★ ★

“It got so crazy, I really did start to think ‘I’ve got to make this funny.'”

On May 31, 2017, TMZ posted a photograph of Kathy Griffin that would single-handedly change her life forever. The now infamous image, which featured Kathy holding the “decapitated head” of Donald Trump (actually a Trump mask covered in ketchup), went viral within minutes of being posted and directly led to the comedian being blackballed from the entertainment industry. In one day, she was let go from her decade-long position as co-host of CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live, dropped as the spokeswoman for Squatty Potty, and publicly denounced on social media by people she thought to be close friends. In the weeks following, she would receive numerous hand-written death threats from Trump supporters, be added to the INTERPOL list resulting in her being detained in every country she flew to, and would be subjected to a “no-knock raid” of her home by investigators attempting to charge her with conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States of America. 

Fast-forward to 2019 and Kathy Griffin is still struggling to book permanent work. Although she has had a successful comedy tour both abroad and, more recently, in the United States, no major American television network will allow her on their station to act or produce. Despite selling out Carnegie Hall (among other venues), she wasn’t even invited to promote her then-ongoing stand-up tour on late night talk shows.

Never one to back down, however, Griffin has released a “concert film” chronicling both her stand-up tour and the two-year long aftermath of the Trump photo, entitled Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story. Through Fathom Events, the film had a limited release one-night-only screening on July 31st – promoted with the promise of a live Q&A after the screening.

The film itself is a little choppy, often feeling amateurish in its editing and overall presentation, but its content still makes for a compelling watch. What Kathy Griffin has been through in the wake of a photograph meant as political satire is completely unprecedented, and the first half of this film does its part to showcase the raw emotion associated with feeling like the world is against you. It’s a very human story, a fact which is highlighted by late night videos Kathy recorded of herself, with mascara running down her cheeks as she talks about her fears regarding her career and the threats against her life.

Unfortunately, the documentary portion of this film is short-lived and by its midpoint it abruptly becomes a full on stand-up special. The stand-up is at times laugh-out-loud funny and includes anecdotes about her last two years that are equal parts intriguing and unnerving but, like the segment preceding it, its presentation leaves a lot to be desired. The jokes and stories, weaved together from a three hour routine, occasionally feel disjointed in how they’re being told, jumping from topic to topic with no real sense of a timeline between them. What surely works for a live show is underwhelming on film, especially given the impact this could have had as a more traditional documentary.

Speaking directly to the Fathom Events screening, the live “question and answer” segment was similarly disappointing. Despite an on-screen image flashing a hashtag to use for questions before the live feed, by the time the two showed up, the interviewer already had questions for Kathy printed out. The majority of the time allotted for the Q&A segment was spent discussing the legality of Kathy’s original photo and the intricacies of the First Amendment, rather than actually answering audience questions. The information was interesting, and certainly adds more context to the film, but would have been more beneficial as a part of its final product rather than a part of an event-exclusive live conversation. 

In its current form, Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story is probably only worth a watch for people who were already fans of Kathy prior to the controversy. It’s fun and insightful, but ultimately just another stand-up special – even if it is a stand-up special with a unique backstory. 

Director: Troy Miller

Producer: Kathy Griffin

Cast: Kathy Griffin

Release date: 2019