It was a moment Kathy Griffin thought would never come again.
The Grammy and two-time Emmy winning comedian performed for a sold-out crowd in New York at Carnegie Hall, a place she called the “the church,” a year after her career was teetering on the edge of ruin.
“I thought there was a really good chance my career was over,” Griffin told “Nightline.”
In May 2017, Griffin stirred a national controversy after a photograph was released of her holding a mock-severed head of President Donald Trump.
“I wanted to shame him — it, as I refer to Trump. It. I wanted to shame it. I don’t believe it’s human. What I was thinking was some sort of a sendup. And believe it or not, I’m not a Megyn Kelly fan, but I do remember him saying famously, as you do, ‘There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.’ And I was doing a whacky photo shoot. And I thought, ‘All right, let’s get, you know, a Halloween Trump mask, put a bunch of ketchup on it and see if he likes it when there’s blood coming out of his wherever,” she said.
The image drew ire from both sides of the political divide.
Donald Trump Jr. called it “disgusting but not surprising. This is the left today …,” while the president tweeted, “Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself. My children, especially my 11-year-old son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!”
Chelsea Clinton wrote: “This is vile and wrong. It is never funny to joke about killing a president.”
“No one stood by me. No network, no studio, no one. Left, right, and center turned on me. Everyone turned on me,” Griffin said.
It was a reaction that Griffin had not expected.
“I was holding a mask, a Halloween mask, with ketchup on it,” she said. “You’d be amazed at how many people actually think I was holding anyone’s severed head. Like I went to the severed head warehouse or ‘Severed Heads R Us.'”
Griffin told “Nightline” that the photo was not an invocation of violence in any way.
“It’s a photo. Have you seen the cover of Der Spiegel? Have you seen any of the famous, iconic covers of magazines? You could take any one of them and accuse them of inciting violence. Also, I’m Kathy Griffin the comedian. I’m not an elected, I’m not a general, I’m not an anchorperson doing the evening news,” she said. “There [are] no lines for me.”
But many others saw it differently. Griffin soon lost sponsorship deals. Her entire tour was canceled, and CNN terminated her contract to host their New Year’s Eve special.
Her co-host and friend, Anderson Cooper, tweeted: “For the record, I’m appalled by the photo shoot Kathy Griffin took part in. It’s clearly disgusting and completely inappropriate.”
“I don’t even have a punchline for that one because that one just hurt. My punchline is this: ‘Ouch,’” she said about Cooper’s remark.
In the months that followed, Griffin says she received death threats, which continue today, and was placed under a federal investigation.
“I was on the no-fly list. I’m still on the INTERPOL list. I had to go overseas to make a living. I went and played [in] 15 countries and 23 cities. I was detained at every single airport. They take your passport. They take your devices. They leave you alone in a room, and you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you can’t ask,” she said.
Some friends even advised her to leave the country for several years.
“Sharon Stone, who I love, goes, ‘Leave the country for eight years.’ I go, ‘You leave the country for eight years.’ I go, ‘I have to make a living. Wait a minute. I’ve got bills to pay!’” she said.
Within the day, Griffin posted a video on Twitter where she apologized and said: “I sincerely apologize. I am just now seeing the reaction to these images. I’m a comic, I cross the line. I move the line and then I cross it. I went way too far.”
But months later, she retracted the apology, calling the fallout a “faux outrage.”
“The vast millions of Americans who have decided to turn their ire on me and then the next one coming down the line are just full of s—. And I’m happy to say it right to their faces,” she said.
And she is quick to note that the photo was an expression of her First Amendment right.
“I didn’t break the law. I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
A year after the scandal, Griffin is proving that she won’t go down without a fight and is now performing her “Laugh Your Head Off” tour throughout the United States.
Minutes before her performance at Carnegie Hall, she admitted that she was excited — no nerves.
“It’s pure gratitude. When you have the president and the government say you’re never going to work again, and you’ve had your own representatives say, ‘Oh, you’ll be lucky to play some small club and then you sell out Carnegie Hall with even those seats,’” she said.
With nothing to lose and everything to prove, an emboldened and impassioned Griffin stepped on to the stage with the same incivility that got her inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most stand-up comedy specials by a comedian in 2013.
“I broke the record, and then I broke my own record. Just so when I kick the bucket, I want some young female comic or some younger person of color or younger gay person to go, ‘Hey, remember that 57-year-old bird? She didn’t let [them] take [her] down,” she said.
“That’s part of my mission,” she added. “I just won’t go down.”