After Clawing Her Way to the A-List, Kathy Griffin Is Out to Conquer Madison Avenue

Make way for Queen Kathy

This is a preview of next week's cover story. Check back Nov. 16 for more from our L.A. Issue.

Kathy Griffin has done it all: television, movies, stand-up, writing, comedy albums, New Year's Eve with CNN's Anderson Cooper (this will be her ninth year in Times Square with the snowy-haired newsman) and even singing (she performed the theme song for her short-lived talk show, Kathy, on Bravo). She's got two Emmys and a Grammy ("half an EGOT," as she likes to say, missing only the Oscar and the Tony), big-time celebrity friends (Cher, Sharon Stone), and a giant house in the Hollywood Hills. But what she really wants is to be the face of your brand. We're talking a big, fat endorsement, people.

"Come on, it should be a good deal!" she says during an interview in her living room as she prepares to set off on a yearlong, 80-city comedy tour dubbed "Like a Boss." When told that Jim Parsons, star of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, was hired to do an Intel campaign after the company's marketing team spotted him on the cover of Adweek in the office of the agency mcgarrybowen, Griffin gushes, "Oh, that's my dream." Griffin will stop at nothing to get your attention, admen and adwomen. That's why here, the star is done up like Cleopatra on the cover of our L.A. Issue—a golden surfboard and hot surfer dudes standing in for the palanquin and slaves of ancient Rome. The "Queen of Comedy," for your consideration.

Griffin has conquered the comedy and TV worlds. Photography: Brakhax2

Actually, Griffin, 55, is hardly a stranger to the ad business. Her big break—paving the way for her recurring role on Seinfeld and her stint on the NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan and her Bravo reality series My Life on the D-List and all the rest—was in the early '90s, when she was cast in a commercial for Kenwood stereos. (Thanks to YouTube, the spot lives on.) She recalls the gig in her book, Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin: "As explained to me at the audition, the setup was a futuristic world, and I was supposed to perform the '70s funk hit 'Play That Funky Music, White Boy' as if music had never existed." While other actors trying out for the job hammed it up, Griffin opted for another tack. "I just looked at the camera completely deadpan and spoke the words in a halting monotone, totally rhythmless, like a zombie," she writes. "If you've ever heard Paris Hilton's album, you know what I'm talking about."

Most recently, Griffin fronted a social media campaign for the AARP whose mission was to debunk misperceptions about the brand, says Stefanie Flaum, associate media director at MediaCom USA. "Kathy Griffin is the living embodiment of [AARP's] 'Real Possibilities' campaign mission. She got her start in Hollywood in her mid-30s … and has only picked up steam since. At the age of 55, she routinely plays to sell-out crowds, offering a very human example of what one’s real possibilities after 50 can be."

After briefly taking over for her friend, the late Joan Rivers, on E!'s Fashion Police earlier this year—a misstep Griffin and others have chalked up to bringing back the show too soon after its star's untimely death—the comic is back doing what she does best: packing out theaters with her inimitable, rip-the-mask-off-celebrity act, a tour that will take her everywhere from New York's Carnegie Hall to Las Vegas, Elmira, N.Y., and the Horseshoe Casino in southern Indiana. "I'm going everywhere," she says. But first, she's got to persuade you to hire her, Madison Avenue.

Adweek: After famously being stuck on the D-list all those years, you finally have achieved A-list status. You started your career doing commercials and have said that you want to do more brand endorsements because brands love A-list celebrities.

Kathy Griffin: I think anybody can be a person. I'd like to be a brand. I'm tired of being a human being. I'm way overdue for my next endorsement, way overdue, because now it's official. You know what you're getting. You know what you're in for. You know what I'm about.

Do you get a lot of offers, or is there a feeling that you're so outrageous and outspoken?

I think there was a phase where my outspokenness was probably not a good thing for the Fortune 500 companies. But I will say now you see David Hasselhoff doing a Dodge ad after the famous [drunk burger video]. If you look at the Super Bowl ads, advertisers understand that they have to infuse humor. So that's where I come in.


She's bringing her humor to brands like AARP.

You did a campaign this year for AARP. How did that come about?

First of all, there's a secret mafia called AARP, and the first time I went to one of their events I was kind of like, you know, guffawing at the idea because I remember my mom and dad having the magazine. But I was invited by Sharon Stone, who was being honored at an AARP event, and then I heard that they had rebranded it the "American Association of Real Possibilities," not Retired Persons. And so I thought, well, if Stoney's going, I'm in. So I went [to the event], and I looked to my left and there's Meryl Fucking Streep. The room was all A-Listers. Then I went to another event where they were honoring Dustin Hoffman, same thing. I finally hosted an event they had called Movies for Grown-ups. So, yeah, I am totally down with the AARP.

You've done commercials for a lot of brands: Pepsi, Kmart, TV Guide, even Glad bags. What is your dream endorsement?

I think obviously something that's organic, but the thing that I enjoy is being honest about the products that I use and why I use them. And there are many, believe it or not. So, you know, obviously I could do an ad where I get to be silly and outrageous and funny about kind of pretty much anything, but also I legitimately drink energy drinks. I'm a stand-up comic and I wear Crocs during my shows. [I could see myself endorsing] anything that exemplifies perseverance—you know, Cher and me, cockroaches, staying in the game, winning awards, having a sense of humor about all of it.

You've also worked with some of the biggest names in advertising. You write in your memoir about working with legendary commercial director Joe Pytka.

He changed my life. I went from being a Kelly Girl and making nothing, and then I think I made in one year, like, $30,000 or something and it was enough to get me in the union and that changed my life. I have a great love for commercials, and I actually believe in good, old-fashioned commercials. I know everything's viral now and everything is about doing this funny, 30-second bit that could end up wherever. But I'm kind of an old-fashioned gal. I'd like to just do something called a commercial because they still exist. And I like performing on that [points to a television set]. That's called television. Ten years ago, everyone in Hollywood said, "Forget it, it's over. Television's over and live performing is over. It's all about the Internet and YouTube, and everyone watches everything on their phone." And I said, "You know, no one's going to watch the Super Bowl on their phone." I kind of laugh at people who act like television is gone now. No, it's actually not; it still does quite well.

As your personal brand evolves, are you going to become like your heroine Gwyneth Paltrow with Goop and school the world? (Griffin has deliciously skewered Paltrow in her act.)

Well, yes, I'm sure I'll have a website that teaches you how to be more like me. I think it's interesting watching people that want to be brands that actually don't have a skill set. And then, there are those Snickers ads [the "You're Not You When You're Hungry" campaign], which do such a great job with celebrity. I just love seeing celebrities used in a way that is amusing. I had a conversation with Liza [Minnelli], and she told me the story about how she had to be talked into doing the Snickers ad, and how back in her day you just didn't do ads for candy bars. And her assistant was like, "This is a big Super Bowl ad that will take you one day [to shoot]." Liza was so funny and she's like, "Do you think people like it? I had to go out of town to do it." I said, "Honey, I don't care if you had to go to the moon. Do it. It's a Super Bowl ad." And it was great, and it was talked about. I am like that person that doesn't watch the game—I watch the ads.

There was a time when really big celebrities didn't do commercials here, only overseas.

That's right. Japanese watch ads.

Now George Clooney is doing his Nespresso ads here as well as France, and everybody in Hollywood is working in every medium, including streaming video. A lot of comedians have projects on the Web: Jerry Seinfeld, Chelsea Handler, Tina Fey. Is that something you could see yourself doing?

Yes, absolutely.

Do you have something in the works?

Yes, there is something. I'm hearing Netflix is interested, and that's great. I think we could do something.

You hold the record for the most televised stand-up specials of any comic.

Yes. I have done 23 stand-up specials.

So, besides the Emmys and the Grammy, you are now in the Guinness Book of World Records?

I was on a mission because of the sexism in stand-up comedy to prove that I thought, you know what? I'm just going to win as many awards as I possibly can as a woman, and I'm going to do more and I'm going to write more and I write every word of my specials. I would love to do more specials. I don't care if it's Netflix or Vetflix or Detflix. I just want to be funny and make people laugh. 

You have had a very long and fruitful relationship with Bravo, which was the home of your reality series, My Life on the D-List, and your talk show and specials.

When I started there, it was, like, the D-List and Project Runway and Queer Eye [for the Straight Guy] and grainy movies and Jim Lipton [host of Inside the Actors Studio, and better known as James].


Yes, Jim Lipton. We've had dinner. But yeah, there were no "Bravolebrities." It was just [NBCU executives] Jeff Zucker and Jeff Gaspin wanting to do a sitcom with me that was really cheap, and that's all the D-List was. I love when people say bring back the D-List, and then I have to gently and lovingly say, "Well, you know, I'm divorced, my dad died, and my mom's now 95 and doesn't hear so well. So I love that you have a nostalgic feeling for it, but even if I wanted to, I couldn't." Also, doing a TV show in my home for six years was enough. But it was a great show.

You are in the middle of an 80-city comedy tour.

Yes, 80 cities. What am I, nuts?

You're just like Madonna!

Yes, I'm Madonna now. Imagine just visiting 80 cities in one year, much less playing 80 cities.

This interview is for our L.A. Issue. This city has always been the center of the entertainment business, but now it's about so much more: the tech world, the video game business, plus so many ad agencies have put down roots here.

Well, I'm from Chicago. I grew up at ad agencies; all my relatives were admen. So I have a great love for agencies.

L.A. is really having this creative moment.

I think that L.A. is so fascinating because I'm from Oak Park, Illinois, which is Chicago adjacent, and I always try to explain to my friends that are from [L.A.] or have lived here too long and are jaded, "You do realize that to the rest of the world this is Mars." I moved here at the ripe age of 18. It is the hub of what I do … but it can smack you right upside the head. I was told my nose was too big and, you know, "If you were only prettier" and all that stuff. And then I made a decision very early on to just go, I should not be competing in that particular boxing ring—I should be over here in this one with the funny people. So luckily, I've really fallen in love with L.A. because I kind of found my peeps.

And now, here you are, the queen of L.A., with fame, a major tour, this giant house, awards …

Yes, that's right. [Gestures to her Emmy and Grammy trophies, prominently displayed in her house alongside a framed photo of herself with Oprah Winfrey.] My awards are more important than people. That's going on my tombstone. That's what we're about here, babe. Awards and artifice. We love it.