Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Defiant Kathy Griffin flaps unflappable Kara Swisher in provocative SXSW keynote

Omar L. Gallaga
Kathy Griffin, right, talks about her career and comedy with Kara Swisher of the New York Times on Saturday, March 9, during South by Southwest. [Contributed by]

If anyone thought that comedian Kathy Griffin might tone things down, keep it classy or in any way bow her head in submission at South by Southwest, they probably don't know the performer very well.

In her Saturday convergence keynote interview with tech journalist and New York Times columnist Kara Swisher, Griffin was as dirty, unrepentant and shocking as ever.

Thank goodness.

Griffin was like a heat-seeking missile in the talk, speaking miles per minute as she recounted the fallout since her infamous photo shoot in which she held up a bloodied dummy head of Donald Trump. As she does in a new documentary she self-funded, "Kathy Griffin: A Hell of Story," which screens Monday and Wednesday at the film festival, Griffin was both hilarious and serious about the death threats, the canceled gigs and the friends she's lost (Anderson Cooper chief among them) since the 2017 blowup.

"Everyone turned on me, left, right and center," Griffin said.

The dynamic was unique. Swisher is known as a tough interviewer in the tech world where she is unflappable in grilling tech CEOs who, as she described in the panel, "want all of the benefits and none of the responsibilities of running the platform" such as Twitter or Facebook.

In interviewing Griffin, Swisher was more of a sounding board for Griffin's speed delivery, her very funny off-the-cuff jokes, and her questions about how tech algorithms and social networks work behind the scenes.

Swisher was frequently laughing at Griffin's remarks, and rather than seeming offended or caught off-guard, Swisher rolled with it. If she couldn't get a word in edgewise, she didn't show it, she just seemed as tickled by Griffin's humor as the audience, much of which gave a standing ovation when the session concluded.

You don't have to like Griffin or condone the Trump photo incident to recognize her talents; she's incredibly quick, holds nothing back and can communicate a lot with just a gesture or a glance. The panel seemed an interesting moment in Griffin's career as she says she's still struggling to get work and rebuild her life since she became a flashpoint for conservatives and a target of harassment online and off.

"I can't believe I'm here," she said of her SXSW appearance. "This is the only 'Yes' I've gotten in a year."

For her part, Swisher said she was not the only person approached about interviewing Griffin.

Twice, Swisher asked if Griffin regrets the photo. The comedian said she doesn't, largely because "he really had it coming." She said that his administration's policy on family separation at the border in particular has opened Trump up as a target of ridicule and that comedy has a long history of rocking the boat.

"At 58, I just thought, if you're not gonna take a stand now, what the (expletive) are you waiting for?"

One of the biggest reactions the pair got at the session was when Griffin called out Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for his inaction on hate speech and cleaning up the platform. She begged Swisher to call Dorsey on stage for a live call and when Swisher refused, she opened it up to a role-playing session with Griffin as Dorsey.

"'Hey I just came from a Nazi rally, how are ya?' " she snarked, " 'What's your question, you...' " which was followed by a profane string of words that had Swisher doubled over in laughter and the audience howling.

Griffin believes much of why she's been targeted and unable to work involves misogyny in the entertainment industry. She's still trying to rebuild her career and sort out lost friendships with people like Cooper, whom she said she's not spoken to since 2017 except for a single text message.

She has no intention of stopping or leaving comedy, she said, citing her role model Joan Rivers. "I want to die on stage and I don't ever want to retire and I love what I do," she said.

MORE SXSW: Check out all our coverage