"I Don't Have Any Other Skills!" The Lizz Winstead Interview
In a change of pace from my generally music-focused interviews, I recently took advantage of the opportunity to interview Lizz Winstead. The satirist has a long and successful history: with Madeleine Smithberg, she created The Daily Show; she was a popular host on (the ultimately ill-fated) Air America radio network (Winstead had discovered her co-host, Rachel Maddow); she was a regular guest on Ed Schultz' MSNBC program The Ed Show; and she has maintained a successful career as a standup comic all the while.
As one might guess from that brief (and incomplete) rundown of Winstead's background, the Minneapolis native not only leans in a progressive political direction, but that perspective informs much of her comedic material. She recently made headlines when she announced her new mobile app Hinder -- the name a riff on the dating app Tinder -- a utility that provides commentary on men in positions of political power who actively oppose women's reproductive rights. And her website ladypartsjustice.com provides humorous (yet serious) perspectives on that subject and other topics of political import, targeted by states.
In advance of an Asheville show date, I scheduled a conversation with Winstead; in person and offstage, she's nearly as funny as her public persona, and every bit as articulate.
Bill Kopp: With Hinder, you're clearly combining your skills at parody, satire and comedy with what could be called political advocacy. What do you see as the responsibility of a performer/public figure as far as important topics like the right of women to have control over their own bodies?
Lizz Winstead: Hinder was created through my nonprofit, which is unabashedly doing all the things you said; I'm not even pretending I'm not doing that.
It's always a tricky question for me when someone asks about responsibility. Because I think different individuals feel different responsibilities toward their level of activism. I happen to feel a very strong responsibility to using my creative talents to be able to, maybe, sway some people to get more active [themselves]. One thing people ask me is, "Are you trying to change people's minds?" And I usually respond that I'm not necessarily trying to change minds. Because -- especially when we're talking about an issue like this -- people are usually dead-set in stone. But what I am trying to do is emphasize to people who are on the fence, or who are maybe just quietly not engaged, that this stuff is going on under our noses. And it's relentless, and [those doing so] are tireless. And it's time for people to step up.
Putting it into something like the context of Hinder takes an audience for an existing framework, one that millennials and young people already use. The framework is: Maybe you wanna hook up. Maybe you want to meet somebody. Maybe you're gonna go have sex with 'em that night. And because [such an app] is popular, applying that approach to people who are trying to judge that behavior, find ways to curb that behavior, or shut down ways that you do that safely, when we put it in the same app context, there's a real bang for the buck.
BK: I think you're right. And with no disrespect to people of your and my age, you're also targeting a population that -- to paint with a broad brush -- generally has opinions that are a little less fixed, a little less set in stone, than ours might be.
LW: I think that's right. And I think that, a lot of times, how people prioritize -- especially young people -- what they're going to care about is directly related to the added value that it brings them. So if we can bring information and some activism into a space that already feels like a social space to them, maybe we can lure them into, y'know, giving a shit a little bit more.
BK: With the exception of Dennis Miller -- who I never thought was very funny to begin with -- most every comic I can think of is a progressive, liberal, or at least something besides a conservative. Why, assuming you agree with my premise, do you think that there has never been a good -- much less successful -- comic who puts forth a right-wing worldview within the context of their material?
LW: That's an interesting question; we ponder it all the time. And I think one of the answers is that the rigidity, the black-and-white-ness is not what comedy is about. To parse out that you're a Republican, are you going against what is staunch and black-and-white? And I think a comedian who's progressive, or at least somebody who looks at the entire system, is willing to pick apart Democrat and Republican.
When you say that most comics are progressive, that's right, but when you look at their act -- the really good people -- they're tearing apart, for example, Democrats who sell out to large corporations. They're going after Obama for having Ben Bernanke and those guys in positions of power. Right-wing, corporate shitheads. Not having health care reform go far enough, et cetera.
But here's something interesting to me. I just went to this conference called Politicon. It's like Comic Con but for politics. It featured every stripe of politics. It had a comedy club competition, and I was one of the judges. And the winner was a conservative comic! He was fascinating to me; I came away thinking, why aren't conservatives taking on the people who are supposedly representing them? There's so much to be angry about with that's been done in the name of conservatism, and this kid -- I wish I could remember his name -- he really took it on. And I really liked what he did.
So I think that now more than ever, to try to take sides and try to be a political satirist is not really being that good of one. Because if you believe in your philosophy, then you want to be sure that you keep accountable the people who are supposedly representing that philosophy. That's one of the great jobs of a satirist.
BK: I think, too, that if you're seen as having a blind spot, your credibility goes away.
LW: That's exactly right. I know I've done something right when I see in my Twitter feed things like, "You're in bed with Hillary!" "You're a socialist who [expletive] Bernie!" I think, okay, good. I'm winning. Which one am I? I can't really be both of them. And I don't really want to sleep with either of 'em.
BK: I also wonder if, because satire is by its nature at least somewhat transgressive, because it's "going there," wherever there might be, if the whole concept isn't just inconsistent with being conservative.
LW: It seems to me that conservative means protecting the status quo. You like the status quo because it has worked for you. A blind trust in traditional institutions and politicians. I don't trust any of them, because none of them has done what they have promised.
You know, it's a problem with anyone who runs for office. You know what viewpoint they're presenting? It's "You know what's wrong with the world? I'm not in charge." So they're never the person we want. Wouldn't it be great if [governing] was like jury duty? We get these dumbshits who are elected; instead we could get people who are struggling, people from different backgrounds. There's so much supposition about how people live by people who have never met anybody different from them.
BK: The Daily Show created a new paradigm for treatment of the issues of the day; as successful as it is, and as recognized as it is for changing the way we look at news, I am convinced that the magnitude of its importance remains to be fully recognized. We may have to go ten, twenty years on before we can look back and get a clear perspective on that. When you first came up with the concept, what was your goal?
LW: I was somebody who had been onstage doing some satire, looking at subjects like how women were portrayed in the media. I tried to transition from being an observational comedian into a political comedian. And a big touchstone moment for me -- I would almost say it was a calling -- was on the first night of the Gulf War, when I was on a blind date. [The pair ended up in a bar with televisions tuned to news coverage of the war.] When that happened -- when that guy was sold by the graphics and the theme song -- I realized that the media was in cahoots with the information they were given, rather than helping their viewership to be smarter. And I sort of changed then.
So my goal with The Daily Show was to make sure that the media was as accountable as everybody else who we talk about. So it wasn't just to make fun of politicians; it was to point out that the reason we get these politicians is because the framework from which we get our information is also flawed. And part of the surprise regarding the success of The Daily Show, to me, was that I hadn't realized just how derelict the media had become in order for a show like that to soar.
I love what you said about how the ripple effect of it will be seen in years to come. And I think one of the things that we should really examine is the that message that the media got about why the show was successful was all wrong. They looked at The Daily Show and said, "Oh! So we should have...funnier graphics!" No! That's not what people want. They want you to do some actual reporting! Give them investigative journalism. You're not supposed to be like The Daily Show; you're supposed to create a space where The Daily Show doesn't have to exist. It's flabbergasting.
BK: That's an interesting point: If the media were really doing their job, you couldn't put a show like The Daily Show on the air. Because there wouldn't be anything to talk about.
LW: Yes, that's right. I was in Sweden a couple of years ago, and people asked me, "Do you think we should have a Daily Show?" And I replied, "I think everybody should be a watchdog for the media. But if your media is not as buffoonish as ours, then you might not need it. It might be why you don't have one."
Bill Kopp: I started watching The Daily Show way back when Craig Kilborn was the host. In those days, the show seemed to focus more on pop culture than news; it felt -- to me at least -- a bit closer to Greg Kinnear's Talk Soup and its followup with Joel McHale, The Soup. How do you think The Daily Show as it exists today differs from your original concept?
Lizz Winstead: Well, I would argue with your premise. Because we didn't do "Here's a clip, here's a response." We went out and shot pieces from day one. And we were also covering every single convention, things about politics, every night.
There are a couple of things that were different. It was more like The Colbert Report in that everybody was staying in character; we didn't have a "voice of reason." Jon [Stewart] really came in did that, and -- to his great credit -- made it a better product.
Also, we were working with the news that we were given at the time...
LW: So when people look back and think that it was more pop-culture focused, remember that the media itself was so obsessed with pop culture that we weren't even getting news. There were, in those days, eight or ten evening "news magazine" shows that were populating prime time. They covered topics like [intones mock-serious masculine voice] "What you don't know will kill you!" And CNN was like the trial of the century...of the week. Anna Nicole Smith; they were covering celebrities constantly. And so why The Daily Show felt pop-culture-y was that we were a mirror of the news itself. The show followed the trends of the news, and satirized them along the way.
So as we got more cable news, the tenor of the nation -- and the show -- followed that. And we satirized that.
BK: You've convinced me; that makes perfect sense. It's an interesting perspective to view The Daily Show as reflecting what's already out there in news media.
LW: If The Daily Show had launched five years ago, it would have launched into a very different world. And what I'm really excited about now, with Trevor [Noah] taking over, is the evolution of the show taking on the Glenn Beck-type media outlets, and tech stuff. And apps. Being able to show where people are getting their information from now. Because if you look at it statistically, 70% of young people don't even watch TV. They get everything in their phones, right? And so the information delivery is different. And that will make it a different show, and they'll react to it in a different way.
BK: Here's a question with a long intro, if you don't mind. I first saw you -- as did a lot of people, I imagine -- as a regular guest on The Ed Show. I certainly get where they were coming from, having you the "Club Ed" segment to take a sarcastic look at the important issues, and to try and lighten things up a bit on a Friday evening the way Rachel Maddow did with her cocktail recipes -- but as much as I enjoyed you on the show, I think it didn't always work.
And for me, the only reason it didn't work was that there was no live audience. As good as your timing and delivery is, there's a key ingredient that makes stand up comedy work, and that's the shared experience of receiving it in a room with other people, at least some of who get the joke. Doing it with just you and Ed -- or it could be any stand-up and any co-host -- ends up meaning you almost have to laugh at your own jokes. Do you think that's a valid perspective?
LW: You know, I do. Ed's someone who is a voice of the people, responsive to current events. When [a format like that has] someone on via satellite, it just doesn't work. When Melissa Harris-Perry or Chris Hayes has a panel, they're really getting into the meat of it. Even when you watch Bill Maher; those are the most effective places for that happening. I'm not even sure you need a studio audience, but you definitely need more than one person. People sharing and jumping in; in that situation there's bouncing off of ideas.
So I have to agree with you; for me, it feels much more organic that way. Also, I'm not necessarily a joke-punchline sort of person; I'm more a "here's some information, here's the setup, here's the follow-up, on to another thing that comes into play." So when I set up an "I'm going to talk about this topic," there are lots of places I go with it. I'm super conversational, but putting me in a box for three minutes and asking, "What do you think?" It's like...ugh. So I don't disagree with you about that.
BK: A question about comedy in general. I've read that you -- like me, as it happens -- come from a fairly conservative Catholic background. And not to generalize too much -- like I did with the question about the nonexistence of conservative comics -- but it seems to me that many, many of the best comedy writers, let along those who can deliver the material -- come from Catholic and Jewish backgrounds...
LW: [laughs heartily]
BK: ...I think it might be because of the cognitive dissonance they face growing up, the disconnect between what they're taught and what they experience in day-to-day life. And of course there's the guilt, which is always great fodder for comedy. What are your thoughts on that?
LW: I think that when you are experientially in a place like that -- there are some great Muslim comics; they're awesome; and also, people of color -- when you're where the power structure isn't, it's good. Because [back then] the Protestants where really ruling the roost. So the Catholics had something to rail against what you said, the idea that, according to family, the life I'm supposed to lead is not [connected to] what's happening in the real world. And you can also rail against the larger machine.
I think that when you have an upbringing that is rooted in a doctrine that is so impractical, you can really find humor inside of it.
BK: And of course Catholics and Jews don't have the market cornered on that.
I didn't know -- until I did my research for this interview -- that you were a founder of Air America. I liked it and was disappointed when it ultimately didn't work. Why do you think it didn't catch on the way that angry-white-guy right-wing radio does? I like to believe there are ultimately more of us than them.
LW: You should watch the documentary [Left of the Dial] because it's fascinating. We had a funder who lied about the money. So that, in and of itself, was a huge problem. He didn't have the money and lied about it. So we ended up with all this weird, crazy stuff that was not conducive to keeping a network going.
It was such a bummer. We were the number one streaming thing that was happening on the internet right then; we had terrestrial stations. Y'know, every time somebody says, "Oh, you were the George Soros funded blah blah blah," I want to say, "If only George Soros had given us a dime!" We couldn't get money. I don't know why we didn't think about becoming listener supported.
But it wasn't the content [that led to Air America's demise]. Look at the content: you had Marc Maron in the mornings; he now has the number one podcast in the country [WTF with Marc Maron]. You had Rachel [Maddow] and me, nine to noon; we know where Rachel is, and you know where I am. Al Franken is a U.S. Senator. Sam Seder has a giant podcast. Janeane Garofalo is a movie star. Our on-air talent went on to become incredibly successful. So the product model was what didn't work.
I think that the brilliance of FOX News is that they never say, "We're right-wing TV." They say, "We're fair and balanced." And we said, "We're progressive radio." So maybe that was a mistake, looking in hindsight, to say, "Hey, do you want some clarity in radio? Listen to us." We hit "progressive" to try to own it, and to help break some of the stigma associated with liberalism. But maybe what we needed to have done was just not identify ourselves at all, except as the reality-based community.
BK: I just watched the North Carolina video on Ladypartsjustice.com and it's a scream. It does a really effective job of communicating important issues with humor; it manages to address an important subject, and uses humor that makes it more effective, not less. Creating that kind of content -- where the underlying message is more important than the comedy -- seems like a difficult thing to achieve, but you succeed. Is it as difficult as I 'm suggesting?
LW: Y'know what? It might sound crazy, but I don't have any other skills! That is what I do for a living. So for me, the truth is as important as the humor. What I have found is that if you can go about a way to get at the truth, then you can mix it all up together, which is kinda cool. You can be funny, edgy, and touching, all at once. In one video. And I think that we've managed to create that with what we do.
North Carolina -- I say this over and over again -- is the most important state where nobody knows what's happening. It's a microcosm, between your choice laws, your immigration laws, your voter suppression laws, your unemployment legislation. All of that shit that is happening in North Carolina, and then there's the election of crazy-ass Thom Tillis; Art Pope, and all the bullshit you've got going on down there.
The good news is that when I tour, I get a lot of good material that is locally driven; stuff that you guys never get to have fun with. So I can shoot that at the audience, which is really great.
BK: You should find a receptive audience here in Asheville; we're nothing like the rest of the state.
LW: I love Asheville; I haven't been to The Grey Eagle for a couple of years; this will be my third time coming there. I love The Grey Eagle and Asheville, and I love Carrboro, too. Those are the two venues that I'll do in North Carolina, and I'm so excited.
BK: Your upcoming Bang the Dumb Slowly show in Asheville is billed as "an evening of political satire." How much of your material for the tour is put together ahead of time, and how much space do you leave to work in bits about, say, something that happened this week or even the day of the show?
LW: I write up to the minute. I'll do some evergreen political stuff, but mostly my act will consist of shit that has happened over the past three months. And I always leave space for day-of, of breaking news. Like this week, that crazy thing that happened with Anonymous [published list of prominent KKK members].
I've come up with a system where I work with two music stands; I use them as fake TelePrompTers where I can stuff up to the minute and have notes. So what's really fun about my show is that it changes. So if you saw my show three months ago, at least twenty-five minutes of it would be new. I'm more into writing to the news of the day than into writing the best joke possible, because it makes it more exciting and fun.