Photo: Mindy TuckerPolitical satirist Lizz Winstead was shouting at the TV long before it was cool. In 1991, watching CNN's coverage of the first night of Desert Storm on a bad blind date, she looked around the rapt sports bar in horror and had an epiphany: "Are they reporting on a war, or are they trying to sell me it?" Thus began an obsession with "breaking down the media breakdown" that eventually led her to co-create The Daily Show.
In her new essay collection Lizz Free or Die, Winstead tracks her evolution from the perpetually "unladylike" youngest daughter of a large Catholic family in Minnesota to a comedian who found "a way to use humor to speak truth to power." She writes of getting knocked up by her hockey player boyfriend in high school, spending a fortune on her dogs' waste problems, and saying goodbye to her dying father with understated insight and, of course, humor—reminding us of its value as an antidote to both political and personal hardship.
These days, Winstead is busy touring the nation doing stand-up shows to benefit Planned Parenthood and gearing up for general election season. ("It is my favorite time to be out on the road," she says.) I caught up with Winstead to talk about our lazy media, uterus-related legislation, and that time she got replaced by Jerry Springer.
Mother Jones: Tell me more about your moment of revelation while watching TV coverage of the first Gulf War.
Lizz Winstead: I remember watching the Vietnam War as a kid and seeing shooting and blood and bodies—and people were very serious. And then when I sat down [on the first night of Desert Storm] at that bar—and the bar atmosphere and the graphics and the theme song and the green light and the hot people. I wasn't looking to analyze—it just all seemed like a movie. And I remember being so struck by the fact that they were trying so hard to sell me this war. And then to have this goofy date that I was with be like, "Wow, this is so cool!" And I was like, "Sold! Sold to you. You just bought it." That was really crazy to me, that they could make something so serious so cartoonish. It was just like, "Oh my God, what is going on here? This is awful. How come they don't have a person on saying, 'This is awful'?" Instead they just keep reporting how great it is from 700 different people. There's just one side and we’re all supposed to be on it. And patriotism is news. So, from that point forward, I just thought I've got to pay way more attention because it's too crazy to not respond to.
MJ: The media landscape has obviously changed quite a bit since then. For better or worse?
"I think it's always problematic when anyone says, 'I only get my news from…'"
LW: Well, when there's more of it and it's on 24 hours a day, it's gonna get worse. There's just no question about it. There's a lot of, "We'd rather be first than right." A lot of breaking stories without facts. And when it comes to television news, it's a lot of commentary and not a lot of reporting. You have people having conversations on couches. There's a lot of wondering aloud and supposing and not a whole lot of introspection and fact checking. And so people tune in and out in a way that's getting little bits and pieces of half of the truth.
MJ: It's been said that young people get their news from The Daily Show. True? Good? Bad?
LW: Yeah, people have told me that themselves—that they get their news from The Daily Show. I think it's always problematic when anyone says, "I only get my news from…" You should be getting your news from a bunch of different places. You should actually be reading longer pieces, where somebody did a whole bunch of research or was, you know, in the Sudan or Syria or wherever. When one only gets their news from a place that is, for the most part, looking through a satirical lens at how poorly we're actually receiving information—I mean, that gives you a catharsis. But people need to get information to make themselves smarter, not just to make themselves feel good that someone is actually watchdogging the media.
MJ: Mother Jones interviewed you in 2004 when you were helping launch Air America. What did you take away from that experience?
LW: It was such a gigantic, ambitious task to put on 18 hours of programming every day and to get it all launched and ready to go in seven and a half months. I keep finding myself in these professional situations where somebody has given me a job I've never done before and I'm supposed to know what I'm doing. That's what happened at The Daily Show, and that's what happened at Air America too. It was a lot of people trying to figure out a lot of things and trying to get a message on the air. And because the radio airwaves at the time—and I don't think it's gotten much better—were like 91 percent conservative talk and 9 percent progressive talk, people were starving for any other side of the story. You could never keep anyone happy, because there was such a void that people were panicking.
The people who had launched the network in the beginning said they had money and then they didn't have money and then we were like, "Oh my God, they really never had money." So we were trying to stay afloat and get the programming out. But what was so amazing was that through the crazy turmoil of transition, no one quit. People were helping other people pay their salaries and make it work. The commitment to keep the message out there was the biggest takeaway from it. It was really a joy.
Working with Rachel Maddow and Chuck D every day was super fun. We had this little team that put on a show that was really fun and then we got canceled and replaced with Jerry Springer. And I got fired. We had new owners and new managers come in and they said comedy doesn't really seem to be an effective tool to get people listening. I was like, "Since when?" It was kind of absurd. You know, one of the things that I never thought would happen to me is that I would be replaced by Jerry Springer. Like, I just thought I'd made different choices in my life.
MJ: In the book, you write about being an aspiring comedian in Minneapolis when there were just a handful of women in comedy. As your jokes started to shift more towards asserting your opinion, audiences got uncomfortable. Say more.
LW: It was such a subtle thing. I was kind of just going about my business, telling my little observational jokes. And then all of sudden I was having bad shows with material that had normally worked pretty well. And I was like, "I don't know what I'm doing wrong. Am I dropping out vital information? Am I just low energy?" So I started taping the shows and when I listened back, I realized I had just shifted the introduction to the material in a more declarative way. "I think…" instead of saying "I feel…" I would say "I think…blank blank blank." And it could be, you know, "I think Hitler sucks.” But the fact that I was saying "I think," I would feel this recoiling—mostly from the men in the audience.
The covert message I kept getting back was: We will deal with a woman on stage if she can talk about how fucked up she is, how wrong she is, how shitty she feels about herself. But I don't talk about that. And the fact that I don't present myself that way, even when I'm saying things that are not threatening, threatened people. Simply by the fact that I've formed a clear opinion. You can only imagine once I started having opinions about politics and the world—that was really awesome to stand in front of a group of people shoving buffalo Cheetos, or whatever the hell they got a big basket of, in their face as they watched comedy.