Comedy for a Cause
The co-creator of The Daily Show and Air America Radio, Lizz Winstead is a brilliant comedian. These days, she’s using her platform to advocate for women’s reproductive rights through a national comedy tour supporting Planned Parenthood and her organization Lady Parts Justice, which uses humor, parodies and events like V to Shining V to urge people to “get off their asses and reclaim their rights.” We sat down with the Minneapolis native a few weeks ago to chat about how she fell into politically-skewed comedy, what she thinks of the new late night line up, why she founded Lady Parts Justice and that one time she cooked for Mario Batali.
AndrewZimmern.com: What brings you to the Twin Cities?
Lizz Winstead: I’m back for my State Fair pilgrimage; I come every year. I actually ran into Andrew last year and got some tips that’ve been instrumental, like the [Midtown Global Market] peaches and the New Ulm hot dogs. I have to go for three days because there’s so much stuff I have to eat.
AZ.com: What are your favorite State Fair foods?
LW: I really like the corn and the pork chop, but the spaghetti and meatballs on a stick is my favorite thing at the fair. They put cooked noodles in the meatball, wrap it in garlic bread and deep fry it, and then dunk it like a Dairy Queen in marinara sauce. It’s delicious.
AZ.com: How long are you in town?
LW: Until Friday, because four of our Lady Parts Justice comics are headlining at Bumbershoot, which is a comedy and music festival in Seattle. We are doing a whole multi media show and we have a booth where we’re talking to the youth about contraception.
AZ.com: What’s the story behind Lady Parts Justice and the V to Shining V events?
LW: I’ve always been a feminist and an outspoken activist on issues on choice. When I came back to write my book in Minnesota, very conservative people had taken over the House of Representatives. The first thing they did was propose a law to defund Planned Parenthood. It failed, but I noticed all these different state legislatures were passing laws that were removing access for poor women to get an abortion or help. And it was happening at an alarming rate.
I had to go back to New York with my dogs, so I rented a van. I called Planned Parenthood and I said, ‘What if I drove back to New York and did a couple benefits for you along the way?’ At these shows, people kept asking what they could do to help the cause. My response at the time was, ‘I don’t know, I am just a comedian.’ I realized I couldn’t just be the comedian. I called up some of my comedy friends like Sarah Silverman to do videos to raise awareness and that’s how we started Lady Parts Justice. We decided we wanted to do an annual event through LPJ where people get together and throw a big party at the end of September, about six weeks before you vote. The point is to have fun, drink wine, do some research and find out what laws are being proposed in the next election cycle and who’s proposing them.
Last year we had five concerts and 150 house parties. This year we have 12 states doing events and probably 300 house parties. There’s nothing more boring than local politics, but it’s where all the bad laws are so why not sexy it up. If people can get together with their friends, scheme and plot, and find kitschy ways to expose bad guys it becomes part of your life style, rather than this thing you have to do like volunteering at the co-op. If you compare any of your activism to your shift at the co-op, you will stop doing it and the movement will die… because there’s nothing more boring than your shift at the co op.
Politicians come and go, but people will always have unintended pregnancies. In the history of forever, there’s never been abstinence. People are either trying to get laid or are getting laid. All people think about is food and getting laid. Instead of fighting the morality of it, I just want people to not get STDs and to not get pregnant. It’s amazing how many people fight you on that, but sometimes I feel it reveals more about their sex life than it does anything else. If you can just so haphazardly say, ‘ why don’t you just say no,’ then you’ve never said ‘yes’ the right way.
AZ.com: What’s happening at the Minneapolis V to Shining V?
LW: It’s a big carnival. There are adult-themed games where you can learn about laws happening around the country and in Minnesota. One of the games is called ‘pin the tail on the jackass.’ You read a quote from a politician, there are a lot of faces lined up and you have to figure out who said it. Then we have ‘dunk a troll,’ where a person is reading aloud a list of the horrible things that are said to women on Twitter and that’s so enraging that people throw things to dunk them in water. It’s hilarious. We have a dart game called ‘bust their balls,’ there’s a cake walk, people on stilts, face paint, spin art and food. And then at night we have karaoke. Watching people sing with Minneapolis notables will be fun.
AZ.com: You live in Brooklyn now. Where are a few of your favorite places to eat?
LW: Buttermilk Channel is really great. They make their own bacon. They are as farm to table as you get in Brooklyn, and their fried chicken is really, really good. I miss the Vietnamese food [in Minneapolis]. We have no Vietnamese food to speak of. I was trying to explain to Mario Batali that there’s no better Vietnamese food in the United States than in Minneapolis, and he didn’t believe me. But then Bourdain said, ‘She’s totally right.’
AZ.com: Why were you hanging out with Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain?
LW: I do some fundraising for the Food Bank of NYC, and we’ve done a couple roasts of chefs, Mario was first and then we roasted Bourdain. Mario wanted to have the comedy writers write his rebuttal speech. He volunteered to come over and cook dinner for everybody while we wrote the speech. I’m in my apartment, panicking because Mario Batali is going to come over. I’m buying 900 dollar knives. I’m freaking out. Then somebody said to me, ‘You write jokes, he cannot write a joke. Have comfort in that.’ I did manage to make a galette with a calvados whipped cream that I was super proud of. I made it at six o’clock in the morning, so if it was awful I could make another one.
He made these pork chops with sweet red peppers that were really good, and then a broccolini dish. All throughout the day shit just kept getting delivered to my house, cases of wine and balsamic that seemed like it was from the Dark Ages. I still have it because I’m just using drips.
AZ.com: If you’re willing to cook dessert for Mario Batali, you must know your way around the kitchen.
LW: Actually, one of the highlights of my career was to be asked to be on The Splendid Table. We made one of my favorite things, Mario’s red onion, lemon and jalapeno pasta, and Christmas cookies. I’m a big Christmas person; I collect vintage ornaments, I spray paint branches, and I always bake all the traditional stuff. I love [Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s] thing with Mario [Batali] at Thanksgiving, it’s a live radio emergency hotline for people who’re messing up their turkey. But I have my turkey down; I invented this bourbon and vanilla bean brine that’s really good. Then I go under the skin with a cognac butter and cook it breast down at first. And you can’t remind people enough, if you brine your turkey, don’t stuff it. Why would you stuff your turkey anyway? It’s a waste of your juice and then your stuffing will be shitty.
Listen to Lizz on The Splendid Table:
AZ.com: How did your career in comedy begin?
LW: My family will tell you I was rebellious. I do not believe rebellion was the impetuous, more so that I wasn’t interested in things that girls were supposed to be interested in. I wanted to be a paperboy. My mom thought it was too dangerous. I wanted to be an alter boy, but they didn’t allow girls. I was trying to fit in, and it always seemed it was inconveniencing adults. I responded to that by recognizing hypocrisy and laughing my way through people who were bullshit.
In college someone literally dared my to try stand up. From the second I tried it, I understood when people say they found their calling. I changed my entire life after that one time on stage. I bombed the second time. I tried a third time, and I did okay. Cut to 34 years later and I’m still trying to figure out if I should be doing it.
I wasn’t really political until the first Gulf War. I was on a blind date and we were watching CNN. I remember thinking, ‘Are they reporting on the war or are they trying to sell me the war?’ And a couple seconds later my date was like, ‘ This is really awesome!’ I wondered how many people were having a ‘this is really awesome’ moment. It felt like a video game. It felt like it was really easy to manipulate people. I started paying more attention, reading more and writing material based on media and politicians.
At the time, I moved into a new apartment building and my neighbor downstairs was producing the Jon Stewart syndicated show. They had an opening for a producer on that show, so I took it. That was super fun, but it got canceled. Then the people who were running MTV got hired to run Comedy Central. They called Madeleine and me, and said, ‘Do you want to do a show that’s on every day?’ That was my dream. It was the luckiest thing ever. It was first with Craig Kilborn, then Jon [Stewart] took over and made it what it is today. It’s pretty astounding to watch something that you have a passion for and hoped people would care about turn into what it did. However, I had very little to do with the how much success The Daily Show had. I launched it and built a framework. I raised a kid, taught it to read and set it on a path. And then Jon took it to Harvard.
AZ.com: What do you think about the changing of the guard?
LW: Trevor [Noah’s] stand up is smart and broad. You can always tell how a show will do by whether the staff stays or goes. A lot of people stayed and that’s a real testament to Trevor. I’m excited for the next chapter. I think it’s going to be great. And I’m excited for Stephen [Colbert], his show is going to be great also.
AZ.com: Now that your career and comedy is more focused on political issues, has your fan base changed?
LW: I’d rather be my authentic self and let people make decisions about how they feel about that, rather than trying to make everyone like me. Some people don’t like babies or chocolate. I mean, people think navy blue is the worst. Knowing that you can’t please everyone, you should speak your truth—whatever that is—and understand that Miles Davis would bomb at Gilley’s Country Western Bar in Texas. If you keep authentic and you deliver on what you promise, you’ll always have a loyal group. That’s what I do and it’s very fulfilling. I don’t care if there are haters. I don’t want to play to the middle. If you drive down the middle of the road, you’ll cause accidents. That’s why I prefer to drive on the left.
About Lizz Winstead
As co-creator and former head writer of The Daily Show and Air America Radio co-founder, Lizz Winstead has helped changed the very landscape of how people get their news. But she wasn’t just behind the scenes. As a performer, Winstead brought her political wit to The Daily Show as a correspondent and later to the radio waves co-hosting Unfiltered, Air America Radio’s mid-morning show, where she brought on board Hip Hop legend, Chuck D and political big brain Rachel Maddow.
Known as as one of the top political satirists in America, Winstead is currently touring the country, bringing her razor sharp insights to the stage selling out shows from LA to NYC.
Winstead’s first book, Lizz Free Or Die, Essays, was released in 2012 to incredible reviews and the paperback was released in May of 2013. To quote Sarah Silverman: “Reading Lizz Winstead’s hilarious collection of very personal essays somehow leaves you changed. You laugh, and yet there are nutrients in her words.”
Lizz’s talents as a comedian and media visionary have been recognized by all the major media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly’s 100 most Creative People issue. Winstead has made numerous stand-up appearances, including Comedy Central Presents, specials on HBO, VH-1, MTV and more.
She can also be seen regularly doing hilarious and insightful commentary on MSNBC.
Winstead has also written for The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post and regularly blogs at Sulia.com
Lizz also gives back. Her ongoing national comedy tour to benefit Planned Parenthood and NARAL has raised over 2 million dollars and was made into a documentary film, Smear Campaign just won “Best Documentary Comedy Short” at the Atlanta Documentary Film Festival. Smear Campaign can be exclusively seen here.
Lizz is currently working on a second book and has spearheaded Lady Parts Justice, a reproductive rights group fighting to return all 50 state legislatures to a pro-choice majority.