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Transcript of our Interview with Lizz Winstead
Wednesday, 17 February 2010 16:27

You may know that she, along with Madeleine Smithburg, is the co-creator of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Since then, she has gone on to be a very influential media member in various ways such as contributing to The Huffington Post and producing her own shows that are now available on the Internet and on stage. And, she has a new podcast. We're just thrilled to have her with us! It's Lizz Winstead.

Q: What was the progression for you going from standup, and a very successful standup, to somebody who is so prolific in media in general?

A: Well, it was funny, because after being on the road for over 10 years, I realized I was just kind of getting burned out by it. There used to be a show on Comedy Central called Women Aloud that Mo Gaffney (of The Kathy and Mo Show) hosted, and I would go on that show and do standup three times a season. In the third season she said, "Would you have any desire to come on and be a writer for me and help me write my monologues and stuff?" And I replied, "It didn't really occur to me." I mean, I thought, "Do I want to write for somebody else? Weird." But, I knew her act really well, and I kind of knew her style; so, I took the job. And, it was interesting, because the second something that I wrote came out of her mouth, and she got a laugh, I got the same rush that I did when I did standup. It was really awesome to have someone else execute my work. It made me feel really great. It was a sigh of relief because, as we all know as performers, you want to be able to have as many avenues as possible for creative outlet flows. Once you start getting into the thick of it, sometimes they aren't going to want you to be the performer. Sometimes they're going to want you to be the writer. And so, I did that. I wrote on that show, and then I wrote for some other Comedy Central shows. Then, I segment produced on a Jon Stewart syndicated show, but that was canceled. He went with a development deal for Worldwide Pants, and Comedy Central said, "Do you want to help develop this show that's on every day?"  I said, "Okay." We creatively called it The Daily Show. I had no idea how to run a writers' room. I had no idea how to do anything. I learned how to be a head writer and producer solely by fucking up and realizing which paths were wrong. So, what's good about that? Whenever somebody starts down the road of an idea they think might work, I can say, "Yeah, that's not going to work, and here's why:  I did that, and it was fucked. Be happy that we're not going to take it down that road." So, it's kind of nice to learn all the mistakes, because you know what they are, and that makes it a little bit easier. It's harder at first, but now I kind of know all the bad ideas.

Q: That's the best way to learn, in my opinion, because you can't learn any better than from what not to do.

A: Right.

Q: If only I could go back to high school, because I couldn't have made more mistakes. But you don't get a second chance there.

A: You know, it's true. I believe that I know the genres in which I worked pretty well. I've had some pretty decent success wit h responding to the world and in political humor, pop-culture, and that social criticy kind of crap. And, I kind of know what's funny. So, the path I used to get it there is one you really can't follow, because you want to make sure you're not rehashing the same thing. You want to make sure your joke is relevant. You want to make sure you're not doing a 'dick' joke just for the sake of doing a 'dick' joke. Even if it's a really good 'dick' joke. You know, stuff like that.

Q: Amen to that.

Q: When do you feel you started to take such an interest in political stuff? Because, obviously, that's a huge part of your career now. Did you grow up connected to politics? Or, is that something that you kind of found along the way?

A: Not at all. You know, my politics were pure - I'm a college dropout. I'm a self-educated person. My parents are arch conservatives in Minnesota, which is a state that is incredibly progressive politically. So, I had them telling me one thing and the rest of the state telling me something else. For me, it kind of came from messing up and noticing who helped me out when I messed up. It was never the "normal" people. The people that preached all this morality were always the ones to run away if I fucked up in some way. And, it was always the kind of progressive people who said, "Hey, you know what? Don't let it define you. We can help you. Why not?" So, my politics just sort of grew from life experience and me being, learning as I went along. I'm a very curious person. Even as a kid I was. I wanted to be an altar boy, and, back when I was a kid, they didn't let girls be altar boys. So, I went to the priest and said, "I want to be an altar boy." He said, "You can't, because you're a girl." And I said, "Well, that's easily fixable if you just call me 'altar girl.'" So, that was the obstacle? Somehow I have this instinct. Even when I was little, I just didn't suffer fools. "That's not a good enough excuse; that's a retarded excuse. I'm not a boy, and you happen to have the word 'boy' printed on stuff? That's ridiculous." I petitioned to the archdiocese. My mother was mortified. Eventually they got altar girls, but not while I was around. So, I think they figured out that that 'boy' part: bad excuse.

Q: So, you were like the Rosa Parks of altar girls.

A: I was at the back of the church.

Q: You've been fighting against a lot of grains, I guess, since way back when and now. A lot of what you do is very outspoken. You're very passionate about certain ideals and what's going on in the government right now. Given what's going on in the country right now, you could pick eighteen different subjects; but, what's the biggest thing that's killing this country right now?

Q: Or, what's the biggest thing that's pissing you off?

Q: There you go. Better.

A: The biggest thing that's pissing me off. You know, it's interesting; because my comedic philosophy when it comes to talking about politics is: If you've been given power, and you choose to abuse it or use it poorly, you become my target. So, I'm not an apologist for any party. I happen to have ideals that are closer to the Democratic Party -- or the shell of what it used to be. So, when you ask that question, for me, I feel like we were handed this horrible economic problem from the Bush administration. But then, Obama put in place these buffoons like Geithner and Larry Summers and Volcker - the people that were responsible for setting the laws which got us here. And there they are, giving these free rides to these banks and Goldman Sachs. That, I think, is a problem. Healthcare, I think, is a problem. They're just not smart. I feel like the Democrats are sort of spineless. I don't know why they wouldn't have the majority. They're kowtowing. It's almost like the Democrats have become sort of center-ish Republicans. And the Republicans have become 'The Party of the Lord.' They are serving their God. For instance, when you look at healthcare. I've been infiltrating calls lately. (People have been sending me conference call numbers and passwords to strategy meetings.)  I listened in on the National Tea Party Strategy meeting for 2010, and they were actually heckling themselves at one point -- screaming at each other. It was crazy -- with their own. And then, I was on a call with one of Mitch McConnell's staffers, and she was saying that life issues are the number one issue in health care bill. They don't want to pass it. They don't want to fix it. They want to kill it. All based on life issues, which means they're talking about abortion.

Q: Oh, for God's sakes.

A: For God sakes? Really? It's the law of the land. So, can't you guys find some compromise on health care? Or, just have rational thought in your Republican minds as to why you are against it, and come up with other plans? Because it certainly seems like it is all this weird, face-based junk still in our public policy talks. It shouldn't be there.

Q: When I was growing up, comedians were on the fringes. George Carlin talked about important issues, but generally speaking, they were just there to be funny. It seems like nowadays comedians have become the sanest, most rationally-thinking people on the planet. Should we just create a 'Comedian's Party'?

Q: Yeah, maybe a third party.

A: Wow. You know, that's an interesting idea. There have always been comics as sort of social critics. They've always kind of been out there. If you look back and see some of Carson's monologues and stuff, they were certainly more biting (sort of) than what we're getting now. Some of what we're getting is funny, but it was certainly more biting. But, when you watch the news, when the media has become such a player in the political landscape, I feel like the media has a bigger role in the buildup of the war and healthcare -- all of it. There are no journalists, anymore. I don't care if they are espousing a political view from the left or the right. There's no one who's doing investigative journalism anymore. You watch these shows, and it's just people wondering aloud behind a desk. They're just wondering the same things we are as regular citizens. They get $3 million a year; and we just sit on our couch, and wonder out loud getting nothing except fucked.

Q: How do I get that gig?

Q: That's a cushy job. Let me ask you this: It sounds like, right now, neither party is the party that you really want to be standing behind so much, correct?

A: Yeah.

Q: It seems like both Republicans and Democrats have something like cabin fever right now. They've all been locked up together for too long, and now they are batty.

A: It's actually the opposite, believe it or not. There are two things that are going on. The day every politician gets elected, they go and get drunk. And the next day they start campaigning to get elected again. You know, the money that comes from corporate interests has infiltrated both parties. You can't differentiate. It's not Republicans holding up health care -- it's Democrats who have taken so much money from the lobbies of the healthcare industry. If those people were on board, they would just pass the bill without the Republicans. But they can't. They both take so much money. But secondly, and this is a really interesting thing, in the olden days of politics the money wasn't that big in it; so, everybody stayed in Washington, and politicians got apartments with other politicians. They lived in Washington, and they stayed in Washington. When you hear about Warren Hatch giving that amazing speech about Ted Kennedy for his eulogy, it's because back then people hung out and had dinner, even though they may have had completely opposite viewpoints. But they actually got to know each other as people, and that has stopped in politics. It's very interesting; but it's a real bummer, because these guys go home to their mistress or to their families, and they don't have that hang time.

Q: Funny, that's the same thing they say about sports teams nowadays. It used to be that they would go out after the game, hang out and have dinner together. That way, they'd create a camaraderie, and they'd say "Oh, here's our job. Let's all go do it together."

A: Right. Pretty fascinating stuff. The psychology behind all of it is pretty fascinating. I don't know where you guys stand politically, but we all have friends that have a completely different viewpoint than our own. But, because you know them so well, and you've seen them interact with, say, a sick parent or do really great things and help out their neighbors, you really love that person. So, you agree to disagree on stuff, and you can find a way. If you're never getting to know someone, then it does become this uproarious, nutty train where nothing gets solved. And we're the ones who get screwed -- us regular folks.

Q: And in a large way too, it would seem. Unfortunate, this 'not getting to know each other' thing. It would seem that there is a lack of checks and balances in a personal sense. Like, "Whoa, dude, you're going a little crazy with that. You may want to tone it down." It seems like that suffers as well without that camaraderie.

A: It's really true; when you look at these 'tea people' rallies, they really do have a lot of hateful rhetoric. And when you watch things like the marriage equality march that was in Washington, those people weren't holding signs up of the people that they hated in Washington. They were talking, passionately, about why they felt they should be validated in their marriages. There's a time and place for all of that. If you're protesting the war, then hateful things comes out. I think that anybody that uses Hitler is just historically lame, lazy and dorky. Like really, is that the only person you know that's bad? Because, you say Hitler all the time. There really are idiots on both sides.

Q: That's too easy. It's cheap. It's cheap.

Q: I heard Charlie Manson was bad. Maybe they'll start using him.

A: I am waiting to see them holding up a poster of Hitler with, like, a sharpied Hitler mustache drawn on it. They are so stupid they don't even know. That's really where we're heading.

Q: I want to see if we could try to tie this into your career. We did want to talk about you, and the politics stuff is great. But, sort of tying it together; we're about a year out from having elected Obama, and a lot of people were in this 'feel good' mood. I guess we all felt a sense of accomplishment for having elected somebody who thirty or forty years ago would have never even had a chance.

A: He's half white.

Q: We are incrementally making progress.

A: That's right.

Q: Outside of the 'feel-good' aspect of it, where did you stand on him, and how has that changed in the last year?

A: I supported Obama even over Hillary, because I was never for the war and her war vote, to me. . .   I felt, actually, pretty psyched that the country has evolved to a place where just because there was a woman running, I could say, well, she's not the right candidate for me. There will be another woman I can vote for that I feel strongly about. I supported him. I never thought he was a progressive or anything. I mean, the guy comes from a political machine that still exists and is broken. I was hopeful about what he said. He sounded like a Democrat. It sounded like, "Oh, he really does think that we shouldn't torture people and that we really need to get out of Iraq. He is really going to hold these financial institution's feet to the fire and not give them a free pass." So, there were certain things like that that made me think, "Okay, those sound good pla ns." And then, the second he got elected, he just started putting in Rahm Emanuel and Geithner and Summers and all these old-guard people from the old machine. Then, he quickly revealed himself to be someone who does not have democratic values. He has carried through a lot of Bush crap. He's disappointing. He hasn't led on health care. I just thought he was going to stick to what he said he was going to do, which wasn't all that radical. But, instead, he's just been handing the reins over to people who were part of the problem in the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, and beyond.

Q: Relating that to the general television and media sense, do you feel that not enough criticism of Obama is made specifically? Like the way we were all ready to jump all over Bush and, justifiably so, in my mind. Is that not happening fast enough?

A: I feel like there are certain things you give someone a pass on, of course, because if you enact policies they take a while to implement. Okay, that's fine. But, yes. I don't hear critical thinking when it comes to Obama. I hear, sort of, inflamed rhetoric about Obama. There are many flaws in healthcare -- bring those up. There are many flaws in the way he's handled the economy -- bring those up. Afghanistan: holy moly! An article came out just recently that said, "If we stay the course, it will be one million dollars for each soldier that goes to Afghanistan." So, that policy's crazy. Reporters, journalists -- they just don't seem to be having great critical thinking so that you can hold him up to a higher standard, because he seems like someone who would actually listen if there were actual smart people asking critical questions about the decisions he's making. But instead we hear, "He's a Muslim. He's the Marxist. And, a Socialist." It's like, how do you be all three of those things? You can't even be all three of those things.

Q: Maybe they're afraid to get into the nitty-gritty, because they're afraid it will just come off as racist.

A: What they're doing is racist instead of smart. When you look at Congress, there are no moderate Republicans from the East Coast anymore. There are hardly any moderate Republicans at all in Congress. When you elect someone based on your shared vision that you don't like gays, and you are not for abortion, and you hate immigrants, these 'issues of passion,' you can't, in turn, expect them to craft economic policy. They don't know how. These are people who were schoolteachers and decided that they were pissed off about social issues. They are just a belief system. You know -- "I want someone who wants to put religion back into schools." How does that translate into, "And, I've got this really great economic background that can help us get out of this mess"? They don't even have the skills to have these arguments.

Q: It's like getting hamburger recipes from an anorexic.

A: Yes. It is. For real. You wouldn't buy a cookbook from an anorexic.

Q: You know, Liz, it sounds like you're saying were headed for Civil War; only this time, it will be a lot dumber.

A: So much dumber. I mean, if you can't identify the difference between a Marxist, a Socialist, Muslim and a Fascist, how are you going to pick a uniform?

Q: "You are a homosexual and a womanizer, Sir."

A: Yes.

Q: Let's make it a little lighter. You have a couple of projects that we wanted to talk to you about that are, first of all, related to what we're doing here: the idea of a podcast. You're doing something with Darbi Worley called The Broad-Cast. Tell us about that.

A: We do a podcast. Darby works with me on a theater show called Wake up World, which is a satire of morning television. It's a theater show and a Web show. I play a character similar to Kathy Lee, and Darbi plays sort of one of those lipglossed, boobed-out, news-break girls. So when we take off those clothes and become our regular selves, we do a podcast where we do a recap of the news and talk about stuff we care about. So, it's a little bit of politics, a little bit of pop culture, and a little bit of dating and personal life. It's fun. It kind of throws together a more complete package of who we are as people.

Q: If you haven't seen the website, its BROADcast.us. 'Broad' is in capital letters, and 'cast' is not. That sort of suggests a certain point of view.

A: Because we're broads.

Q: Exactly. What point of view do you hope to deliver that isn't serviced to other podcasts, shows, media, or what-have-you?

Q: It could just be a clever name.

Q: I could be reading too much into it.

A: What Darbi and I try to do is look at the world and the stuff that's happened; and the service that we hopefully provide, through humor and a bit of incredulity, is asking the same questions that frustrate the folks that are listening to us. Whether it's about the economy, whether it's about who won American Idol, or whether it's about, "Oh, my God. My dog is humping me. Does anybody else have this problem? It's mortifying." Whatever it is, we try to be this voice that says, "Okay, we're going to admit that we don't know something" or "We are going to admit that we do this, and we think you probably do, too, so were going to talk about it." So people can have this sort of relatable, fun listen and feel like they can connect. And then, occasionally, we'll have a guest on the show if there's a big news item we really want to talk about. We try to have somebody on that's smarter than we are, so that we can say, "Okay, we really wanted to ask somebody this question, because we don't understand this at all. Help us out." So, it's service- based; it's fun; it's a little bit T.M.I. It's just kind of putting ourselves out there. Sometimes I think the hardest thing that people go through in their life is feeling like they're sitting there alone with their shit. It's like looking at somebody else's marriage. Nobody has a perfect one. Nobody has a perfect life, either. And sometimes it can seem like people do have a perfect life; but then they just start talking about their everyday crap, and you go, "Wow. I kind of don't feel alone. This is great."

Q: For you, is this sort of a break from having to talk about the heavier issues? Is this a chance for you to kind of relax and have fun?

A: Absolutely. It's a chance for me to relax and have fun. It's also a chance for me to, kind of, reveal a little bit about who I am. I talk a lot about what I think and what I believe in; but that all comes from a place, and that place is this goofy girl from Minnesota. I think it gives people a chance to know who I am, too. Which I'm happy to do, and it's fun.

Q: You have another project that you've been working on for a while. Shootthemessengernyc.com is the website. But, we're really talking about something called Wake up World. Tell us about that.

A: Shoot the Messenger is my production company, and so the website is that. But Wake up World is the morning show satire that I was talking about earlier. It's where we have taken all of the outlandish tenets of all of the morning shows. Whether it's The Today Show, The View, or Regis and Kelly, we've combined it all into one live talk show that we also put on the web. And, we have fake experts come on. What's interesting is there are about twenty-seven hours of morning television on every day, and most people get their information from these places. But they turn around, and they half-listen to it. You kind of get three and a half minutes of everything. They prioritize "The Afghanistan war," "Cajun cooking," and "Does this jewelry make my butt look fat?" They are so stretching now for material, because these shows (some are two hours, some are three hours) are desperately trying to put a new spin to an old idea. To the point where you're like, "Are you kidding me?" If you keep Kathy Lee on for four hours of your show, maybe you don't need four hours of your show.

Q: It just seems to be, like, eating itself, you know? There becomes less and less substance. And, personally speaking, I think the majority of those morning show hosts -- male or female hosts -- are just assholes. It's so transparent. You can tell they're being all nice and sweet and happy; but you know as soon as they stop rolling, they're just the biggest pricks in the world.

A: Also, the 'I am part of the story' factor -- they're always inserting themselves into the story somehow.

Q: Or, they'll say, "I have a child, and I know if something like this happened to my child . . ." That's so stupid.

Q: "Being a cat owner, this is an interesting story for me."

A: I'm going to have my colon checked on national television.

Q: You should.

A: Katie Couric did.

Q: Show them you don't need to be on NBC to do that. One thing I heard you talk about was the fact that your writing staff is far more predominantly female than any other productions out there.

A: Yes, I have seven female writers out of twelve.

Q: Well, if you go by history, it almost seems impossible that you can find so many.

A: Well, historically, there has been a tiny tiny bit of evolution. But I always say, "You have to hire where the funny is." And, that's just the bottom line. When you're working in late-night, a lot of stand-ups are writing for it; and a lot of them want to pursue their own stand-up careers so, it cuts the pool off dramatically. Then you microcosm it even further, too, if you add any kind of responding to the world, political or newsy kind of stuff. There is even less of a percentage of people who focus on that. So your pool is pretty narrow to begin with; but I think as these shows have gotten more popular, there have been more and more female writers/performers. I've lucked out and found some pretty amazing women throughout the process of doing the show. So, I'm thrilled.

Q: Do you find that things are getting better? Are they getting a little more balanced? Is there hope for someone who's a young female comedian to think, "Well, there is a place for me if I want to get involved in that career"?

A: In late-night?

Q: Across the board.

A: I think so. The odds are so bad for everyone, because it's just such a cutthroat field that we work in. And now, with reality shows taking the place of comedies . . .  Whenever there's a new reality show, there's a comedy that goes out the window. It's pretty insane. I read articles where I hear people say how the writers rooms are really blue, and they ask, "Does that affect how a woman feels in the room?" I think that's really a sexist statement. I think it's guys who don't want to hire women that are making excuses to not hire women. Any woman would be insulted. Basically what you're saying is, "You can't take a joke. We can't have you on our staff," which is just utter crap.

Q: It's kind of like telling an aspiring female doctor, "You can't be a surgeon. There's a lot of blood, and you can't handle it."

A: If you can't handle it, don't go into the room. It's the analogy I use a lot; I say, "You wouldn't go into medicine if you couldn't stand the sight of blood. Don't go into comedy if you can't handle dirty joke." The line is so different for everybody, and the line is always moving. So, you can't say, "I'm fine with a joke up until this point." It's just not how comedy works. That point is always ever-moving and ever-changing.

Q: You should never really say, "That offends me." You would say, "I think that might offend most people."

A: Or you would just say, "That's not funny."

Q: Who out there, male or female, do you like watching right now? Who are you a big fan of these days?

A: There are a lot of people out there who are so amazing. I think Kumail Nanjiani is very funny. Baron Vaughn is incredibly funny.

Q: You work very closely with Baron Vaughn.

A: I work very closely with Baron, yes. But, he's also a stand-up. Aside from doing Wake up World, he's a stand-up. In fact, I bring him out with me on the road a lot, because he's really really great. So, when I go do stand-up, I will often bring them with me. There's a woman named Erin Judge who I love. Dana Gould has always been one of my favorites.

Q: Well, when we put this out there, we're not going to say this is the definitive list of people Lizz Winstead likes.

A: You forget people, and then everybody gets mad at you. John Oliver is a good stand-up. There are a lot of folks out there that I love right now.

Q: Do you happen to like Zach Galifianakis?

A: I haven't seen Zach do stand-up in a very long time. The last time I saw him he was at the piano, and it was ten years ago. I laughed really hard. I do think he's very funny. Of course, also, Patton Oswalt is always hilarious. I saw David Chapelle recently do one of his marathon three hour sets. Literally every word was hilarious.

Q: I can't even imagine. I still struggle to get three minutes worth of laughs when I go up.

A: It was just astounding. I watched it. And I'm not one to sit and watch one stand-up for three hours. It really did make me think that he may be the greatest stand-up comic ever.


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