The first lady of political satire, Lizz Winstead is a multi-hyphenate performer whose humor is equally at home on network TV and in an activist coven. The Minnesota native co-created comedy behemoth The Daily Show in 1996, founded reproductive rights organization the Lady Parts Justice League in 2012, and published a book of essays, Lizz Free or Die, in 2013. Winstead’s biting wit is a daily balm for the bullshit that streams onto our screens 24/7, so we were thrilled to chat with this feminist badass about protesting for political change, her patriarchy-smashing songs of choice, and tips for female creatives grappling with imposter syndrome.
How are you preparing for Trump’s inauguration this week?
We got a lot of shit going on. We’re really psyched people are going to Washington — I’ve marched on Washington four times and it’s been really great — but we want to stay local, just so that we could really march with people who couldn’t afford to go to D.C., people who for whatever reason would feel triggered about being in D.C., the elderly, differently abled, just all of it. We want to make sure in the course of everybody getting active and standing up and having their feelings heard that we could try to help people congregate to do that. As of you and I talking right now, we have 1,500 people marching under the Lady Parts Justice umbrella. Since it’s only Tuesday, I’m guessing it will probably be north of 2,000. We also have an activist fair going that’s really cool between 10:00 and 5:30, so folks who can only march for a little or who can’t march at all can come and meet some grassroots organizations that are in the community and talk to them about how they can be helpful as a volunteer, or donate to them if they want.
Then we’re going to have some really fun carnival games that get people learning about people in the Trump administration, and then we’re having a dance party that celebrates Roe v. Wade. It’s a 1973 dance party that’s gonna play all kinds of music, but we’re going to focus a lot on classic, amazing 70s disco. We’re really excited about how many people want to march with us, and we’re really excited about how many people want to center abortion access in their feminism and in their activism, and we feel really good about that.
If you were to carry one sign in the Women’s March in NYC or DC, what would it say? What would represent the core goals of your activism?
I think the sign that would sum up my activism the most is, “the politics of your uterus is local,” because the center of power in Washington is out of our hands and has always been especially with reproductive rights, voting rights, incarceration, and policing. If people could just be convening in their homes and figuring out, “Hey you know what we need to do, we need to send people to our city council meetings and have report backs, and find out the people we like and raise money for them, and tell them we want to support them to move on to higher office, and to expose the people who are being horrible on our city council.” Cutting off the path to next level stuff, and encouraging people and showing them that the citizenry is paying attention: that would be my dream. If people assign themselves to taking on what’s happening in all their school boards, mayoral races, and state legislature, that would make me happy.
This is arguably a golden era for comedy we’re living in, and yet, it’s also painfully unfunny. How do you keep your sense of humor?
I feel incredibly lucky that I get to take this information in, assess it, and then spit it back out. To have a mechanism with which my brain processes it for people is incredibly great. To be able to say what people are thinking in a way that’s funny? It really keeps me going. I often wonder, “How do people who wake up every day and don’t have an outlet feel?” And so I hope I can be the outlet for those people. For me it’s a catharsis. And also I have an organization full of really smart, interesting, funny people who everyday are creating ways to make people’s lives better, make people laugh, raise the spirits of people who are doing really good work, let them know that they are needed and loved and supported. I feel like right now my career is as fulfilling as it’s ever been, I get to do all the things I do and nobody says, “Oh you have to be funnier, you sound like you’re partisan.” I don’t have any of that, and it’s really great. It’s some of the best work I’ve ever done.
In the past if someone told me about an organization that was part humor, part reproductive rights and advocacy, I wouldn’t have seen the cross-section clearly, but there are so many videos that Lady Parts Justice has made where you’re laughing, and learning, and realizing how horrifying this situation is at the same time.
To be able to be an organization that’s not just like Funny or Die where it’s, “Here’s a funny video” — to be able to be the organization that makes the funny video and then we’re coming to your town, and here’s more stuff you can do, and learn about this shit here — it’s really, really nice. You don’t even have to fight back when people go, “Are women funny?” “Are feminists funny?” It’s like, you know what? You’re so boring. The fact that your life is full of women who aren’t funny is really sad. It’s like, pull your head out of your ass.
You’ve been a student of media manipulation for decades now, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
What is the same is that the Washington media has always been suspect to me. While they are reporting on stories they’re also trying to get invited to this one’s party and this kid’s play date. They’re trying to suck up to power no matter who the power is. To me that’s just always been a terrifying sign. That part of it has always given me pause and it’s only just worse and more bloated.
The thing that’s the most different and the most terrifying is that because we have so many information hubs — it’s been said a million times and I’m not gonna tell you anything new, but — people can really be in their silo, hear the information they want to hear, find four sources that back that up, so they think that that’s cross referencing, and then they can dig their heels into bullshit. I think the thing that’s just really, really crazy is that now people will believe any shit to double down on their hatred. The fact that people will believe Hillary Clinton is running a sex ring out of a pizza place in Washington D.C., or that tragedies like Newtown or the Boston Marathon bombing were filled with tragedy actors hired by the government is really new and really fucking crazy. It’s bad enough that there’s people who are doing it and making money off of it, it’s worse that there are so many people who will believe it.
I almost feel like cigarettes have a warning, there should be a warning on fake news or something…
You know when you’re training a dog and you put a Citronella collar around their neck and then when they bark it squirts in their face? I wish there was a fact-checking collar that journalists and politicians have to wear so that every time they lied they would get squirted in the face, and it would jar them and we would see it.
To take a different turn, I want to ask you about music. I’ve read your book and you have a lot of ties to the music scene in Minneapolis. I can’t believe Vanity saw your vagina…[Read Lizz Free or Die for this amazing story, I cannot do it justice here.]
Vanity saw my vaganity. I believe I actually wrote that phrase in my book [laughs]. The most embarrassing moment of my career, and it happened early on. I mean it literally stopped me from giving a fuck about anything that happened onstage again. Nothing could ever be as bad as that. Stage fright just kicked right out of me.
Everyone should be so lucky!
Yes, everyone should have their vagina exposed to 1,500 people in a rock club to get over their stage fright. I think that is definitely a truism.
Some new form of alternative therapy clearly is in there somewhere.
Or that situation will create a new form of alternative therapy because it’s so traumatic.
If you had a patriarchy-smashing playlist, what are some of the tracks that might be on it?
It’s interesting because some people would think of feminist scream songs, but for me it’s about the songs that keep me activated.
“Let’s Go Crazy” – Prince
The entire soundtrack to Hamilton
“I Will Dare” – The Replacements
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana
“Never Really Been” – Soul Asylum
“The Whole Of The Moon” – The Waterboys
“Great Leap Forward” – Billy Bragg
“Mississippi Goddam” – Nina Simone
“Formation” – Beyonce
“Soulful Dress” – Etta James
Anything by Sly
The latest Childish Gambino record
The “About Us” Section on the Lady Parts Justice site describes you all as a coven, and I am curious about that choice of words?
I think when you say coven, then you think of witches, and then you think of witches doing horrible things. But once you get to know witches, witches brew up good things and dispel evil. I think people need to re-invent what witchcraft means.
I so appreciate you being open in your book about whatever imposter syndrome you dealt with throughout your creative career. Because I think it plagues so many people, but so many more women. Do you have any advice to young creative women about how do deal with that shit?
The short answer is: you matter, act like it. When you fuck up, just remember that’s just one thing you did, just like when you do great that’s just one thing you did. Constantly give yourself the law of averages of fucking up and doing great, so that you don’t self-define as either. Relish in the successes and don’t wallow too much in the bullshit.
Photo Credits: Mindy Tucker; Lady Parts Justice League