On July 9, Daily Show creator, former Air America host, and comedian Lizz Winstead hit the road for a stand-up tour benefitting Planned Parenthood. She took a break from the show and finishing work on her forthcoming memoir to talk to me about what she’s learned about support for reproductive rights from her audiences; why conservative comedians aren’t very funny; how we can back up Planned Parenthood workers; and her dream television show in the post-Bridesmaids boom for women in comedy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How’s the tour gone so far? Are there things you’ve learned from your audiences along the way?
Really great! We did this sort of first leg, and I’m taking almost all of August off except for the 19th of August because I have to finish my book. It’s no longer a joke and nobody thinks it’s cute it’s not finished…[I’ve learned that] it’s still taboo to tell your story. I don’t know if taboo is the right word. There’s still fear…People have come up to me, at least 20 after every show, and said ‘I feel like I can tell my story.’ It’s sort of the Harvey Milk story…Once someone puts a face on a subject it makes it that much harder to demonize it. It changes the conversation a lot. I’m glad that it gives people some pause to think about what they’re doing with their own story and their relationship to Planned Parenthood.
The other thing that’s equally awesome and equally heartbreaking is how generally overwhelmed with thanks that the staff is. Because it makes me feel like more people need to be stepping up and helping them fight the fight. Those people are in their doing their basic job every day. That should be their job, not to be tortured every single day by these terrible people who protest in front of their clinics and terrify them.
In terms of telling more stories about abortion, what do you think accounts for our pop culture squeamishness about abortion and reproductive health more generally?
I think it comes down to advertising dollars. It’s still such a taboo subject. The extremists will boycott and they’ll rally and they’ll do that kind of stuff. When you go to a local market, [it’s a struggle] for the local press to write about the show. We’ve had to rely heavily on people like you, people like the progressive blogosphere. You have a wider reach, and you don’t care if they attack you. It’s really interesting how people shy away from it. You’re marked. You have to make a decision. I turned 50 on Friday, and I’ve had a really nice, fun half of my career, and what am I going to do? If I can’t use the voice I have to get people to pay attention to the news, than what am I doing? That’s kind of given me a clear path to other things that I want to do in the second half of my career.
It seemed to me as someone who had been watching the progression of anti-women and anti-women’s health care legislation, watching the complete escalation of it with this new Congress made me feel like I can’t sit there and let this happen. I have a voice, and I have a show that people like, they pay money to come see it. To be able to share this personal story, that it encourages other people to say so. It seems that humor, here’s a a completely obvious statement, has become a real driving force for conversations about the issues in the world.
From The Daily Show to this tour, you’ve had a lot of experience at the intersection of politics and comedy. Are there lessons you’d share with people who want to use comedy to make progressive arguments?
I do writers’ workshops along the way. One is, ask a lot of questions. You don’t necessarily have to be the person who has answers, but when you see something that doesn’t make sense, if you can engage through humor, it encourages people to think and to ask questions for themselves. The second is what’s the point you’re trying to make? If you’re just being snarky about the way someone looks or saying that someone’s an asshole, that doesn’t really help. If you can point out what they do in a way that challenges that credibility, their judgment, their intellectual heft, that can be helpful.
These Tea Party people, I don’t really care. I can’t have a dialogue because they’re not interested in having one. They kind of get a pass on me pointing out their hypocrisy.
Do progressives have an advantage when it comes to making comedy? To pop culture generally?
When you look at a conservative philosophy or worldview, conservatives continue to protect the status quo of things they think make things better, whether it’s trickle-down economics or defense spending, no matter where it goes. It’s hard to defend the big guy with humor. it isn’t as effective. For me, if you’re attacking people who are trying to make change, and you are governing through biblical scripture, and two people who love each other are morally wrong because a book written by fishermen 2,000 years ago says so, trying to defend that through humor is sort of bizarre. It doesn’t seem like conservatives, when they use humor, are able to look at hypocrisy on a case by case basis. Even people who I vote for, people who I like, if they use their power for evil, or they fuck up, they become my target. Everyone should be called on their shit when they screw up or they’re in bed with the wrong people. If conservative comedians aren’t going to be the watchdogs for conservatives, then they’re not going to be good social critics.
It’s been touted as a great moment for women in comedy, whether it’s the success of Bridesmaids, or the number of fall TV pilots that were created or written by or about women. What kinds of stories would you like to see women telling now that they’re in a hot moment? Is it success just to have women on screen, or does it depend on the kinds of stories they’re telling?
I haven’t seen Bridemaids. I never wanted to get married, and so movies about weddings, I know they’re out there in the world, and I know I have to see it to support the whole deal.
What I have found, and this is really interesting, I do feel like comedy is progressing, and as shows are being developed and run by women, and by young men who have come of age with women in their lives constantly performing a bunch of other roles, all of a sudden…it’s who’s funny and available. The ones that are run by guys 50-plus are the ones that have issues with women in the writer’s room, and can women be funny? it’s generationally very funny…The biggest part of a writers’ room is failing so you can get your shitty stuff out and start thinking about the good stuff. There are some rooms where men are freaked out about having women in the room, because if they’re not funny in front of a woman, what do they have? It’s a fascinating dynamic and one lots of men wouldn’t want to admit about themselves.
I think that Bridesmaids would have been funny 10 years ago. I think that 10 years ago, there wouldn’t have been an industry that recognized that, that would call it a woman’s movie and would pigeon-hole it. You look at Mad Men. Ten years ago, Mad Men would have been on Lifetime because there’s so much fashion.
Is there a particular kind of show you’d like to see happen in this particular moment?
A dream of mine, I don’t know how old you are, but do you know the show Love American Style? If there could be a show that was vignette-type, intermixing comedy, dramedy, and some drama, where the vignettes were not necessarily about women but were driven by situations that women are put in…It would be amazing to me. Remember that HBO thing, If These Walls Could Talk, all these different scenarios about lesbian couples? If we could do that with women, everything from being at work, to caring for an aging parent…It could be very cool to see. There are so many facets of things that we all go through in profound ways in all different age groups. I’m twice your age, so the shit I’m going through is different than the shit you’re going through, but both are valid, and both are part of our evolving culture.
As I’ve been doing my Planned Parenthood tour…when I did these benefits in the past, I would be the youngest person at the event. Now we’ve got 80 percent first-time donors and many of them are in their 20s. There’s a very interesting loss of engagement of women in their 30s. As women in their 30s, they’re post-Roe, didn’t see any assault on Planned Parenthood as we know it very much going through their lives, and now they’ve come into their own money, and they have health insurance and they don’t use it. It is pretty fascinating how there is such a disconnect.
Are progressives losing the war to save reproductive rights because we’re less engaged?
I don’t think it’s that we don’t care to fight back. When we have a machine like the Catholic Church, for example, coming up against Planned Parenthood, who’s trying to provide services every day and fight these battles, I think Americans might not understand the profundity of what their chapters need in terms of support and volunteerism. Part of the tour for me was, because of Planned Parenthood, I got to go to the doctor every year, and I didn’t have to go broke, and I didn’t have to freak out, and I didn’t get judged about it. If it’s just Planned Parenthood fighting for PP, they’re going to flame out from exhaustion. Those of us who use it need to step back and say I paid $40 for that…The people who use it should be really thankful.