"Comedian Lizz Winstead on Hecklers, Edgy Material, and Her Memoir, ‘Lizz Free Or Die’"
Comedian Lizz Winstead has opened for Roseanne Barr, co-created both Air America Radio and The Daily Show, and in May, she published her first book, the essay collection Lizz Free or Die. I loved her tour of Minnesota comedy clubs and behind-the-scenes look at standing up one of the defining progressive cultural institutions of the last decade, and when Daniel Tosh became the center of a wide-ranging conversation about comedy, gender and etiquette this week, she was the first person I wanted to talk to. We talked about the social contract between comedians and their audiences, owning—and executing—material on the highest level, and what she learned from Roseanne. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
One of the things you talk about in Lizz Free or Die was how, when your friend Christine suggested you try stand-up, you realized it hadn’t occurred to you that your life could be material because so many of the stand-ups you saw were men.
They weren’t necessarily the comics I love. I wasn’t necessarily an aficionado, but they were the guys I saw doing comedy. I would be watching Carson with my family and there would be a bunch of guys in ties. I think it’s changed dramatically because of everything and the internet. Late night is still notoriously male, the women comics featured to the men comics featured are notoriously low. But women have said “If you’re not going to book us, we’re going to start our own web pages…[When people talk about new female comics they like] I ask, did you find them on late night? And the answer is no, I saw them on Funny or Die, or these cool pop-up shows. Women are forging their own paths. They get to hone their own voices and present what they want outside the limits of a ten-minute routine.
Carlin still throws a long shadow over the industry. Because he could pull off things like rape jokes with a high level of precision, a lot of people seem to miss the point that the key to doing that kind of material is doing it well.
Where I agree with Daniel Tosh is that everything can be funny…people have made all of these things funny. The movie The Aristocrats was hilarious, trying to one-up the most horrible joke ever. Every joke would put the most vulgar, horrible things within the confines of that joke. If there’s funny, there’s no controversy. And if there’s not, there is. I don’t defend anyone who apologizes [for their material], because if they apologize, they didn’t believe it when they said it. Louis [C.K.] and Patton [Oswalt] can be edgy, and Sarah Silverman can be edgy, but they’ve crafted these jokes and they believe in them. If you don’t believe in it, I don’t find it very interesting. Every time, and I can only speak for myself, the question I ask myself is “Do I believe it? And can I defend it?” When you’re a political comic, you’re immediately going to piss off half the people because America is divided. I get death threats from telling my abortion story once a month. Someone wants to rape me or wishes I was dead.
Well and that raises a central question here. How do you think comics should deal with hecklers without getting into ugly territory?
One is how was the audience reacting to the whole thing. Daniel Tosh hasn’t responded and neither has the woman, so we don’t know how this horrible thing was received. That would add a layer, this horrible thing was acceptable to this audience. If Daniel Tosh thinks anything is fair game, just tell those jokes, then. If he’s going on and on, there’s a constrast for a comic and a comedian.
If it’s a comedy club, the contract is the person’s going to get on stage and explore comedy however they see that comedy is. And the contract for the audience member is to come and see that, and you don’t get a guarantee it’s going to make you laugh, but the comedian is going to attempt to make you laugh. But if they’re not attempting to do material, and the article made [it seem like Tosh was discussing concepts rather than telling jokes]…
A comic should have the freedom to go on stage and say whatever they want. The only control you have is what passes your lips. After, you’re saying “I’ve passed this up to be judged.” Everyone else gets to decide whether it’s funny…all the comics say don’t laugh or leave. Those are your options as an audience member. The bigger discussion for me, is if someone walks into a comedy club and gets a lecture about what’s funny or not funny, has that comedian broken the social contract? That’s the question that I would ask because I don’t have any information about the context he was talking about it. It’s all very confusing. The whole thing, we’re talking about so many issues of what people get away with and what they don’t, and at the end of the day, if you’re going to do material that pushes boundaries, you better be fucking funny and know the purpose of why you’re saying those things.
If you’re dealing with a real heckler, someone who’s broken the contract when you haven’t? I was thinking about Patton Oswalt’s famous takedown of two women who were talking on their cell phones during one of his show. A lotof what he has to say is very funny and insightful, but he uses words like “cunts” and “retard” almost as comedic breathmarks, things that get cheap, surprised laughter that he can use to compose his next substantive thought.
What I would say, if someone is on their cell phone or just decides it’s their mission, if you’re on the cell phone, or you just heckle a comic, or a comic is on stage trying to work out material and you do anything other than listen to that person, then fuck you. You have broken the social contract as the person in the audience…That word can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. If that’s how you feel, then that’s the jumping off point, could you be creative or even more withering by saying something that’s really, really intense, that really makes us hyper-aware of how profoundly inconsiderate that person is being?…I’m never going to tell someone don’t say that. I don’t use it because for me, personally, it doesn’t give anybody any more information about the people you would like everyone to know is being a complete and total disrespectful asshole. I like to call out specific things so it gives everyone a second chance to look at that person and say your behavior is really appalling. I’m going to remember that.
Should clubs do more to protect comedians from hecklers?
If you would like something to be done vis a vi hecklers, if you’re someone who is like “I can’t deal,” you should probably tell the club that, and if they don’t [that’s a larger problem.” There are also comics who are incredibly funny at doing crowd work and engaging the audience. The second part of this, and this is where it gets tricky, what if your expierence is seeing someone who does an incredible job at crowd work. Paula Poundstone brings everybody in, it’s really great. If you get a dim bulb person who saw that at a show, they don’t remember if they instigated [an interactive bit] or Paula instigated it, so they go to another club, they instigate it, and they’re a douche.
That’s an example of why the norms around audience interaction and heckling, which is often portrayed in pop culture as a way comedians showcase their dexterity, or discussed as a way comedians prove themselves to an audience, are confusing, even to someone like me.
It’s opened up a giant can of worms. When I did The Green Room with Paul Provenza, we did a roundtable about Michael Richards. I got into a heated thing with everybody there:
When I look at the comics I love who are controversial, I’ve never heard them apologize because just saying things that are edgy isn’t enough. It has to be funny. And there are people who, even if it is funny, are going to think there are things you can never say. Then you go into a very slippery slope of how do you define who is in power and in charge of who gets to say that…There are people who have come forward who say “I deal with things in my life that are hard through humor.” It’s all very selective. If you’re going to be someone who is out there who is pushing the envelope, be fucking funny, and take the hits. It’s just like anything else, if we were talking about Piss Christ, or Robert Mapplethorpe, Giuliani banning scat on the Virgin Mary, Chocolate Jesus, a comic who says rape…The comic isn’t the only person who has rights in this situation. People get to react to it.
To go back to your book for a minute, what was it like opening for Roseanne Barr? What did you learn from her?
She was the first woman comedian that I saw live [as] a headliner. she was also the first woman I saw who was really just not being self-deprecating. She was owning her truth and saying “Fuck you” to all these people who say shit about women, and it was really fun to watch material that was empowering and then to have that person on stage be invested in women who were trying to be the same thing. She was nice to me from the get-go. She saw my little developing act and said we’ve got to stick together because there is power in numbers. That was something that stuck with me always. I wanted to make sure we were wall in this together. If you look at Congress, when there aren’t women making decisions for women, someone is, someone’s making decisions for us and defining who we are…They try to drum that into you constantly, there are only a few slots for women, maybe she’ll get what you want, maybe you don’t want to have an allegiance with her.
Were there specific things you learned about joke construction or tone from her?
Whatever we talked about, what I walked away from and what I often say to other people, “Your voice matters—act like it.” Whether she actually said those words or not, what I got from her was act like you deserve to have an opinion and a point of view, so that’s what I do. I firmly believe that and I say that to people all the time. Stop asking permission for having your opinion. You get to have one like every body else.
You’re talking about forming a supportive community, but can it be a problem when comedians close ranks in defense of something that’s clumsy or not funny?
The rank-circling for me is yeah, I guess people feel like they’re on the defensive constantly, and people are terrified if what is perceived as the censor police getting their hands on people trying to develop their craft…And that is terrifying to anyone trying to do what they do. So I understand the immediate circling of the ranks.
But my question is can we have a conversation about someone who poorly executes craft? How do we overcome someone who is bad at doing provocative material? Maybe that is the big question in all of this: when someone is bad at executing provocative material, why does that person define all provocative material? And comics need to say don’t let someone who failed at doing provocative material tamp down other people who are provocateurs and are good at it and don’t apologize for it..I take things on a case by case basis, and in this case, it was a big fat fail. It says more about [Tosh] than it does about that woman. He’s rewarded, he’s made a career, apparently, doing that, and therefore there’s a market for it. And the fact that it’s rewarded is a question of why aren’t we rewarding other super-talented people? I don’t know. Whoever is circling the wagons, they’re going to have to be cool with how people react to all of it. You just have to take everything that comes at you when you publicly put out your art. You juts do. That’s part of being an artist. You’re not doing it in a vaccuum. You’re doing it in public. Part of that is if you say something and it creates and conversation and a dialogue. People don’t like it and they have every right to say I don’t like this. I want to live in a country where those two camps get to thrive.