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.