“I Don’t Have Any Other Skills!” The Lizz Winstead Interview, Part Two

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I started watching The Daily Show way back when Craig Kilborn was the host. In those days, the show seemed to focus more on pop culture than news; it felt – to me at least – a bit closer to Greg Kinnear‘s Talk Soup and its followup with Joel McHale, The Soup. How do you think The Daily Show as it exists today differs from your original concept?

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Lizz Winstead: Well, I would argue with your premise. Because we didn’t do “Here’s a clip, here’s a response.” We went out and shot pieces from day one. And we were also covering every single convention, things about politics, every night.

There are a couple of things that were different. It was more like The Colbert Report in that everybody was staying in character; we didn’t have a “voice of reason.” Jon [Stewart] really came in did that, and – to his great credit – made it a better product.

Also, we were working with the news that we were given at the time…

BK: Ahhh…

LW: So when people look back and think that it was more pop-culture focused, remember that the media itself was so obsessed with pop culture that we weren’t even getting news. There were, in those days, eight or ten evening “news magazine” shows that were populating prime time. They covered topics like [intones mock-serious masculine voice] “What you don’t know will kill you!” And CNN was like the trial of the century…of the week. Anna Nicole Smith; they were covering celebrities constantly. And so why The Daily Show felt pop-culture-y was that we were a mirror of the news itself. The show followed the trends of the news, and satirized them along the way.

So as we got more cable news, the tenor of the nation – and the show – followed that. And we satirized that.

BK: You’ve convinced me; that makes perfect sense. It’s an interesting perspective to view The Daily Show as reflecting what’s already out there in news media.

LW: If The Daily Show had launched five years ago, it would have launched into a very different world. And what I’m really excited about now, with Trevor [Noah] taking over, is the evolution of the show taking on the Glenn Beck-type media outlets, and tech stuff. And apps. Being able to show where people are getting their information from now. Because if you look at it statistically, 70% of young people don’t even watch TV. They get everything in their phones, right? And so the information delivery is different. And that will make it a different show, and they’ll react to it in a different way.

BK: Here’s a question with a long intro, if you don’t mind. I first saw you – as did a lot of people, I imagine – as a regular guest on The Ed Show. I certainly get where they were coming from, having you the “Club Ed” segment to take a sarcastic look at the important issues, and to try and lighten things up a bit on a Friday evening the way Rachel Maddow did with her cocktail recipes – but as much as I enjoyed you on the show, I think it didn’t always work.

And for me, the only reason it didn’t work was that there was no live audience. As good as your timing and delivery is, there’s a key ingredient that makes stand up comedy work, and that’s the shared experience of receiving it in a room with other people, at least some of who get the joke. Doing it with just you and Ed – or it could be any stand-up and any co-host – ends up meaning you almost have to laugh at your own jokes. Do you think that’s a valid perspective?

LW: You know, I do. Ed’s someone who is a voice of the people, responsive to current events. When [a format like that has] someone on via satellite, it just doesn’t work. When Melissa Harris-Perry or Chris Hayes has a panel, they’re really getting into the meat of it. Even when you watch Bill Maher; those are the most effective places for that happening. I’m not even sure you need a studio audience, but you definitely need more than one person. People sharing and jumping in; in that situation there’s bouncing off of ideas.

So I have to agree with you; for me, it feels much more organic that way. Also, I’m not necessarily a joke-punchline sort of person; I’m more a “here’s some information, here’s the setup, here’s the follow-up, on to another thing that comes into play.” So when I set up an “I’m going to talk about this topic,” there are lots of places I go with it. I’m super conversational, but putting me in a box for three minutes and asking, “What do you think?” It’s like…ugh. So I don’t disagree with you about that.

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BK: A question about comedy in general. I’ve read that you – like me, as it happens – come from a fairly conservative Catholic background. And not to generalize too much – like I did with the question about the nonexistence of conservative comics – but it seems to me that many, many of the best comedy writers, let along those who can deliver the material – come from Catholic and Jewish backgrounds…

LW: [laughs heartily]

BK: …I think it might be because of the cognitive dissonance they face growing up, the disconnect between what they’re taught and what they experience in day-to-day life. And of course there’s the guilt, which is always great fodder for comedy. What are your thoughts on that?

LW: I think that when you are experientially in a place like that – there are some great Muslim comics; they’re awesome; and also, people of color – when you’re where the power structure isn’t, it’s good. Because [back then] the Protestants where really ruling the roost. So the Catholics had something to rail against what you said, the idea that, according to family, the life I’m supposed to lead is not [connected to] what’s happening in the real world. And you can also rail against the larger machine.

I think that when you have an upbringing that is rooted in a doctrine that is so impractical, you can really find humor inside of it.

BK: And of course Catholics and Jews don’t have the market cornered on that.

I didn’t know – until I did my research for this interview – that you were a founder of Air America. I liked it and was disappointed when it ultimately didn’t work. Why do you think it didn’t catch on the way that angry-white-guy right-wing radio does? I like to believe there are ultimately more of us than them.

LW: You should watch the documentary [Left of the Dial] because it’s fascinating. We had a funder who lied about the money. So that, in and of itself, was a huge problem. He didn’t have the money and lied about it. So we ended up with all this weird, crazy stuff that was not conducive to keeping a network going.

It was such a bummer. We were the number one streaming thing that was happening on the internet right then; we had terrestrial stations. Y’know, every time somebody says, “Oh, you were the George Soros funded blah blah blah,” I want to say, “If only George Soros had given us a dime!” We couldn’t get money. I don’t know why we didn’t think about becoming listener supported.

But it wasn’t the content [that led to Air America’s demise]. Look at the content: you had Marc Maron in the mornings; he now has the number one podcast in the country [WTF with Marc Maron]. You had Rachel [Maddow] and me, nine to noon; we know where Rachel is, and you know where I am. Al Franken is a U.S. Senator. Sam Seder has a giant podcast. Janeane Garofalo is a movie star. Our on-air talent went on to become incredibly successful. So the product model was what didn’t work.

I think that the brilliance of FOX News is that they never say, “We’re right-wing TV.” They say, “We’re fair and balanced.” And we said, “We’re progressive radio.” So maybe that was a mistake, looking in hindsight, to say, “Hey, do you want some clarity in radio? Listen to us.” We hit “progressive” to try to own it, and to help break some of the stigma associated with liberalism. But maybe what we needed to have done was just not identify ourselves at all, except as the reality-based community.

BK: I just watched the North Carolina video on Ladypartsjustice.com and it’s a scream. It does a really effective job of communicating important issues with humor; it manages to address an important subject, and uses humor that makes it more effective, not less. Creating that kind of content – where the underlying message is more important than the comedy – seems like a difficult thing to achieve, but you succeed. Is it as difficult as I ‘m suggesting?

LW: Y’know what? It might sound crazy, but I don’t have any other skills! That is what I do for a living. So for me, the truth is as important as the humor. What I have found is that if you can go about a way to get at the truth, then you can mix it all up together, which is kinda cool. You can be funny, edgy, and touching, all at once. In one video. And I think that we’ve managed to create that with what we do.

North Carolina – I say this over and over again – is the most important state where nobody knows what’s happening. It’s a microcosm, between your choice laws, your immigration laws, your voter suppression laws, your unemployment legislation. All of that shit that is happening in North Carolina, and then there’s the election of crazy-ass Thom Tillis; Art Pope, and all the bullshit you’ve got going on down there.

The good news is that when I tour, I get a lot of good material that is locally driven; stuff that you guys never get to have fun with. So I can shoot that at the audience, which is really great.

BK: You should find a receptive audience here in Asheville; we’re nothing like the rest of the state.

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LW: I love Asheville; I haven’t been to The Grey Eagle for a couple of years; this will be my third time coming there. I love The Grey Eagle and Asheville, and I love Carrboro, too. Those are the two venues that I’ll do in North Carolina, and I’m so excited.

BK: Your upcoming Bang the Dumb Slowly show in Asheville is billed as “an evening of political satire.” How much of your material for the tour is put together ahead of time, and how much space do you leave to work in bits about, say, something that happened this week or even the day of the show?

LW: I write up to the minute. I’ll do some evergreen political stuff, but mostly my act will consist of shit that has happened over the past three months. And I always leave space for day-of, of breaking news. Like this week, that crazy thing that happened with Anonymous [published list of prominent KKK members].

I’ve come up with a system where I work with two music stands; I use them as fake TelePrompTers where I can stuff up to the minute and have notes. So what’s really fun about my show is that it changes. So if you saw my show three months ago, at least twenty-five minutes of it would be new. I’m more into writing to the news of the day than into writing the best joke possible, because it makes it more exciting and fun.