Daily Show Co-Creator Lizz Winstead on Activism Comedy and Being “Abortion AF”

Lizz Winstead "loves herself some Houston" and has a few Greg Abbott jokes up her sleeve
Lizz Winstead "loves herself some Houston" and has a few Greg Abbott jokes up her sleeve Photo by Mindy Tucker

Before Trevor Noah or John Oliver, before Samantha Bee, before Bill Maher, before even Jon Stewart was a television fixture taking swipes at American political figures, there was Lizz Winstead.

The co-creator of the Comedy Central landmark developed the series with Madeline Smithberg and Doug Herzog to fit the voice of former ESPN anchor Craig Kilborn and while she left the show in 1998 (before Stewart brought the show its decade of Emmy dominance), Winstead never stopped speaking out on the issues that matter.

Flash-forward to the Trump years, and Winstead is still fighting back – this time, with company. “It’s kind of like Lizz Winstead and Friends,” says the satirist describing her September 21 gig at The Secret Group. “How we usually frame our shows is: I’m a super political comedian. I kinda set the tone for the day’s events, so you can count on me to be doing some really weighty material about politics and the world around us. And I have some of my favorite comics come and kind of run the night; I’m sort of the mistress of ceremonies, if you will. Both of these comics are so terrific. Mehran [Khaghani] is an incredible gay Iranian man, who talks about growing up gay with an Iranian mother. And he’s been on the Comedy Cellar and on Comedy Central, he’s great. And Joyelle Nicole Johnson is just a force, she’s somebody to watch because her star is rising.”

And no, the layperson may ask, a target rich administration does not make the political comic’s job easier. “It is a SHIT TON harder now,” the topical jokester blasts. “It used to be I could pick ten or 15 stories, and really break them out and find the hypocrisy in all different kinds of angles. Now: forget about social media because that changes it just because the conversation changes so abruptly, but now with an administration that changes the narrative of how you write every 30 seconds? The fact that world’s on fire in all these different places? The fact is that it used to be if you were a political satirist, and were doing it right, you had to call out the people you liked also - when they messed up, or used their power or were stupid, you couldn’t take sides. Like you had to say I like you but boy, did you just fuck up.

"But now with the fake news train, people don’t even look at comics as the necessarily reliable narrator anymore, because they’re in an information bubble that doesn’t even allow them to hear or invite the truth in.”

Rather than live in the '90s, Winstead is rolling with the punches – and working faster and looser. “For me, for each show, I basically write to the week’s news. So when you see me in Houston, you’ll see me talking about all the shit-wittery that happened in the past, I’ll probably have like two weeks of relevance, more likely two days. It makes it kinda fun. You have to be more genuine and it’s also like, how I sell it! I can’t craft it and memorize it. So I got music stands, I gotta have notes. I’m a bit of dervish where you trust that I’m going to bring accuracy and funny, but I also know that [I] might just be all over the place. I’ll be like,Oh my God! I forgot this part! It's really fun because if something happened that day, I get to be like: You guys, while you were driving here, this thing happened! It does become a sort of energetic spin art lesson coming out of my mouth.”

The event is in partnership with Winstead’s group Abortion Access Front (or Abortion AF, to get cute), which focuses on supporting women’s health clinics in targeted communities.  Winstead explains: “We started touring about three years ago as we had developed relationships with activists and providers in states that had been getting really hostile to access to abortion, and coming up with all these laws. So we’re going to Houston and Austin as well.”

“What we do is, we’re kind of a crazy gang of writers and comedians and musicians who have decided that we want to use what we do in more than just tweeting our rage and stuff. We decide that a really good way to help people was raise awareness on the issue and help people mobilize. We’ve identified all these really cool activists on the ground, we’ve become friends and had relationships with clinics on the ground, so we’ve looked at how we can help people to learn what the clinics need and how the activists can grow their base. That is by doing a show.

"So we go to a bunch of towns, do a show and we have tables where you can sign petitions and take action right in the room. Then we have a conversation with the local providers, have someone who is doing activism around reproductive rights come onstage. We have a really cool conversation and the audience gets to ask questions, and then folks can sign up right there to be helpful locally with the local activists in their town. So we just figure we have a platform, its easier to bring 200 people into a room with a show and then say you guys are on – give ‘em a pitch and tell them what you need, then to ask who wants to come to my kitchen to talk about abortion. That gets like 10 people.”

Part of the appeal of working with art-driven creatives, Winstead explains, is often their solutions can be outside the box. “At each stop, we work with the local clinic and we find out what they need, and we do some kind of facilitation. A lot of things I think people don’t realize is if you are an abortion provider in a state that’s hostile, sometimes you can’t get somebody to do your landscaping, or need trash removal or [you] need your clinic painted. That’s part of things they say to the audience, but we do the needs right there. We’ve re-done people’s gardens, we’ve done a DIY re-do of your reception area, we have a special graphic designer who has made incredible artwork for the clinics specifically so that we can re-do their art. We’ve painted exam rooms, and we do nice stuff for the staff – whether that’s taking everybody out for manicures and pedicures after work or let’s go out and get a drink. At one clinic in Cleveland, they asked us if we could get a mobile hot tub in our backyard and just have wine in the parking lot of our clinic?  We were like, sure! We’ll babysit your kids so that you can do stuff.”

Many political satirists may be lending big ideas voice while tucked away on the coasts, Winstead is traveling through fly-over country to get her message (and her jokes) to the people who need to hear it. “Getting the audience involved and getting the community involved – it’s really cool,” she reflects. “It’s also really saying we see you, we recognize you and we know what this is like. We want to do something pampering and we want to do something you clinic really needs that you’re having a hard time getting help with. It’s pretty rewarding.”

Part of the 58-year-olds goal also is education, and “re-framing” the issue of abortion access all together. “For a lot of folks – people who can give money do. But others ask, is there something I can do with my physical self? It’s super important [to know that] it’s activism just to stand up for abortion rights. Its activism to say: I will not allow the stigmatizing of a procedure that 1 in 4 people will choose in their lifetime! I want to be part of a solution that re-frames how to talk about abortion, you know? That stops making it this silent taboo, and for people who are really engaged – the people that are most effected by these laws are poor people and people of color. For them to say, if I don’t have money to donate how else can I participate? What can I do? What we love about it some much is you don’t have to be a comedian or musician to be part of our gang. Are you good at crafting? Can you bake something? Are you good on the phone? Can you keep people organized? Are you good at making lists? Can you run errands? Then people feel like whatever my skill is or whatever I can offer, I get to participate. And it doesn’t always have to be financial. And frankly, doing tangible practical support and learning who and working with and for the folks you’re trying to help really invests you. You meet these wonderful people."

Moreover, for Winstead, this fight for safe access to women’s health remains personal. “We can’t fight for abortion if we don’t name it,” she proclaims, “and if we don’t name it, we’re adding to the shame. For us, it's just super important to say we’re Abortion Access Front, we’re the front lines of this and we’re taking it to the streets. We are not fighting battles at clinics, because there is only one side that brings hate and anger to a clinic. A clinic is place of refuge; it’s a medical facility. The people who provide the care aren’t violent, horrible people – there’s people who stand outside and create a horrible situation for a lot of people who are [already having] a pretty bad day. To think that you’re entitled to lob on to people while they’re choosing an abortion – that, to me, is sort of the opposite of the Christianity they profess that brought them there. It's sort of the opposite of the kindness they say they have in their hearts. I mean, I get called a witch and the devil and like, you name it all the time. Its like, are you actually telling me I’m a devil worshipper? Okay… So to be able to constantly be in public and live in the light, and that’s really what this is all about.”

More fun for the Minnesota native, is sharing the love of activism with her comedy colleagues. “Mehran has done shows with us before, and he’s always had to come in and go back really fast. So this time he’s bringing his husband, so his husband can really see the work and that they can do clinic work together!. Talk to anyone who has done it, and it's really life changing. To have celebrities and stand-up comics like Sarah Silverman and Beth Stelling and people who have done stuff with us before – I just want to do this all the time because I meet these people and my life is touched forever.”

“That’s my whole thing – come in and get involved in it, see what you do and see how it makes a difference. That’s the double-edged sword of the heartbreaking and the joy. I started doing this because I would go to a few clinics on my own, before I had the organization, and when I wanted to visit the clinics they would say to me: I can’t believe you’re here [because] no one comes here. No one visits us! It was so heartbreaking for me. So I just started bringing cupcakes and small things, and people were so grateful!

"I just thought, there is something wrong that we use these facilities, they provide so much care including wellness visits for poor people and pap smears, and some clinics do soup-to-nuts whether its trans care or pre-natal care. So to have them appreciated for what they do, I think it really matters. It keeps people going. When every day going to work someone is telling you that you’re murderer and you can even drive your car home the same route every night because someone is taking a picture of your licenses plate? Following you home and subsequently mailing to all your neighbors that a murderer lives in your neighborhood with your name and address? That’s a thing that happens all the time! To just do an emotional reset to remind folks that we see you, we see what you’re doing. It’s our mission.”

Lizz Winstead (and friends) is scheduled for Friday, September 21 at 7 p.m. at The Secret Group, 2101 Polk. For information, call 832-898-4688 or visit $15-20.

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee