'Daily Show' Creator Lizz Winstead's Entrepreneurial Fight for Reproductive Rights
Free Book Preview: Unstoppable
Lizz Winstead is a fighter. She fought to get Comedy Central's The Daily Show, which she co-created, on the air in 1996. She persevered in co-founding the beloved-but-short-lived Air America radio network (featuring hosts/raconteurs including Chuck D, Rachel Maddow and Marc Maron) in 2004. And in the decade since Air America's sunset, she has pounded the pavement in support of comedy-club tours, one-off pay-per-view shows and published essay collections that dovetail with her constant advocacy on behalf of femanist and humane causes.
On this day, she's battling through the grief of having recently lost her younger sister, Mary Virginia Winstead, to ALS. "I feel really lucky to have a great family that's super supportive and super close, so we have each other, and that feels really great," she says of working through this time. But true to her reputation, she remains intent on promoting her latest activist-entertaiment endeavor, an evening of music and laughs dubbed "Do Re #MeToo", taking place virtually on Sept. 17 at 9 p.m. EST. Tickets are pay-as-you-wish (follow the previous hyperlink to purchase) and grant access to the sights and sounds of Winstead and friends including Broadway star Laura Benanti, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Margaret Cho and Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go's sending up classically misogynistic, male-driven pop hits from over the years. All proceeds go to Abortion Access Front, an organization Winstead founded in 2015 (then under the name Lady Parts Justice League) to promote reproductive rights across all 50 states.
Over the course of a half-hour phone conversation, Winstead talked about summoning an entrepreurial spirit to pull this pandemic-era fundraiser off, surrounding herself with collaborators who embody the DIY spirit, and what success means to someone who originated an iconic satirical news show but keeps persisting to combat — and find humor in — our culture's serious challenges.
Given all that's on your plate at any time, do you view yourself in an entrepreneurial light?
I feel like anybody who is not part of the white, male power structure has to be entrepreneurial. For a woman who wanted to do something on my own terms, there weren't a whole lot of like white guys being like, "You know what? Why don't you come in and reestablish how you want to do things around here?"
So instead of being constantly mad at having doors closed in my space, which was frustrating, I just decided — and luckily in tandem with how technology developed and all these avenues opened — I can create what I want. It's going to be hard, but at least I can set a different table with different people at it and try things that would maybe be rejected by creative standards of the past. I'm pretty scrappy.
Does that describe the ethos that went into founding AAF?
With AAF, I was wanting to do something in the space of abortion-rights activism and realized there was a big hole that could be filled with humor and self-care and bringing joy. There's so many people doing amazing activism work around getting low-income folks and marginalized folks care, but there wasn't an organization that was able to gather people for awareness around different aspects of abortion care. And through touring and our shows, being able to gather a fan base in a room and then have them also meet folks who are providing the care and the activists in the town we're performing in and hear what they need. People would sign up right up in the room and join up with these people. That was really fulfilling, watching these pods pop up and helping the people who were already doing the work.
Has it been challenging drawing attention to a specific rights issue when everyone's preoccupied with the pandemic?
Yeah. You know what? Reproductive rights and abortion access always falls into the wayside, and part of that is it's too controversial. People like to separate out abortion so it's a wedge issue or as though it's not really a priority or it's not really essential care. And if you're pregnant and can't be for whatever your reason is, that is very real and very urgent to access that care. Oftentimes we don't think of the framing as if somebody cannot provide for another child and doesn't have the means, that shouldn't be forced upon them, especially during a pandemic.
I think a lot of people don't understand that at this time of Covid, the first thing that happened in many states from governors who have been trying to end access to reproductive care is they immediately said, "We're shutting down clinics that provide abortions. It's not essential care." They literally said, "You can put your pregnancy on pause," as if your belly button stops and you can go back to doing what you were doing later. So, reminding people how reproductive care is part of social justice and a human-rights issue, that is what we like to do — bring humanity and joy and have the messaging around that in a time when gathering is not necessarily happening.
"Do Re #MeToo" seems like a natural extension of that philosophy.
For sure. All these really amazing women and women-presenting musicians are coming together and reclaiming the most sexist songs ever recorded to poke fun at men who write songs about women and be like, "Oh, this is what it sounds like when it comes out of my mouth." It gives people a whole lot of catharsis. They can sing along, they can have a rage, they can see some of their favorite people doing it, and it's an evening that feels like a good time that you can either watch with your friends on Zoom, or do a screen share or watch it by yourself, but you can have some fun while you're doing it.
In scaling this down from what would be a live-venue affair to a remote event, did it help to surround yourself with artists who come from DIY backgrounds in music and comedy?
Yeah, I think it did because all of the artists came up through the scrappy ranks to begin with. Also having singers and musicians who have come up through the sexism in their industry. One of the artists, I won't say who, is like, "I fucking hate this song, and I cannot wait to sing the shit out of it, and I just want you to know how much I fucking hate it."
It's really funny to be able to have those real moments with people and also to have them understand that mentality of, "Why is it that the rights of women and queer people and the fight for that always seems to be funded by the people who are being oppressed in it?" It's like that bake-sale mentality all the time — we are in it, we're trying to survive in it and then we're also trying to raise money to help.
In-person is always preferable, but is the fact that virtual events have no maximum attendance capacity at least a silver lining?
That makes it really fun, because when we were doing it on the road, we were choosing cities where there was a pretty strong music scene, but that means you can only do it in a Portland or a Minneapolis or L.A. or New York, Chicago, Austin. Here, all these people can watch it and all these people can play and they don't have to be there. I've done some virtual comedy shows as well where it's really fun. What's really sweet about it is somebody who lived in Boise or Mobile, Alabama can be like, "Oh, I can tune in and watch this cool concert that might never come to my town." And that makes us feel excited. Even when we do get to go back out on the road, I think that it's worth it to do a virtual one once a year, just for the folks who it's not available to.
The big question: After a long career with its requisite peaks and valleys, not to mention your personal commitment to advocacy work, what do you constitute as success?
It's kind of cheesbally, but I choose projects based on whether the process of the project rewarding. When people look at The Daily Show and the success of that, they need to remember that I was working for shitty cable TV money back when cable TV was relatively new and everyone was like, "Why would you work with cable? Why don't you try and work in network?" It's like, because I have freedom there, and they're allowing me to do things I couldn't do. And that that grew into a behemoth.
With Air America, [it was], "Why are you doing that?" Well, because now cable has got all these restrictions and somebody said, "Do you want to come and put your stamp and brand on this radio network where you get to be funny and outrageous and say what you want?" So if it isn't nurturing and fulfilling, and I'm not learning and creating relationships and making change, then I'm not interested. I want to be tired because I had a great day. I don't want to be tired because I was burdened by shit I don't care about.