Lizz Winstead Unwrapped!
Girlcomic talks with Lizz Winstead about the state of comedy, feminism, and The Daily Show.
By Becky Donohue
The now of news
My Irish-Catholic father is currently reading the Koran. I am a comic who now does bits on Saudi Arabian princes and the history of military-operation names. CNN's Christiane Amanpour has become more important to me than Madonna. I've always been a newspaper reader, but I used to skip the international section. Now I read several papers a day and go to the international news first; it's not hard when global news is always on the front page. Times have changed. Gathering information has never been more important. That's why it was so interesting to talk to a fellow info-collector and popular-culture-phile like Lizz Winstead, who is a political satirist, performer, and co-creator of Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
I want to know the truth about what it takes to create one of the best comedy shows on television! Reality: I CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH. Before and after September 11, there has been no better program on TV than The Daily Show for taking the piss, as it were, out of the news. Comedic writers who work on these current-event shows need to scour every news source available to keep their product at the top of its game. A lot of writers seem to burn out on the news after a short time with such an all-consuming routine. I asked Lizz if she ever suffered from that. "You don't really create The Daily Show unless that's part of who you are," she told me. "I have been reading six papers a day since I was 25 years old. My whole life is about information. That's what I love. The show is a by-product of that."
Host driven vs. content driven - cute and smart vs. annoying and sarcastic - Jon vs. Craig The Daily Show that Lizz co-created is different from the one we see today hosted by the utterly charming and handsome Jon Stewart. For one, it was originally hosted by Craig Kilborn, who was like the British minus the charm. Every time I watched him, I thought, God, this guy is so sarcastic, it seems like he's English. If he had that affected British accent I might have thought he was cute, but he didn't. He had this American accent and a smarminess about him that made me think he was a dick. The reason for such a front man seems to depend on what type of show you want, explains Lizz. "If you want a host to look a certain way and have a certain air about him, then you go for Kilborn. When we were developing the show, we wanted to reveal, as they did in Broadcast News with William Hurt and Ted Baxter [on The Mary Tyler Moore Show] that these people, these [news anchors], are merely shells of the people who work really hard and give them the info behind the scenes."
It's all personal preference or prejudice, depending how you look at it, but I just instinctively like Jon better. It seems fourth-grade-ish, but if I like someone better I'm going to watch their show more. Lizz, on the other hand, has a much more adult view on Jon vs. Craig. She feels that it's simply a matter of format: "It depends on what you want in a show. The show was content-driven the whole time Kilborn was there. Now it's host-driven by Jon. Jon has strong political views, and he gets them across. Jon writes the editorials; Craig didn't write a word. Jon is much more hands-on. Jon's a producer, a writer, and a performer. So he's the voice of the show, as opposed to the writers and producers being the voice."
Feminism: Yes, you must live at the beach house all year round Lizz went from The Daily Show to working on the pilot for The Man Show. In a move whose irony is not lost on anyone, Lizz started her Man Show position immediately after wrapping up production duties for the twenty-fifth-anniversary show for Gloria Steinem's Ms. Foundation at Carolines Comedy Club. Maybe I took too many communication classes in college, but I have always believed in the FCC's "equal time" rule: a regulation that ensures politicians running for office will get the same amount of airtime as their opponents, regardless of budget. I only wish that this also applied to network television comedy shows - a sort of affirmative action for the funny, female sex. People could argue (and they have) that whether a show is the work of men or of women, if it's funny it will get on television. Not really. In a world ruled by advertising, it is those with the most dollars who get the most airtime, comedically speaking. That means we get lots of funny boys - lots of Man Shows, lots of Howard Sterns. (As Lizz so eloquently puts it, "All of television is The Man Show.") So, where is my female equivalent? Where is my Woman Show? Where is my show that doesn't kowtow to the female gender as Lifetime or The View do so overtly? Where is my sexy, smart, venom-spitting, tight-shirt-wearing, wisecracking girl show? Lizz isn't sure such a thing exists: "What would the female counterpart be? Bust magazine? I don't find that helpful to women. When I read Bust, I think, Wow, look - a magazine where women don't have to learn how to write and all they do is talk about sex. That's their only freedom."
Editorial note: I don't really agree with Lizz's opinion on Bust magazine. I believe a lot of women can write and have done so for Bust. It is more than possible that writing, much like comedy or music, is subjective, and therefore the writing of some may not appeal to others. Not to mention that Lizz is certainly entitled to her opinion.
So the feminists disagree, but at least we can agree on the word feminist - in that neither of us have any fear about calling ourselves one. I'm a feminist. There, I said it. See - nothing happened. The way a simple albeit revolutionary word such as feminist can become so sullied and scary to both men and women has always baffled me. Lizz Winstead is a feminist because she does not take the movement or the word for granted. "Just like any social-progress movement, feminism has gone through phases, and you have to start out yelling and fight for what you need. Women wanted the right not to be relegated to the home and the right to an education. Then we got that. Then we wanted the right to choose - whether it be to become stay-home moms or have careers. I think women who don't embrace feminism don't really understand how hard [it was] and how many people died and how many people put their lives and careers on the line so they could walk the Earth."
You can always go home again Lizz's roots are in stand-up comedy, planted in Minneapolis starting in 1987. For years, Lizz weathered the hellish road of stand-up life. Her smart material and perhaps her very presence as a female stand-up would cause a stir anywhere she went. Lizz openly disdains the modern comedy audience and theorizes on how Jerry Springer killed the comedy star: "I don't know that stand-up is great anywhere anymore. It's just hacks. We have a generation of people schooled to be an audience by watching daytime talk shows. It's horrifying."
Lizz Winstead is a throwback. She longs for a time when Lenny Bruce could do a whole bit on jazz riffs and coming, or Bill Hicks could tell a guy who works in marketing to kill himself. (I can't say I blame her. For more on how we can all become better comics and artists, check out Lizz's essay from Girlcomic's October issue, "My Fellow Comedians.") That's not to say there aren't times when Lizz loves being on stage. One particular show, a homecoming in Minneapolis, stands out in her mind: "I was half drunk, I had just come from a barbecue. I was wearing a barbecue apron with blood all over it. I improvised the whole show. It was fun." Which, of course, proves my theory that you can always go home again, even with blood on your shirt.
Look for Lizz Winstead's newest comedy creation on the USA network.
By Lizz Winstead
As a stand-up comic for almost two decades, and a television comedy writer, I have watched my colleagues grapple with whether - in the aftermath of this horrific attack on our nation - we can still be relevant. How will comedy survive? When will we laugh again? The overwhelming sentiment is that it will be extremely difficult, at least in the short run, to get back to the business of being funny.
I believe that those of us whose job it is to bring humor to television need to look more deeply into ourselves to examine why it will be difficult. Naturally it will be difficult because the American psyche may take a very long time to heal and in turn laugh again, and most late-night talk show hosts have addressed this issue with sensitivity. But that's only part of it: it will also be difficult because in America, comedy and entertainment in general, have taken the easy road for far too long. We now have a very important task ahead of us because comedy writers need to do what all Americans need to do: Rise above this tragedy and be better than we were before.
Over the past week, I've watched many of the late night television hosts and comedians hold their heads in sorrow, some even apologizing, in varying degrees, for their work, some for their very existence. Each expressed their sadness, and in light of the tragedy of a terrorist attack on our soil and innocent lives lost, struggled with their ambivalence about the comedic content of their programming. The universal theme was the hope that we could soon get back to "normal" within these shows, looking forward to the day where we could once again return to the way it used to be.
I and many of my peers would also like to see television humor return to the way it used to be when comics and late night shows actually led the pack as social critics, as daring questioners who held up a mirror to all who hold positions of power in politics, corporate America and popular culture. Not just their sexual proclivities, appearance or weight.
I hope that television networks and we in the comedy community will take this time to look inside ourselves and make a daring decision. Let's stop churning out material that we have to apologize for in times of grave reflection. Now is the perfect time to work harder. Let's reinvent our shows: adding jokes, sketches and social criticism that inspire great debate and question our leaders, our policies and ourselves. Let's go back to the days of booking guests that can contribute more than a bare midriff and a story about their adorable new puppy.
I listen to my fellow comics and late night hosts deliberate aloud before the viewing public whether the very nature of their comedic voices is trivial. I wonder with them why it took a terrorist attack on our soil for us to scrutinize the kind of comedy we provide. Before this unspeakable crime against humanity, did we really believe that a steady diet of Celine Dion jokes and Real World cast members as guests were substantive and relevant? We knew it wasn't and we did it anyway. We did it because it was easy. For that, perhaps we do owe an apology to a television audience.
One of the primary obstacles that comedy writers and producers face is from sponsors who fear that controversial content will alienate the consuming public. There is a way to be both sensitive to the market place and be provocative. Hit comedy television shows of the past were once a forum for not only actors, but also authors and comics like Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce. Dick Cavett once refereed a verbal slugfest between Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. Senator George McGovern delivered the news on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update." These kinds of programs used content that was relevant, hilarious and the viewers loved it.
Even now there are current examples of wildly successful satire in theater, film, literature and journalism where comics handle distinctly un-funny issues in distinctly funny ways. The unbridled success of Mel Brooks' Tony-winning Broadway revival of "The Producers" skewers no less a monster than Adolf Hitler. The Coen brothers Oscar-winning film, "O Brother Where Art Thou," made deservedly ridiculous the Ku Klux Klan. Admittedly, both of these shows take on an outside enemy: racism. George Carlin, however, has taken an even greater risk by looking inward at our decadent consumerism and self-absorption. In his latest book, Napalm and Silly Putty, Carlin satirizes both American foreign policy and pop culture and accomplished the enviable feat of landing on the New York Times bestseller list all summer. Ann Telnes, cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times, won a Pulitzer this year for her fearless and biting commentary on such serious issues as international human rights abuses, the hypocrisy that runs rampant in political rhetoric and the farce that was the presidential election of 2000. Informed, trenchant humor fills theaters and sells books and newspapers, providing proof that sponsors can make their bottom line and comedy writers needn't fear tackling the tough stuff.
There are alternate, untapped resources .We see and hear an abundance of creative, thoughtful and I dare say funny, artists, writers and pundits whose voices are only prevalent in forums like public radio and television or alternative presses. Now is the time to elevate them into the mainstream of network television. Some say these voices are too smart for TV, but aren't we all smarter after September 11th?
After writing the above I learned that recently Bill Maher aired his program, "Politically Incorrect," without sponsorship. After courageously voicing his controversial opinion, the program's advertisers pulled funding. No one in this society, and that includes anyone working in the field of comedy, was exempt from the attempt by these murderous zealots to kill our inspiration, our voice and one of our fundamental freedoms, the right to speak out, with humor or otherwise. It's what makes America great. Anything less becomes the voice of totalitarianism. These fanatics tried to quiet many voices and now comedy writers need to fight back using humor and insight that is informative, thought- provoking and self-reflective. Now more than ever we need more dialogue, not less. It's our job to challenge our politicians and our policies. It's our job to hold them accountable for whatever role our country has played in a world theater that brings out a level of hatred so deep that innocent lives are destroyed here and elsewhere. It's our job to use our ability to reach millions of people in a way that informs as well as entertains.
We need to provide great entertainment that always rises to the occasion not only in times of tragedy. We know that we need to take time to pause, reflect and mourn. Then we need to return to our work, knowing that we can use that other emotion: anger. The best comedy rises from anger that has done its homework and courageously steps forward. This is the kind of work that we will never, ever have to apologize for. Done right, it is anything but trivial. Done right, it speaks the truth.
Lizz Winstead is a political satirist and co-creator of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show".