J. Betty Ray's Pop Tarts

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When this interview was conducted in early December, Lizz Winstead was the head writer for The Daily Show on Comedy Central. She and Executive Producer Madeleine Smithberg had created the half-hour nightly when Politically Incorrect jumped ship for ABC, leaving the network with a void of reality-based satire in its evening line-up.

The original Daily Show was a delightfully "twisted bastardization of the MacNeil Leher News Hour and the Today Show," as Winstead had described it from her production office in New York. "Respond to the world. Make it reality-based. Develop whatever you want," she had said. "Those were the only parameters they gave us."

Two weeks after I spoke with Winstead for this interview, the show's doughy-faced anchor, Craig Kilborn, was suspended for a week without pay for making sexist remarks to the press about Winstead and other female Daily Show staffers. Apparently this wasn't the first time Kilborn had been ordered to stay home from work; according to the New York Post he was also suspended for insubordination from his previous job as anchor of ESPN SportsCenter.

Indeed, tensions on the Daily Show set had begun surfacing last summer. According to an interview with Kilborn in the January issue of Esquire magazine, Kilborn had complained to Comedy Central president Doug Herzog, requesting more creative input. He claimed that the material he was being asked to read could be "potentially damaging to his career," and went straight to the top with his complaint.

The other writers rallied around Winstead, and she came away from their negotiations with as one insider put it "an iron-clad contract."

Whether it was retaliation or just plain old loud-mouthed testosteronespeak, Kilborn went on to make his offending remarks in the Esquire interview: "There are a lot of bitches on the staff, and, hey, they're emotional people. You can print that!... Lizz does find me attractive. If I wanted her to blow me, she would."

Before the magazine hit the streets, news of the interview reached network executives. They flipped at the bad press, and Kilborn was suspended. There was even talk that a search had begun for a replacement.

However, when the show resumed production at the beginning of January, apologies had been issued and the situation had supposedly returned to normal with Kilborn at the desk and Winstead behind the pen. Before the first week was over, Winstead had quit. According to a Comedy Central publicist, it was those nasty "irreconcilable differences" that can break apart relationships of any kind.

Since Winstead's departure, the Daily Show has gotten noticibly more scatological undoubtedly to secure better ratings among the juicy frat boy demographic which host Kilborn seems to represent. Glimmers of Winstead's spirit live on in the intrepid reporting of her hand-picked staff of corrospondants, A. Whitney Brown, Steven Colbert, Beth Littleford and Brian Unger, but the political edge has definitely dulled.

Judging from Winstead's enthusiasm on that afternoon in early December, the Daily Show was the only thing that mattered to her. She adored the staff, and refrained from dissing any of them, even when prompted off the record. Perhaps the most ironic moment in retrospect was when Lizz was describing to me how she convinced Unger to join the Daily Show staff: "I stole him from CBS saying, 'Hey! Legitimate news no longer exists! Get outta there! You're in a dead-end job!'"

Whether or not Winstead's position in "illegitimate" news a show that she helped create was a dead-end job remains to be seen. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Winstead's hometown paper, she has received four offers from other networks. "I spent eight months developing and staffing [the Daily Show] and seeking a tone with producers and writers," she told the paper. "Somebody else put [Kilborn] in place. There were bound to be problems. I viewed the show as content-driven; he viewed it as host-driven. Forget it." Wherever she goes next, may it be in an environment where her brand of genius is appreciated, and stupid, ignorant remarks are taken for what they really are.

Tripod: Do most of the ideas for the show come from you?

Winstead: It's so collaborative, I'm telling you. Most ideas come from no one person. I'm the lucky one who gets all of it put into my lap I weed through what I think will work and what won't. But the stuff that ends up on our cutting room floor is funnier than a lot of the stuff that makes the air on a lot of these late night shows. I just think the writers are so talented and smart and funny. They're just great. Great great group of people.

Tripod: So are writing sessions there just madhouses? I can imagine they would be!

Winstead: It's the craziest, most politically incorrect place on the planet.

Tripod: When you started The Daily Show, did you have a staff in mind or did you pick up people as you went?

Winstead: We had people that we definitely knew we wanted to hire. Madeleine and I worked together on the Jon Stewart Show, and there were people I'd worked with as standups and as writers who I'd adored. So as it unfolded, we just sorta brought people into the fold. Brian Unger is somebody who has been a very dear friend of mine for a hundred years and I stole him from CBS saying, "Hey! Legitimate news no longer exists! Get outta there! You're in a dead-end job!" So he took the job. Whitney I'd known forever from Comedy Central and Saturday Night Live. Really, we just got people we liked working with.

Tripod: The production is just as funny as the stories themselves. You guys really know how to nail a soundbite!

Winstead: That's how they present news in the "legitimate" and you gotta heavily quote that news organizations. We're just following their timetable. We can't stray from that or it wouldn't be a parody of how we're presented information. Everything is in three and a half minute blocks. Everything has a graphic and a theme song. We can't be interested in it unless we build a big production and the words "Something `97" flies in at you. Then you pay attention to it.

Tripod: The Daily Show is, in some ways, one of the most subversive shows I've ever seen. Do you get a lot of flak from news organizations or viewers who find your material objectionable?

Winstead: I thought we'd get way more people writing, "This is offensive! How can you say that? Blah blah blah." But we are such equal-opportunity slammers the people who hate us the most are the Christian Right and PETA, oddly enough. Everyone in between has a sense of humor about themselves, but those two particular groups are SO HUMORLESS.

Tripod: You did a hilarious biographical spoof about a fictitious, dead, "heroin-chic" supermodel named Milo. Where did that idea come from?

Winstead: That was so much fun that show was all about ripping A&E a new one. I was watching Biography which is a really interesting franchise and they had a biography of Lance Ito. I thought, "They have hit rock bottom. Who cares about Lance Ito?" So I thought, how about inventing somebody who is not real and taking on both the genre of Biography as well as supermodels?

Tripod: Heh heh. One of the things that I find fascinating about media is how it's so starved for dirt on celebrities' lives. The Daily Show and Milo take that one on pretty strongly. What do you think is up with that? Why are viewers are so hungry for that stuff?

Winstead: Ugh. I dunno. We just live in a society where for some reason we hold celebrity in an esteem that's above all other things. I don't know if it's because people are so disillusioned with their own lives that they latch onto this weird Hollywood thing, but it's REALLY disgusting. When you look at the pay scale of a teacher versus the pay scale of someone who's in an action movie that's usually sexist and racist and way too violent, it's appalling. It's really appalling.

Tripod: Indeed. You pretty much captured that sentiment with your shot of the guy hiding in the trunk of a car with a telephoto lens on your year-end special.

Winstead: That captures in one frame everything that is wrong. Right there.

Tripod: Ah, but the cycle continues. I was surfing the Web recently and found a scathing rant against the Daily Show, citing it as "Exploitation TV."

Winstead: Ooooooh!

Tripod: It's by a gentleman named A.J. Skunk who dresses up in skunk costumes as sort of an anthropomorphic experiment. Apparently someone from your show wanted to do a segment on him, and he felt they were too condescending. Do you have any comments you'd like to offer Mr. Skunk?

Winstead: You know, he dresses up in a skunk outfit, God bless him. I think it's weird. Whatever he wants to say about the Daily Show is fine, but if you dress up like a skunk to get in touch with your Inner Skunk, than that's something that the Daily Show would like to show the American people. He can say whatever he wants. I could care less, God bless him.

Tripod: So, tell me, who are YOU sleeping with?

Winstead: (laughter)

Tripod: Just kidding.

Winstead: (sighs) No one. I work 18 to 20 hours a day.

Tripod: Oh God, Lizz, I was kidding!

Winstead: Oh I know. But I'll answer anything.

E-mail J. Betty Ray at betty@fucker.com and visit Fucker Dot Com as well. Copyright 1998 by J. Betty Ray and Tripod, Inc.
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