Lizz Winstead has long considered herself a radical actor – as she says, being a woman who stands on stage and decides her opinion is worth hearing is a radical act. A Minneapolis native, Winstead has done stand-up, was the brains behind The Daily Show, and started The Lady Parts Justice League, a New York-based reproductive rights organization that she founded in 2015, which uses humor and outrage to expose anti-choice hypocrisy and mobilizes people to take action in all 50 states.
Winstead is coming home on May 9 to headline NCJW Minnesota’s 125th Birthday Fundraiser, “Laugh Your Lady Parts Off with Lizz Winstead” — emceed by Jana Shortal — and TC Jewfolk was lucky enough to be able to catch up with her to talk about her career, activism, and family.
Have you worked with NCJW in the past?
We just did a rally at the Supreme Court and NCJW was a part of it. They’ve been on the forefront of reproductive freedom, and activism and progressivism and feminism and radicalism. I was really honored when they reached out to ask me if I would be part of their event. I’m thrilled and delighted to help out my Jewish sisters who are fighting the fight in profound ways.
People are very excited you’re coming.
Everyone calm down. I’m not that big a deal.
You’re you, though.
Tell that to my family. I’m the youngest of 5 and they’ll make sure there’s no “you’re you.”
Just because you’re you, you don’t get exempted?
My brother is the mayor of Bloomington, so I’m nothing when I come home. It’s hilarious because when I do something — which is often — that is offensive to many parts of society, he will get e-mails and calls. He doesn’t even open them anymore. He calls and says “what did you say?” He just wants to be prepared.
Is it usually that bad?
We’re so divisive right now as a country, that if you open your mouth and say anything, there are people who send letters or emails to people. Extremist people who spend all day yelling on Twitter and writing elected people are going to write things that are horrible.
How did you make the transition over the course of your career from stand-up?
For me, just being a woman who stands on stage and decides her opinion is worth hearing is in and of itself a radical act. So I realized just by doing that, it was an awakening for myself and the audience. If the people who are off-put by someone merely taking the stage, they’re going to stop listening to what you’re saying anyway, so for the people who stick with you and are happy you’re there, I felt like I should say something. For me, there was a couple of touchstone moments. I always talked about the way the media looked at women, and society looked at women. Then also just dating jokes, blah, blah, blah. But it was the first Gulf War that was a wake-up call to me to join America. I was on a horrible date and I joined America in watching a war unfold in our living room for the first time. To be on a blind date and have him turn to me and say “this is really awesome.” At that moment, I was wondering if they were trying to report on a war or sell me a war. Something flipped in my brain to be like “I must have an answer to that and I must talk about that on stage.” I started talking politics, really profoundly, in the early 90s.
Then I went on to produce Jon Stewart’s syndicated talk show. When that got canceled, my bosses became the heads at Comedy Central. They were like, “Do you want to come and develop a show that’s on every day?” I was spending all my time observing that the media is as culpable as the media makers. The show can hold as a character the format with which we do it. It looks like a news show but we act like a comedy show, I think we’re on to something. And they’re like, “OK.” And I’m like, “Wait, are you listening to me – I’ve never done this in my life.” Why would anybody listen to me? I think what I realized was in doing The Daily Show, then Air America, in corporate structures, you are not allowed to have a call to action. That is not what people want from you. You can be an anger-fluffer. You can bring people information and point out hypocrisy but then you just create a nation of people who are literally, like, “what do I do?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I’m just a comedian.” And I kind of got sick of saying that.
In 2010, when all of these laws started happening all over the country and caught people off guard and clinics were closing all over the country and reproductive access was eroding really fast, I really got panicked. Myself, as someone who had an abortion when they were a young person, and because of being able to have access to that, I was able to pursue what I needed and I understand that my full humanity was granted to me. I understood that I needed to incorporate that into my world.
I went on tour and visited clinics and did fundraisers. They said thank you for being here, I don’t know why you’re here because no one ever comes. People come and get services and leave. We have these throngs outside protesting us. The world from the anti-abortion extremists to well-meaning pro-choice was shaming them all the way around. When a provider hears “I’m pro-choice, not pro-abortion,” and for doctors that provide that and put their lives on the line every day, it feels shaming. That kind of makes me feel like crap about myself. The lives of many people would be drastically different. I want to elevate messages and point out the bad guys in politics trying to make these laws. If you say you are someone who believes in human rights, are an activist for equality, you need to be in the fight with us. Every time a man says to me, “How come women are still fighting this?”, I say, “How come it doesn’t occur to you to be part of the fight so we don’t have to do be doing this alone?” So the one thing I know I can do is draw attention to issues is by using humor. After visiting over 130 clinics, I was like, I can’t do this by myself in this one-man crazy-ass road show. I got together with a bunch of comics, writers and editors at my house, had a potluck, and said we all need to be in this together because no one is doing this work. I looked at the landscape of reproductive health rights and justice and there was no organization doing any kind of boots on the ground visiting, doing shows, bringing the community together with clinics to try and grow activism bases. I was like I could do that. Why can’t we be a crazy feminist USO thing that travels around the country, does these big shows, comedy and music shows, the audience hears what’s at stake, and can sign up right there with local activists and be on-the-ground supporters of the clinic and fight the laws and bring aid and comfort to the clinic and be a support system. We make videos to bring awareness and travel the country to show how we can be supportive of the clinic to change laws in the state. That’s my life now.
That’s quite the transition from The Daily Show to this in 21 years. It’s crazy if you think about it in that context.
But isn’t it also, what’s the point of realizing you’re good at doing political humor, realizing that audience, and participating if you ask them. Isn’t the natural conclusion to ask them?
I think it is.
I just felt like there was no other choice for me. Someone needs to do it, and I can do it, and it’s fun. You get together with friends and really talented people and create a community who are super awesome and talented, to come to work every day and figure out how we will make change and humiliate people who are horrible. What a great job.
Do you feel like at these big events that it’s preaching to the choir? People who come out probably know what you and the Lady Parts Justice League is about.
I’m not in the business of necessarily changing people’s minds on abortion. I’m in the business of activating people who say they’re pro-choice who haven’t been prioritizing this issue and then being vocal and actually putting boots on the ground. People don’t know what’s happening on the issue. They think they do. But if I were to question you about five things, you’d have no idea what I’m talking about. Whenever people say that, I say, “Is there a reason the choir shouldn’t have more songs, or have direction on the content they are singing about?” I’m preaching to the choir. But that’s fine.
It shocks me that people think this is a done issue.
Or that women need to fight it themselves. Patriarchy hurts everybody. Everybody needs to fight to end it. When you look at the way the “me too” movement comes about or anything comes about to do with the systematic white supremacy and patriarchy. If we were all equal everything would be better. Your sex life would be better. You’d have better food on your table. Your kids would be better, you’d have more vacation time. Your life would be more balanced. We literally value people and spread the wealth and power and work around. You’re raising smart, healthy people. That means more free time for everyone.
You mentioned #metoo; has what’s come out, being in the industry, been an “a-ha moment” that you’ve known about forever?
It is for everybody. The thing I find that is, my whole team is either queer, or female-identifying for the most part, and everybody has a story. I think for me, the narrative that we don’t hear a lot about in the “me too” movement is the general erasure of women in totality. There are these stories of harassment and sexual abuse. And then there are stories of never having women around to begin with. When you are a comic and comedy writer especially or a producer or a behind the scenes person who’s creative, the number of times and instances that we hear about occurring because women aren’t even considered to have jobs where they could intervene or not have been empowered to intervene in a way they didn’t feel threatened themselves, is another giant piece of it that I think is super important to talk about.
Children are coming up in a world where it’s foreign and uncomfortable to them to be the only man or white person in decision making. To have these kids recognize their own privilege to address the issues of where gun violence is happening in communities of color with over-policing. They fully understand and intersectionality is something they are raised with. That’s pretty cool.
Growing up in a Catholic household and having had an abortion, were they ok with what you’re doing now and taken on?
My siblings are all incredibly supportive, and they see the change I’m making. My parents have both passed away; my mom was not [OK with it]. She was very sad. She was not happy. I would have to say to her, “Here’s the thing, we have a great relationship and I’m doing work I believe in and I feel like I’m a better daughter because I have created a life and was able to create a life that made me be able to be active in yours. Part of that was because of my access to abortion. You’re never going to agree with that and also you weren’t put in the position to have to do that and I didn’t come to you because I knew it would be awful for you to have to tell me what to do.” I think she thought I would regret it my whole life. I didn’t just sit around on the couch. I had it for a reason, and I went on to do other things. I feel like there’s a pattern you can follow that shows I’m not living with pain and regret. It’s interesting that back in that time, there’s no more disagreeable issue with someone who’s an anti-choice Catholic and someone who is fervently pro-choice and pro-abortion access. There’s no shame in it because there’s no shame in anything about it. To be able to still have an incredible relationship with my parents, the days of having incredible relationships with people you disagree with are gone and that makes you feel sad. I wonder how [my parents] would feel now with the orange menace in power. I don’t know.
With the dumpster fire happening everywhere; immigrants on the precipice, black and brown people are on the precipice, women are on the precipice; Muslims and Muslim immigrants, poor people. The environment. You don’t even know what to do because it seems overwhelming, but it’s important that you keep your issue burning and tie into intersections about how all these things work in tandem with each other and how they cross-pollinate so we can be active and have activism with people who come from different places.
Is it hard to try and make light or do humor about this?
No. Everything’s fair game and it’s how you pick your targets and how you do it. I think humor is an equalizer and brings people into a tent and it causes discomfort. I think people don’t talk about abortion a lot. They talk around it and make excuses for it and they don’t have self-examination about why they do that. I think that our presence on the scene pushes that boundary and opens things up for people. We cause people to question themselves. I feel like we are doing a lot of stigma work by bringing things into the light and understanding who the targets are. I have no problem taking the heat for anything I say.
For more information on tickets, check out the NCJW website.s