Lizz Winstead, the subject of my newest interview for Pop Geeks, has been active as both a performer and an activist since the 1980s. Starting out as a stand-up comedienne with appearances on many popular comedy programs of the 80s and 90s, she would later go on to co-create the seminal Comedy Central program The Daily Show. From there, her performing and her activism grew in tandem. She’s well-known for helping create the pro-choice organization Abortion Access Force, previously known as the Lady Parts Justice League, and she recently released a socially distanced comedy special, Corona Borealis, on Vimeo.
Danny Deraney, who previously set up my Pop Geeks interviews with Lori Alan, Shedrack Anderson and Maryam Henein, connected me with Lizz last month, and we discussed Corona Borealis, Abortion Access Force and more. I hope you all enjoy reading this interview.
Say hello to Lizz Winstead!
Johnny: By the time this interview is published, your special, Corona Borealis, will be available for rental and download on Vimeo. What were, respectively, the easiest and the hardest parts of filming this special?
Lizz: Aah! Well, the hardest part was probably, since I decided I wanted to do some kind of show that was 100 percent safe, so people could social distance, choosing locations that were not traditional soundstages or theaters where you normally shoot specials.
I did the special in two parts. In one part, I’m standing on the shore of a lake, and my audience is in kayaks. I had to build the set, and we shot the entire thing using generators. There was no power on the lake. We needed an audience of 20 in kayaks to be still, to not row a lot and splash a lot (laughing). Also, micing an audience is pretty tough when they’re out in the woods.
The second part of the show was shot in 19 degree weather around small bonfires, so I could finish out the year in the woods. When you watch the show, you’ll see that sometimes there’s just wafts of smoke coming out by me since people are freezing. The weather, I think, was the trickiest part, and lighting and sound for doing shows in nature is super-tricky.
The easiest part was, probably, getting people to come because people have been so cooped up and trapped, and were dying to see a live performance. The fact that I provided one for them, and mind you, each audience was only 20 people social distanced because that was the safest way we could keep it…When I put it out in a newsletter to my fanbase that I was doing these shows, the seats were snatched up in about seven minutes with a waiting list of 400, so that just gives you a clue as to how badly people wanted to see a show and be part of something. I think that pretty much answers the question.
Johnny: Alright. What message are you hoping to send out with this special?
Lizz: You know, my whole career I’ve been somebody who responds to the news, the world, politics and social issues. I take on tough topics, and being quarantined in Brooklyn as I live in part-time in Brooklyn and part-time in the Twin Cities, and having the pandemic hit New York as I was there by myself, and going through my own feelings of being scared and going through the motions, and then watching George Floyd get murdered and watching the town I grew up in erupt in an uprising…
I really wanted to speak to what everybody was feeling, so I guess the thing I wanted to do was tap, with humor, into the sheer experience we are all having. It’s rare that a nation goes through many things together that are very intense, Corona and systemic racism and the election, right? I wanted to talk about those three big buckets of topics, bring humor, tap into the way we all relate to things, and remind folks that we have shared desires, fears, hopes, idiosyncrasies, paranoias, and bring it all together in a way that makes us feel we’re all together in this.
Johnny: A very noble concept. As an activist and a comedienne, you’ve been witness to many hectic years, so would you say that 2020 has been the most chaotic of those years?
Lizz: I would say hands-down. You know, there’s been waves of chaos. There’s been wars. There’s been #MeToo. There’s been a lot of things, but I think this one has been the most chaos, in my opinion, because there has been a dereliction of leadership to help us navigate it at all.
Not only did we not have leadership, but we were all experiencing something for the very first time, especially with Corona, without anybody to say, “You know, we’ve been through this 20 years ago, and this is how it went”. Even the experts were learning, so it was very tenuous, and so I think this year was different in the sense of, “Oh my god! Nobody knows how to handle this. We’re all just in it together, hoping for the best”.
Johnny: It’s definitely been very chaotic, so when the chaos of coronavirus finally subsides, what’s the first thing you plan on doing?
Lizz: I think the first thing I plan on doing is hopefully having sex with somebody. I don’t even care if it’s a stranger (laughing), just some kind of human contact. Human contact.
Johnny: I can understand that. I was hoping to spend Christmas with my relatives, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to be happening. They’re in Port Chester, New York, and that’s in a zone right now that’s pretty dangerous, so I may not be able to spend Christmas with them like I did last year.
Lizz: Yeah, I think that’s the whole thing. That’s one of the reasons that I dropped the special the day before Thanksgiving, because it includes so many of the topics that you would be talking about with your family around the dinner table, maybe fighting, maybe agreeing, but to be able to have, throughout the holiday season, this special that’s sort of a recap and a kick to the curb of 2020, I think it’s going to be nice for folks who are maybe by themselves for the holidays, or maybe with a small group who can have something fun to do and, really, something cathartic to do throughout the holiday season.
Johnny: Definitely. Moving to a different topic, as the creator of the Abortion Access Force, previously known as the Lady Parts Justice League, do you welcome people who took a while to see the light and understand the importance of a woman’s right to choose, or do you prefer to just work with people who understand from jump street the importance of that right?
Lizz: Truth be told, I would say, to reframe your question, I would say that there’s not a whole lot of people who really thought about access to abortion as a human right, or really understand, if we don’t have it, who that affects most, which is poor people and people of color.
To me, the reason that I focus on it so much is to remind folks that if you don’t have the opportunity, or the government feels there is a part of a person’s body that they can regulate, or they can force someone to have kids if they can’t afford to or don’t have the capacity for any reason, then you no longer have 100 percent freedom, and you no longer have all of the avenues for yourself that dictate your A: full humanity and B: help you explore every avenue for your own self-determination.
Having reproductive coercion on any level means that you have looked at anybody with a uterus as a second-class citizen, and as somebody that the government gets to decide how and when you choose to live your life. I want people who have never thought about it in those terms to really hear about it in those terms, and to hear it throught the storytelling of people who have been able to thrive and get on with their lives because they have access to birth control and abortion.
I want to be able to provide a home for folks who have been fighting along the whole time, and also to message in a way where someone who might not have thought about it before would say, “Wow, you’ve made a point I never thought about. I should really think about this more and get more active”.
Johnny: Alright, speaking of which, whether it’s through Abortion Access Force or another outlet, what would you suggest as material to get a person to understand the importance of choice?
Lizz: I would say it’s important to talk to folks who have had abortions. It’s important to really look at websites like the Guttmacher Institute. Get the facts, because so often, it hasn’t been physicians or patients or researchers or experts who have been driving the narrative. It’s been anti-abortion zealots who have been driving the narrative, and driving the narrative with misinformation that can be harmful.
I would say to people that if you have feelings or judgments about folks who have had abortions, every single person has a story, and it’s important to really listen to those stories and understand why people access abortion care. I think, so often, we make blanket statements and have large blanket opinions without realizing that people have abortions, and the reasons they have them are their reasons, and they’re good ones. I think that’s where you start, by listening.
Johnny: Alright. To move to a different topic, to go to the earlier years of your performing work, you’re a BoomXer, part of the micro-generation born between 1957 and 1963 that, as can be inferred from the name, bridged the Baby Boomers and Generation X. How did being a BoomXer influence your work as a performer?
Lizz: You know, I think it’s interesting because my work as a performer and my work as an activist have always kind of been melded together. My parents were both World War II veterans, and my siblings who are older than me were anti-war activists in the 60s and 70s. I lived in a house that clashed and had a lot of conversations, and talked a lot about politics. I also grew up in Minnesota, which is full of really incredible activism.
I think how I grew up, where I grew up, and the people that were my family in life really helped set me on my path. You know, my dad was a very conservative man. He said, “I raised you to have an opinion, and I forgot to tell you it was supposed to be mine”. I think that’s something where he encouraged us at our dinner table to read things and, even though there were wildly differing viewpoints, participate, pay attention and really think about, and go for, what you want.
I think that having parents who were like, “Go for it”, was really great. I never felt like I had to be pigeonholed into something I didn’t want to do. I felt like I was able to pursue my dreams, and I feel really lucky I had support doing that.
Johnny: How very lucky. You first broke through to a national audience on HBO’s Women Of The Night specials, a series that focused on highlighting female comics. What are your favorite memories of working on those specials?
Lizz: Well, I mean, the fact that I got to do a show where the great Andrea Martin was the host. It was the thrill of a lifetime to have her host the show, and come out as characters like Edith Prickley, her classics. It’s where I got to meet Susie Essman and Joy Behar, and became lifelong friends with them because of the special.
One of the memories was unbelievable, and goes to how women are treated in comedy. The special was called Women Of The Night, and the opening scene was us in an alley, dressed up like hookers in the 70s, getting out of a car. It was pretty hilarious that we had to be reduced to some sort of, you know, sexual thing.
It was kind of like: So, if a woman is on stage, you can’t just have it be called Awesome People On Stage? It has to be Women Of The Night? Not that I have anything against sex work, by the way. I think sex work is fine, but it’s like throwing it into that space. Growing up and starting in comedy in the 80s, segregating out women from men in comedy happened a lot, you know?
Club owners would say, time and time again, “You can’t have two women on stage together because men wouldn’t come to our show”, so when they would highlight women at first, it was always “Let’s put the women together in one special”, or have it be a novelty show, as though women are a monolith and we share the same experiences, and couldn’t possibly follow each other on stage and have different things to say.
That’s evolved a lot, but that was very prevalent, but doing those comedy shows, and there were so many of them, from An Evening At The Improv to Two Drink Minimum, a bazillion comedy shows constantly, was really fun. It forced you to write a lot of material because you were getting booked a lot, so you had to change it up a lot. They were great experiences. I feel very lucky about my career and who I’ve met, and who is in my life because of it.
Johnny: Alright. You’ve definitely showcased your comedic work in many ways, and one of them is this: One of your most noted credits is as the co-creator of The Daily Show, where you also appeared on camera as a commentator for the first few years of the show. What are you most proud of having done with The Daily Show, whether it was a commentary you delivered or a guest you helped bring to the show?
Lizz: I think my greatest joy of The Daily Show was creating it and being its’ head writer. My instincts in creating the show built such a foundation that, over 20 years later, it’s still going strong and it’s still amazing. The fact that Comedy Central allowed us to create the show, run it for a year without doing a pilot so that it could find its’ legs on its’ own, and to watch it develop and grow, to watch Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and Brian Unger and Steve Carell and Lewis Black and all these wonderfully talented people burgeon out of this space that didn’t exist until Madeleine Smithberg and I created it…It’s really fun to watch your instincts play out, and to watch people take it to the next level is pretty cool.
Johnny: Alright. The IMDB doesn’t list any appearances for you on The Daily Show after you left the program. Have you ever been invited back to the show to discuss your more recent work, and if not, would you accept the offer?
Lizz: I would love to go back on the show, yeah. I don’t know how IMDB works, so I don’t know why that is. That’s odd, now that you say it. I didn’t even know that because I don’t look at that, but yeah, I would totally go back. I would hope that they would have me.
Johnny: Alright. Hopefully we’ll see you back on there soon. Speaking of Comedy Central, during the early years of The Daily Show, you also worked on a Comedy Central special called Unauthorized Biography: Milo, Death Of A Supermodel. There’s no plot description for it on IMDB, so what can you tell me about the special and what went into making it?
Lizz: Oh, it was so much fun. It was a satire of A&E’s Biography series, and I created the amalgam of a character that was sort of part Nancy Spungen from Sid And Nancy, part Gia, the supermodel who became a heroin addict, and then sort of parts of just every rock star that turns into a tragic figure. We took all the tropes from the tragedies of models, and people in the 70s, and glam rock, and we created a life for this person named Milo.
We had all these celebrities talking about Milo, and them knowing Milo, so we had Debbie Harry from Blondie, Cyndi Lauper, David Johansen, Bebe Buell, who was a supermodel in the 70s, and they all talked about this character, and then we interspersed it with fake footage that we made about this person. It was really, really a fun thing to do.
Johnny: Very cool. I hope it will resurface someday. I’d love to have a look at it.
Johnny: My apologies if bringing this up is a sore point. Another outlet for your work as both an activist and a performer was Air America Radio, where you co-hosted the show Unfiltered. Do you have any positive memories about working with Air America, or is that a chapter you would prefer not to discuss?
Lizz: Oh, I loved working at Air America. I mean, I got to be the Senior Vice President of Programming there, and I was able to help create that network from the ground up. I had a show with Chuck D and Rachel Maddow, which I could not have been more proud of. I mean, the network itself had some unscrupulous owners who ripped people off and were terrible, but the people who worked there as staff, and some of the people who were not the owners, were incredible people.
Yeah, there were definitely some super-bad-juju business people there who were really unscrupulous, but the crew and the people that worked there were amazing, and to be able to wake up every day and talk about news and politics with Rachel Maddow and Chuck D was like a dream job.
Johnny: Alright, and you still talk to the both of them?
Johnny: It’s good that you developed friendships like that. To wrap it up with my final question, what do you hope 2021 brings on a national level?
Lizz: Mmm. I hope that it brings a quick unraveling of the incompetence that has been for the past four years. I hope that we get some calm, and I hope that we get a vaccine. That’s what I hope that 2021 brings more than anything else, a vaccine and an end to this wretched virus.
Johnny: (Tapping his desk with his knuckles) That’s me knocking wood. Let’s hope that that definitely happens. That does it for my questions. I thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me.
Before we wrap up, I must say that even though this is the first time we’ve talked, I owe you an apology, and by extension, all of the people who were able to see through the B.S of the 00s. I deal with an autism spectrum disorder, and one of the aspects of that is taking language literally, and not understanding things like irony, teasing and sarcasm.
After the 9/11 attacks, I was scared into voting against my interests from 2004 to 2012. My bullshit detector was off. Yours’ was on. When I heard the Bush administration talking about how if you didn’t support The War On Terror, you hated this country, I fell for that bullshit…
Johnny: …And you saw through it. I deeply regret it. There’s no way I can make up for how I voted from 2004 to 2012, but I have changed my mind since then. I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, I proudly pulled the lever for Joe Biden in 2020, and you have my word that I’ll never vote for anybody with an R next to their name ever again.
Lizz: (Laughing) You know, this is the problem with the world that we live in. You can be trapped into an information cycle and get caught up in that wheel, and never be exposed to other things. Luckily you were, but I think that happens to a lot of people, and I think it’s very exciting to hear that, through the course of whatever your journey was, you were able to allow in different information and sort out the truth for yourself, and make choices that are going to ultimately benefit you more, too, so I think that’s great.
You don’t need to apologize to me. You opened up your eyes and your heart and you saw, and that’s great, so yay! I’m thrilled!
I would again like to thank Lizz Winstead for taking the time to speak to me, and I would again like to thank Danny Deraney for helping set up this conversation. For more about Lizz Winstead’s work, you can visit her official website with links to all her social media. You can also visit the Abortion Access Force website for more information about Ms. Winstead’s work in helping to preserve the concept of choice in the chaos of our current political climate. Corona Borealis is currently available for rental and download on Vimeo.
Coming soon to Pop Geeks are Flashback Interviews with Happy Days co-star and healthy living activist Cathy Silvers, and actress Marcia Karr, well-known for her work in 80s cult classics like Savage Streets and Killer Workout.
Stay tuned, and thank you as always for reading.