Signal Q&A with Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead

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On Wednesday, I spoke to Lizz Winstead, a co-creator and former head writer of The Daily Show. She is also co-founder of Air America Radio and is now with Abortion Access Front, which is currently on tour in Texas. Her next Texas show is Sept. 21 in Houston.

The Texas Signal: You first helped create The Daily Show in 1996, and then co-founded Air America, which was on air from 2004 to 2010. It was also a progressive talk radio network! We too, here at The Signal, are a progressive publication. Why do you believe it is important to have progressive media outlets, and also here in the state of Texas?

Lizz Winstead: Starting with talk radio, over 90 percent of all radio—that’s talk radio—is conservative or extremist. And when you don’t have a progressive or even an alternate point of view, people are then thinking that is the norm or that is the way people think. So for me having any type of counter-information is super important. I also think that within talking about progressive issues, it’s been really successful to be able to infuse humor in exposing hypocrisy and bringing fact-based humor especially to media spaces because humor done well… if you’re a comedian, like I’m a political satirist and comic, and it’s my job to be that narrator that’ll say, “I’ll take on anybody who uses their power for if you’re stupid with your power, if you use hypocrisy, or you’re just horrible with your power, it’s my job to call it out even if I like someone.” And so to be that narrator that people trust will call out hypocrisy whenever they see it, as a comedian, I think it’s really important. 

Also where is progressive media? It’s so small, it’s often ill-funded and so any amount of progressive media that we can get out there is going to be good, even “liberal media” that we see, whether it’s on cable news, if you’re corporately sponsored, you’re going to be dictated on how you give your information. You know I did The Daily Show, and although they were like ‘as long as you’re funny, you can make points, but just a reminder, you’re not an activist’. And so for me, there was always that little piece of like, what is really the point of giving people a ton of information, getting them riled up, getting them to want to take action, and then at the end of it saying, “I can’t tell you what to do.” To me, that’s an empty promise. And so to be able to now, with this venture of Abortion Access Front, I’m able to lay out the problem, using humor, getting people excited, wanting to get involved, and then being able to give them that action piece that sort of gets people motivated and really puts the power back into the hands of people, which is really we are trying to do as progressives.

TS: Right. Please tell us more about your newest venture, Abortion Access Front. You founded it in 2015?

LW: Yup. Founded in 2015. It was something that as an activist and as someone who has generally followed politics, the autonomy and reproductive rights and abortion access is something that exploited the disparity…that even good progressives oftentimes don’t prioritize access to abortion care and birth control that…is a universal human right. So in 2015, I thought I’m pretty good at using humor to make a point and get people activated, I really wanted to focus on this issue so I started a nonprofit with comics and producers, filmmakers and activists to do a couple of things. We make videos and do a really robust social media reach, bringing the news of the day when it comes to access to abortion and birth control – any kind of thing that basically has to do with patriarchy and oppression when it comes to women and females with uteruses. Focusing on that. 

And we spent most of our year though—the meat of our work is—we do a traveling road show, where we travel to places that are in hospital states, hospital cities, and we work together with the activists on the ground in those states and the local providers. We do comedy music shows and after each show, we have a conversation with the local source of people doing work on the ground so that our audience can learn how they can get involved. They table at the event, we table at the event. And then we give all of the mailing lists to the local activists, so people right then and there can sign up and know that they can participate in fighting legislation and bringing support to clinics who are on the ground and really under attack. And then the last thing we do—and maybe my favorite component—is we each go to the clinic that we want people to know about and support, and we do some type of practical support for them. So that can be anything from bringing them lunch to redoing their garden to painting their exam rooms, any type of support they need and can’t get from the community because a lot of people don’t understand that abortion providers often can’t get somebody to mow their lawn, somebody to fix their fence, somebody that can paint their clinic, who can do plumbing work, because they provide abortion. So we’ll do what they have the need for right then, and will introduce that that needs to be a sustaining thing to our audience. 

I’ll never forget – I was in Wichita, and this man raised his hand, and asked, “Are you telling me that activism is I decide that I’m going to take on a client and get paid and I will do their lawn and that’s activism?” And I said, “Yes the act of you parking your van in front of a clinic and saying ‘I’m so happy that these people are in my community’ is an incredible form of activism. It’s like having a reframe for folks and getting people – if you have five minutes, an hour, a day, a week, we can give you things to do and you yourself can check and say “how much sustaining work can I do in my busy life and can I do things if I don’t have any money?” And the answer is yes, yes, yes, and yes. Providing a landscape for folks to have activism, because this is our lives now. It’s not like I’m just going to get excited during election year. We have to incorporate it into our world and figure out like your yoga practice, like everything else, you need to have a piece of activism in your world, and helping people figure out what’s sustainable for them is part of what we do.

TS: And what kind of support have you been seeing for this tour and initiative?

LW: It’s been very exciting for us. This is the third year that we have been doing this tour, and we’re not necessarily—or are hardly ever—going to places like San Francisco or Boston. We have been spending time in places like West Virginia, Little Rock, in Jackson, in places where we know that there are activists often on overload. They are experts at the clinic, and they’ve also unionized a local business, they’re a part of Black Lives Matter… They’re doing all of the things and so, we expect great turnout at the shows, because people are looking for a really interesting place to have some joy and then learn about their activism. And also, often times people live in places that they have to travel three hours to see a really good show and to be able to say hey, you know what? Maybe you can afford to travel for a show and it’s super important for us to have ticket prices affordable for everybody to be able to make sure they can come if they can. It’s been really nice especially for the activists, because they’ve been able to grow their bases because of our audience. 

So for us that is the most important part, which is that we see you, we see your work, we want to just literally provide a platform for you and bring the people who we know care and like what we do into your world to help you. And our shows are really diverse of gender, race and of age. In Wichita, we had a queer black woman, a trans man and a Latinx comedian talking to people. Can you imagine what that feels like to be somebody who is seeing their life experience on stage and recognized as well? Local activists know best about their community, what needs to be done. It can’t be said enough that it’s almost always resources, that is the difference between making good impact and making lasting and great impact. And for us, the number one goal is how can we bring resources for you and all the amazing work that you can go from good to great to sustaining impact. 

TS: How about the tour you are currently on? You’re currently making the rounds in Texas and Louisiana. 

LW: Yes, we just had a great show in Austin! Our shows are always a combo of standup comedy, music burlesque, standup comedy burlesque. But what’s cool is in towns like Minneapolis and New York and Chicago and now Austin, we do a special show called Do Re #MeToo. And what we do is we ask women and females presenting house bands, and then we have musicians come up and sing the most Texas songs that they can think of, and so it’s sort of to put themes in the context of popular music. Bringing on really powerful female singers who are feminists and who are activists, really reclaiming these messages, and talking about what that meant. And also checking in with ourselves on…we sang along to this, we danced to this record, how we all participate in it and sort of reclaiming it has been really fun. Folks had a lot of signups and got really engaged. We are going to be protesting at the Capitol to talk about how funding state clinics has become a way of life for Texas tax dollars. I don’t know if people know that. And we are going to Houston to do a comedy show on the 21st [of September] at the Secret Group. Then will head to Baton Rouge. 

I didn’t want to replicate work that was already happening. You should be able to say that I can use my voice to help the expert to do better and expand their work – this is what it’s all about for me.

TS: Where can people go to learn more about this initiative?

LW: To get more information, you can go to aafront.org and it lists all of our shows, all of our work, all of our latest actions. You can sign up and join us from wherever you are. 

Photo: Abortion Access Front

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