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Q&A: Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead

Lizz Winstead, co-creator of the Daily Show and its former head writer, is a comedian, blogger and founder of Lady Parts Justice, an organization that raises awareness of legislative attempts to block women's reproductive freedoms. She will perform at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro Nov. 20 at 8:30 p.m. The Chronicle's Lucy Zhang talked with Winstead about her career in comedy, cynicism in humor, politics and calling out the hypocrites.

The Chronicle: How did you get into satirical writing and comedy? And how did it become a professional career?

Lizz Winstead: It wasn’t like I was one of those people who started growing up. It was more I looked at the world around me and growing up in the 80s when you have role models that were really a mess—people worshipped Margaret Thatcher. I was trying to find women’s voices that were strong and kind of reflect my values. I watched comedy on TV but I only saw mostly Phyllis Diller, etc. While they were funny, they didn’t mention life experience. I remember connecting with George Carlin and was like, you know, I grew up Catholic and see the hypocrisy in that. I think that what he did was awesome.

I got into comedy more just so I could be able to say something uninterrupted. I came from such a big family that I think that I wanted a place where nobody could stop what you were saying. Someone just dared me and I thought it’d be fun.

TC: What triggered the switch to satirizing politics?

LW: It was kind of specific. When the first Gulf War happened, I was on a blind date with a guy and we ended up in a bar at the night of the first Gulf War and there was what seemed to be this orchestrated effort to have a theme songs and graphics and people seemed really detached from what was happening and I remember thinking to myself as I observed it—are they reporting on a war or trying to sell me a war? And a few minutes later, the date I was with was like—this is really cool. I thought, oh my God, how many people are watching this more like a video game than an actual thing that’s happening? It was one of the first times I realized the media was a business. My act started changing and I started doing more research and I started talking about the media.

TC: Do believe that satire may trivialize certain issues?

LW: If satire is trivializing an issue, I’d like someone to tell me when that’s happened. Satire has been around since there has been information to be told. I feel like satire is an amazing tool and arsenal of information and if you can use humor to get someone interested in it and if your humor’s good, they'll continued to be interested and they’ll look up more stuff.

Part of the reason I left the Daily Show was because you can’t do a call to action. You can present the information and you can get the audience riled up, but you can’t say: here’s what you should go do. My love of calling bulls*** and hypocrisy was equal to my love of producing comedy, and I really wanted to meld those things together and add the call to action so that I didn’t always feel like some kind of political fluffer. I think it’s hard to talk about certain topics and if you’re only using humor to get your message across.

TC: What was it like creating the Daily Show?

LW: It was pretty incredible to be able to have a show that I had only dreamt could happen be the first opportunity that I was ever given in my career. I had never been a head writer and I hadn't written anything like it before in my life, so be to be able to craft a show that responded to the world five days a week, especially with my passion for calling out how bulls*** the media was, was a very unbelievable experience. I had to learn how to be leader. I had to learn to reject the leadership roles that women were expected to have—I’m not your mom, I’m the person who’s trying to make you work better. That was the relationship: me nurturing your word, nurturing your ego.

TC: How did the Daily Show change and evolve with the news media?

LW: When the show launched there was only CNN. The tone of cable news was literally trials all the time—OJ Simpson, the Menendez brothers—it was unending. They would spend hours on celebrities and there wasn’t any news. At night, it was Dateline. There were literally only seven news magazines out when we launched. So when we launched the show, we were satirizing the new media that existed at the time. A lot of people like to say that when the Daily Show started out, it was very pop culture-y and then it changed. No, actually when the Daily Show launched, the news media was talking about pop culture all the time until we s*** all over them by talking about pop culture all the time. With more cable channels, the media became a bunch of other things and so the Daily Show followed suit. The show follows the trends and news and satirizes them. It’s kind of nice to have your content laid out for you.

TC: There are a few times when Stewart was serious in the show. How does that work and affect the audience?

LW: Great comedy is smart and has depth and layers to it. When you present that and create that bedrock for yourself, transitioning to something serious is perfectly organic because you’ve proven yourself to be a credible narrator. The Daily Show isn’t just a bunch of jokes about politics. It tells truth and exposes controversy. Not only was Stewart funny, but he was trusted and respected to bring a perspective on serious things that were important as well. It always felt natural, never forced. It felt like he chose those passions that he needed to speak of.

TC: There’s a lot of cynicism in American politics right now. Do you think satire has contributed to that?

LW: I don’t think that the satire causes the cynicism. I think the satire responds to the cynicism. People have been cynical because corporate greed and politics have been dominating the landscape and our s***** media has not called it out at all.

TC: What are your thoughts about the current presidential race?

LW: I think the current presidential race is insanely farcical. We’re watching a Democratic primary that’s really fascinating because one of the most unreported stories is that Bernie Sanders is beating the Republican frontrunner in almost every poll and no one’s even reporting about it. I find that really fascinating. With the divisiveness of the Democratic party with how people should feel about Hillary, how people should feel about all of it—it’s like I was always very wary of having this coronation. So I’m really glad that there are actual candidates talking about actual substance so that people can get acquainted with how they feel about the Democratic party platform. Conversely, when you just look at the Republicans, it should tell you everything about the state of the party, that they’re screaming at the Wall Street corporate people who are now the enemy of those who have zero ideology other than what seems to be denying science and women a kind of autonomy.

TC: Has the insanity of the race made good satirical content?

LW: The things that’s fascinating and frustrating for me is that with Donald Trump sucking up all of the air, it has been really hard for me as a satirist to bring to people the jokes I have about all the other candidates because the information about other candidates isn't even being reported or out there. With Trump talking and talking in the media trying to create the circus, because the circus has good ratings, it’s bad for democracy and it’s also hard for comedy because writing a good substantial joke about a candidate or politician's belief system, politics or history is where good satire comes into play. When people don't even know that because all they are talking about are some weird comments that Trump made instead of digging deeper into what candidates have actually done, America doesn’t have a clue.

TC: Have any people taken your jokes seriously?

LW: The good news for me because I've been doing this so long, when I make a joke, most people understand but if sometimes people don’t know if I’m kidding, that's a testament to how absurd reality has become. I tweeted a joke the other day, when Ben Carson came with his bizarre complex about the Egyptian pyramids, responses were like, I think Carson thinks Bernie Sanders does pyramids. No, he didn’t say that. I’m trying satirize reality but it does get tougher to do that when you have people who don’t believe in science and say stuff that’s not true and come with these theories about everything from literally when they don’t understand pregnancy to they don’t understand the big bang theory to climate change to making blanket systems—oh, we’re just going to round up 11 million undocumented people and send them back. It’s like—what? They make these statements that are just weird, ugly, and not true. It’s really amazing that people will vote for what they want to hear when it’s not even a conceivable concept even if it were a shared value.

TC: Are there any topics that are too sensitive to satirize?

LW: ....Any kind of creative person who works in politics needs to understand that the second you say a joke or something passes your lips, every other person gets to hear it and interpret the way they want and have feelings about it. And so for me, someone who likes to push buttons, you need to be able to defend your material, understand that people may come after you, and you have to make decisions about what that means. Preparing for that is part of the job if you're going to be someone who talks about the world we live in. It’s really racist, sexist, homophobic and terrifying world. To confront those issues through humor means that you’re going to confront the belief systems of people who are really invested in staying that way and perpetuating that belief system.

TC: Would you consider yourself a cynic?

LW: Because of the amount of traveling and comedy I’ve done and talking to human beings that I’ve done, I’ve learned that when people—if they’re good, kind people—find out information, they’re outraged by the hypocrisy and cruelty and they can rethink things. I’m not trying to change anyone’s minds, I’m just trying to bring information to people because I think people who might not have the whole story. That makes me feel hopeful. So no I don’t think I’m a cynic. I feel like there’s a lot of s*** in the world but I have so many talented people that I’m surrounded by and so many who’ve made a commitment, especially in Lady Parts Justice my reproductive rights organization, to use their humor and talents in their writing to really elevate the discourse and to be present in it and that makes me feel really excited about information dissemination.

TC: Regarding your current work, what motivated you to create Hinder?

LW: Hinder might be the greatest idea that I ever did have. Part of our mission is to drop information in pop culture spaces where people already are. We constantly read about so many of these people who are epically devoted to everything from violence against women to accessibility of birth control. And my thought is, everyone I know is on Tinder. And I looked at Tinder and, wow there are so many douchebags in the world for you to f*** and regret. It’s crazy. And I went, wow you want to know what, there are so many douchebags who would disapprove of anybody on Tinder and being able to make sexual choices for yourself and they’d probably want to remove access to affordable birth control. So what if we tried to expose all of these people in the same format that people are already using so that people can see that the life that they’re choosing to look on Tinder to find somebody is also full of people who would stigmatize and shame them for doing that. It seemed like a perfect mirror of itself. And we put it into that format and it has been successful, We’ve had over 10,000 people download the app.

TC: Apple originally refused the app. What made them change?

LW: We had an app and submitted it to iTunes and it got rejected. And we were reading through the terms of service and it said that the app is critical of the government, etc. and then there was a clause that said that all of these reasons are null and void for professional comedians and satirists. And I was like—wow, for a couple of reasons: yet again somebody made a decision when they saw the words “feminist” or “abortion” or “women” and thought that there’s no way any of us could be comedians or satirists so they didn’t even bother to do a Google search. The fact that I have been a satirist for 30 years and they didn’t even google my name and then the fact that the app can be fact checked and is also funny can’t be on iTunes? I thought, okay, this is bulls*** and I called the publicist and asked if could we get an article about the it. So Huffington Post wrote a story about the app and the internet went crazy. They started a petition that got 30,000 people to sign it and everybody wrote about it. People just couldn't believe it on all those fronts and neither could we. And so within 24 hours, even less, they approved it.

To be able to change the mind of Apple, that’s pretty cool for a whole bunch of feminist comedy writers who are just trying to bring some awareness to the world. We felt really good about the support we have from the community and everyone else.

TC: What do you think about the women are not funny stereotype?

Every time that we say that it’s embarrassing—it’s like saying—oh you think that women aren’t funny...except when they are. You know what, men aren’t funny either except for when they are. And so when you look at the comedy that are making us laugh and what people are talking about right now—it’s all women. I’m so tired about people getting away with that saying women aren’t funny.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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