"Daily Show" co-creator on how Trump isn't funny and comedy could help save abortion

Lizz Winstead on the Feminist Buzzkills of Comedy tour & how various everyday acts can support reproductive rights

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
February 11, 2020 12:56AM (UTC)
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Lizz Winstead (Mindy Tucker)

Lizz Winstead's hair has been on fire so long, she's down to the scalp. At least, that's the metaphor she currently uses to describe her impassioned, infuriated feelings about what's happening to our reproductive rights in America right now. But the comic, activist, and co-creator of "The Daily Show" knows it's not enough to wring our hands, or even to crack wise with gallows humor. We have to take action. And she's here to help show us what to do.

As the driving force behind a "Feminist Buzzkills of Comedy" tour, Winstead has been traveling around the country lately, combining standup with practical information and advice on how to make it just a little less grim out there. Salon spoke to the comedy veteran recently via phone about why Trump is bad for comedy, and how mowing a lawn can be political act.

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Talk to me about the tour you're out there doing. What makes it unique in the way that you're combining comedy, activism, information, and resources?

In 2011, everything started falling apart as far as clinics closing and all these TRAP laws all over the country. I realized then the profundity of state legislatures, and how most of the laws that are being proposed and all of the access to abortion care is happening on a state level.

I traveled around the country doing fundraisers for Planned Parenthood and independent clinics. I would go visit the clinics. Every single clinic was freaked out that I was there, but not in a bad way; in a "No one ever comes here. Why are you here?" There was this literal shock that somebody was popping in to check in on their well-being or wanted to do something nice for them, because nobody had. I realized that in the larger movement, there was a gaping hole.

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One thing that I really wanted to make sure as a white person and as somebody who was new to the movement in wanting to do more, was that I wasn't replicating somebody else's work, because that's the worst. Nobody was, so I got back home and said, "I think that we can provide a service here, sounding the alarm since the media is never talking about this issue, and it's the most legislated thing happening in our country. How can we help?" I first thought we would do videos and that we'd sort of do the Funny or Die of all the stuff going down, and that would be that. But the videos are really just a stepping stone, and kind of a beginning. The bigger portion of the tour and why it's different is we can help local activists on the ground. We can help raise awareness just by showing up a town and doing a show.

It's easier to get 200 or 300 people in a room with a comedy show than it is to try to get people in your living room to talk about what's at stake for reproductive rights in your state. By doing a show in a town, we get the people in, and then we have a conversation at the show with the providers and with local activists. I just facilitate it, and they tell the story of what's at stake legislatively, what the clinics need from a support perspective and from a morale perspective from the community. Then the activists talk about what they can use from folks on the ground, whether it's practical support of people accessing abortion care, whether it's funding abortion or whether it's escorting. That kind of thing. People can sign up right in the room and start being part of the solution in the community and city and state where they live.

The thing that people don't understand is when you run a clinic, especially in a hostile state, you can't get somebody to help you do your lawn care or paint your exam rooms or fix your gate or even pick up your garbage, because you provide abortion. People won't give you those services. So we will go and redo somebody's garden, paint their exam rooms. We'll fix their fence. We have really crafty and also really technically savvy members of our team. They're not only comics, they're not only writers, they're also people who can do a lot.

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We'll go in and do as much as we can on the ground, and then we say to the audience, "This clinic is having a hard time getting somebody to be a landscaper or do this. Who here will take up that rein locally?"

We were in Oklahoma City, and this guy raises his hand, and he's like, "Are you telling me that activism is me getting a new client and getting paid and just doing their lawn once a week with my lawn service company?" I said, "Yeah. You parking your van in front of that lawn service and taking them on as a client tells the community you support them and that you are here and you're happy there in your community." It really blows people away, because it's a thing that people don't think about a lot.

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For a lot of us, particularly those of us who fancy ourselves liberal and progressive, there is this sense of, "Things are bad, and I wish that they were better." But sometimes you need someone to give you that practical instruction, "Then go mow a lawn."

And also to create as many ways that you can be helpful as possible for people who have five minutes, who have a half an hour, who have a day, who have a week, and understanding that small gestures matter.

We, throughout the year, send postcards of support to the clinics because they get so much hate mail. At every event, and every time we have downtime at work and we're sitting around the office, we fill out postcards. We have a list of every clinic, and we send them out, just so that they know that the work they do matters. When they get postcards from people that say, "Thank you for what you're doing. You're making people's lives better," it really matters to them. It sounds simple, but it's very powerful for them.

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The other part is when we set up that program in a public space, we have to remind people that you can't take this postcard and fill it out away from me, because I don't know that you're a bad person. If you do this on your own, and you decide that you want to have friends over and send postcards, don't send a letter. Send a postcard, because bad things can come in envelopes that somebody has to open. The fact that you have to give people all kinds of caveats and warnings to try to just do a nice thing for people says so much about the state of what's happening in the work we do right now.

And the tenacity and ingenuity of people who want to do harm.

They're very good at setting up and doing harm and wanting to do terrible things and not understanding how terrible it is. I've had many confrontations with antiabortion extremists. I'll say, "Why do you not understand that it's terrorism when you will target a doctor in a community and send letters to every single person in the neighborhood that says, 'Jane Doe at 123 Oak Street is a baby killer and lives in your community,'?"

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They say, "Why? Shouldn't they be proud that they're killing babies?" They don't care what they've set up. It's fascinating. At one point, I'll never forget, this guy who's part of Operation Save America said to me, "I find it offensive that you call us Nazis." I go, "I don't call you Nazis. I call you domestic terrorists." And he's like, "Oh. Okay."

It is so ugly out there, it is so polarized, it is so hostile. You've been at this a very long time. What does it feel like to you out there, Lizz? Do you feel like it's getting worse in terms of confrontation and abuse and actual scary threats of violence to you, or do you feel energized and encouraged?

The antiabortion folks have always been out there. They're very clear in message. They have always been. And progressives and people who claim to be pro-choice, it's very few people who center and understand abortion as a human right, and prioritize it. Progressives still tell people who are active in the reproductive rights, health and justice movements to be quiet, that it's a wedge issue, and that that's a place where we can compromise. Finding full support from progressives and having people show up is singly the hardest part of what we do.

Where is everyone? A hundred thousand antiabortion extremists just marched on Washington, and we had one hundred people there to counter them.

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We have a Women's March, and if you can galvanize fifty, one hundred thousand people to go to Washington for the Women's March, why aren't you galvanizing them to be an absolute counter voice that weekend to those people? Because if not, that seems like the norm. It's very frustrating to have to beg progressive media and progressive folks to talk about this issue, because it's happening constantly.

I realize that everything is burning. The world is burning for everyone. The world is burning in black and brown spaces; it's just rampant brutality. We have impeachment, we have an election, we have a lot of stuff. But also people don't understand the court system and what it's done to the erosion of reproductive rights, and the laws that are passed every day as we speak.

In the past few days, the states of Indiana and Utah are now doubling down on a fetal remains law. The Utah law will require you to have a burial or a cremation for the products of your miscarriage or your abortion. The Indiana law has started off by saying, "It's a suggestion." They'll tell you about this option where if you have a medication abortion and you're at home, you can bring it back to the clinic and they'll dispose it for you. What are you talking about? What even is this? Now you're going to to stigmatize them if that's not what they want, and also you're forcing people to make decisions about a procedure they've had? The whole thing is a mess.

In fighting these laws, people don't even know they're happening. The state legislatures and these larger groups are creating these pieces of model legislation for them know that there's such massive distraction that they can slide this stuff through, and then it gets to a governor's desk before it's too late — as we've seen in Alabama, in Georgia, in Ohio, Missouri. People are constantly like, "How does this keep happening?" Because there's no mechanism or desire or passion for people to be tracking legislation when it comes out of committee to stop it in its tracks. That's a big fight.

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So, is it scary out there? It's always been scary out there, but it's scary to live in a world where if all the things that they want to come to pass, come to pass, that's a world that's scarier than me trying to raise awareness and confronting the attempts to do so.

You've always been so vocal. You've always been so politicized. Do you feel like the last four years have made it more urgent for you, Lizz?

It's interesting, having the profound understanding 20 years ago what was happening, and then really 10 years ago, the profound understanding that state legislation, not federal legislation, is going to destroy us all. It's been scarier in the past four years in the sense that the judicial system has taken an incredible shift in even interpretation of what's reality. That part of it feels next level scary.

Also, these little things we don't talk about: the infiltration of the Department of Health and Human Services. We've done research, and to our count there are 50 members of the Department of Health and Human Services right now who have come directly from antiabortion activism, who are guiding health policy. That feels really scary to me. Or how regulation by people you didn't vote for can affect you, like the regulation to rewrite the rules of how Title X funding happens. So all the clinics that provided comprehensive care for people will no longer be receiving Title X funds to help low income people get pap smears, wellness visits, birth control. If you provide abortion, refer to abortion or even counsel on abortion, you are no longer qualified for those funds. Instead, the funds are going to be diverted to fake abortion centers that pretend to care, but also just give religious advice rather than actual comprehensive care. That stuff feels really scary. It's an added level, but I've always had my hair on fire. Now I just feel like my scalp's on fire.

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In all of this though, your mission is driven by comedy, and driven by "How do we make this funny? How do we make it laughable?" It's so grim out there. I remember when Trump was elected and there were people saying, "Well, this is going to be great for comedy at least." It's not good for anybody.

That is the biggest fallacy of all. A relentless dope is not good for comedy, because a relentless dope doesn't even provide you material that's rich to work with. Also just trying to keep up, it's no longer that the ridiculous gaffe or the ridiculous tweet is the joke. The amount of ridiculous tweets is the setup, and then the ramifications of those things are where you have to mine your humor.

For me, the humor comes in a couple of different ways. On our tour, I'm a political satirist. That's what I do, so I do the heavy, responding to the world at large, humor. Pointing out hypocrisy through humor is nothing new, so you just follow it as you do if you take on the bad guys and the idiots through humor and point out that their logic doesn't make sense. That's always great, but also just having humor and comedy.

A lot of the comics, they just come and do their shows, and they're funny people. It's not like we're doing a comedy show about abortion rights or reproductive rights, or even politics. It's people just coming and doing their act. At our shows, I'm usually the only cis white person on the stage; almost every time. So the act of just having people talk about their lives, whether they're queer or trans or black or brown or white, or whatever their experience is, just to have them talk about their experience is a radical act, because ain't nobody asking marginalized people to have a bigger voice. "Hey, what do you have to say?" said no one ever.

Just to be able to have a room of a fun night of comedy for people, and then have this really cool conversation, it all dovetails. It's not any different, really, than the way a late night talk show is set up or something. You have some comedy, you have a conversation that can ebb and flow through serious, practical, "What can I do?" It closes out with some more comedy, telling people where they can go for action. It's an event, and it's really quite powerful to be able to combine all those things together.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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