Lizz Winstead is a cult figure and an unsung hero of left-leaning political comedy. The Minnesota native worked with Jon Stewart on his pre-Daily Show vehicle, The Jon Stewart Show, and created, with Madeleine Smithberg, Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
Winstead left The Daily Show in 1998, before Stewart replaced the show's original host, Craig Kilborn. Other gigs followed, including co-hosting Air America's Unfiltered with Chuck D and another lefty star in the making, Rachel Maddow. In 2007, she began hosting a weekly live theater production called Wake Up World, which satirized morning television. We spoke with her recently by telephone.
Independent: I notice your bio includes a lot of "co-"s: co-creator, co-founder, co-host. Do you lose any special powers when working alone?
Lizz Winstead: Yes. I have a Kryptonite, and it is my dog. When my dogs are around me, I'm absolutely useless. ... I'm in love with my animals—not in a crazy, Rick Santorum kind of way, but close enough.
When you co-created The Daily Show, you held a position as head writer. Does that mean that, although you were still collaborating, you maintained an upper hand regarding the results that ended up on everyone's TV?
You know, at the end of the day, I am the one who had to make those hard decisions. I'm the one who cuts the material and decides what goes in and what goes out, cuts the jokes down to the clarity version of where they need to be, so yeah—ultimately, it's not a democracy. But since many of those writers I [ended up working with] on three, four, five projects, I guess I didn't do too bad of a job.
I imagine a lot of readers, like me, have a difficult time envisioning an attractive female 30-something as head writer at a major TV network without picturing Liz Lemon (from 30 Rock). Are you two anything alike?
Am I like Liz Lemon? I would say ... no. We have different neuroses, though nonetheless probably the same amount. For me, the craziness came from [the reality that] "This thing has to go on tonight." And that was part of the nuttiness of just, like, "We're starting this, and like, oh God—this is going on tonight, there's no more tweaking it—it's done." And then you wake up every day and do it all over again.
Did you develop any unusual tactics to keep your team from running amok?
There were a couple. I wanted everybody to get out all of the inappropriate stuff that would never make the air in the early morning meetings. So we can laugh about it [then]. 'Cause people need to purge stuff. Also, [people need] permission to not be funny. Because people have off-days, sometimes off-weeks.
[But] you're not defined by an off-day or an off-week; you're defined by your sum total of works.
After The Daily Show, you made some forays into the world of morning news with Unfiltered and Wake Up World. What drew you to the opposite end of the waking day?
I'd never really paid attention to these shows [until] I switched from doing The Daily Show to doing radio shows in the morning. [So] I started watching them, realizing this is what America is watching as they get their kids up. There are 27 hours of these morning shows. It was crazy. I was like, "Oh my God—these people spend more time on fat asses and weight loss and 'Does this coffee mug make my butt look big?' [than anything else]." So I thought, "Wow, these people are completely vapid and sort of corporate-y ... someone needs to satirize this."
And then there's your show in Carrboro coming up—which kinds of Indy readers will like this show?
Anybody who feels like you're living in a world where people are talking at you or asking for your vote or asking you to buy their product or watch their shitty TV show or listen to their crappy band. If you have any inkling that they're fraudulent, I'll probably touch upon them. If you have a hint that our whole entire country is being absorbed by corporate greed, I think you will enjoy my show.