Com­edy

Lizz Win­stead, who co-cre­ated The Daily Show and launched the ca­reer of Rachel Mad­dow, is on to her next legacy: the Vag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour

Newsweek - - News - BY ANNA MENTA @ an­nalikest­weets

The Vag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour

IN 1996, STAND-UP CO­ME­DIAN LIZZ WIN­STEAD sat down with pro­ducer Madeleine Smith­berg to cre­ate a com­edy show that par­o­died cable news. The five-year-old Com­edy Cen­tral loved what they came back with and made Win­stead head writer of The Daily Show. Win­stead ran the writ­ers’ room and served as cor­re­spon­dent for two years—un­til then-host Craig Kil­born told Esquire mag­a­zine: “To be hon­est, Lizz does find me very at­trac­tive. If I wanted her to blow me, she would.”

It was late 1997, and in those days, reper­cus­sions amounted to a one-week sus­pen­sion for Kil­born. In 1998, Win­stead left the show.

One year later, Jon Ste­wart took over and turned The Daily Show into a po­lit­i­cal com­edy jug­ger­naut. When he re­tired in 2015, Win­stead got a cur­sory men­tion in the dozens of eu­lo­gies that ran on­line and in print. It was, she says, “a lit­tle bit of a bum­mer.” On the other hand, if peo­ple dis­miss or min­i­mize her par­tic­i­pa­tion in the show, Win­stead has “no problem say­ing, ‘Yeah, that foun­da­tion that Trevor and Jon and ev­ery­body built out on? The one that was so mal­leable and sturdy that they could do that? I made that.’”

Win­stead went on to co-found Air Amer­ica in 2003; the pro­gres­sive ra­dio net­work launched Rachel Mad­dow and the pod­cast ca­reer of Marc Maron. She was fired two years later by a new pres­i­dent, who told her “com­edy is not a good tool for so­cial change.” (The com­pany filed for bank­ruptcy and folded in 2010.)

Win­stead has spent the years since ac­tively dis­prov­ing that at­ti­tude with her own com­edy and the non­profit re­pro­duc­tive rights or­ga­ni­za­tion Lady Parts Jus­tice League. She and her team of writ­ers en­gage au­di­ences via funny videos and live shows, weav­ing in the lat­est news on abor­tion laws. They also visit clin­ics across the coun­try, “do­ing ev­ery­thing from re­plant­ing their gar­dens [to] throw­ing them par­ties and tak­ing them out to din­ner,” says Win­stead. “We did a com­plete over­haul on a re­cep­tion area of a clinic.”

Cur­rently, Lady Parts’ team of 12 works out of a shared of­fice space in Brook­lyn. Win­stead shows me her desk, crammed into a tiny room with two oth­ers. The top is a mud­dle of pa­pers, hot sauce, Cof­fee-mate and uterus-shaped para­pher­na­lia, in­clud­ing a stuffed pup­pet (her name is Eunice) and a neon light that emits a soft, pink glow. She re­grets the lack of old takeout con­tain­ers, which would give a more com­plete pic­ture of her work habits.

The group is gear­ing up for its sec­ond an­nual “Vag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour,” an eight-week, eight-city road show, fea­tur­ing comics, per­form­ers and ac­tivists. Af­ter the show, a talk-back with lo­cal abor­tion providers and ac­tivists is de­signed to in­form and in­spire the au­di­ence to get in­volved. Af­ter years of in­cor­po­rat­ing pol­i­tics into her com­edy, this, says the 56-year-old Win­stead, was the log­i­cal next step.

Born to con­ser­va­tive Catholic par­ents in Min­nesota, Win­stead honed her ob­ser­va­tional com­edy at lo­cal clubs. In 1987, she got na­tional ex­po­sure via HBO’S com­edy spe­cial Women of the Night. A few years later she moved to New York City. In her 2012 mem­oir, Lizz Free or Die, Win­stead de­scribed be­ing on a ter­ri­ble blind date. A piece on the first Gulf War was on play­ing on the sports bar’s TV, and some­thing clicked. “I looked at CNN re­port­ing on that war like it was some kind of weird-ass video game,” she says now. “I felt like they were try­ing to sell me on war, in­stead of re­port on one.”

The Daily Show was all about mock­ing news cov­er­age, and her Air Amer­ica show, Un­fil­tered, which de­buted in 2004, had co-hosts Rachel Mad­dow, rap­per Chuck D and Win­stead com­ment­ing on news over­looked by the main­stream. In 2010, af­ter a num­ber of states passed anti-abor­tion laws, the news be­came per­sonal: Win­stead had had an abor­tion when she was 17. “Read­ing the news, I had this sink­ing feel­ing,” she says. “I had an abor­tion and didn’t think about it again. Lucky me, I got to pur­sue what I got to pur­sue be­cause I did that. If abor­tion is part of the path to some­one else’s po­ten­tial. I need to de­fend that. Oth­er­wise, I’m a hyp­ocrite.”

Even for a sea­soned co­me­dian known for em­brac­ing con­tro­ver­sial ma­te­rial, she had to over­come the stigma around the a-word. “I thought, Of course no­body likes abor­tion. Then I was like, Wait, I ac­tu­ally do like abor­tion. I’m glad that it ex­ists. And

I need to talk about it in nor­mal­iz­ing terms, be­cause it hasn’t de­fined me. ”

At a com­edy show I at­tended in Brook­lyn, she killed with the line: “Peo­ple ask me, how many abor­tions have you had? I say, ‘I don’t know. I don’t keep re­ceipts.’” Of­ten, Win­stead does read­ings of her es­say “All Knocked Up,” about get­ting preg­nant the first time she had sex with her high school boyfriend. “I was Catholic. If I used birth con­trol and had sex, I’d be com­mit­ting two sins!”

But she be­gan to feel that stand-up com­edy wasn’t enough. “Peo­ple would come up and say, ‘Oh my god, that’s ter­ri­ble. What can I do?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know. I’m just a co­me­dian!’”

Slowly, Lady Parts Jus­tice League took shape—first in the form of a hu­mor­ous, in­for­ma­tive Youtube video, then, in 2016, as a bona fide 501(c)(3) non­profit with fund­ing and em­ploy­ees. (The name is a nod to Michi­gan state Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Lisa Brown, who was barred from speaking af­ter ut­ter­ing the word vag­ina— rather than a cutesy eu­phemism—on the House floor.) When Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump took of­fice in Jan­uary, Win­stead knew she had to take her mes­sage deeper into Amer­ica.

This sum­mer’s Vag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour, which kicked off June 12, does not in­clude Los Angeles or New York. Lady Parts fo­cuses on places where abor­tion rights are bleak, lo­cal ac­tivists are ex­hausted and ev­ery vote in the Elec­toral Col­lege mat­ters: Bethlehem, Penn­syl­va­nia; Charleston, West Vir­ginia; Colum­bus, Ohio; Nashville, Ten­nessee; Detroit; South Bend, In­di­ana; Minneapolis; and Mil­wau­kee. Win­stead metic­u­lously re­searches the lo­cal pol­i­tics and politi­cians. “Ev­ery­one has a lo­cal creep,” she says. “Or five.” For ex­am­ple, in Ohio she’ll in­clude a joke about gover­nor John Ka­sich.

The only thing she misses about the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try is the money. It would be nice, she ad­mits, if peo­ple wrote the kinds of checks for non­prof­its that they do for TV shows. But there are perks: “No net­work notes,” she says. “No one say­ing, ‘Are men gonna like this?!’”

She’s grate­ful for the #Metoo and Time’s Up move­ments but a lit­tle wist­ful. “In those early days of stand-up, women rarely got to work together and share our ex­pe­ri­ences. There wasn’t an in­ter­net where we could say, ‘Hey, that club owner in X town? Watch out for him,’” says Win­stead, who in­sists she’s not bit­ter about her un­timely exit from The Daily Show. Af­ter all, “It launched a big, fat per­mis­sion slip to take on the world in new ways. There’s an au­di­ence for it be­cause that show ex­ists.”

“If abor­tion is part of the path to some­one else’s po­ten­tial, I need to de­fend that. Oth­er­wise, I’m a hyp­ocrite.”

FE­MALE TROU­BLE Win­stead has a uterus tat­tooed to her right fore­arm. In­set: Win­stead, cen­ter, with fel­low co­me­di­ans on last year’s Vag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour.

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