Lizz Winstead Has Superpowers
Lizz Winstead is well known for her legendary standup and sharp political satire — she co-created The Daily Show for God’s sake — but in 2012 she turned her attention to a new project: Lady Parts Justice League, a nonprofit organization and production company focusing on women’s reproductive rights. Through Lady Parts Justice she has toured around the country, visiting women’s health clinics with her impressive team that uses comedy to critique and report on current reproductive health affairs and human rights issues.
In her podcast, Repro Madness, Winstead and her team reclaim the conversation about reproductive rights, on their own (hilarious) terms. In gearing up for her show at the NYC PodFest this weekend, Winstead and I chatted about her passions, confidence, and the future. Oh, and her superpowers.
What drew you to focus on reproductive rights?
The one thing that drew me to focus from my own personal experience was getting pregnant at 16 in high school and having to go through having an abortion on my own. I had a horrible boyfriend, and you don’t want to tell anyone because it’s the most gossipy time in a human’s life, and so I had to go through a whole bunch of stuff, before I was sort of an emotionally competent person who, you know, had their wits about them. I ended up at a crisis pregnancy center first, thinking I was going to a clinic, and they shamed me. I ended up having my abortion, and I was born a Catholic, so there was just a whole lot of shame.
I knew as a kid that I didn’t want kids, so when I found myself pregnant, it was like, the thought of somebody shaming me into wanting to be that, and me knowing at 16 that I didn’t want that — me literally knowing at eight and at ten and at now, that I never wanted kids was really unbelievable to me. Being able to have that choice led me to be on a path to do all these things.
Is there a reason that you created Lady Parts Justice more recently in your career?
When I look at the landscape, for a whole bunch of years we sort of gave away the conversation to the extremists on the other side who allowed us to use their terminology and put a lot of things in motion. We lost ground on talking about it, when one in three women have an abortion in their lifetime. That shouldn’t be something that’s shameful, that should be something that we just enter into the medical books as something on a menu that many women will experience in her medical lifetime.
One of the things I feel very strongly about is: we’ve all used these clinics, and it’s our responsibility to defend them. For years, we abdicated that responsibility, and all of a sudden the clinics were providing the healthcare, having to correct the record of all information, and also having to defend themselves, and I feel like we should be defending them.
While listening to Repro Madness, I wondered if podcasts require access to technology — mainly smartphones, that excludes people that need to be hearing this stuff the most?
Our podcast is really popular in places like Alabama and Mississippi, and I’ve done 90 benefits all over the country in the most rural places and the states that are really hostile, and most people have smartphones. Those who don’t, can listen to it on their computers, and we find that that’s really happening. It’s really good to know that people are really having a time of it.
A lot of the people we’re trying to reach — people under 30 and people who are economically disadvantaged — often don’t have cable and they take their money and put it towards smartphones and iTunes.
So actually podcasts are the best way to reach people in the areas that would benefit the most from learning about the politics of reproductive rights?
That’s exactly right, that’s what we’ve found. Most people, statistically it’s like 65% or 70% under 30, don’t own televisions. So, our videos that we make, our podcasts, all of that stuff, we make sure that there’s a mobile accessibility that’s real.
Was that your intention when moving away from television?
That was intention behind all of this — the podcast, making the videos, traveling around the country. We want to go into the spaces where people of reproductive age are. We perform and get tables at Bumbershoot, we are doing a partnership with Ani DiFranco, doing shows with her and tabling at her events. We want to go where people are, and if people aren’t in the “space,” the space that they are is on their phone. That is going to be a lot of my next creative challenge of my projects, to be in the spaces where people get their information, and that’s through the phone.
I love that. Also, for podcasts, all you need is a group of people and some microphones, really, it’s easy to take on the road.
And the bravery to put your authenticity out there.
Which takes a lot. Something that strikes me about you, throughout your entire career (as far as I know), you seem very confident in your opinions. So this is kind of a ‘chicken or egg’ question: do you think your confidence came because you were becoming successful, or do you think you got success because of your confidence?
My confidence came from really talking about things that I knew I could defend and I knew enough about. So I often don’t venture into areas that I wouldn’t be a good spokesperson for. I say no a lot to things that I don’t think I’m the right person to be speaking about. If I know what I’m defending and I know what I’m talking about, if someone challenges me, I know I have the facts.
I also know that if they are gonna try to troll me or torture me or be horrible, I already know what they’re gonna say and what they’re gonna feel about me, so it deflects. Having the truth, and having the courage of conviction is very much, I think, maybe my superpower. I expect people to give me blowback, because I take controversial stances on things, but I also think that when they’re starting to hit me, it always just devolves into some weird sexist thing or some, “why don’t you shut up, you whore” kind of a thing, and it’s just like, “oh, that’s where we went?” so I don’t even care. It feels very freeing, actually, to have people shoot things at me and have it just bounce off.
How long into your career did that superpower form? Is that a skill you’ve acquired?
I learned and realized that it was up to me to keep moving forward and creating. When you start having bad sets, if you just let that go and then don’t do another show for a week or two weeks, that bad set starts settling in as part of the thing that you could allow to define you. So I just always kept moving forward and recreating the joke and taking things differently.
You know that you can’t wallow in the disappointment or relish the success. Your whole life and your art is a moving part, that it’s always going to be liked by some people and not by other people, and so you just accept that fact. I think that once you develop a maturity and understand all of that stuff, and you develop likes, dislikes, a frame of reference, a point of view, and you understand that not everyone’s gonna share that — even people you love, it all becomes much more clear. Your confidence can become much greater because you understand that it’s not you.
Do you feel that your comedy, your art, what you do, is a necessity?
I feel that it is a vital organ, I feel my curiosity is a vital organ, and I feel my craft is a vital organ. But, like all your vital organs, it’s part of a machine that is me as a human. So I don’t feel like any one thing defines me. I’m a pretty good cook, I give a lot back, I’m a dog lover, I have many things that make up who I am. I’m complex like every other person, and so not everyone’s gonna like everything about me, and so that’s fine. I’m totally fine with that.
In fact I feel bad for people who come to my show and hate it. That’s why I do small theaters where I can draw an audience that likes what I do rather than work at a comedy club where it’s like,“tonight there’s a comic from HBO or Comedy Central,” like where I could be one out of a myriad of people. If there’s not a relationship that at least gives the audience half a chance that decides whether to come or not come to my show, I think that does a disservice to an audience.
When people go, “Oh are you preaching to the choir?” I go, “If I am preaching to the choir, I don’t know why the choir can’t have more songs, or I can’t grow a choir of my own.” No one would ever say to a butcher shop, “You don’t sell fish, you should sell fish.” Here’s what I sell, if you like it, come and enjoy it, and even if you like what I sell, you might not like the way that I’ve flavored it. It’s always a crapshoot, and that’s part of the fun.
I think a lot of women don’t have that level of confidence, and it’s really great to have you as an example of that.
I think part of Lady Parts Justice that’s really great is being able to see a bunch of creators, writers, performers, standups, and improvisers in a room together to understand that we are all part of a collective whole, and that we are not defined by our mistakes. We have an “I’m Sorry” jar where, if you apologize for something that is not a thing that you should be apologizing for, you have to put a dollar in it. When you walk into a chair and say “I’m sorry” to it… you know, dudes don’t do that. Women apologize too much.
Have you considered getting into politics?
No. I do not want to be part of a system that is controlled by money and a machine that is then judging my everything. I think there is a very important role for people who are the watchdogs of the politicians and of the media, and I think that my role as watchdog is a really valuable one and one that I’m good at, so I like having that role.
What’s crazy is now that our media is so bullshit, now you have to be the watchdog of the watchdogs, because they were supposed to be our watchdog. Now, comedy is basically the watchdog of the watchdog, and what is happening?
What do you think of the relationship between humor and these dismal topics — like women’s reproductive rights? Often on the podcast there’s laughter accompanying it all.
My test of a society that has not given up is that they’re still laughing when things get grim. There’s always humor to be mined in any topic.
For the state of reproductive health in America, I think that pointing out who these bad guys are, and showing the hypocrisy of them deciding that they have the authority to control the healthcare of women and then either proving that they don’t really understand how and when pregnancy happens or what birth control actually is, or a myriad of other things, it’s really nice to be able to point that out.
It also gets people motivated, and for us to be able to point that out with humor and show that this is happening in the state legislatures more than it is even happening in the federal government. You need to pay attention.
What are your least favorite euphemisms for ‘vagina?’
The reason we call our organization Lady Parts Justice is because there was a woman who became my friend from work who was a State Representative in Michigan, and Michigan was trying to pass a transvaginal ultrasound bill that would force women to have to have this basic procedure before they have their abortion, and it’s completely unnecessary. So when Lisa Brown was talking about it on the floor of the Michigan state house, the Speaker of the House tried to ban her from saying the word vagina, and threw her off of the floor. So she said, “What am I supposed to say?” and he suggested “lady bits” or “lady parts.”
When she told me that, I was like, “Wait, this person thinks that they have the right to legislate what happens to a vagina, but they’re too ashamed to say it? Or they’re too freaked out about the word? No.” So “lady bits,” “lady parts,” give me a little bit of a cringe. Anything that’s infantile really are the things that really bug me the most.
In your podcast, you use a soundbyte of Ilana from Broad City saying, “Yas yas yas yas.” What is your favorite show?
I love Broad City, but I have to say my favorite show at the moment is Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, without question. She’s just hitting home runs every week, she is unabashedly unapologetic about reshaping the narrative, busting stigma when she can, calling out bullshit, educating people, being hilarious along the way and doing it on her own terms. With a really diverse staff that is driven by women. Every aspect of that show, I admire the shit out of.
What makes you excited about the podcast?
We’ve got a lot of subscribers, people like it, it’s fun, it’s informative, so yeah. It’s gonna be a really fun show that we’re doing [at NYC PodFest]. Greg Proops and Joan Walsh, super feminist dude and Joan Walsh is just a great journalist and an amazing reporter, so to be able to sit and talk with those guys about the current state of life and affairs, I’m really excited.