Comic, social-justice advocate, and the fifth of five children, Lizz Winstead happened to be born on Aug. 5, 1961 — one day after President Obama. Her conservative Catholic mother and Mississippi-born father met in Washington, D.C., during World War II and voted Democrat only once in their lives, exactly nine months prior to her date of birth.
“My dad said to me, ‘You were conceived the day Kennedy won the election,’ ” she says. “‘I said, ‘How do you know that?’ He said, ‘I just know!’ That leads me to believe that Barack Obama was also conceived the night Kennedy won. If I ever met him, I would love to tell him that.”
“That’s all,” she says. “I’ll go, ‘I just got one thing to tell ya. Peace out.’ ”
Winstead, arguably best-known for co-creating The Daily Show some 20 years ago, in the Craig Kilborn days, is a barnstorming comic, radio personality, prolific tweeter, and reproductive-rights advocate who mounts a year-in-review comedy special every New Year’s Eve. Because 2016 was, um, something of a doozy, Winstead is having a bit of trouble condensing her 48-page master document into finished material, but Controversy: A Hilarious, Tragic Review of 2016 will air on Pay-Per-View on Dec. 31. One topic, at least, has a secure place.
“The election was such a dominating force,” Winstead says. “White people were surprised. Black people were like, ‘It’s just another Tuesday.’ There was a lot of cockiness, there was a lot of misinterpreting how people felt about their prospects for the future. Then, Hillary supporters were laying around in their pantsuits for weeks on end, eating food out of their bras, trying to find a reason to get up.”
“Whiteness felt a fragility it hasn’t before,” she adds. “That may bind us together. Maybe the concept of intersectionality, as a way we live, may be a real thing we explore and actually grow into.”
When I mention that, although vitally important to getting out our current predicament, the concept of intersectionality might be a weighty topic to broach during a comedy special on a night when everyone’s getting very drunk, Winstead plows forward.
“If you were singularly yelling about ‘White dudes mess everything up’ and then you have an election where 53 percent of White women who aren’t college-educated voted for Trump, you have to look at the way women live that aren’t like you. … And for me, it’s very exciting to watch people have to look at and feel — even if it’s ever so slightly — what it’s like to be a person of color in this country. It’s like, ‘Now that you have a modicum of how that world feels, what are you going to do about it?’ ”
“I still didn’t say anything funny,” she says, “but I do think that’s profound.”
Immediately after Nov. 8, Winstead did a couple of shows alongside singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco while people were “still in shock.”
“Having people laugh through the pain gave them hope and made me feel good. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, please tell me you’re going to help me get out of this funk,” she says, and her voice drops to a whisper. “I have a large responsibility.”
But for a nation desperate for the occasional 15-minute block of time when they don’t have to think about the president-elect, there’s plenty more ground to cover — some of it is even happy news.
“Things that are profoundly cool happened this year,” she says. “A lot of amazing women did well in the Olympics, even though there were parts of the Olympics that profoundly sucked. We won in credible victory at the Supreme Court in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt [a ruling that struck down punitive anti-abortion laws in Texas]. Two of the most profound musical people of our time died. That’s horrible, but the good news is that Scalia died.”
For those who’ve never seen one of Winstead’s prior specials, it doesn’t involve her on a stool in front of a brick wall for 90 minutes. There are sound clips and visuals, much of which will center on a journey of fake news and “the Facebook trolls that have threatened my life or whatever.”
“I bring you into an experience of engaging in the news that you’ve also had, but in a way that people haven’t really done before,” she says.
The show’s $9.99 cost goes toward Lady Parts Justice League, a nonprofit collective of entertainment-industry figures that Winstead helped organize and which helps clinics in ways that more prominent reproductive-rights organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL do not. Driving home to Brooklyn in a van after finishing a book in Minnesota, Winstead played benefit sets along the way. She found that since most abortion restrictions occur in state legislatures, they don’t make national news. Even engaged people seldom knew the breadth of the campaigns, or they were more focused on issues like fracking or racial justice.
“It wasn’t publicized,” she says. “So what Lady Parts Justice League does is make videos that are provocative and funny, that try to respond to the news as best we can.”
On top of that, they do the grittier work of connecting audiences with clinics in their vicinity.
“We do a comedy show, get like 400 or 500 people in a room, and then we’ll do a talkback afterward with a provider and a clinic escort, and [audience members] can hear the real deal about what providers do,” she says. “If the clinic has a project they need, we bring the community together. For example, we were just in North Carolina, and we painted a fence for them and planted prickly holly bushes where protesters were standing, because they had this patch of ground directly in line to the patient room, where they would yell really loud.”
In any other year, the Texas law mandating funeral services for aborted and miscarried fetuses would probably be a long-running cause célèbre. But in 2016, it got, well, buried. So Controversy will make explicit the connections between restricting abortion access and shaming women generally.
“With all of these laws, you spend about 10 seconds talking about abortion, and then all of a sudden you start peeling the onion back, and it’s always about stigma and shame and sexuality and all this other shit that has nothing to do with abortion,” Winstead says. Of 48-hour waiting periods, she adds, “Imposing a waiting period on somebody who needs to terminate a pregnancy is basically legalizing the notion that women can’t be trusted. They might not make good decisions, so we shouldn’t maybe trust them for a promotion. Or maybe they shouldn’t run our banks. Or be president at all.”
At this point, Winstead realizes that we’ve been mired in the legislative weeds for the entire duration of our conversation. When we weren’t talking about her own conception, that is.
“So far I haven’t been funny, but the show’s really funny,” she says. “People forget that 2016 kicked off with those yahoos taking over federal land in Oregon. They were totally acquitted — and totally inept. You know what, if you can’t even do a Costco run before your big occupation, you’re not only bad at occupying, you’re bad at scouting. Get a clue!”
Controversy: A Hilarious, Tragic Review of 2016, available now for pre-purchase, $9.99, live on Jan. 1, 2017, at midnight PST.