It seems things have gotten personal for comedienne Lizz Winstead, lately.
You might not immediately recognize the name, but if you’re one of the thousands (millions?) of Americans who receive their daily dose of headlines from Jon Stewart, you largely have her to thank.
In 1996, Winstead co-created “The Daily Show” with fellow funny-lady Madeleine Smithberg, and assumed head-writing duties of what has, today, become Comedy Central’s prize cornerstone.
A lot has changed on the set of that little show that could over the course of 15 years. Original host and former king of late-night snark Craig Kilborn and his “5 Questions” are no longer seated behind the desk, that position being filled by the aforementioned Stewart and his all-but-global domination.
Winstead, too, left that life behind long ago. No longer at helm of the writer’s room, she can instead be found putting the final touches on her memoirs, due out sometime next year, while simultaneously heading up what may be an even more personal endeavor. Her “Planned Parenthood: I Am Here for You” concert tour, currently visiting a town near you, is the performer’s chance to give back, she says.
Winstead spoke to The Gazette in advance of Friday’s visit to the Cultural Arts Center.
A&E: You’re coming to town as part of your “Planned Parenthood: I Am Here for You!” tour, with the proceeds benefiting Planned Parenthood of Maryland. I was wondering if there was a special reason you were performing in Frederick?
Winstead: No, I don’t have any ties to Frederick. When I was Tweeting and going wild, letting people know I was on tour and asking if anyone would like to help, people in [Frederick] said, ‘We would!’ That’s kind of how I wound up there.
A&E: I did read that on your blog, that you were putting out feelers for volunteers in each of the cities you visit. What has that outpouring of support been like?
Winstead: It’s actually been overwhelming. ... The show [examines] the relationship people have with Planned Parenthood. I think when they see the statistics that one in four or one in five women have used their services across the board a lot of people take stock in that. It’s nice to be able to go to the doctor and not be broke, and I think people wanted to give back.
A&E: Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of the tour?
Winstead: Sure. Well, I felt my career ... my dogs are going to be barking when I’m talking, so if you hear me say “Stop it!” or “Shut up!” it’s not at you. (laughs) But I’ve always been vocal about being pro-choice. And a lot of the benefits I’ve done have been these annual fundraisers, these big money dinners. And I’d be looking them thinking, “These are the same people who come every year.” Young people don’t have the money to spend, but at the same time they want to be involved, you know? How do we keep this going?
So, I had gone back to Minnesota to finish my book, and I had to get back to New York. I needed to drive, because I had my dogs with me. At the time ... [legislators were trying to pass] all of these bills against Planned Parenthood, and I thought, “They aren’t going to have the money to pay the legal fees, alone, for things that would never hold up in a court of law, anyway.”
My idea was I could drive back across country, and hold these fundraising concerts in each state. That’s something I can do. I approached Planned Parenthood about it and said, “What do you think about this idea?” And they said, “It’s amazing.” So I said, “Here’s my route.”
Some of the branches didn’t even participate ... because they didn’t have two nickels to rub together. ... But it started with six initial concerts, and after the first three, we started to [get requests] for additional dates. I’ll be touring 10 additional cities after Maryland.
A&E: That was my next question, actually. I thought I had read on your blog that it was only supposed to run through July, and now it’s stretching all the way through October?
Winstead: It’s stretching all the way to December! We have a show in Lincoln, Nebraska [in December]. ... And we’re adding a date every day.
A&E: You’ve mentioned the support from volunteers, but what has the response been to the actual event, itself?
Winstead: The response has been overwhelming, really. What I do when I do standup is comment on the world as it is happening. I’m always on Twitter. I’m constantly keeping up with current events. But in the book that’s coming out, there’s an essay about when I got pregnant in high school ... when I was 16, and afraid, and of a Catholic upbringing, and that whole thing. I read that essay at the close of this show. People laugh with me at the beginning, and they are [crying] at the end. There’s sort of a double reaction. People have come up to me at the end of the show and said that it’s inspired them to share their story. “I used Planned Parenthood, and now people can stop demonizing it.”
Mine is not a unique story or extraordinary in any way, but it is something that other people [are going through.]
What we’ve noticed is that we have a growing number of young faces in the audience. And that aside from raising money was one of the biggest goals of this tour.
A&E: With a show like this, what’s the key to striking a balance between the comedy and the message? Or is that even an issue?
Winstead: The comedy is straight-up at the beginning. The story comes at the end. But I think it naturally flows from the issues of the day. So while the audience is laughing, they’re also thinking “What’s [my] story?”
A&E: Now come “The Daily Show” questions: The program was kind of spawned by the Gulf War, wasn’t it?
Winstead: Yeah. I had sort of been someone whose work was [rooted] in observational humor, sometimes sociopolitical humor you know, the way women are portrayed in magazines and that kind of stuff.
I had been on a blind date with a guy who fell asleep in the middle of the movie. And, so, afterward I asked, “Do you want to go somewhere and talk about the parts of the movie you were awake for?”
We had gone to this bar. The movie, by the way, was “La Dolce Vita,” and he was going on about how he didn’t like it, and “It was in black and white,” and I thought, “Oh, God.” But the television was tuned into the Gulf War coverage, and it was the first time I had ever seen a war start on TV. I remember all of the green lights, and there were graphics and a theme song. ... It felt surreal. I remember thinking, “Are they trying to sell me a war or report on a war?” Meanwhile, my date was sitting there saying, “This is so cool!”
From that point, my comedy changed. It became more about how [the media is] presenting things to me. People tend to forget, but at the time ... all of these trials started to surface. The Rodney King thing was three days after the war had started. And all of a sudden, you had Heidi Fleis and Nancy Kerrigan. There was all of this [expletive] and it was just so crazy.
So when people are trying to remember what “The Daily Show” was like back then, it was very much the same as it is now ... [but] the media landscape has changed. It’s very fun ... to see the arc that it has taken.
And when Jon Stewart took over, he very wisely began asking questions. He became this sort of voice of reason. He’s a tour de force, and I’m extremely proud of the way he has responded to the task at hand.
A&E: You mentioned your book. Are you putting the final touches on it or is it finished?
Winstead: I’m finishing it up now. It’s funny that you called, because I’m actually writing right now ... and I’m talking about the sort of tone [of that] time and place, and launching into the creation of “The Daily Show.”
A&E: When is it slated for release?
Winstead: June of 2012.
A&E: How has the writing process compared to performing live?
Winstead: It’s interesting. I’m relieved. I’ve discovered that I’m much more of a collaborator. I really feel like if I have an idea ... it becomes much better if it’s bounced around a room of clever people. It’s more fulfilling for me when an idea [comes to fruition] because of several creative minds. It’s more interesting to me. ... I’m a staunch believer that one person alone does not change the world.
And what I do is kind of massively messed up, anyway begging strangers to listen to me. (laughs) But to be sick of myself. I mean, it’s been two years working on this, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s: “More of me? Wonderful.” So I’m very happy. I’ve missed two deadlines already, but on Sept. 5, I’ll be able to put it away for good ... and get out of my own head.
A&E: Is there anything else you’d like fans to know before coming out next Friday?
Winstead: No, you know ... I’m excited, because I know maybe 50 percent of what I’m going to say, but not the other 50, because it hasn’t happened yet.
If you go
“The Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Cultural Arts Center, 15 W. Patrick St., Frederick
Tickets: $35; $100 VIP tickets available, including an exclusive question-and-answer session. Proceeds to benefit Planned Parenthood of Maryland.
For information: 410-576-2150, www.lizzwinstead.com