A Conversation with Lizz Winstead
Lizz Winstead is a comic’s comic, a writer’s writer and—one could well argue—a woman’s woman. Over four decades, she has navigated a remarkable career in the world of comedy and television, including co-creating “The Daily Show” and co-founding Air America Radio, for which she served as the first program director and co-hosted “Unfiltered” with Rachel Maddow and Chuck D. After writing her first book, “Lizz Free or Die,” she co-founded Lady Parts Justice League, later named Abortion Access Front (AAF) to be more inclusive of transgender and nonbinary people who need abortion care. I spoke with her in mid-March. Our conversation was delightful, long and has been significantly edited for space and clarity.
Charlotte: This has been a remarkable transition for you.
Lizz: It has been, but it’s also been a long time coming. I’ve had politics in my nature … always, but didn’t really bring it to my act until the early ’90s, during the First Gulf War. That’s when I just kind of started putting it all into my act. The thing that’s messed up is that I’m someone who’s had multiple abortions. I got pregnant the first time I ever had sex because I was brought up Catholic—in my 16-year-old head, if I have sex and use birth control, I’ll be committing two sins. So, I won’t use birth control—you know, a kid (my parents were real conservative Catholics in Minneapolis) in a town that was really liberal but also really Lutheran. My parents convinced me that, literally, we were living in a Lutheran police state oppressing Catholics. Mom would constantly tell this story of my grandfather having to hide his Catholicism when he worked for the city—maybe it’s true, maybe he would have been discriminated against for his Catholicism. But it really put us in this “Catholics are being oppressed, and so, don’t go against the Church” [position] and all that comes along with it. So, I got pregnant and had to navigate it with a boyfriend that hit me a lot. And so, I went into his Dad’s pants pocket and stole the money to have my abortion.
Lizz: Yeah. Ended up at a fake clinic, thinking I was getting help. I saw an ad on a bus that said “Choices, Options.” There were no cellphones back then (I’m, like, older than dirt) and pregnancy tests weren’t a popular on-the-market thing. The only way you would get a pregnancy test is the doctor. So, you see this ad on a bus … I went and it was classic: this person came out wearing a lab coat, I think they’re a doctor. They bring out a book with those fetuses you’ve seen in front of clinics—fetus porn—and I was so scared; I couldn’t be pregnant. I didn’t know how to get out of this abusive relationship, but I did know I would never get out if I continued this pregnancy. So, I said: “You didn’t mention abortion. Can I have an abortion?” She said: “Your options are mommy or murder.”
Charlotte: No way.
Lizz: It was so scary. I was like, those can’t be my options. The other thing that she said that stuck with me so hard: “Abortion is against our law” instead of “the law.” Our law. What do I hear? The law. All o a sudden, I think abortion is against the law. I think I’ve asked for something that could get me arrested. I raced out, got back on the bus, and there was an ad there for an independent clinic. It was like: Is that the same thing? What am I gonna do? I ended up going. There, people asked questions about my life, questions that easily could have led to me deciding to continue the pregnancy, if that’s what I wanted. Questions like: What do you want for your life? What do you feel about kids? I never really liked kids—always found they got way more credit than they deserve. They would fart, everyone would laugh. I fart, no one laughs. They don’t have scotch; they never have a match …
Charlotte: So, you got the abortion?
Lizz: I got the abortion at that place. It was very kind. I felt really lucky. Cut to now: Amy Hagstrom Miller [founder, president, and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health] owns the clinic where I got the abortion. She’s on the board of my organization. I’m on the board of her organization. We are great friends.
Charlotte: Full circle.
Lizz: Full circle. I laid out the story because having an abortion is integral to everything I am and have become. Throughout the course of my caring about politics and the world, centering that in my comedy and calling out hypocrisy, there was always “… but except for abortion.” Let’s push it far, but let’s not talk about abortion. “How are people going to respond to that?” Since I’m really good at laying the foundation for dealing with hypocrisy with humor, why don’t you let me worry about that? It was always shut down, and I was always the pushy, aggressive one when we couldn’t talk about it. After “The Daily Show,”, Air America, and being in other comedy spaces, we could talk about it more, but it was still general politics.
Charlotte: At Air America, you got pushback for that?
Lizz: Progressive bullshit pushback, which has become the worst pushback. People referring to abortion as “a wedge issue”. Like “we’re trying to talk about the environment and other stuff. Trying to talk about abortion, you’re just a single-issue person”. It’s similar to how LGBTQ people are treated, except different because an LGBTQ person is who you are, and abortion is what you have.
Charlotte: Completely agree.
Lizz: We need people to understand that the sum total of how you pursue who you are is a human rights issue. That’s where abortion comes in. Somebody wants to fuck around and get pregnant, it’s not my job to solve how they live their life. My job is: if you decide to have an abortion, then you should be able to have one—you’ve made a decision because the outcome of [pregnancy] isn’t going to be great. In trying to get others to understand why they should center this issue, I came against a wall. I’ll tell you: along with Marc Maron, when I got fired from Air America, we were told comedy wasn’t a good use for social change. Then, they moved Rachel Maddow to five in the morning, Chuck D to weekends, and replaced our show with Jerry Springer.
Lizz: Ma’am, when I tell you, of all the things in my career that I would have to predict, there would never, ever be a moment in my life when it would be like: “Do I have to worry about Jerry Springer taking my job?”
Charlotte: Oh my God…
Lizz: Yeah. That happened, and I did some off-Broadway shows —a satire of a morning show that was really fun. I was kind of this Kathie Lee hybrid, kooky morning lady pretending to be in her 20s. We called it “The 24-Hour Morning Show,” and it was really fun. Then I got commissioned to write a book and had to think: What is my next step? That’s when all those laws happened in 2010. We watched that assault coming from Americans United for Life. They created this piece of model legislation. What people remember from that is Wendy Davis in pink sneakers, standing on the floor of the Texas Senate. What they don’t remember: 26 other states implemented that law because those states didn’t have Wendy Davis. Watching this happen, watching clinics close—I’m freaking out. I came back to Minnesota to write my book. When I finished, I didn’t know what to do, so I called Planned Parenthood. I said, “I have to drive back to Brooklyn. I got my van, my two dogs and I wanna do some fundraisers and visit your clinics.” They were like “Who are you?” They thought I was nuts. I’m like, “No I’m really normal—check me out. I’m not a freak who wants to come with my van and my dogs!” [laughter]
Charlotte: Super normal!
Lizz: It’s great, right? I started doing independent clinics, and before I knew it, I’d gotten back to Brooklyn after 11 clinic events, and I just kept getting calls. Can you come? I was like, “I can’t just live my life traveling to abortion clinics.” And then I was like … or can I?
Charlotte: I love it.
Lizz: I went to every clinic. When I would go visit—especially the independent clinics—the staff would say with, heartbreaking authenticity, “Why did you come here? No one ever comes.” When you hear that enough, when it’s someone like me … so often, when people who come from my line of work decide they want to do something, they don’t do enough research. Someone’s already doing the work and they’re stepping on someone’s toes. Find out who’s doing the work and amplify that.
Lizz: So, I was on the ground, finding firsthand a massive hole in our movement: Who’s profoundly looking out for providers? Clinic escorts are doing incredible work. Abortion funds are making sure people get funded. Practical funds are making sure people get transportation and housing. But the providers were sort of left to have to these experiences of being assaulted at work, followed home, being targeted, harassed … in talking to each provider, they would tell stories [about] how they can’t get shit done at their clinics. They can’t get fences fixed, can’t get plumbing fixed, no one to do their yard work—simple things—because they provide abortions. So, I gathered comics, writers, producers, everyone I knew and said: I want to do this “USO for abortion clinics” tour low-key mixed with a Habitat for Humanity kind of thing. We’re not going to rebuild your clinic, but we can paint, fix shit. It turns out there’s a lot of folks in the entertainment industry who have mad gardening, painting and patching skills. They can drywall, do all this stuff … [laughter] Lizz: And so, what was “what can I do?” became “let’s bring the art on the road” and so, that’s what we’ve been doing: these USO-type tours, where we go out on the road, and we do shows that are multimedia, comedy and music. Then, there’s a conversation with the providers and activists that are local. People learn from local activists at their local clinic: the challenges and needs they have. They always say, in every show: I can’t get a roofer, can’t get a thing. We hook them up with someone from our audience. I’ll never forget this guy in Oklahoma City raises his hand and says: “Are you telling me that activism means I get paid to come mow their lawn and they become a client?” I said “Yes, parking your van in front of that clinic and saying ‘I’m happy to be a person that provides that service for them’—that’s a huge thing.”
Charlotte: Are there any current AAF projects you are excited about?
Lizz: Many of the folks are clinic escorts or run abortion funds have become familiar with anti-abortion extremists targeting their clinics. We’ve been able to take everybody’s information and create a database that everybody can access. We’re finding out that some of these clinics didn’t know that some of these same anti-abortion protesters were also protesting at their clinic. They saw a picture of someone who is maybe a local in Mississippi who is in Ohio. You make the connection that they’re part of a collaboration. As we’ve developed, we’re finding out more and more where these people live and where these people are connected. So when the insurrection happened on Jan. 6th, within 24 hours we were able to identify 20 anti-abortion extremists at the Capitol.
Lizz: We turned their names over to the FBI. That’s been really cool. We’ve been helping journalists. We’re really developing that, too, and that’s pretty dope.
Charlotte: Your organization singlehandedly helped identify 20 of the terrorists at the Capitol?
Lizz: Yes, and also just because we followed them, one of the things that’s been fascinating and frustrating for us is that we have known about these intersections for a long time and trying to sound the alarm and trying to get LGBTQ groups and groups that are doing work around immigration and Muslim groups because they’re all interconnected and people who are fighting against white supremacy. Because we have tons of footage of anti-abortion extremists who were in Kenosha—the “White Guardians of the Property”—and doing fundraisers for Kyle Rittenhouse and holding their church services, saying, “We need to take up arms” and “as Christians, we need to take up arms and defend ourselves against the laws of man.” And they have this whole doctrine—it’s called “The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate,” which has given them full permission to just ignore the laws of the government because they go against their “religious laws,” right? And so, they get to define what that is.
Charlotte: So, your network—your pro-abortion rights network—has an intelligence operation.
Lizz: Yeah, and we accidentally created it just by gathering information and listening and putting things together, and so, now, it’s like: Holy shit, we need some funding, so we can turn it over to someone bigger than us. And so, yeah, it’s been really incredible that we have this intelligence operation.
Charlotte: You were raised Catholic. This issue is about religious refusals and the role they play in society. You see the leadership of the Catholic Church exert a role in our day-to-day lives and influence every aspect of it. What has that been like to witness over your lifetime on a grander scale?
Lizz: You know, you talk to anyone who’s been Catholic, the guilt around all things that they convince you—eternal damnation is a really powerful thing. When people threaten you with eternal damnation at an early age, it’s really hard to crack that. It’s really hard to crack feeling good about unlocking who you are and having to balance that with the threat of eternal damnation. So, I’m a sexual being, it makes me feel good. I feel like if no one’s getting hurt, why is this a massive black mark on my life if I do this, you know? If you’re queer, if you’re trans, if you’re anything, you know, if you can’t get pregnant and want to have IVF, if you want to use birth control because your capacity to have kids has limits, you know, these things that are all “abominations” that the Catholic Church has decided for you. Well, this isn’t a very loving God … so, there’s a lot of unlearning. But anyone who’s a social justice Catholic has met some really dope people along the way.