Lizz Winstead Talks Politics, Catholic Roots and Michele Bachmann’s Minnesotan Congeniality
Maybe you've heard the story about Lizz Winstead, as a budding comic, getting yanked off her feet by a bit of theater machinery as she prepared to introduce the acts at a bitchin' air-guitar contest in her native Minneapolis.
The mechanical roller that lifted young Winstead, dressed to a sort of 1984 punk-glam hilt, off the stage did quite a bit more to her dress. With stars perfectly aligned, the venue's air conditioner was also busted, forcing her to take special measures to get some air flow under the vintage wedding dress. You know where this is going.
''I was in panic mode. I knew I only had a split second to do something to turn this around. So I went with my instinct. I kept talking. But with my big '80s vagina the club's immediate focal point, I had to get people to listen to what I was saying, so it had better be fucking funny - funny like I had never been funny before and maybe never would be again. This was about survival.''
Just how did Lizz Winstead wiggle her way out of that wacky predicament? To find out, you'll either have to buy the book, Lizz Free or Die, or look for one of the reviews that cites the passage. It's getting lots of attention.
While Winstead is refreshingly unafraid to give her vagina its due, that's not the heart of this book, a collection of nonfiction essays. Rather, it's the observations of an unconventional all-American girl, adolescent and woman.
Many are already familiar with Winstead, co-founder of The Daily Show, Planned Parenthood super booster and comic. She also helped found Air America Radio and pops up on MSNBC. At 50, she's had a place - not a raging spotlight, mind you, at least not since 1984 - in American culture for decades. Should she ever become a U.S. ambassador, Winstead is the type of person who would remind the world that Americans can be rebellious, idealistic, crass, funny and so endearingly friendly.
She's also, to put it lightly, political. Winstead's progressive politics have recently been put to use in her native Minnesota and adopted New York, raising money for Minnesotans United for All Families, the group leading the fight against a measure to add a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
It's not all house parties, though. Lizz Winstead has a book to promote. To that end, she lands in D.C. mid-June for a night at the National Press Club, followed by two more at The Forum at Sydney Harman Hall.
''It's a three-fer,'' Winstead promises from Los Angeles, a stop on the tour. ''It's going to be incredibly fun, because it's some standup and some book reading and some signing. I'm doing it in the Forum, only like 160 seats. Normally I do bigger venues, so I'm really excited about the intimacy and all of that. I'm so excited.''
It shows. And after you've been hung up naked in front of an audience, why hide it?
METRO WEEKLY: Starting June 14, you've got five events planned for D.C. Compared to the rest of the tour, that's huge.
LIZZ WINSTEAD: I love D.C. I love it. I have so many friends that live there.
It's unending. It starts with a bunch of pals throwing a party for me Wednesday night, and I don't leave till Sunday night. I'm at Harman Hall doing four shows, which will be really fun. National Press Club? I'm not sure what happens there, but it's exciting.
MW: Speaking of D.C., have you been following Rep. Trent Franks's (R-Ariz.) attempt to use congressional authority to limit access to abortion services in D.C? He wouldn't let Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) testify. He's been nicknamed ''Mayor Franks'' for this interest in the District, with residents pestering his office for services.
WINSTEAD: And he's from Arizona, to top it all off. If he's so concerned with D.C., he should get in there. Looking at why Trent Franks decided to take on D.C., I think it's because Arizona has successfully removed all civil liberties from all residents, so he needed to find a new place. I don't think a woman can even exfoliate in Arizona at this point. It's truly remarkable.
MW: There could be viable DNA in that skin you're sloughing off. With cloning technology, those cells might have a future.
WINSTEAD: That's what I'm saying. We must be careful at every turn. Women are obviously careless. We are careless whores that need to be regulated at all costs. Even when you're doing the Lord's work, like the nuns. Clearly, prioritizing poverty over stopping people wanting to be happy and married and go to PTA meetings, the muscle's got to come down.
MW: It was sort of gratifying to read about the nuns standing their ground.
WINSTEAD: [Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, an organization of American nuns] is awesome. I just love that she was like, ''You can't define what our church is. Our church, for us, is fighting poverty and for social justice. And if you're actually saying to us, 'We think you're not spending enough time on abortion and gay marriage, and need to lay off the poverty,' we will fight back.'' She's awesome.
The bottom line is she's not afraid to say, ''Bring it. We welcome you to publicly act out what you're trying to do.'' Now the Vatican wants to bring in bishops to sort of monitor the activities of these women. I hope there are cameras every step of the way to show these women working in soup kitchens, trying to get health care for folks who are poor. I want to see that. I'm not sure it's a real good PR move on the part of the Big V, the Vatican.
MW: Like you, I was raised Catholic. I left the church, and I'm always surprised that more people in conflict with the Vatican don't. There are lots of alternative denominations.
WINSTEAD: That is the part I've always been sort of amazed with. The big warning sign for me is that organization seems to instill this gut-wrenching fear in people that they will do everything but leave. It's like [presidential candidate Rep.] Ron Paul (D-Texas) people. ''I really like his 'Pull the troops out.''' Yeah, but there are people who haven't had racist newsletters who also have those stances. Holding up one piece of lovely platform that's sort of lost in a sea of a lot of other oppressive stuff, why don't you find a place that will nurture the larger narrative that you believe in?
The fact that these nuns stay, I think I can understand that. They look at those tenets and they know that if they leave there will be no social justice done at all in the Catholic Church. They want to stay and preserve that. There is a foundation steeped in that, that they can clearly have their own spiritual permission - and also the blessing of American Catholics - to say ''F you'' to the powers that be when they call them out, which I admire.
I left. There's pretty much a big, fat, very low ceiling for women to thrive in the Catholic Church.
If you're exacerbating poverty - because that's what you're doing by saying to people never use birth control - it is so whack. It's insane. Not to mention, if you cared about poverty, you would be more for marriage equality, because a lot of people would get married and they would adopt children.
One of the funniest things my mom said - she would say things that were wildly inappropriate, but weirdly made sense - was, ''One of the reasons I'm not for gay marriage is because if you were to let gay men have gay sex with each other and everybody was okay with it, nothing would ever get done. Can you imagine the lines at the Post Office?'' [Laughs.] Basically, if men were left to their own devices they'd just be fucking constantly and therefore the lines would be longer at the Post Office.
MW: Do you have spiritual belief today? Do you believe in some sort of afterlife?
WINSTEAD: I kind of believe there is some bigger spiritual thing. I don't know what it is. I don't know how to define it. I also don't put it above other things, like science. It's called faith for a reason.
Hopefully, faith propels people to be good. But when it propels you to deny things that can be proven, I don't understand that. I also don't understand how some people of faith can say God says this and that. Well, God created scientists. And science. And facts. So why are you denying those things God created? It's sort of weird that we live in a country where if you are a climate-science denier, you can be leader of the free world. If you're somebody who says we need to prioritize science over religious beliefs, you can be banished for all eternity in big decision-making centers and be called a Muslim and a communist and a socialist and everything else. It's so weird.
MW: You're a big Planned Parenthood booster, so I want to take your mention of birth control a little further. Today, the debate isn't just about abortion, but now we're talking about contraception.
WINSTEAD: We used to be fighting this abortion battle. Now we are fighting a contraceptive battle, condom battle, moving into this very disturbing privacy realm. When [Sen.] Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) proposes a bill that says your boss can make moral judgments and deny you any kind of health care in your insurance plan if he deems that your behavior is somehow immoral, what kind of world is that? How is that even possible? This is the part where common sense goes off the rails.
When you say you'd like to reduce the number of abortions in this country and the way you plan to do that is to remove access to birth control? You shouldn't even be allowed at the table, because it's absurd. And it's legitimized. These people are legitimized. When you can say that conception happens two weeks before fertilization, I don't know what you're talking about. What? You make a suggestion in law that women should have a transvaginal probe inserted in them when it's not medically necessary and it's against their will and they have to pay for it? And you just assume we're going to sit there and go, ''Okay.''
MW: At first, being calm and reasonable, I sympathized with people not wanting their tax dollars used for something they found immoral. Then I remembered that my tax dollars helped fund the Iraq War.
WINSTEAD: We wouldn't be able to conduct ourselves as a nation if everybody got to pick and choose what they deemed morally acceptable and designate their tax dollars. That's impossible. That's why we have government. We vote for people to make decisions. We live under a set of laws and things need to make sense. Don't use those things if you're morally opposed. But don't put that on somebody else, because we all have the freedom to have sex. I hate to break it to you. As much as you're trying to legislate the sexuality and the sexual practices of people, people are going to finally catch on. It feels to me that people who have crappy sex lives are trying to ruin the world for the rest of us.
MW: I look at marriage equality that way. If you're opposed, belong to a religious body that won't allow it, so it won't happen in your church or synagogue or whatever. If you get the invitation to the wedding, decline it. If that's not good enough, you probably need to see a therapist.
WINSTEAD: Not to mention, when you make the statement that two people of the same sex who live in a state you're never going to, who are just trying to get married, have some kids and go to PTA meetings have the power to destroy your marriage, maybe you shouldn't get married. Maybe you are so unstable that we need to legislate against you, because that seems crazy.
WINSTEAD: Not to mention, when you make the statement that two people of the same sex who live in a state you’re never going to, who are just trying to get married, have some kids and go to PTA meetings have the power to destroy your marriage, maybe you shouldn’t get married. Maybe you are so unstable that we need to legislate against you, because that seems crazy.
MW: Like Franks, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) tried to meddle in D.C., but with marriage equality. But I wonder, if D.C. was less like D.C. and more like, say, Colorado Springs, might the Congressional Progressive Caucus be just as tempted to meddle?
WINSTEAD: If D.C. was more like Colorado Springs, it would be a state. [Laughs.] But I don’t think so. I don’t see the Progressive Caucus creeping into places to begin with. That’s the difference. Progressives seem to me to be people who are not trying to stop things from happening, but create the fullest lives they can for people. They want more health care. They want more freedom for people to marry. They want women to have more access to health care, things like that.
MW: In your book, you wrote about your first visit to Uncle Sam’s nightclub in Minneapolis during high school, ’’It was the beginning of a lifetime of gay bondage.’’ You already had a sort of outsider status growing up, the gangly one. But did having gay friends help form your perspectives?
WINSTEAD: The traditional conventions used to prepare you for life didn’t appeal to me. In fact, bored me. Whether it was playing with dolls or looking at appliances as toys, I wasn’t fooled.
I call it ’’the anvil rule.’’ I can’t lift an anvil. So, if I said, ’’I’ll lift that anvil! Why won’t you let me lift the anvil?’’ And people said, ’’Because you can’t,’’ and I was defiant about it, that would be weird. But if I chose something that just wasn’t the norm, and there was no physical reason why I shouldn’t be able to do it and I wouldn’t harm myself or others by doing it, if people didn’t let me do it and gave me a lame reason, it really set me off. As I got older and saw friends of color and there were parents who were like, ’’Don’t play with them,’’ or you read history and learned they couldn’t do something because of the color of their skin, that didn’t pass the anvil test. When gay kids wanted to go out with other gay kids and it was like, ’’No, you can’t,’’ and there was no good reason, it all just fell in line with ridiculous people trying to prevent people from becoming their best selves. Whenever I saw a group of people - whether it was women, or myself, or gay friends or people of color - being prevented from doing something, it just made me mad. It was a natural thing for me to bond with the struggles of other people when they were being held back for no good reason at all.
None of it was calculated. It wasn’t like I studied things and became more and more annoyed. It was literally just stumbling across things through my own struggles of trying to make sense of the world and trying to have a good time in it and be fulfilled, to watching my struggles play out in different people’s lives in different ways and seeing them be held back, and being annoyed by all of it. Really, what it did more than anything else was reflect a narrow-minded stupidity in people. They were the power structure. And now, other people just as talented as them - or more talented sometimes - wanted to do what they did. That made them have to defend themselves and prove that they were still good enough to do it. When you do that with people, they don’t like it much. They sometimes get annoyed. [Laughs.]
MW: Because I’ve got women in my life proving to me constantly that women’s sexuality is more fluid than men’s, I want to ask whether you’ve ever had any sort of romantic relationship with a woman.
WINSTEAD: In high school, here and there, there were little dalliances. But, no, I never really had any relationships with women. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m just not attracted to women for the most part. If I did, I would totally say. I wouldn’t care. Men are very ’’heels in’’ about that. ’’No. I haven’t. Of course not.’’ I probably would’ve written about it. [Laughs.]
But I do feel like when women are bisexual, they just are. There’s no transitioning of, ’’I’m coming to a place where I’m comfortable saying I’m a lesbian,’’ or whatever. I just trust that women are bisexual. Where with men, I kind of feel like almost every single time men tell me they’re bisexual, they end up in a same-sex partnership.
It seems very double-standard-y of me. Of course, I have no training at all, nor should I ever be listened to. [Laughs.] This is pure observation.
MW: Beyond sexual orientation, gender identity is such an important issue. I want your take on Iran being the No. 2 country for number of gender-reassignment surgeries.
WINSTEAD: Is that right?
MW: According to BBC. With sexual segregation, it’s like you’ve got to be clearly female or clearly male.
WINSTEAD: I guess I just don’t understand why, in the most simplistic of ways, why anyone cares or wouldn’t support somebody trying to really be fulfilled in their lives, in who they are as a person, whether they’re trans or whatever that means. It just makes people happy and better members of society.
If I can have sex with a thing I put batteries in, why would people care if I picked a woman or a man or a thing with batteries? If you had to lay it out in the scheme of things, that is the weirder of the three things to me.
Let’s just be honest; doesn’t everyone just want to get laid? Movies, novels, art and literature and entertainment, it all revolves around it. Whether it’s romantic prose or porn, whatever it is, how much of that indulges in finding a partner so that you can have sex?
That’s where it gets incredibly warped and lost for me. Focusing on what other people are trying to do instead of focusing on [yourself]? Are you so miserable that you can’t even identify with joy? It couldn’t be that your life is so joyful that you must go out and make sure other people aren’t. [Laughs.] I am so happy that I’m going to make sure you’re not! I don’t know.... It just feels like if you’re so miserable, you just need to make sure other people are miserable too? You want to create that tension in the world? Go fuck yourself.
MW: How do you actually define yourself? Left wing? Liberal? Progressive?
WINSTEAD: I’m a Lizzbian.
WINSTEAD: I sum myself up as a Wellstone Democrat. [Minnesota’s late Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party U.S. Sen.] Paul Wellstone was a man I may have admired more than any other politician who ever lived. I’m from Minnesota, volunteered on his first campaign. I’m a progressive. I don’t know where that falls in line with any part of the Democratic Party now. I don’t know who I would even say shares my full ideals. Probably [Rep.] Donna Edwards (D-Md.). I love her. She’s awesome.
MW: And Sen. Al Franken (DFL-Minn.)?
WINSTEAD: Al is pretty close, although he and I disagreed on SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), I think. But Al Franken is really carrying on in the Wellstone tradition in a way that makes me really, really happy. It’s really kind of cool to actually be friends with him. He’s in the Senate! People in Minnesota are really happy with him, too. They’re really proud. He knew the challenges he faced, just being somebody who was always this brilliant mind but went into comedy. He knew that he needed to prove to people that he was a really interesting, serious person, and he did it in a really smart way. People love him in Minnesota. They’re super-psyched about him.
MW: I’ve only passed through Minnesota, but it seems like there’s a sort of political identity disorder. You’ve also got [Rep.] Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
WINSTEAD: Every state has Bachmann these days. You name me a state, and I’ll tell ya who their Bachmann is. But Minnesota has always had an independent streak. There is a big, wide swath of rural communities and farmers and people who don’t feel like either party connects with them. In Minnesota, the Independence Party is pretty strong. Jesse Ventura was governor; he was Independence Party. People like it in Minnesota when you buck up against the power structure. They really like it. I don’t know if that’s just cold winters, or what.
They also have politics that are pretty astounding. It’s the kind of place where when you grow up and somebody has a couple hours free, they usually spend that time helping somebody do something. When you ask them why, they say, ’’Well, because I can.’’ I really love that. Those Garrison Keillor moments, he really captures that. That’s real. There are lawn signs that say, ’’I’ll pay more taxes for a better Minnesota.’’ They get it. And they see it. If you go there, the lakes are beautiful. There are hundreds of miles of bike trails within an urban environment. It’s an astounding place to be from and the people are pretty incredible. Even Michele Bachmann, as volatile as her politics are, she’s a nice person. Al will tell you, she’s a very pleasant person. She’s not mean to you. She’s not brutal. She’s very affable, as opposed to some other people who are scathing reprobates with the same voting record. I think she’s completely wrong and unqualified to lead, but I don’t think she’s evil. I think she really believes she was called by God. I believe that if God has called Michele Bachmann, then her number must be one digit off from someone really interesting. Maybe Elizabeth Warren.
MW: Maybe Bachmann’s right. Maybe there’s some crazy hell waiting for those who don’t believe what she believes.
WINSTEAD: I don’t think so. All the candidates who said God called them to run - there were more than Michele Bachmann; there was Rick Perry and also Rick Santorum - they all lost to Mitt Romney, which leads me to believe that Mitt Romney’s underwear may really be magical.
MW: In Minnesota politics, your brother, Republican mayor of Bloomington, opposes a state constitutional amendment banning marriage equality, right?
WINSTEAD: Yes, he’s a no. He is a no vote. He’s gone to house parties. He’s gone on record saying no, no, no.
MW: Had you two spoken much about that?
WINSTEAD: Unbeknownst to me, when [Minnesotans United for All Families] had their first round of house parties, [campaign manager] Richard Carlbom was at a party that my brother was at. He didn’t make the last name connection with my brother until they got to talking. Then he tweeted, ’’Just met Mayor Winstead’s brother at a Marriage for All Families house party.’’ I was like, ’’Right on, brother! I’m so happy you went out and were putting your face on that. That’s awesome.’’ It was sort of a fun way to find out. He’s just somebody who thinks that people should be able to live their lives. He is that person. For him to just put it out there made me incredibly happy.
MW: Is that how you got involved with the house parties?
WINSTEAD: That’s a really good question. I knew there was an amendment and I figured I would do something, but I just didn’t know what. I was like, ’’Let me know what I can do.’’ Then Richard and I started talking. We did an event in New York with [Freedom to Marry founder and President] Evan Wolfson and a lovely woman from Minnesota who hosted kind of an expat event at her house to raise some money for Minnesotans back home. It was a whole bunch of Minnesotans living in New York.
And I was going to Minnesota for my book tour and for a Planned Parenthood fundraiser and it coincidentally dovetailed right into the massive house party. ’’Somebody drag me around and we’ll do as many as we can!’’ It was really fun.
MW: What’s next for your career? Do you have some bureaucratic Soviet-style five-year plan?
WINSTEAD: No clue. I’ve never had a plan. The reason I even started this whole crazy comedy racket was I just simply wanted to be heard on some level. It didn’t even need to be profound. It could just literally be, ’’Would somebody shut the fuck up so I can make a suggestion about a restaurant?’’ I had no idea that it would lead to standup comedy, that my sort of observations of life would lead to something more political. I kind of feel, so far, going into my 51st year, if I stay as open as possible to everything that comes into my purview, something new and interesting comes my way just by virtue of me responding and participating in the greater world. So I’m just going to assume that’s going to happen.
Right now, it’s just talking about the book and doing my standup. Wherever that takes me is where I’ll go. And it’s fun. Maybe I’ll do another TV show this year. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll do a theater piece. Maybe I’ll write another book. I don’t know. But I’m excited to see where my passions will have me put my focus next.
Lizz Winstead appears Thursday, June 14, at 6:30 p.m., at the National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor. Tickets are $5 for nonmembers. Winstead has 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. shows Friday, June 15, and Saturday, June 16, at The Forum at Sydney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets are $20, available at lizzwinstead.com. Lizz Free or Die, $25.95, is available widely.