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A Brief Conversation With 'Daily Show' Creator Lizz Winstead

The comedian talks about the state of our media and the role of satire.
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(Photo: 92YTribeca/Flickr)

(Photo: 92YTribeca/Flickr)

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA — Lizz Winstead is a busy woman. Not even a half hour after her Politicon panel (read: Comic Con for policy and/or punchline nerds) on political satire wraps up, she's off to serve as a judge for a stand-up contest, and then after that she'll be performing a mock interview with the the Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper in front of a crowd that numbers well into the hundreds. Between all that, she's still got to chat with fans and promote her three-years-young non-profit Lady Parts Justice, which uses comedy to address injustices in reproductive rights. It's should come as no surprise, then, to report that Winstead is a pretty fast walker.

It's also not much of a surprise that Winstead is such a central figure at Politicon; she's been one of the most instrumental figures in making mainstream this intersection between comedy in politics. In 1996, together with Madeleine Smithberg, Winstead created the Daily Show. While it's been over 15 years since she left the program (back when Craig Kilborne was sitting in the anchor's chair), Winstead has never abandoned her sharp brand of political comedy, be it through her never-ending list of projects or her own stand-up routines.

While there's no official tally, it seems safe to say Winstead is probably the busiest person at Politicon. Somehow, she managed to squeeze in a quick word with me.


Jon Stewart famously denied the Daily Show's role as a political influencer, insisting, instead, that it was only a comedy show. What do you feel is the role of political satire?

I think the role of political satire these days is to be the watchdog of the watchdogs. We used to rely on the media to be our watchdogs of politicians, and now the media has become so derelict that comedians are [their] watchdogs. With so much sound-bite information, it's really hard to know what the truth is. And people [are] busy. Who's reading big think pieces anymore? For someone to parse out for you the truth when they can, I think it's important. And for me, as a satirist, one of my jobs is to say: "Always question your source. Don't always take what you hear at face value. Look around: Are there other points of view?"

The scary thing for me is that you are able, as a consumer of information, to just hear your point of view. You don't have to hear anything else if you don't want to, and I think that's why shit's so crazy.

Are you ever concerned that the proliferation of political satire could lead to a spread of misinformation?

We can't rely on satire for everything. Sometimes satire can't drill down in a way that gives you a greater perspective. It's nice to have it be a catharsis, and to point out hypocrisy. But you have issues that are just too complicated to satirize, like Israel or the World Bank, or who are our allies in the Middle East actually?

When you say, "Let's arm Syria," who are we talking about? That can't be satirized, but people should really learn about the complicated nature of what that really means. Satire shouldn't be the answer, and it shouldn't be the substitute for an incredibly good news base.

When you say people should learn these things, have you seen a shift in you audience's knowledge of politics? Are people getting savvier?

I think some people are getting savvier, who want to look at all of these information outlets as places to get smarter. But it's also allowing, when misinformation gets out in the world, it lays there; it's hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Some people are savvier, and some are less. But when you have networks that also have websites that seem to be in collusion and funded with each other, and when you have four websites that have the same non-fact fact checking, somebody can say "I've seen four sources that say this."

What's your daily media diet?

I read the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and then I look at BBC and the Guardian. Depending on what story I'm interested in, I'll follow a local newspaper based on a story. I'll follow the Oregonian, for example, after the [Umpqua Community College] shooting.

My Twitter feed, I have lists and lists of journalists who cover health care, the Middle East, reproductive rights, finance. So when big stories happen, I open up that feed and I follow what those people are saying, and then I link to the articles that they're writing.

Your comedy is obviously left leaning. Do you ever find yourself embracing conservative ideas?

I was raised in a very conservative family, and my dad and I used to argue all the time about finance, war, a lot of things. I remember we would both laugh about it and be like, "I'm not willing to sell out who you're willing to sell out." There would be a conservative philosophy that could get you from point A to point B, and it would make sense and there would be a solution, but the casualties in the middle—whether it's human costs, jobs, whatever—I was not willing to accept.

There are many conservatives like David Frum who will take ideologically conservative stances on things that make perfect sense, but I don't like who I perceive falls victim to it. I don't discount out of whole cloth; I just look at the philosophy and go, "I'm not willing to go there because of X, Y, and Z."