Author Interviews
5:52 am
Sat May 12, 2012

How A 'Daily Show' Writer Grew Up Funny

Originally published on Tue May 15, 2012 1:09 pm

Lizz Winstead has always looked at life a little differently. She never believed that stork story, for example. She says she loved her Barbie doll when she was a little girl, growing up in Minnesota, but Barbie didn't mean impossibly perfect pulchritudinous plastic beauty to young Lizz. It meant something different.

In Lizz Free or Die, a new book of essays, she takes readers through the different chapters of her life: growing up, becoming a comic, helping to create The Daily Show, which has gone on to be a huge success (albeit mostly after she left), and Air America, which she loved, but fell apart.

Interview Highlights

How she discovered she was funny

"It's genetic in my family. My father is from Mississippi and a long line of storytellers. All of my siblings are incredibly gifted at telling stories. And I think I wasn't really like a goofball or didn't really tell jokes as a kid. I think more in high school did I realize, if I can crack wise, I can get away with some stuff. It's easier to be funny than it is to be angry. Because there's this interesting thing — if you make someone laugh, you have a bond. And so if you can make someone laugh who you disagree with, they have to acknowledge that on some level they like you, and sometimes then you can work things out."

On working at The Daily Show

"We were in a place where the news was so out of control at the time, in a different way than I might characterize it now. It was very tabloidy. It was very trial-of-the-century-of-the-week, and they could find any three weird oddities and create it as a trend to scare people. 'Dental floss might strangle your baby!' You know, just crazy pieces that were on all the time. We wanted to combat it so badly that I think oftentimes I would go for the jugular rather than the joke."

On going to the prom

"I was stood up for my own high school prom by a lovingly delightful hockey player with a mullet. And he stood me up for my prom as I was there in my dress and my corsage and mortified.

"He decided to go with another girl, so no prom for me. A little bit of a sore spot. Cut to age 35, and this sweet young fan of the show — he was, like, the first audience member to ever come to the show — he was, like, the first person in line. He had watched the show for about a year and become a superfan, and he would occasionally write me notes: 'I really love this joke!' And he really got nuanced, and he was that great nerdy kid that you go, 'Oh I wish you could see yourself in 10 years because you're going to be so excited!'

"So when it came time for his prom, he asked me to prom. And I was like, 'How can I not go?' So I said, 'Yes, I will absolutely go,' and we'll film the show. So I wore this inappropriate red dress. It was one of those, like, built-for-sin dresses, so that all these jocks would be jealous of him. And so we went to the prom and I decided that I was going to have a prom experience. We could've just shot the little pieces we wanted for the show, but I sat with the dinner, and I danced to 'Rock Lobster,' and he kissed me on the cheek, and then he requested a song called 'Lady in Red,' and we slow-danced to it. It was absolutely a delightful evening because he was such a great kid, and he was really fun."

On her father's last "dielarious" days

"Yes, dielarious: laughing with or at the expense of someone who is dying. And it is a word that I didn't ever use until my father passed away. My father was this amazing, funny southern storyteller. And our politics were diametrically opposed. He was a staunch Reagan Republican and I'm a crazy liberal. And we found this fun detente where we would both watch Jeopardy! together, because if we both could answer 'What is the Sudetenland?' at the same time then we couldn't call each other dumb.

"He always said to me, he said, 'You know, I raised you kids to have an opinion, and I forgot to tell you it was supposed to be mine.' "

On her mother

"She was never overtly critical. She was very Minnesota-backhanded critical, but she always did support me in a way that was pretty incredible. She would defend me to the death — take my pictures when I was on the TV, because they didn't have a VCR. And then show those pictures or cut out clippings when I was in the paper.

"I grew up with conservative parents in a very progressive community in Minneapolis. And so a lot of her friends were Democrats, which, you know, she would say things to me in her later years in retirement, and say, 'Well, you know, sometimes at my dinner table at the retirement home, they sit me with the Democrats. And I've said I'd rather sit with the Alzheimer's people.' So yeah, she was quite a character in her own right. Very different sensibility than my dad. But you know it was again, just lucky to have these gifts from these parents who reiterated how much humor was part of us and how important it was to keep it going. And now I feel like I have a legacy that I'm carrying on."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Lizz Winstead has always looked at life a little differently. As a little girl growing up in Minnesota, she was often upbraided for asking impertinent questions and saying something inappropriate. Served her well when she became a comedian. She has written a book of essays called "Lizz Free Or Die" that takes readers through the different chapters of her life: growing up, becoming a comic, helping to create "The Daily Show" back in 1996, which has since gone on to huge success.

But she had a show biz debut that could have been her last performance.

LIZZ WINSTEAD: It is possibly the greatest horror story and the greatest gift that I have received in my career in comedy.

SIMON: It was in Minneapolis in the 1980s. Lizz Winstead was hosting the finals of an air guitar contest called "The Great Pretenders."

WINSTEAD: And so, I wearing this big, white Madonna ball gown that I got at a thrift store that was kind of ripped up. And behind me was a gigantic video screen to where the performers were waiting, and then the screen would roll up and they would sing. So I'm about to introduce the first act. The screen rolls up and the dress rolls up in the screen behind me.

SIMON: Liz Winstead found herself vulnerable and exposed, nude from the waist down and trapped in the machinery. So, she told a joke and another. Suddenly, the audience was laughing with her, not at her. Some people even thought she planned it that. A career in comedy was launched.

Lizz Winstead grew up one of five children of conservative Catholic parents. And, like a lot of kids, she said she loved her Barbie doll - but Barbie didn't mean impossible perfect, pulchritudinous plastic beauty. To young Lizz, but something different.

WINSTEAD: You know, I looked at Barbie as sort of the pinnacle of freedom, where she had her own dream house. She had a car. She had a boyfriend that she - I - she - I should say I - could choose when he showed up.

SIMON: And what he was wearing, come to think about it.

WINSTEAD: And what he was wearing. That's exactly right. And so being the youngest of five kids and never getting my voice in anyway, I looked at her as somebody to completely emulate. Now, and I didn't really even notice the crazy curvy plastic doll that people have come to, feminists have come to, you know, take on. And I remember being in college and taking a feminist studies class early on and Barbie was under assault. I was like but wait, isn't Barbie a feminist? Like I completely perceived her as a - even though her feet - she couldn't walk but she could drive.

SIMON: How did you find out you were funny?

WINSTEAD: Well, it's genetic in my family. My father is from Mississippi and a long line of storytellers. And all of my siblings are incredibly gifted at telling stories. And I think for years I knew that I had a funny bone but standup comedy or pursuing comedy as a career never occurred to me, simply because in my coming of age, when I would turn on the "Tonight Show," I didn't see any women really on television doing standup unless they were older women like Totie Fields or Joan Rivers, and so I didn't see anyone like me. It was either men in suits talking about what men in suits talk about, or women, if they were older, talking about how much their husbands disappointed them and sort of the level that their boobs had sunk to on their body. That was a very popular thing to talk about for a lot of comedians back in the day.

And so it wasn't until I was watching George Carlin one night with a girlfriend of mine and she said why don't you try that? And I said I don't know. Do you think I could? And she said why not? I wasn't really like a goofball, or didn't really tell jokes as a kid. I think more in high school did I realize, it's easier to be funny than it is to be angry. Because there's this interesting thing, if you make someone laugh, you have a bond. And so if you can make someone laugh who you disagree with, they have to acknowledge that on some level they like you, and sometimes then you can work things out.

SIMON: Some of the most moving sections of your book have to do with your father's last days.

WINSTEAD: Yes.

SIMON: And you invent a word that I have grown to admire since reading it, dielarious.

WINSTEAD: Yes, dielarious: laughing with or at the expense of someone who is dying. And it is a word that I didn't ever use until my father passed away. My father was this amazing, funny Southern storyteller. And our politics were diametrically opposed. He was a staunch Reagan Republican and I'm a crazy liberal. And we found this fun detente where we would watch "Jeopardy!" together, because if we both could answer what is the Sudetenland? at the same time then we couldn't call each other dumb.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WINSTEAD: And he always said to me, he said, you know, I raised you kids to have an opinion, and I forgot to tell you it was supposed to be mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WINSTEAD: Which is such a brilliant thing. And so about six months before he passed away, he sent me this beautiful card. And on the inside it said, I love you. You are my favorite. Don't tell the others. And I thought, oh my god. The problem with the card is that he said on the card, don't open this until I'm gone. And finally when he passed away, we were all sitting in the room and my mom said oh, your father really was excited to send you cards. I would love to hear what the cards said.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WINSTEAD: And I said, you know, mom, maybe you another time. Maybe after the funeral we can all read the cards. And so she goes, and I want you to start, Lizz. And I, I was gobsmacked. And so I said, OK, the card said, I love you. You are my favorite. And then everyone else chimed in, don't know the others.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WINSTEAD: He had sent the exact same card to all of us and actually planned with my mom and so that he could upon his death, the first thing we would do is laugh and not cry.

SIMON: Your mother sounds like an extraordinary character.

WINSTEAD: Yeah. She was one of those mothers who - she was never overtly critical. She was very Minnesota-backhanded critical. But she always did support me in a way that was pretty incredible. She would defend me to the death - take my pictures when I was on the TV, because they didn't have a VCR. And then show those pictures or cut out clippings when I was in the paper.

If I was like a young comic and I was booked as and others, it was like Louie Anderson and others, she would cut out and others, put that in the box.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WINSTEAD: And I think part of it too was I grew up with conservative parents in a very progressive community in Minneapolis. And so she would say things to me in her later years in retirement, and say, well, you know, sometimes at my dinner table at the retirement home, they sit me with the Democrats. And I've said I'd rather sit with the Alzheimer's people.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WINSTEAD: So yeah, she was quite a character in her own right. Very different sensibility than my dad. But you know it was, again, just lucky to have these gifts from these parents who reiterated how much humor was part of us and how important it was to keep it going. Now I feel like I have a legacy that I'm carrying on.

SIMON: Lizz Winstead, her new collection of essays, "Lizz Free Or Die," speaking from New York. Thanks so much.

WINSTEAD: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.