On Monday, the San Francisco’s Women’s Community Clinic called and told me the news: Lizz Winstead is bringing us pizza tomorrow.
A co-creator of the Daily Show, co-founder of Air America radio, and an unstoppable feminist joke machine, Winstead often drops by reproductive healthcare clinics with treats. She brings them, she says, because everyone she knows has been to a clinic at some point in their lives, and because the people who work in reproductive healthcare can get lonely.
It’s just one part of her latest project, Lady Parts Justice, which uses comedy and information to battle anti-choice legislation. Willing to support clinics however she can, sometimes Winstead brings the workers a comedy show, but she can also bring breakfast, “or take them out for drinks, or we’re going to Fort Worth Texas, to build a fence in August,” she told me over the phone last week. “We’re part Amy Schumer show, part USO, part Habitat for Humanity.”
She wasn't kidding. When we talked, Winstead was calling from Louisville, where she had done a show the night before with the Lady Parts Justice team, a rotating group of pro-choice feminist comics that perform across the U.S. It's just one of many ways Winstead and crew draw attention to potential threats to reproductive rights.
In the end, I wasn't able to go to the clinic and eat any of Winstead’s pizza. But as we talked on the phone, I realized I was treated to a feminist stand-up show for one.
With the Daily Show, and since 2012, with Lady Parts Justice, you’ve made a habit of taking on subject matter usually addressed by activists. Can you explain how you write about issues you yourself are passionately opinionated about, but at the same time maintain a level head so you can figure out where the funny is?
I’ve always poked my little stick at the seamy underbelly of things that I’ve found either hypocritical or oppressive. You can really find humor when you figure out where your targets are, and then figure out the lies, manipulation, and hypocrisy. When you stark poking around, you’ll always see that the purpose of what they’re doing is so that the power structure that exists can remain the power structure, whether that is banking, whether that is undocumented workers, whether that is Black Lives Matter, whether that’s reproductive rights issues. It’s always the case: “How can we make sure that people remain vulnerable?” So our job is to blow the lid off of that, and laugh at their ridiculous reasoning. For example, when you tell women that to have less clinics is better healthcare, that’s just a laughable base of operations to start from. People will become homicidal if their app doesn’t download fast enough, yet you make a woman wait for a health care decision anywhere between 24 and 72 hours because you’re just sure she hasn’t thought about it enough? There are so many things I could say, but I’ll start with that.
Reproductive rights is a complicated area for comedy. How do you come at it ethically? What do you worry about?
“Complicated.” “Ethically.” I feel like those are words the right has engrained into us to say. I follow the science and the necessity of what abortion means: There’s simply nothing unethical about needing to terminate a pregnancy, but the language has been highjacked by right-wing extremists for the last 40 years. Allowing them to talk about babies, allowing them to say the word mother, when the person just simply doesn’t want to be pregnant anymore. I have no moral or ethical problem with talking about abortion or having abortion be part of a comedy routine, because I don’t buy into, nor will I promote, any kind of untrue facts about why people need abortion, what abortion actually is, or what pregnancy actually is. When you have someone saying you can’t have an abortion in the first 72 hours of a sperm hitting an egg, when it’s not even a pregnancy? There is no moral or ethical reason I shouldn’t make as much fun of that person as possible.
Some people see what they’re calling a “new wave” of comedy that talks about reproductive rights. They point to comics like Samantha Bee and John Oliver. Do you see yourself as part of a new wave, or more as part of a longer tradition?
I’ve been doing this a really long time. I just did a show recently and someone brought a flyer from 1992 of a fundraiser that I did for an abortion-rights advocacy group in Minnesota. So I’m glad that people are understanding what’s at stake, and Samantha Bee and John Oliver and Amy Schumer and Sarah Sliverman are paving the way, because they’re being smart about exposing a lot of the things people don’t know about when it comes to this issue. Like in 1992, there was Casey v. Planned Parenthood -- the criteria was that you can curb abortion access if you don’t cause an “undue burden,” but nobody defined what that burden was.
In a recent BBC online article about abortion rates worldwide, which suggests that rate is a steady 25 percent of all pregnancies regardless of the legal status of termination, Dr. Bela Ganatra of the World Health Organization said "The high rates of abortion seen in our study provide further evidence of the need to improve and expand access to effective contraceptive services.”
Yeah, and the problem is, we live in a country where they’re telling us they want to reduce the number of abortions and the way they want to do that is to remove access to the places that provide affordable contraception. I don’t know why people like that are even listened to and not laughed off the planet. We don’t live in some world where there’s abstinence and unicorns. People have sex, unintended pregnancies happen, people don’t want to be parents or can’t have more kids. And some people would be shitty at it and know that about themselves. I’m one of those people.
What is the thing with people who oppose contraceptives? I’m from San Francisco so I’m baffled by that.
That’s really where this story always goes. It gets out of abortion very quickly, and goes to the whole: “Sex is for procreation, contraception encourages sex not for procreation, it goes against God’s plan, I believe in God’s plan, and America was based on God’s plan.” It’s like “Whoa, whoa, and WHOA.”
You told Time magazine you plan “to encourage people to incorporate a little bit of activism into their social lives, and so it becomes something that you do like your yoga practice” Do you think we could maybe just get people to totally replace their yoga practice with activism?
I just think that -- first of all, that’s really funny. But our philosophy is to bring the information into places where people are already gathered; I don’t try to lure people into my world. There are buzzwords, like the word activist, people hate that word. But we live in a world where our art, everything, our conversations, our films, evolved around thinking about sex, trying to have sex, having sex, thinking about when you’re going to have sex again, and then eating. Right? We live in a sexual society, and you might not have anything in common with me, but we all like sex. And we know that. And if you make someone laugh, they like you. And if they like you, more often than not they’re willing to listen to what you have to say.
There must be a lot of competition from all the pro-life comedy out there.
You know what, that’s the hardest thing. They’re everywhere. Everywhere you turn, there’s another person on the anti-choice comedy tour. But no, there’s no one out there doing what we’re doing from the other side. I don’t think. Pass them along to me, I’d love to know.
Where can people find your work if they can’t catch you at the Women’s Community Clinic benefit?
Look at our videos on Lady Parts Justice, and sign up to find out about V to Shining V. This year it’s going to be a big awards show called the Golden Probes; we’re doing a livestream out of New York honoring outstanding achievements in sexism. We’re going to get somebody from every state, we have dance numbers, we have comedians, it’s going to be really fun.
Lizz Winstead performs May 19 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Tickets are $125 (though they are currently sold out.) For tickets, time, and more information, visit the clinic’s website.