June 28, 2006
When Lizz Winstead comes home for a visit, she makes the rounds. "I always see my family. I always go to the State Fair. And I always go to Ike's, which is my brother's restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, for prime rib sandwiches and the best Bloody Marys I've ever had," she says. One thing she doesn't do very often these days is perform. But the high-profile political humorist will do just that at Minnesota Public Radio's next Stage Series of American Humorists July 22 at The Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.
St. Paul, Minn. -- Winstead comes from southwest Minneapolis and returns regularly for visits, but she doesn't often perform due to the demands of her heavy producing and writing workload. It's a rare chance to see her in person. "I'm very excited to come back. I don't perform in the Twin Cities a lot because when I come back I like it to be as fresh as it can be." With the midterm elections on the horizon, she'll have plenty to talk about.
Winstead is all about using humor as a conduit for insight, especially where politics is concerned. She gained notoriety as one of the originators of The Daily Show. The faux news show pulls no punches when it comes to spotlighting bad faith on the part of politicians and leaders. And even though she left the show years ago, the sensibility is still pure Winstead.
"I like to point out hypocrisy through humor. And these days there's no end of possibilities," says Winstead. "It's like being at the Old Country Buffet ... and anywhere with a sneeze guard over the food is not good." Anything in the news is fair game for Winstead. If there's truth to be told, she'll tell it with the characteristic flare and humor that have won her loads of fans.
While Winstead is up on the news, she's the first to critique the lack of substance she finds. "I call it 'the old' instead of 'the news,'" she jokes. Still, she is driven by curiosity and thinks others should be as well. "I think curiosity is the key to all things good. ... Not being curious is more dangerous than being dumb," she says. "Some people want humor that is completely escapist. But if you'd don't read the newspaper, you won't have a bit of fun at my show."
Her connection to the news goes deeper than the day's headlines, though. National Public Radio's Michele Norris was one of Winstead's college roommates and remains a close friend. She also spent plenty of time around journalists at her recent MSNBC gig. "I'm friends with journalists. I use them as sources. I like to have it where, if you were to fact check me, you know where the exaggerations are, but the basic premise is pretty much the truth. ... So I won't set up a premise based on lies. I don't have to."
Much has been made of the fact that many people now turn to programs such as The Daily Show as a news source. To Winstead, this makes a certain amount of sense. "I think people are looking for someone to question decisions that are made," she notes. "After 9/11, we had the cone of silence where you were demonized if you questioned the Iraq War and administration policies. ... It's been the social critics, not the journalists, asking the questions ... That's why [people] trust them." That notion of humor as a vehicle for social criticism is a strong thread throughout Winstead's work. "Outrage through humor is a good thing," she says.
So where did her aptitude for humor and the ability to articulate her point of view so pointedly come from? As one of five children, competition for attention spurred her, but humor was also ever-present. While her parents were politically conservative, she and her siblings were always encouraged to have an opinion and voice it (within reason). "I remember my dad saying to me that 'I raised you kids to have an opinion, but I forgot to tell you it ought to be mine.' My dad was a great storyteller and I think we all get a bit of that from him." Lucky for her ... and for us.
(This article appeared in the July 2006 "Plugged In" section of Minnesota Monthly.)