Why does a world-famous political satirist want to headline the Memphis Comedy Festival? Mostly just to visit. She likes our barbecue. And our tenacity.
Lizz Winstead is a comedy force. Her credits include being co-creator and former head writer of The Daily Show, founder of Air America Radio, Huffington Post contributor and founder of the 2017 #MeAt14 viral hashtag in response to politician Roy Moore’s attempt to minimize his alleged assault of a teen girl.
She’s also a fierce fighter for reproductive justice and intersectional activism, and she thinks Memphis is getting a lot of things right.
“[Memphis’] comedy and activism scenes are super strong and super diverse,” she said. “Everyone is kind and they want to help out, but they aren’t afraid to confront constructs that have been there for a long time. [The] people are really fun, and they’re fired up,” she continued.
On March 10, Winstead will bring her brand of outspoken political comedy to the Memphis Comedy Festival. The homegrown festival, now in its seventh year, will host more than 35 comics from across the country with 15 shows this weekend.
“She’s the biggest name we’ve had headlining our festival, but she’s not just a celebrity. She shows up when she says she’s going to be there. She didn’t just send us a check, she’s coming here to be a part of our community, if only for a limited engagement,” said Cara McLane, director of the Memphis Comedy festival and local reproductive rights advocate.
Winstead, who is recognized as an advocate for reproductive rights, was decidedly apolitical when she began her comedy career in 1983.
Winstead observed that the dominant thought among the comedy scene dictated that humor should be universal, and comedy that centered an other perspective, such as that of women, LGBTQ people and people of color, would be off-putting.
Five years into her career, she noticed a shift in her own style that led her on a politically charged path.
“When I prefaced the joke with “I think,” no matter what [it] was, the audience didn’t laugh,” she said. “If just saying 'I think' is off-putting, I might as well say something that is important that I think about, rather than something stupid,” she added.
By the mid-1990s, Winstead was a nationally-headlining comedian with a long list of performing, writing, and producing credits.
She was also working with another rising star, Jon Stewart, on his late-night talk show.
When The Jon Stewart Show ended in 1994, Winstead was approached to do a satirical news show. Her unique perspective and politicized humor was now an asset.
“I told them it should look like a news show, feel like a news show, and act like a comedy show,” said Winstead.
In 1996, The Daily Show launched. It was fake news, and it was a hit. As The Daily Show was forged in the early days of the 24-hour news cycle, Winstead suggested the show be a satire of news media as much as of newsmakers.
“People always ask, ‘Did you think The Daily Show would be so successful?,’ and I always respond, ‘Well, I never thought the news media could be so derelict in its duty.’” she said.
But she took issue with the limitations of mainstream celebrity.
“You can work in gigantic corporate structures and you can say some things that are important and get people rilled up, but the bottom line is that through all the biggest projects that I did, you weren’t allowed to have a call to action … it wasn’t your job to be an activist,” Winstead said.
She began to re-envision her career. Was there a way to remain creative, pay the bills, and take real action?
Then, starting in 2011, 27 states, including Tennessee, passed or attempted to pass laws restricting access to abortion and reproductive health clinics.
Winstead was inspired by the fact that in many cities, these clinics are the only places where low-income people can get prenatal care, transgender people get hormone therapies, and where people access basic reproductive care and treatments.
Her first step to combat the legislation was a series of benefit shows for Planned Parenthood. They were a success, but Winstead noticed the audiences were typically afflient and older. The staff, patients and the general public were missing from the conversation.
Local and national Lady Parts Justice team members Jenn Roman, Molly Gaebe, Cara McLane, Lizz Winstead, and Megan Rubenstein (L to R) visit Memphis in 2017.
Back in New York, she gathered performers and writers for a new venture — The Lady Parts Justice League.
The traveling troupe would use the performances to raise awareness of local efforts. As part of the tour, they would do something to directly support clinics, such as painting over graffiti or treating employees to lunch, before heading to the next stop.
It would be a space for progressive comics to perform and connect and for community members to ask questions and get involved.
“After the show, I’ve got three to 400 people in a room. I’ll facilitate a conversation with an abortion provider or local activist. Let them talk about what they’re working on, what they need help with,” said Winstead.
“If there’s a clinic in trouble, the community’s the only thing that’s going to save them. How do you build community? You throw events. You get people involved, laughing, interested, and signed up. Then you hand that list over to the clinic and now they’ve got a support group they didn’t have before,” said McLane.
This year, LPJL will perform more than 20 shows on a national tour and as well as host film screenings, fundraisers and parties for clinic workers.
The league’s work spawned a second organization, Lady Parts Justice. The grassroots-oriented group teaches local activists how to use humor to raise awareness and influence policy. They support activists entering local and state politics and host the annual Golden Probes satirical awards show where politicians who have made inflammatory statements against marginalized groups are nominated for 'most offensive' accolades.
“It’s making state politics sexy again. OK, they were never sexy. But that’s part of our goal, to get people excited about their local state politics and then acting on it,” Winstead jokes..
Winstead and the LPJ networks have been involved in a number of projects in Memphis starting in 2014 with the Vote No on One campaign opposing Amendment One.
They produced two videos in support of state efforts and partnered with Planned Parenthood’s Memphis-based community action team and leaders McLane and Megan Rubenstein to produce an all-day music festival. The effort, which also included the CHOICES Memphis Center for Reproductive Health and the ACLU, raised $5,000 for the Vote No On 1 effort. Further local collaborations with LPJ are planned for this year with Winstead's nonprofit lending support to Condomonium, the major fundraiser for CHOICES, and arranging a Memphis version of The Golden Probes.
“Lizz is constantly filtering as much as she can our way because she really likes what we do, comedy-wise and activism-wise,” said McLane. “Lizz believes that when you’re talking about really difficult issues, having comedy there as a buffer really makes people think twice and in an unaggressive way."
Winstead’s love affair with Memphis was solidified in spring of last year when she visited for the first time while headlining Condomonium.
“I’m drawn to places that pump out a lot of creative types, and a lot of the time, those creative types, their art comes through the struggle. And I just like barbecue” said Winstead.