With new book 'Lizz Free or Die,' Lizz Winstead brings the voice behind 'The Daily Show' to the page
By Carl Kozlowski 05/24/2012
Growing up amid a large and boisterous Catholic family in Minneapolis, Lizz Winstead always found herself questioning what she was taught, both at home and at Catholic school. She wanted to know how Adam and Eve managed to populate the earth without resorting to incest and later experienced injustice for the first time when she learned she couldn’t be a priest, or even an altar boy, despite her devout love of the Mass and its rituals.
Thankfully, Winstead never lost her fiery spirit as an adult. Even she’s now glad she never became a priest, because she’s managed to reach a much bigger audience as the co-creator (with Madeline Smithberg) of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” a program that created a seismic shift in the way that America gets its news, through its sharp melding of entertainment, satire and journalism.
Now, Winstead has crafted a book of essays called “Lizz Free or Die,” in which she recounts her life — including teen pregnancy and having an abortion — and career in sometimes astonishingly frank fashion. She’ll be discussing and signing copies of it tonight at 7 p.m. at Vromans Bookstore in Pasadena, and if her interaction is as open and freewheeling as it was in a recent phone interview, it should be an interesting evening indeed.
“My interest in being a priest partly came out of growing up the youngest of five in a very opinionated family. I was looking to get my voice out there, and I saw that priests always spoke in uninterrupted fashion and were then told how great their sermon was,” recalls Winstead. “I assumed as a kid that the way to become a priest was to become an altar boy, like an apprenticeship. I approached my priest excited, like no girl had ever thought of this, and he was so mortified that I brought it up and gave me my first dose of an adult saying ‘no’ for no good reason — that girls can’t be altar boys, because it’s called altar boy and you’re a girl. I was stunned, because it made no sense, and he was stunned when I suggested they just let me do it and call me an altar girl.”
That encounter led Winstead to create what she calls her “anvil test” for life, a philosophy that has guided her moves and beliefs ever since. Basically, she knows she can’t lift an anvil, and can accept that limitation. But it’s when a limitation doesn’t make sense that she’s determined to seek justice in the world.
“If I’m told ‘no’ about something without good reason, like saying people can’t marry because they’re gay or that their skin colors are different, then I start gravitating toward being heard and then fighting with the people who are wronged,” says Winstead. “That’s how the ball got rolling with me, listening to people say ‘no’ and then deciding if it was legit or bull.”
Winstead’s entry into standup comedy was largely a result of her rejection by the priest. She was on a quest to be heard by the world and happened to love listening to George Carlin and Richard Pryor records. One night when she was watching “Tonight Show,” a friend said she should try doing standup because she was always so opinionated and funny.
Having grown up watching older women comics like Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller on “The Tonight Show,” Winstead didn’t feel there were women of her generation to whom she could relate. But she dove in anyway, appearing at an open mike event in her hometown, scored some laughs and never looked back.
She eventually built a reputation that got her a show-pitching meeting with Comedy Central, during which she entered with one idea and emerged with the job of a lifetime at the helm of “The Daily Show” in its initial three seasons with host Craig Kilborn.
“I had never brought my personal views on politics onstage,” explains Winstead. “But on the first night of the  Gulf War, I was on a blind date in a sports bar with a guy, and we were with everyone watching a war unfold live on TV for the first time. There were graphics, theme music, green lights, bombs dropping and people reporting from the roofs of hotels. It seemed like a miniseries.
“I thought, ‘Are they reporting a war or selling a war?’” Winstead continues. “People, including my date, said it was awesome, and I thought that I need to start paying attention and getting my politics into my standup. Comedy Central called me in to pitch one idea, but instead offered us a show every single night that responds to the world and its news coverage. It was like someone saying you have the keys to the kingdom.”
Between her involvement with “Daily” and her subsequent stint with the heavily-hyped but now defunct progressive talk-radio network Air America, Winstead has had an enormous impact on the way the media operates. And while she reminds even her fans that it’s important to get their news from serious sources as well, she feels that the changes have helped the national discourse.
“We created a show that was basically mocking the media given us at the time,” says Winstead. “In 1995, it was newsmagazines galore, featuring either celebrity drama or stories that would frighten you. In local news, it was ‘if it bleeds it leads,’ and on the world scale we had the baby-shaking nanny and OJ’s trial of the century. So we launched the show by satirizing weird local news stories and satirizing celebrity culture.
“Yet I love that the show with Jon [Stewart] serves as the voice of us, the people, and his correspondents are representing the news media as it is,” she continues. “What I loved is that the show followed the news so profoundly, they’ve taken it to a whole new place and followed the trajectory of where media has moved as well. It’s brilliant.”
Lizz Winstead discusses and signs her book “Lizz Free or Die” at 7 p.m. tonight at Vromans Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromansbookstore.com.