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The Politics Of Comedy

The creator of The Daily Show mines the headlines for laughs in her stand-up act.

For Lizz Winstead, there is no such thing as political comedy. In her world, politics and comedy are one and the same.

Winstead was one of the founders of the Comedy Central program "The Daily Show" in its original 1996 inception, when Craig Kilborn was its host.

Winstead departed the show before its current host, Jon Stewart, signed on and turned it into the cultural vanguard of satire that it is today. But she is still an avid "Daily Show" fan and has a deep respect for the show and its popular spin-off, "The Colbert Report."

Winstead was also involved in the inauguration of Air America, the liberal talk radio network that recently filed for bankruptcy. She, along with gay and lesbian activist Rachel Maddow and rapper Chuck D, hosted "Unfiltered," a morning talk show.

Winstead left Air America in mid-2005 and is now returning to her roots as a stand-up comic. She will be at the Arlington Cinema 'N Drafthouse (2903 Columbia Pike, 703-486-2345) for a three-night stand on May 31, June 1 and June 2.

Winstead recently shared her thoughts on hecklers, senior citizens and, of course, politics.

Arlington Connection: You’re a very, very political comic. Have you ever gotten into any confrontations with audience members during your show?

Lizz Winstead: Oh sure. People don’t know you, they just come to the show. I’ve had people scream at me and say "What do you know?" They like to call you a dyke. And I’m like "Am I supposed to feel bad about that?" I just kinda go, "You know, actually, I’m not gay. Do you have anything else you want to say?" Someone calling me a dyke is like someone saying "Shut up, German." Actually, I’m not German.

AC: What’s your gig at the [Arlington] Drafthouse going to be like? Are you looking forward to that?

LW: I am definitely looking forward to it. I will be as up-to-date as the news. I’m really scared that I won’t get to everything. I’ll definitely be talking about [Alberto] Gonzalez and [Paul] Wolfowitz.

One thing that affects me on a personal level is that my mom is 85 and I helped her with this whole Medicare prescription drug plan. Going through that with her [I saw] the complicated nature of how we kick old people to the curb. And also old people can be really annoying and crazy. But you want to help them.

AC: A lot of people are probably dealing with that right now.

LW: Yeah. When you’re standing in a Target for, literally, three hours while they touch every brand of stool-firming powder and wonder what this one does. They all do the same thing! And don’t buy a stool-firming powder with a lemon-fresh flavor. That’s just wrong. It’s really crazy. And you feel bad that you’re annoyed. But the fact of the matter is, that is annoying.

I stay with my mom when I go to the assisted living facility. And it is exactly like high school but with walkers. It’s crazy. They all gossip about each other. There’s a line to get into the elevator that’s backed up like it’s LaGuardia. And activities at the old-folks home are, like, The Pledge of Allegiance and that’s it. It actually takes up an hour and a half. It goes from 12 to 1:30.

AC: How did you get involved in The Daily Show?

LW: ["Daily Show" co-creator] Madeline Smithberg and I went to Comedy Central and said, "We want to do a topical show." And that was it. And I thought, "Oh my God, this is fabulous." My act had sort of evolved into talking about some political stuff and social commentary. [So] from the way it looked to the way the correspondents worked to the way the anchor sat in the chair and the way we made unimportant things important and vice versa, we put it out there. And we were lucky enough to not have to pilot it and we were given a year to make mistakes. That was really cool.

AC: It seems like Stephen Colbert has taken "The Daily Show’s" style and taken it to a whole other level. What do you think of him?

LW: Anybody that doesn’t like Stephen Colbert should be jailed at Abu Grahib. Couldn’t be funnier, couldn’t be nicer. I mean, he’s just awesome. It’s a great companion. It’s so great that he was able to develop "The Daily Show" following and turn it into an hour of sanity.

AC: It’s really amazing because he’s always in a character whereas Jon breaks character.

LW: That’s the big difference between when I was there and when Jon took over. Everybody when I was there was in character, including Craig. When Jon took over he sort of became the voice of reason for all of the other nut bags that were on the show. It’s a great way to take it, especially with Stephen doing a character thing right after him. It’s a really brilliant compliment and really brilliant evolution to the show.

AC: What was it like when you first started at Air America?

LW: It was so crazy! It was thrilling. I was in L.A. working but I’m just not an L.A. person. I was hoping that I could be somehow swept away by someone. And I got a call saying, "You were recommended by Al Franken. We’re looking for someone like you to come up with programming for Air America." And I said, "Well, did you want someone like me or did you want me?" So I came and we worked hours that were insane. [But] all of a sudden, no one was saying "Hey, you have to play both sides of the fence."

It was really fun [but] you know the rest of the story. There were people who said they had money and they didn’t. Some people wanted to take the direction of the network in a different way with no comedy. If it were up to me it would be all Rachel Maddow all the time.

AC: George Bush, in the past seven years, has been really…

LW: Problematic?

AC: Well, I was going to say a comedic goldmine.

LW: Definitely. Sometimes it’s staggering. It can be so much. I was talking to [comedian] Lewis Black and I said, "Do you ever have trouble getting everything written?" But I don’t want to do a show just about how mentally deficient our president is. You could certainly do that, though, just like there are some comics that just talk about sex or poop all the time.

AC: Do you see any of the presidential candidates that are out there right now surpassing Bush? That’s a pretty high bar to set in terms of comedy.

LW: People said the same thing to me about Clinton, though. But actually making fun of Clinton wasn’t really political humor. Because it became a sex scandal so you’re making fun of a sex scandal. That’s a very tiresome thing. I think that the nature of the two parties are so full of humor and full of craziness that I’m not worried about Bush leaving at all.