Liberal Talk Radio Takes Off

Behind the scenes with Air America’s Lizz Winstead

Ask Lizz Winstead why you never hear liberals tell a joke, and she’s quick on the draw: “Because we don’t have a liberal-controlled media. That’s the big lie. If liberals were running the media, wouldn’t there be hilarious liberals all over the place?” Speaking from her new digs at the progressive AM radio network Air America, where she directs entertainment programming and co-hosts the acerbic political and cultural program Unfiltered with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and British rabble-rouser Rachel Maddow, Winstead made it clear that she intends to help restore the power balance.

Launched this spring in select markets across the country, Air America is out to prove that left-wingers like Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, and Winstead can be every bit as entertaining and popular as conservative talking heads Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. “Air America has proven that there are hilarious liberals all over the place,” Winstead says. “It just took a bunch of liberals to start a network and put them on it.”

A co-creator and former head writer of Comedy Central’s acclaimed The Daily Show, Winstead, 42, knows a thing or two about funny. Brought up Catholic in Minnesota (which she has referred to as “the Lutheran police state”), Winstead earned her chops as a stand-up comic in 1987 when she accepted a dare to perform at an open-mike night. She went on to perform two one-woman shows, Don’t Get Me Started and Stream of Consciousness, and in 1996 Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg created The Daily Show (Winstead quit two years later when then-host Craig Kilborn made an off-color remark about her in an Esquire magazine interview).

Brassy and unapologetic about her politics, Winstead says “outrage, outrage, outrage” is at the heart of her comedy. “It’s like the information dictates the outrage,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t feel funny at all, and I just feel like I really would like to say this. So, hopefully, it will be engaging most of the time and funny most of the time, but just as long as it’s compelling every time.”

When she’s not burning up the airwaves, Winstead lives with her dog, Eddie (a Chihuahua/Italian greyhound/pug mix), in New York City. She recently spoke by phone with Utne senior editor Anjula Razdan from Air America’s Park Avenue offices.

Where do you get your daily news?

Well, it’s different now, because you can just blog around like a maniac. I read AlterNet, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, and then scan the wires and The Nation and Salon and Progressive. I read you guys. I read Time and Newsweek. It varies, but I will be on media watch for three hours every day.

Do you do that before your show?

I do it at about 6:00 in the morning.

From your house?

I do part of it from my house. I’m very disruptive. I have, like, Shiny Object Syndrome. It’s like, “Oh, have you seen this horrible story about the antiabortion protest — look at your shoes!” So I must be alone. And I bother others as well. So I do most of it at home and then I do my last 45 minutes to an hour here. We talk about the stories that we’re actually going to focus on for the show and then whittle it down. Because what’s really important about our show is talking about the stories that should be on the front page that are not.

So you’re reading a lot of alternative sources.

Yes. And it’s so appalling to find out what’s alternative. The fact that the government bloated the Medicare bill by 25 to 50 percent and then put it before Congress and didn’t tell them-that’s on page A20 of The New York Times. Not exactly a human interest story. And then you look at the cover of the New York Post and it’s Jennifer Aniston making out with some other Friend.

Do you have time to read books?

The book seems to me like an expensive mattress — “I wish I could have that. It would be comfortable. It would make me happy.” And there are so many I want to read. We have authors on all the time and you skim the book and you talk to them and they make the book sound even better. And you’re like, “God damn it, I really am going to read that Bob Woodward book. I’m getting into Bush’s brain, really going to read it.” And the honest-to-God truth is I just don’t have time. Some people are magical and can do everything.

Do you watch TV?

Yes, I do. I use television as a complete and total escape hatch. TiVo has been the greatest thing that’s ever happened to anybody.

TiVo is all one of my cousins talks about.

It’s really all I can talk about, but I will refrain, because it’s like people who talk about their pets. And I’m one of those losers, too. So I will try to refrain from both. But I watch the Sunday shows and I watch The Sopranos and I watch All My Children and One Life to Live and The OC. Those are the series I program TiVo to record. And then I watch Fox and CNN and some of those shows, just to see what they’re lying about.

Do you watch any of the reality shows?

I have never been a fan. I don’t care about The Apprentice or The Bachelor. I mean, anybody who is on TV dating is just weirder than shit. I’m like, “You know what? You are sad and sick, and if your life was interesting and if you were interesting, you would meet someone doing something interesting.” Sadly, the message of the dating shows is: When you meet someone and they say “What have you been doing?” the answer is “Waiting for you.” What a bad answer.

What have been the biggest influences on your comedy?

The Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church?

Yes. Very inspiring of comedy and outrage. You know, it’s never been “I love this comedian” or “This person has inspired me to do comedy.” It’s always been more like “I can’t believe this person who has been elected by the people is doing this. You’ve got to be kidding me.” I was more the class cynic than the class clown.

I was wondering how you came to comedy.

Somebody just said, “You know what? You’ve got to take this someplace else, because we’re not as bitter as you.”

Which radio programs do you listen to?

Democracy Now has always been a staple in my life. Although I’d listen to Democracy Now and then I would be like, “I really wish this segment on Myanmar was not 35 minutes long, but maybe 20.” I needed a little break to hear some domestic news. And I listen to NPR here and there.

What do you think of NPR? Everyone talks about Air America as an antidote to Rush Limbaugh and right-wing talk radio, but in a way, it’s an antidote to the sometimes somber tone of NPR.

Well, that’s a big thing. Our goal is to take the smart Howard Stern listeners and to take the NPR listener who is getting some sort of interesting information, and then it can go off into some crazy string theory. It’s like, “Oh, my God, good-bye. Bleah!” One of my dearest friends is one of the hosts of All Things Considered, and in an interview with The Washington Post I said, “You know, I like NPR, I just wish they wouldn’t do 12-minute stories about a hybrid between a kumquat and a banana.” And she sent me a gigantic, beautiful basket of kumquats and bananas all mixed together and it was absolutely a riot.

What was the difference in motivation for launching Air America and creating The Daily Show?

The Daily Show is a satire of the medium, as well as the media makers. It really takes on news and how they make the news one big shiny object to get people to stare at it. After watching the news on CNN, I’ve basically learned more than I ever needed to know about Laci Peterson and her unborn child and how it floated and lived, and then when I’m done with being completely sickened by that, I hear more than I ever needed to know about Kobe Bryant and the woman he had sex with in a hotel room. So then I’m 20 minutes in and I’ve learned nothing. That was the motivating fodder for The Daily Show. These are called “24-hour” news channels, and they’re struggling for news. The graphics department of CNN, I think, has got the biggest budget at CNN. And Fox has those newscasters at the top of the hour who look like exotic dancers: “I’m Laurie Do and I’d like to do you, but before that, I’ll give the news.” It’s like, “Oh, my God, what is going on?”

Are you working on any other projects right now besides Air America?

Here’s the deal. I’m here 16 hours a day, so my other project is trying to get in a good night’s sleep. I actually have a column in Lifetime magazine that I write once a month. I’m doing some performing here and there.

How do you rest and recharge?

I walk my dog and I veg — I watch those bad shows. I literally delve into something that takes my mind completely off everything, and I force myself to sleep seven hours a night. If I have to work late into the night, I will sleep in an hour later, because somebody can just fill me in on information. When you cull as much information as I do, it’s not like, “What’s Falluja?” I’m not starting from scratch. That’s the whole thing with the network here. You have to be somebody who, if Air America didn’t exist, would still have the same amount of information and the same amount of outrage and humor, because this is not just about people writing jokes about the day’s news. It’s about people who have experiences and takes and outlooks on the world at large.

If you had to be stuck on a desert island with Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld, who would it be and why?

Cheney, because he may die the quickest because of his bad heart.

And if you could make a law, what would it be?

It would be that every person on earth would have three meals a day. Someone’s giving me the finger right now, like there are better laws for me to make. But, think about yourself. You know when your blood sugar drops, and you’re a nightmare? Okay. Think about an entire continent of people whose blood sugar is like that all the time. That’s why there’s war. When you eat, you take back all of your evil thoughts about exerting power. You go, “Oh, you know what? No.” And then you have a nap, and then it’s time to eat again, and you don’t have time to wage war and to hate.

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