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When it comes to the news, it seems no topic is too serious or controversial to end up on the late-night satirical circuit. Take this example from Monday night's episode of "The Daily Show," in which Jon Stewart addressed the grand jury decision not to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
"This is an isolated incident," said Stewart. "Like the police shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, or Dante Parker in San Bernardino County or Kendrec McDade in Pasadena or Armand Bennett in New Orleans or John Crawford — what time does Colbert start? What time does his show start? It's in like a half hour, right? Alright, we'll just move on."
The intersection of news and comedy has been around for as long as anyone can remember, but in the case of "The Daily Show," the year was 1996. That's when stand-up-comedienne Lizz Winstead co-created "The Daily Show," and became its head writer.
On the line between what can and cannot be joked about:
Lizz Winstead: "The bottom line is, there really isn't a line. Because there's people who will say, 'You should never try to infuse humor in subjects that are painful [or] off-base to make a point.' There's people who, when they hear you do it, can't get past the subject matter, and then there's people who say, 'Go for it,' and people who do it brilliantly. So, I feel like there's rules that everybody follows for their own selves. You try not to make the victim the punchline. Sometimes, pointing out the hypocrisy or the social climate with which we arrive at a situation can be joked at, the hypocrisy of ignoring that, but I always say, when it comes to humor and doing political things or topics that are edgy...I would never tell anybody to not do a joke. But what I would say is, know that when you decide to go down that road, the second that material passes your lips, the rest of the world gets to interpret it. It is no longer your own and everybody else has the same first amendment right to judge and feel what you're doing as you do about saying it, and it's tricky but it's just the way it is...I think that that's part of the excitement, that's part of the danger, that's part of how you know where the temperature of the country is."
On how she began doing political humor:
LW: "I had been a stand-up comic who had been observational, had some politics, self-proclaimed feminist, kind of talked about women's issues onstage and then also just general observational humor, and when that first Gulf War happened, I was on a blind date with a guy who somebody set me up with...I suggested we go see "La Dolce Vita" in New York City and he's like, 'Isn't that in black and white?' As though it was a bad thing. And, instead of calling the date off I decided to go with it, 'cause I'm Minnesota-nice and I was like, 'Well, maybe he's got some things to offer!' Turns out, no. But, after the movie we went and had a drink and it was the night of that first Gulf War and it was the very first night that America watched a war sort of unravel in their homes, but there was theme songs and there was graphics and there was really attractive people...it felt like a miniseries about war. And as I was watching it, without any thought other than, 'What's happening here?' My date said, 'This is so cool!' And I had an epiphany where I was like, 'Are they reporting on a war or trying to sell me a war?' And from that moment, I looked at the media with an entirely different lens. My humor, I started just voraciously paying more attention, taking in more information about the relationship between politicians and the media and what was actually, you know, basically felt like a press release going out instead of analysis and reporting and my comedy sort of just went down that path. And as I developed, I did the one-woman show here in Boston called 'Scream of Consciousness,' and then I worked on Jon Stewart's syndicated show and then when that show got cancelled, Jon was hooked up into a development deal with Letterman Productions and Comedy Central came to us and said, 'Do you guys want to develop a show that kind of looks at the news and responds to the news?' And I said to them, I'll never forget it, I said, 'I totally do, but the one thing that I think is really important is that we take on the constructs of the news and make it a character, as well as just telling jokes about the news.' And they agreed with that."
On making the news a character:
LW: "The drama of a story can sometimes supersede research in a story. I mean, sometimes you go, did they have money actually invested in the research department? Because it seems like the graphics department and the bing-bong-boom department has more. So, it was really about presentation of stories, how they did it, because it was a very different time, when we launched 'The Daily Show.' CNN was the only cable news outfit...and then as the news evolved 'The Daily Show' evolved, and that was kind of fun. We were responding to that news and then all the news magazines that were on and then we just kind of followed it and followed its lead and took its presentation on as well as the people who were in the media."
On "Lady Parts Justice":
LW: "A couple years ago I decided that I wanted to take something that I think is incredibly important, which is the erosion of reproductive rights in America, and combine it with what I've seen to work, which is, using humor as a tool for change and to raise awareness. So, combining those two things we started a website and a reproductive rights activist organization called 'Lady Parts Justice,' where the focus is to get people engaged in what's happening in their states, as far as reproductive health care, because a lot of these draconian laws are coming out of states, so it's a big, interactive map that has all these really funny videos on it. You can click on, see a video about what's going on in your state, read about the laws and then it shows you how to get involved so that people can form their own groups with their own creative communities, activist communities, and sort of cut people off at the knees before they wake up and go, 'How did Ted Cruz become my senator?' It's like, 'Well, because he was your state senator first and you didn't know that.'"
On why the "Lady Parts Justice" model works:
LW: "We've done a lot of research with the organization [and] we found that a lot of women are really woefully ill-informed just about how bad it is, and they're not going to traditional spaces to find out information, so with people like Sarah Silverman, myself and some other people, we decided, what if we were to do these videos that actually wound up in the spaces they already are so they could learn a little bit more and say, 'Wow, I had no idea.' Because the language has become a little bit stale and we also don't want to have women feel ashamed or stigmatized about being sexual beings, needing reproductive health care, we want them to feel like, 'You know what? I'm a person in society and I have a myriad of things that I do with my life, being a sexually healthful being is one of them and I want to make sure that all my rights are exercised.' And, you know what? It's fun. Turns out, sex is fun."
- "Lizz Winstead is the co-creator and former head writer of The Daily Show and a sharp-tongued political satirist. We talk with her about why satire is more important to the American political process than ever."
- "Seventeen years after giving birth to 'The Daily Show,' comedian Lizz Winstead is on a crusade for lady parts. No ‘douchebag’ anti-abortion politician is safe."
This segment aired on December 2, 2014.
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