"One thing to remember in what seems like a big overwhelming sea of 'The world's going to hell in a handcart,' is that, if you can still laugh at the hypocrisy, you have hope," says Lizz Winstead, who co-created The Daily Show in 1996 as a satirical response to the growing absurdity of 24/7 cable-news culture.
Since then, the acclaimed comedian, writer and producer thinks the media frenzy has only worsened.
"I had no idea the media was going to get so f—king out-of-control," she says with a laugh.
"When you watch cable now and you see the softball questions and statements that are outlandish bullshit laying there like this steaming turd, filling up a room that goes unchallenged so it becomes 'fact' — and that 'fact' gets parroted around the world — then before you know it, you've got a 'Muslim who wasn't born here as president,' and it's crazy," she explains, adding that she hopes The Daily Show has helped infuse the public with a healthy sense of skepticism.
"What I think The Daily Show has done is watch the trajectory of the buffoons they're using to give news and commentary. And by exposing their hypocrisy, they've asked people who watch it to always question the people giving you information, always question people who say they know the facts," she says.
In her early 20s, Winstead's rebellious nature and her love of the stage led her to drop out of college and pursue stand-up comedy. She hit the road from her native Minnesota, and soon found success touring the country and appearing on national outlets like HBO and Comedy Central. But she reveals that the sense of alienation from pop-culture that fueled her career came long before that.
"I looked at marriage and kids as something for other people, and I thought they were trying to fool me with baby dolls and toy ovens and toy vacuum cleaners. It was just indoctrination," she explains. "I was like 'That's not a f—king toy. You can't fool me. Climbing a tree is fun. Being on stage is fun.'"
In addition to The Daily Show, Winstead's spirit of inspired cynicism led her to co-found Air America Radio, where she co-hosted the "Unfiltered" morning show with political big-brain Rachel Maddow and hip-hop legend Chuck D. More recently, she wrote, produced and starred in the Off Broadway hit Wake Up World, which parodies television morning shows and promotes itself on the satirical "24/7 Infonewsment Network" as having "half the content and twice the time" of competitors.
Much like The Daily Show, the idea was to "expose them by becoming them," she explains, revealing that she's in the process of pitching the show to national television outlets.
"The carnival-barker nature of 24-hour news has been more damaging then the message itself," she says, noting that Wake Up World has a sarcastically extreme pro-corporatist tone she hopes will resonate with a national audience sick of being force-fed silly marketing campaigns and faux celebrities.
"When you have that much time to fill, and you have ads to pay the bills, and you’re a corporate media entity, you're going to have the craziest, shiniest objects possible on your network, so when we're not getting a daily dose of Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, we're getting Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton. And it's like 'None of those people have said anything that makes me a better citizen – f—k!'"
Billed as her "State of the Union," Winstead's current stand-up tour also borrows a page from her Daily Show playbook, incorporating as much breaking news into the performances as possible.
"I talk about the most pressing things that are going on right now in the world that day. I'm writing my act up until I get on stage," she says.
Ahead of the show, she plans to give herself a crash course in local politics.
"I do a lot of local research, because that's a fun part of it," she explains. "I believe my dynamic is quite in tune with the dynamic of Asheville."
While in town, Winstead will also offer aspiring local writers a workshop on the art of political satire she says could be helpful for both comics and activists alike.
"I can't make you funny, but I can give you some things to think about and help you think about the way you might want to infuse humor in the work that you're doing," she explains. "It's about using humor not to just be funny, but it's about how the humor is going to punch up your message rather than just be snarky."
After Winstead presents some of her own work, participants will have the opportunity to craft their own parodies and get feedback from Winstead, who then publishes the work on her website. It's all part of her effort to empower and get in touch with the "real America, my real patriots," she explains, sarcastically referencing the common political lexicon often co-opted by conservatives.
"People are like, 'Aren't you just preaching to the choir?,' and it's like, 'Yeah, let the choir have more songs!'" she declares. "The Left — what gets their juices going and gets them motivated — is someone who speaks truth to power and exposes hypocrisy using their own words, and I think humor is an amazing tool to do it."
But while Winstead admits that one of the goals of the tour is to rally the progressive base ahead of the midterm elections, she maintains that she doesn't pull any punches. "My philosophy is if you've been given the gift of power, and you abuse it, then you will be my target, and that goes across party lines."
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at email@example.com.
who: Lizz Winstead
what: Creator of The Daily Show’s “My State of the Union” comedy tour
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Oct. 22 (8 p.m. $15/$17. thegreyeagle.com. Winstead holds a Political Satire workshop on Saturday, Oct. 23 at the Asheville Culture project from 12:30-3:30 p.m. 257 Short Coxe Ave. ashevillecultureproject.com)