The ‘Daily Show’ Creator Taking on Anti-Abortion Extremists
Comic Lizz Winstead, who co-created “The Daily Show,” has now dedicated her life to battling the anti-abortion right. She opens up to Lloyd Grove about her women’s rights fight.
Through the mists of time, comedian Lizz Winstead remembers only a single brief encounter with a local publicity hound from Queens who—in one of the more improbable scenarios in the history of the Republic—became the 45th president of the United States.
“I did encounter Donald Trump,” Winstead told The Daily Beast, recalling an incident in the late 1990s when she was head writer and co-creator of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. “When we couldn’t afford to go to places like the Olympics, we would find some shitty version to cover that was sort of like the Olympics.
“So when the Olympics were happening in the ‘90s, Donald Trump sponsored something out in the Hamptons called ‘The Model Olympics.’ And it was models doing gunny sack races. I feel like there was a lot of bouncing and bikinis. And he was there, and he granted me an interview. He was married to Marla Maples at the time, and I said, ‘Can I call you Mr. Maples?’ And I think he walked away from me at that point.”
Nearly a quarter-century later, Trump is much more than a distant memory—and far less amusing.
“The thing that frightens me the most,” Winstead said, “is the fact that we live in a lawless country right now. There’s what has been going on in Portland”—in which the equivalent of Trump’s secret police, in combat gear, have been trampling the First Amendment while beating up, tear-gassing and arresting peaceful protesters—“and the fact that the court system has been packed by Donald Trump with judges who have zero experience and are ideologically unsound, and the fact that we have such a tenuous Supreme Court with a crazy majority, and the trickle-up factor of democracy, with states creating laws that are unconstitutional.”
She is especially alarmed by the persistent health problems of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I’m freaking out because we have a constitutional house of cards, and what’s holding it up is an 87-year-old woman who keeps defying cancer,” Winstead said from her hometown of Minneapolis, where she has relocated from her Brooklyn loft to wait out the pandemic. “Hoping that John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch won’t be garbage—it’s not great, what’s happening right now.”
Winstead added: “If we don’t have people who are looking toward justice for all as a means to an end, I think we’re screwed.”
These days Winstead—capping a multimedia career spanning television, radio, comedy clubs and the stage—is a full-time abortion rights activist.
Through the nonprofit she founded in 2015—the Abortion Access Front, which last year changed its name from Lady Parts Justice League—she has been recruiting musicians, singers, dancers and fellow comics (Sarah Silverman and Sandra Bernhard among them) to join a road company which, for the past week during the COVID-19 crisis, has been traveling virtually rather than geographically and combining entertainment, information and persuasion in the service of keeping abortion legal.
“There are so many people who have become politicized who are in my business,” Winstead said. “The reason I started this organization is so that I could harness really creative comedians, writers, and producers, so now I’m making funny videos that explain abortion laws… It’s a way of talking about politics with a funny lens.”
(The name change came about, according to AAF’s website, because “Lady Parts Justice League was not in line with our vision and values. We strive to be intersectional, but does our name reflect that work? Not so much. We advocate strongly for the reproductive health and rights not only of cis women but people of all genders. Let’s be clear: not all ladies have uteruses. And not everyone with a uterus identifies as a lady. Full stop. Everyone deserves access to dignified, safe, culturally competent, affordable health care. The name was narrow, alienating, and just plain hurtful to many.”)
When America was not under the thrall of a lethal virus, Winstead said, “We’d pick states where abortion access is under attack and we go to a town and we put on a comedy variety show,” for which an admission price was charged. “And within the show, we have a conversation with providers within that community and the local activists within that community, and we talk about what the clinic needs and the laws that are coming down the pike, and then our audience can sign up right in the room, so we’re growing activist bases within our audiences throughout the United States.”
These days the main target of all this passion and organizational energy is Operation Save America, an extremist self-avowed Christian group—which, along with opposing reproductive rights, inveighs against Muslims and LGBTQ people—that Winstead considers a dangerous adversary boasting mysterious financial resources and conspicuous political clout in red state America.
OSA has been especially effective in the South and Midwest where majority-Republican state legislatures have been enacting laws that severely restrict reproductive rights in defiance of Roe v. Wade and subsequent Supreme Court rulings. The group is an outgrowth of Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue, one of whose members was convicted in the May 31, 2009, murder of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller.
Indeed, Dr. Tiller’s murder—the second attempt on his life by an anti-abortion fanatic—is part of a bloody, decades-long history of terrorism against abortion clinics and their employees, including at least 11 murders and countless attempted murders, assaults, kidnappings, fire bombings, anthrax and acid attacks, intimidation of patients, and other violent crimes. Anti-abortion arsonist Shelley Shannon, an Operation Rescue loyalist who was convicted in 1993 of shooting Dr. Tiller in his car—an attack he survived—was released from federal prison in May 2018.
“She is out and has not renounced anything,” Winstead said, adding that Shannon—who settled in Washington state, according to news reports—is being monitored by abortion-rights groups.
One of the Abortion Access Front’s satirical videos—part of this past week’s virtual tour titled “Operation Save America: Unmasked”—features a bombastic announcer declaiming: “A gang of straight white men with a fetish for God-splaining are coming together online and on the ground to smash abortion access! Destroy gay marriage! Crush religions other than their own specific hateful brand of Christianity!...Come for the fetus worship! Stay for the Christian supremacy!”
A year ago during AAF’s counterprotest to Operation Save America’s conclave last summer in Madison, Wisconsin, Winstead personally confronted top OSA operative Jason Storms over his group’s campaign to dox abortion providers and paper neighborhoods with flyers warning of baby-killers in their midst.
“That is a conversation we had,” Storms, a former drug addict and homeless man who today describes himself as a pastor and flooring contractor, told The Daily Beast. “We see abortion as a very toxic thing for society that needs to be eradicated. And a part of that process is to expose those who are making it their primary vocation to tear little tiny human beings out of their mother’s womb for profit.”
While claiming to repudiate anti-abortion violence, Storms added: “When your job is tearing apart little human beings, when your vocation is a bloody, violent business, you shouldn’t be surprised when you reap what you sow.”
“I’m glad he cops to what a person who hears that is a violent call to action,” Winstead retorted. “When you are framing a doctor who provides abortion as someone who is ripping children apart, you are a) mischaracterizing what an abortion provider does and b) you are setting up a violent scenario that targets people who are providing a healthcare service. Jason, by his own words, has given himself and his organization permission to terrorize doctors who provide abortions.”
Winstead comes by her activism honestly. At age 16, growing up in a Catholic family in Minneapolis, she discovered she was pregnant by her hockey-player boyfriend. Understandably desperate, she first sought counseling at a reproductive clinic that she saw advertised on a bus. A woman there wearing a white doctor’s coat explained the teenager’s options: either carrying the baby to term and keeping it, or carrying the baby to term and giving it up for adoption.
“So I got back in the bus, and there was an ad for a clinic that was real,” Winstead recounted, noting that while there are fewer than 800 independent abortion clinics in the United States (other than those operated by Planned Parenthood), there are around 4,000 “fake clinics,” some of them funded by taxpayer money, that evangelize against the procedure.
“And I was so freaked out and paranoid, wondering ‘is that a real place?’ And they were, and I had an abortion experience where I sat down with a counselor who, without an agenda, asked me a series of questions that would lead me to hold myself steadfast in my decision to have an abortion”—which she was—“or to rethink it. Either one was fine with them.”
Living in Minneapolis since early June—a couple of weeks after a local police officer and fellow cops took 8 minutes and 46 seconds to kill a Black man named George Floyd with a knee on his neck as he pleaded for his life—Winstead said she has been heartened by the anti-police brutality and Black Lives Matter protests that have swept not only the nation but the planet.
She said, however, she hasn’t gotten in touch with a fellow Minnesotan and comedian, and former colleague from her Air America days in the early 2000s, Al Franken; Franken, a liberal Democrat, went on to be elected to two terms in the U.S. Senate, only to resign in 2018 amid allegations by various women of unwanted physical contact while posing with them for photos—allegations Franken disputed.
“I think Al’s case is a classic example of how complicated these issues can be, and that nothing is black and white,” said Winstead, who was Air America’s program director as well as the cohost (with Rachel Maddow and Chuck D) of a radio show—a gig she said Franken recommended her for. “Al was an incredible senator,” she said. “When he stepped down, it was a super-hard and painful decision for him to make, and not many people would resign and say ‘as much as I love this job and as much as I feel different about these allegations, I’m going to step away because I don’t want to be centered, I want things to move forward.’ That’s a pretty huge thing to do.”
Speaking of The Daily Show—which she launched along with executive producer Madeleine Smithberg—Winstead clashed repeatedly with the original host Craig Kilborn, who was suspended for a week in 1997 after telling Esquire magazine: “There are a lot of bitches on the staff, and, hey, they’re emotional people. You can print that! You know how women are—they overreact.” And: “To be honest, Lizz does find me very attractive. If I wanted her to blow me, she would.”
When told that Kilborn’s most recent job in showbiz was apparently in 2016, appearing in a television commercial for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Winstead cackled.
“I’m happy for him!” she exclaimed.
Meanwhile, Winstead is determined to unearth that old Trump interview from The Daily Show’s coverage of the Model Olympics.
“I would love to find that piece. It’s someplace in storage. I do have to find it,” she said.
“Because he was so gross. And it was. Just. Ridiculous.”