Comedian Lizz Winstead has always been a force in the political satire world. She made her name as a cocreator and former head writer for The Daily Show and cofounded the liberal talk radio network Air America. Now she’s turning her jokes into activism with the Lady Parts Justice League, an organization that uses humor to draw attention to restrictive reproductive rights laws. They’ve made 116 original videos and are now taking their message to the road with the Vagical Mystery Tour. Stopping at Terminal West on Friday, June 2, the show will feature stand-up performances from Winstead, Transparent‘s Ian Harvie, Gina Yashere of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me‘s Helen Hong, and Joyelle Johnson from Night Train with Wyatt Cenac, followed by a conversation with representatives from two local abortion clinics. We spoke to Winstead about how she became an activist, the goal of the tour, and why political humor still matters.
What got you interested in reproductive rights activism?
I was supposed to write book in 18 months, and a year in, I still hadn’t started. So I packed up my dogs and went back to [my hometown in] Minnesota. At the time, Mike Pence was still in Congress and proposed to cut Planned Parenthood, national parks, and public radio. Like, are they performing abortions on Car Talk in Yosemite? After the federal government said no, all these state laws popped up—horrifying laws that had nothing to do with healthcare and were all about closing down clinics. So I finished my book and thought, “I gotta figure out what I want to do next because it feels like there’s some new law every day.” I was driving back to New York and doing benefits along the way like some crazy abortion rights vagabond. I’d do the shows, and then go visit clinics. The people working would say, “No one ever comes her; we really feel abandoned.” I thought I could help. I had an abortion at 16 that helped me be on the path I needed to be, but I hadn’t been paying attention since. It was a slap in the face moment to do something now.
How did you found the Lady Parts Justice League?
I got home to New York, made two crockpots full of chili, invited people to my apartment, and told them, “I know you’ve all used clinics. We gotta do something.” So we started making comedy videos for states with restrictive laws. Our goal was to have people watch the video, see what’s happening in their state, and get some activism going. People started calling, requesting a video for their state.
What sparked the Vagical Mystery Tour, and what can people expect?
I thought, “Maybe if I stop saying I’m just a comedian, I can hatch a plan.” In two and a half years, I’d become an expert on these laws and what was happening in each state. I decided to go on the road [and perform], develop relationships with clinics and activists in towns so they can develop a base, and after the show, clinics could come and tell the audience what they needed. I wanted to go to states where the clinics and activists reached out to us and states that have horrific laws.
The tour kicks off in Atlanta. We’ll do a 90-minute comedy show and then 30 minutes of talk back with two incredible independent providers to answer questions and [let them say] what they need from the community. I pay attention to state politics, so I have Karen Handel and Tom Price jokes. Handel is one of the reasons I was pushed into activism. Our shows are really diverse [in terms of] age, gender, race, and religion. We have Asian, black, Muslim, and trans comics. We have people who give a shit from different perspectives so that you can hear your own experience.
Helping the local clinics is a really unique endeavor. Why did you make them your focus?
This is about reproductive rights and access to abortion. We want to teach what the greater landscape of the reproductive community looks like. I love that people are jumping on board with Planned Parenthood; they’re my heroes. But sometimes the nearest clinic isn’t Planned Parenthood; it’s a local one. [Learning about] your local provider is just as important as where you put your money. We have to support everybody so that low-income women and women of color can have access to healthcare.
What does helping the clinics look like in practice?
Sometimes clinics ask to help grow patient escort programs or develop alliances with activist groups on the ground or to help amplify a crazy law happening in their state. Sometimes we just throw a party. At the RNC, we got a taco truck for one of the clinics in Ohio. The clinic workers said they never have time to socialize with each other, so this was a chance for them to stop and take a break. Now every six weeks they have a get-together for staff. Later that same clinic in Ohio had their fence stolen and needed $10,000 to replace it. We did a Facebook Live fundraiser, and in four hours we helped raise the money. We just came back from Dallas, where we planted bushes around a clinic to prevent protesters from screaming into the procedure rooms. When you have the grunt work done by a bunch of funny people, it makes it more fun. In Atlanta, we’ll have a barbecue at one clinic, and we’re taking another out to dinner.
What’s the role of comedy in the current political landscape?
A lot of people use the word satire interchangeably with comedy. Sometimes jokes are satirical, but sometimes jokes are about people who abuse their power. If done well, really smart political humor can bring out a range of emotions; it can be funny, piquant, smart, righteous, outraged. Good comedy can bring on a really nice conversation because you can expose things with humor, say why it matters, and inform what you can do about it. When I was working in commercial TV, you become an anger fluffer to get people riled up, then you say, “I gotta go. You figure out the rest out yourself.” Helping people with the action is super important. The fact that the people who love satirical news shows were same people who were like, “I don’t know what to do after the election,” is an indicator people want something to do.
Is it ever hard to write jokes when the news feels very bleak?
I’m never going to be person who is just going to turn it off. I have a lot of energy. What’s hard is trying to determine what you’re going to talk about. There are nine stories happening in a day, so just three months is a normal year of material. It’s insanity. You think about what people want to hear. Instead of focusing on a specific thing, I’ll set up three things that normally would’ve been one joke each, and the punchline is an overview.
What’s the longterm goal for the tour and group?
Hopefully together with all the combined resources and awareness, we can grow and expose the landscape of reproductive rights and clinics [that need support]. We want to stand proudly with the clinics. We’ll keep making videos. We do monthly events in New York and we’ll tour again in 2018. We want to create and grow activist bases, [encourage them] to not just give money but to participate as well. People live in their silos, so intersectionality is really important for us. When people say you need some different faces at the table, we need to break the table.