The life of Lizz Winstead

The Daily Show creator returns home to Minnesota

It's a Saturday afternoon at Café Maude, and Lizz Winstead is discussing the finer points of a Bloody Mary with a waitress.

"All you need to spice it up is horseradish, Worcestershire, and a little pickle juice," Winstead says in her characteristic brassy voice. "But people will put the red pepper vodka in and think they're doing you a favor."

The waitress agrees, then adds, "I just saw you on Rachel Maddow."

Winstead has missed the state fair only three times
Mindy Tucker
Winstead has missed the state fair only three times
Winstead's first headshot after she moved to New York City, in 1990
Winstead's first headshot after she moved to New York City, in 1990


Lizz Free or Die: The Book, The Career, The Life
with Brian Unger, Frank Conniff, and Winsteads
Saturday, May 11. VIP Reception 6:30 p.m., Doors at 7, show at 7:30.
$30 regular, $60 VIP at Etix
The Woman's Club of Minneapolis
410 Oak Grove Street, Minneapolis

Don't miss our behind the scenes photos of Lizz Winstead...

Winstead's strong opinions aren't limited to breakfast cocktails. The iPhone on her right is slapped with an anti-mining sticker, and as she talks, her hands brush aside a thick scarf to reveal a red fabric "A" pinned to her sweater: the scarlet letter repurposed for her reproductive rights awareness group, "A is For."

Winstead grew up in southwest Minneapolis, just 10 blocks away from where she's sitting now eating a bacon avocado omelet. Occasionally, her home state crops up in her jokes, such as when she cracked, "I don't understand why we don't treat Michele Bachmann with the same diligence as other nut allergies."

It's this voice, and her sharp eye for hypocrisy, that has been Winstead's signature since 1996, when she took the helm of the original Daily Show as co-creator and head writer. It stayed with her when she founded the Air America Radio network with Al Franken, and most recently, it is in the pages of her memoir, Lizz Free or Die, which came out in paperback May 7.

Don't miss our behind the scenes photos of Lizz Winstead...

It has propelled her through countless standup cracks and 30 years in comedy, a milestone that she's coming home to celebrate this Saturday night at the Woman's Club of Minneapolis. Joined by collaborators and siblings, Winstead will host a conversation about her career, her life, and her book.

"I want to talk about the fact that I did weirdly pursue this path that wasn't trying to be anything other than fulfilling to me," Winstead says. "The stories I wanted to tell were the instances and moments and situations where I was treading shit and just kept breathing."

SITTING AT SUNDAY mass next to her devoutly Catholic mother, a 12-year-old Lizz Winstead finally realized what she wanted to do with her life: be an altar boy.

It seemed like a good gig. She could make tips at funerals and weddings, and impress the congregation. So she set up a meeting with her priest.

In Father Hansen's office, Winstead told him about how she practiced playing priest, giving her best altar boy pitch. Hansen responded, Winstead remembers, by turning white and saying that only boys could hold the position.

Confused, Winstead ran through her qualifications: She could hold a big cup, she could fold napkins, she could ring a bell on cue. So why not?

In Winstead's memory, her priest replied, "Well, because it's called altar boy, not altar girl," and advised her to write the bishop if she wanted to press her case.

She did, and never got a reply. What she did receive was a revelation that would later become the backbone of her brand of comedy: Just because someone is in a position of authority doesn't mean that what he says is logical.

Winstead grew up in Minneapolis the youngest — by six years — of five children, a birth order that put her in a performing role from a young age.

"She made her presence known when she was little," remembers her older sister Mary. "She was sort of the Goldy Gopher of the family, but with good teeth."

By the time Winstead graduated from Southwest High School, her main goal was to go to New York and do ... something. But as she explains in Lizz Free or Die, "'Live somewhere in Manhattan' wasn't a degree offered at the University of Minnesota," so instead she started taking random prerequisite classes. Before long, she was spending most of her time hanging out at First Avenue, the CC Club, and the record store Oar Folkjokeopus.

After seeing George Carlin on The Tonight Show, a friend suggested that Winstead try standup. Curious, she started checking out local comedy shows. Six months later — on December 18, 1983 — she signed up for her first gig: the open mic at Dudley Riggs. By the end of the night, Winstead had found an answer to what she would do when she moved to Manhattan. Not long after, she dropped out of the U of M.

"I think from the very first time Lizz started getting on stage, she had literally found her home," says Maggie Macpherson, Winstead's close friend since the early 1980s. "You put her on stage and she was just more Lizz."

For the next five years, Winstead worked the local comedy scene. Before long, she started performing regularly at the Comedy Gallery, which was run by the reigning king of Minneapolis comedy, Scott Hansen.

"Most of the other places were all boys' clubs," Hansen remembers. But he was impressed by Winstead's work ethic, and by the fact that "you could take her act and it would be funny if done by a man or a woman."

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