The life of Lizz Winstead

The Daily Show creator returns home to Minnesota

"We have comedians come on stage and try to make a statement instead of telling a joke," Hansen says. "And Lizz understood right away that it had to be a joke, and it had to be funny."

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

Before long, Winstead started a comedy night with her friends at the 7th St. Entry. She hung out with Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold — who once borrowed her Ford Escort to get something to eat and didn't return for two days. She slowly learned to work a room.

A vintage polaroid shows Winstead contorting when confronted with Cheney's conservative politics
A vintage polaroid shows Winstead contorting when confronted with Cheney's conservative politics
Winstead played Kathie Lee to Brian Unger's Regis on their satirical morning talk show, O2Be
Winstead played Kathie Lee to Brian Unger's Regis on their satirical morning talk show, O2Be


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 early material wasn't yet political, but it was nonetheless edgy — the kind of stuff not exactly in line with her parents' more conservative values. Macpherson remembers one joke about Winstead telling her mom that her birth control was a shower cap for the cat. But that didn't deter the Winsteads from supporting her.

"They just loved the fact that I'd be on stage, and they'd come to the shows and people would laugh," Lizz says. "Even when they disagreed, they were happy that I didn't have to borrow money from them, I think."

LIZZ WINSTEAD FOUND her comedic voice because of Minnesota Nice.

It was January 1991, and she was in a New York City movie theater on a bad blind date with a guy who kept nodding off next to her. As he fell in and out of sleep, he spilled the popcorn and smeared butter on his jacket.

The butter stain turned on Winstead's native guilt mechanism, so instead of ending the night, she offered to buy him a drink. He agreed, and took her to his regular sports bar in the East Village.

The bar's TV wasn't tuned to a game, though. CNN was on, broadcasting the first night of the first Gulf War: Operation Desert Storm.

"This new war felt different," Winstead writes in Lizz Free or Die. "It felt like a trailer for a movie about war."

Winstead felt sick. But her date — and the rest of the bar — was mesmerized.

"I realized that they weren't reporting the war, they were selling it," Winstead writes. "It was as if at this one moment my personal Pandora's box of media skepticism was opened."

By 1993, this skepticism had matured into a point of view. That year, Winstead flew back to Minneapolis to test her first one-woman show in front of the hometown crowd. For one month, black and gold posters with her face on them adorned the outside of the Campus Theatre.

Five nights a week, Winstead put on her pajamas, walked onstage, and before a crowd of 300, sat down in a replica of her favorite writing chair, grabbed a remote, and turned on the TV. Over the next hour, the audience watched the war on TV as Winstead provided running commentary.

"It was a big turning point for her," remembers Winstead's sister, Mary. "It was obvious that she had developed this consciousness that she was immersed in that was really starting to inform her comedy. Part of what she was trying to show was: Are we being entertained by this war or are we getting information about this war to help us be informed?"

Winstead's friend Macpherson recalls thatLizz's impulse to dig for a hidden truth had long been part of her personality. Now that spark had found endless fuel in the 24-hour news cycle.

"She was struck early on by how inane it was that we were believing things that were being spoken on the daily news when what was really happening was something different," says Macpherson. "I think, to her, that was not only a really rich source of comedic material, but something that needed to be commented on."

The show was a hit, so Winstead took it to Boston, where it sold out for six straight weeks. After working in comedy for about a decade, Winstead was starting to pick up steam.

By 1995, she got a job in TV, as a guest segment producer on The Jon Stewart Show. Six months later, the network pulled the plug. But the show's bosses moved to Comedy Central, where Winstead decided to pitch them a show.

They didn't bite. Instead, they offered Winstead another idea: a flagship daily show that poked fun at the news. As Winstead remembers, it was as though they had told her, "Don't do the show you just pitched; do your dream show."

"We were not just going to make fun of the news and the talking heads that were everywhere," Winstead writes in Lizz Free or Die. "We were going to make fun of them by becoming them. We would operate as a news organization while acting like a comedy show. It simply had never been done before."

WINSTEAD HIT THE GROUND running. She hired six writers, along with a gang of field producers and correspondents. For the anchor, Winstead wanted Jon Stewart, but he had signed another deal. Instead, the show hired another Minnesotan, Craig Kilborn. The team began the work of putting together The Daily Show.

"Lizz set a tone in that office where it felt like her living room," remembers Brian Unger, one of the show's first correspondents and Winstead's boyfriend at the time. "A bunch of funny, smart people sitting around on couches, smoking, drinking, and doing other substances, where it was so free to come up with whatever joke you wanted. And read that in front of the staff, and we would all judge it by how hard we laughed, and that's what got on the show."

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