Comedy Interview: Lizz Winstead
Veteran comedian and "The Daily Show" co-creator Lizz Winstead brings the Lady Parts Justice League's comedy production "The Vagical Mystery Tour" to Columbus on Sunday night, featuring rising Ohio comedian Beth Stelling
After making its successful debut last summer, the Vagical Mystery Tour is now locked in for a second wave of dates over an eight-week span, which will include a stop at Columbus’ Ace of Cups on Sunday night.
While Columbus is thriving as a destination for top-tier comedy shows, the Vagical Mystery Tour aims to not only make audiences laugh, but to also educate them about critical issues connected to women’s reproductive rights and abortion. Each of the tour’s shows presents some of the most hilarious and sought after comedians in the business, followed by informal post-show talk-back with abortion providers and activists who discuss legislation, politics, and avenues for concrete community involvement and action.
VMT is a production of Lady Parts Justice League, a comedy-driven reproductive rights organization whose mission is to support and raise awareness about independent abortion providers who bear the brunt of anti-abortion legislation and harassment. Several times a year, the League goes on the road to perform comedy shows in a USO format bringing entertainment and love to these clinics and their communities, according their official website. Tour performers also engage in service projects and advocacy efforts at each of the stops.
At the helm of this year’s tour is Lady Parts Justice League founder, veteran comedian, and The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead.
“In the show, I do all of the political heavy lifting,” she explains about her comedic contributions to the tour during a recent phone interview from her office in New York. “I would say that in my set I talk about the state of reproductive rights for about five minutes, and I usually focus a little bit on the state I’m in and those laws. But then I spend the rest of my time talking about where we’re at politically. And then everybody else in the show does the show that they do, so they bring themselves to the stage.
We use this show not as like…the comedy show part is not a directive, or is not necessarily like ‘it’s a bunch of people talking about abortion rights and activism in a show!‘ Or politics, even. It’s really a group of funny people who bring their unique experiences to gather a crowd in a room, and then the talk-back is where we say ‘hey! Now we’re going to have these experts who work on the ground talk to you about what’s at stake and how you can be helpful.’ So, it’s a two-fold thing and everybody can love it!”
Joining Winstead in Columbus is rising Oakwood, Ohio-born comedian Beth Stelling, who was prominently featured last year in her own half-hour installment of Netflix’s comedy series, The Standups. According to Winstead, working with and engaging local talent in each of the shows has been integral to both their comedic and activist effectiveness.
“It’s really been fun because, when we can, we love to get folks from the region or from the area,” she affirms. “Everybody was like ‘oh my God! I’m from here!’ or ‘I’m from there!’ Sarah Silverman went back and did a show when were in New Hampshire, where she’s from. And in Minneapolis we have a whole slew of musicians and comedians who were doing it. A lot of comics and musicians, and one of the reasons we even formed Lady Parts Justice League, was the people are like ‘you know, I don’t know what to do. I’m busy, I have my life. I need somebody to help me do something!’
And I think it’s great to have the Women’s March and all these things where people gather, but if you’re not going to give people tangible things to do, and aren’t actually putting your boots on the ground and getting your hands dirty, you’re not going to really make change and you aren’t going to be satisfied that you’re actually helping make things move forward. So to be able to say to my friends ‘hey, if I do this, can you commit three days out of your life to come with us to some spot?’ And they’re like ‘yes! That’s exactly what I need, someone to air-drop me into a place and then I can just do my work and it’s great!’ And it’s like ‘yep! You don’t have to do any prep, you don’t have to learn anything different. All you have to be is you and just come where I tell you.’ And they’re like ‘thank you!’ It just makes it really great.”
You and your team have been purposeful in selecting certain cities for the Vagical Mystery Tour. What made you decide to visit Columbus, in particular, in this second iteration?
“Well, we’ve spent a lot of time in Ohio, and we have really great relationships with NARAL [Pro-Choice] Ohio. We were in Cleveland for the Republican Convention to help the clinic there, and we were in Cleveland last year doing clinic outreach and support because anti-choice extremists stole their fence. They had a wrought iron fence and they sawed it, in the middle of the night, a little at a time and then lifted and stole it. And people were throwing bricks through their windows. So we went there to help raise money for their fence and to help raise awareness in the community, and being really active and looking out for them. We decided this year to come to Columbus just because over the past eighteen months there has been a profound onslaught of legislation coming out of the state legislature in Ohio.
With the world being so chaotic on so many other fronts, sometimes these laws that are proposed and passed in the Statehouse — people aren’t even aware they’re happening because they’re focused on other things, and the media doesn’t cover them. Between the six-week abortion ban and the 20-week abortion ban, and the law that says that if you test your fetus and it has the anomaly of Down Syndrome you can’t elect to have an abortion, the waiting periods…you guys have had waiting periods in Ohio since the 1970s. So these laws that don’t really make healthcare better for people and only cause obstacles have been in place in Ohio for a really long time, and I think people don’t know that.
And these advocacy groups who have been working on the ground said, ‘Oh my gosh! You can come to Columbus, especially during ComFest when there’ll be a lot of people, and help us flyer and get the word out and do a show that brings like-minded people together!’ And then after all our shows, we do a talk-back with providers and activists in the state. People really learn how they can be helpful and what’s happening and what’s at stake, and it’s just really great. I’m a big Ohio fan. I’m from Minnesota originally, but I love Ohio.”
I certainly assume many men do show up at the shows and engage on many levels. How can they also be effective as activists and advocates?
“I’ve always said that back in the day, one of the mistakes…I don’t even know that I’d say it was a mistake, but…movements start with passionate catharsis. And so I think when second-wave feminism started, the message was ‘get the fuck out, men! We don’t even need you!’ And I think what we didn’t say was ‘you must stand behind us and lift us up and support us, and if you are in fact someone who professes to be for human rights, that you place this issue as a priority.’ Looking at us as a whole, as allies, it’s like me supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. I want to be there to stand and support, I want to be there to say ‘your life is a priority to me because you’re a person in the world who deserves all the respect and freedom and agency that anyone else does. And I want to make sure that your message is elevated.’
And so for men allies, it’s really about clapping back on things, like when someone says ‘you know, this is a wedge issue, you’re a single issue voter. We should be able to compromise on abortion.’ Understanding that when someone is pregnant and that pregnancy is unintended, and they, for a myriad of reasons, cannot carry [it], that is not something you compromise on. Having men speak up and understand that this is a human rights issue and not economics.”
With that understanding, how does progress occur when our society is so polarized about women’s reproductive rights and abortion?
“The social stigmatization is part of why we’re not moving forward, and so I think really being a voice that puts a human face on it when you talk to people who are willing to come forward and tell their stories about having an abortion. Physicians being more in the light to talk about what it’s like to be an abortion provider. All of this is a way to really allow people to tell their stories, to come forward, and for people who feel like they can’t tell their story to feel like they’re not alone. When you start creating that community and being a visible community and a visible movement, they can’t define you for being in the shadows — they have to define it by the faces of a movement. And the more faces and bodies that people see, they see their sisters and their friends, and that’s when the emotional change about who comes forward, who’s having abortions, who’s providing abortions. It’s not monsters you’ve made up, it’s not monsters who want to kill babies, or whatever bullshit they’ve come up with. It’s you and I and everyone.
That’s the first step in getting to the legislation is having people get elected who can advocate. It’s removing the stigma, normalizing it, and replacing it back into where it needs to live, which is in the landscape of healthcare decisions somebody might need to make in their lives, and not as an outlier. One in four women get an abortion at some point in their lifetime. It shouldn’t be an outlier. It’s a thing. And what’s interesting is that it used to be one in three, until over the past eight years, basically throughout the duration of the Obama administration with birth control being a part of the ACA, and expensive, long-acting birth control like IUDs available at low cost or free, it really prevented pregnancy.”
There are so many important issues occupying everyone’s minds, hearts, and news feeds right now. If you had to choose a single, critical item you believe might be missing from our collective radar right now that needs focus, what would that be?
“What I think is that in your state where you live, your state legislature is creating the laws that are affecting reproductive rights, LGBTQ people, voter rights, over-policing, what’s being taught in your schools, and gun laws. So when we look at where we want to place our activism, I don’t think people literally understand just how much those things they’re fighting against are happening in their back yard and not on a federal level. So if people would really, really learn to pay attention to the fact that you can control what happens in your state, and that a lot of those elections in statehouses, and state senates, and governor’s races, and even city councils when you start going to school boards — learning who those people are and really rallying with your friends and your individual groups, and gathering people to make sure they are voting for the right people, and actually voting. That would be a giant sea change if people just focused on their state politics and what was happening, a lot of stuff will be a lot better.”
Is there anything else you’d like audiences to know about the tour?
“It’s a super fun night. It’s catharsis if you’re just feeling completely freaked out about the world you’re living in. It’s listening to people who are doing the work to make it better, and then signing up to join the fight in making the world better. It’s a perfect night of fun, learning, and then getting active. I tell people ‘really! it’s great! It’s so fun!’ It really is.”
The Vagical Mystery Tour, hosted by Lizz Winstead, and featuring Beth Stelling, will be at Ace of Cups, 2619 N. High St. in Old North Columbus, on Sunday, June 24. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets (all ages show; patrons under 21 pay an additional $3 at the door) are $15 plus applicable taxes and fees, available here. More information about the tour can be found on its official website, and additional resources and details about the Lady Parts Justice League activities, events, and resources are available here.