“When you let creatives be creatives, magic can happen.”
Our 10-year Blogaversary party is coming up next week (details HERE), and my friend Lizz Winstead will be on hand to make us laugh and to tell about her exciting new project Lady Parts Justice. I thought it would be good to repost an interview I did with her in June of last year so that those of you who are unfamiliar with Lizz and her amazing work could get to know her.
I finished reading Lizz Winstead’s book Lizz Free or Die (purchase it HERE) a couple of months ago and, via Twitter, she agreed to an interview. Realizing that Netroots Nation was coming up and that we would both be there, I sent her a direct message saying, “What’s the chance I could get you into a quiet room with a photographer in San Jose?”
She, of course, leaped at the chance. She agreed and we had a terrific time chatting.
Lizz Free or Die is, at its core, a memoir. But it’s almost a book in two, interwoven parts. One part tells the story of how she founded the Daily Show (which she left just prior to Jon Stewart coming on board) and Air America radio, two ventures that have blazed new ground in the entertainment world. Although Air America went down in flames due to shady and unethical investors from Guam who promised money to get it off the ground that never materialized, it laid the ground work for smart, progressive news with a fun side. The Daily Show created a new genre of comedy. It’s parody at its finest, displaying the 24/7 cable news cycle for all its absurdity and showing the irony of nonstop news that seems to miss essential stories, some of which are crucial for our democracy.
The other part is a very personal, albeit very funny, look at her life and how she became the woman she is today. Raised in Minnesota in a very Catholic family, Lizz broke ground from her earliest years. One of her early goals was to be a priest — because who has more power or influence than a priest? When that didn’t work, she didn’t let it crush her spirit and her stories tell of her journey to define herself and find her way through an industry dominated by men and by bean counters who took it upon themselves to determine what was funny, what had potential, and what would sell.
Perhaps the most powerful part of the book is a chapter where she tells the story of having an abortion as a young woman. When Anne and I covered the kickoff of her “Planned Parenthood, I am here for you!” tour in Pontiac, a national fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, she read the story aloud. It is both heart wrenching and affirming to see a young woman dealing with the stigma and social disapproval of something one in three women will do in their lifetime.
Lizz Free or Die will make you cry and it will make you laugh but mostly it will make you realize that the things that challenge us in life are often the same things that can help us break through to self-realization and self-actualization. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and get a copy. It’s the perfect summer read.
Here’s our interview. Enjoy.
All photos by Anne Savage, special to Eclectablog.
What’s the most offensive thing that’s coming out of the right at the moment?
I have to say it’s this trend of attacking victims. It happened with the school shootings. It happened with the Trayvon Martin situation. It happens when girls are raped at parties. The right goes after the victim instead of the perpetrators. And they have to do this because they know that, if you get one on one with politicians or anyone and tell the story of what’s happened, you can change minds. So they have to prevent that from happening and they do it by attacking the victims.
That’s why my tour is so important. I get to tell my story and my story is one shared by a lot of women. Women have abortions. It’s a fact. So, instead of letting women tell their stories, they attack them and vilify them.
This morning at the Morning News Dump, you were talking about an ad you saw on a bus and how offended you were about it.
About the pregnancy crisis center.
Yeah. The thing that struck me about that was that these people were acting like physicians and “spiritual leaders”…
Yeah, I was talking about how the crisis pregnancy centers advertise. When you’re a person riding on a bus and there’s this ad and it says “Free pregnancy tests. Choices. Options.”, if you’re a young person and you’re scared and you’re in trouble, that sounds good to you. And you don’t know the difference between Planned Parenthood and the “birth center” or some name that they have that sounds like some place safe for you to go to help get an informed choice. So, you go there and they set you up with language that’s scary. A woman comes out in a lab coat and she’s impersonating a doctor and then impersonating a person of God. Those are the two people that a young person trusts the most outside of their parents. They think, “A doctor’s not going to screw with me. A religious person’s not going to screw with me so they’ll be honest with me.” And then they’re not. They lay out this story.
In my case, the woman said, “Your choice is mommy or murder”, to a little kid who doesn’t know any better. You’re a doctor and I’m terrified. That’s what they do. And they get funding in many states for their billboards and their literature and their lies. They lobby for the right to give women inaccurate health care information? Really, America? Oh my God!
There’s a Democrat running right now in Michigan who used to run one of those hotlines. She ran as a Republican and didn’t win in a fairly Democratic area so now she’s running as a Democrat. When I wrote about her, people pushed back and said, “There are other anti-choice Democrats and this isn’t blah blah blah.” But this wasn’t just an anti-choice person. She was literally doing this deceptive garbage that you’re talking about.
Common sense says listen to what someone is telling you and, if it sounds weird, do some research because it probably is. When your argument and your fight has devolved to the point where you’re trying to make these crazy assed laws that conception begins at erection or whatever they say…I don’t even know at this point. I’m sure that’s probably out there. “Hey! Boners are babies!”
Right! Dot com. Well there are menstruation-is-murder people. There is a group…
I’m afraid there is. You just Google “menstruation is murder” and there’s this whole movement that says if you are married and you are menstruating, it is a waste of…
It’s an all male group, right?
No. Just look up the menstruation is murder movement. They exist.
They’re right next to the fetuses are masturbating group, I’m guessing.
Right. Fetuses are masturbating which is oddly… you know, if there’s a kick is it really a kick…?
Right, like, “Whoa, what was that?!
Oh, it’s just the baby jerking off again. Wanna feel the baby jerking off?! Here, feel the baby jerking off! I need to tweet that: “Do you want to feel the baby jerking off?! Oh my God, there he goes again! He sure jerks off a lot. Must be a boy…”
He’s going to be born blind…
This guy who said that is an OB-GYN. And when he said that, he said that 20 weeks is too long because at 15-16 weeks…and then he says they’re jerking off. Your brain feeling part of you doesn’t even develop then so what, if it’s a boy, he’s just slapping at something that might be a dick? Seems feasible but it feels nothing. It’s just absurd.
They even admit that this is just step one and their ultimate goal is to ban ALL abortions everywhere.
You know, you’re never going to ban abortions. You’re never going to ban abortions. That’s the bottom line and that’s the part that’s really crazy. Not in the world that we live in. I often say, “Remember the Age of Abstinence? No? Exactly.” So there’s not ever a time when people aren’t fucking. Why the right does this weird thing where they make laws in the world they wished they lived in instead of the world they actually live in, I don’t get it.
There are people that can have all kinds of feelings about all kinds of things and you can be mad that people don’t use condoms and you can have your shitty “blah blah blah”. Shut up! They did! I don’t know why they didn’t. I don’t know why they were smoking in bed. But they were and now their house is on fire. If you want to sit there an argue about why they were smoking in bed while their house is on fire, then you’re an asshole. Put the house out! Then understand that it was because somebody didn’t know they weren’t supposed to smoke in bed. I know that seem crazy but maybe we need to educate people about smoking in bed.
It was after they had sex, I guess.
Clearly. They were too busy jerking off to realize they shouldn’t be smoking in bed.
Let’s talk about your book for a minute. Your book was fascinating to me. I’m getting ready to write a memoir about my mother because it’s an amazing story. And one thing I’m beginning to realize as I get into this is that this is the most self-indulgent barfing out of your private life into the public realm that there is. It’s very personal. Did you feel that as you were writing this memoir and how did you confront that? Because for me, it’s like I want to get this story out because I think it could teach people a lot of things but it’s also gratuitous and I’m fighting that so I can get to the writing.
I know, I know. Here’s the deal: It took me…I signed an 18-month book deal. The first 12 months, I was so paralyzed by the “who gives a shit about my life” bit. I had to get another year extension because it took me a year to come to terms with why would anyone care what I have to say. And then, what part of what I have to say do people care about and then I realized that most people know me because I created the Daily Show and even that is one essay because it’s a really cool story to tell about how the show came to be and how I was inspired to make that happen. But it’s not my show anymore. I mean Jon took it and made it amazing. I laid the foundation and it was pretty awesome. So, the one thing that people know that I did is just this three-year part of my life. The big major part that they even know about the show really has nothing to do with me.
The essay about that was really fun and it spoke to writers in a way that’s really cool, but the part about your personal life is… let’s put it this way: 98% of the people don’t ever write a book. They never write a book. You’re already a writer, you already know that about yourself. You’re already a good story teller, you know that about yourself. You know how to identify a good story because you write good stories as a writer. Why is it that you mistrust the thing you know the most about, that you couldn’t make that couldn’t make that really interesting?
Writers never ask themselves that. So the thing that’s the most intimate to you, that you already know about? You know that’s a good story. The hardest thing in the world is to write something, to be a good writer, — you’re already that. Now you’re laying out this incredible subject matter that you know is awesome. The thing you have to make peace with is that … just make sure that when you read it and you write it, that it’s exactly what you want it to say.
Versus what you think people want.
So be honest about it.
Be honest with yourself. If you need to hone it and tweak it, do that as much as you need to. Because when the criticism comes in, at least you know that this is exactly what you wanted people to judge. If they don’t like it, at least it’s exactly what you set out to do. And then you feel, when people might not like it or have something negative to say, at least it’s the truth.
The funny thing is that when people write bad reviews, it’s often about what they wish you would have written. And, you’re like, “Okay, well, I didn’t write about that. So what did you think about what I DID write about?! How about that? Any weighing in about that?!”
That part of it is key. You’ll get really annoyed…
“I wish your life had been more interesting…”
Yes! “I wish your life had been the one that I wanted to read about!” It’s like, well, I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that. For me there were a couple of interestingly bad reviews from guys who I could tell…like, if you look at my resume? I have a kinda cool resume for a certain kind of writer. There’s the Daily Show and then Air America, stand-up. There are some loser writers that go “How come that fuckin’ chick got those jobs? I coulda done that. That should be my career so I’m gonna pick this shit apart and blah blah blah.”
I’m like, God, could you have been any less obvious with your “I’m better than her, I coulda done this better”? Basically they should have just said, “I could have written a better book, I just wanna let you guys all know that…” So that’s kinda funny.
They other thing that I would say is that, when you’re writing about your family and your mom, you’re going to find that there are some stories that you think are for sure going in this book. You’re going to start writing them and then one thing will unlock that you totally forgot when you started writing about this thing you thought you were going to write, and then that thing you thought you were going to write becomes insignificant relative to this thing you opened up in your brain. So, follow what your brain tells you and be okay with killing what you thought was going to go in.
Those are things that I was surprised about when I was writing about my dad dying and stuff like that and the stories that went along with that. And, I was like, “Oh, yeah, right, that happened and my family is so dark… And the shit about my mom dying… [laughs] This is just so unbelievable. So, my mom, super Catholic, very upset that I had an abortion, very upset, was like, “I really want you to not write about the abortion in your book.” And I was like, Mom, I know this has been a bone of contention in our relationship but I hope that you think I was a good daughter. And she was like, “Yes, yes, but I just worry about your mortality and I just think that I just really need you to make peace with God about your abortion…” and my sister whispers in my ear, “Which one?”
I was like, “Just shut up! Are you seriously in my ear saying ‘which one’ right now?!”
Mothers are characters and she was the classic “Want to be proud of my girls” mom and she self-identified with all of her kids and she would constantly talk about you to other people in nice ways. But when she talked to you it was very different. The classic story of my mother is, and this is the greatest story, I was doing this Minnesota Public Radio speaker series. Every summer they bring four people to speak. The year I did it, they brought in Hillary Clinton, Desmond Tutu, Jonathon Alter and me.
RIght? Every night was a different person. So, it’s like a week before, I’m flying in for my thing, and my mom calls me on my phone and goes, [Minnesotah accent] Well, gosh, I just picked oop da paper fer yer show deal and yer the only one I’ve never heard of.” [Laughs]
I knew exactly what she meant but, nonetheless, it was like, wow, yeah…
Right. That’s who raised me, right there. The queen of the backhanded…”I like your hair…longer…makes your neck look less manly…” It’s just like, thank you, I think?
I thought you did a really great job in the book of blending your personal, very heartfelt stories about your experience having an abortion or your experiences with your parents with stuff like “The Red Vag of Courage”. So, true story? Seriously?
How old were you?
I was 23 and it was startling in every sense of the word.
For everybody involved!
For everybody involved, yeah. Basically, the story is, in the 80s, they had these Great Pretenders air guitar contests. They were very popular. I was the host. It was very exciting, it was my first giant paying job, and it was Minneapolis in the 80s. So it was the First Avenue Club where they shot Purple Rain and Vanity from Vanity 6 was one of the judges so it was super fancy. It was a hot August night and the air conditioning was broken in the club and I was wearing this vintage wedding dress that was giant and big and a lot of fabric and a hat. I looked like a total asshole but I thought I was awesome. But I was just sweating profusely wearing combat boots and tights so I was like, I don’t think I can survive this night with these tights on.
So, at the last minute, I took off my tights and gave them to my best friend and said, “hold the tights”, and it was great. But I was going commando under the dress and that was fine, why wouldn’t I? Who cares? So, I got out on stage to start this big event of 1,500 people. The stage was this sort of jutted out stage and there was this screen behind me which would roll up after I introduced the first act. So, I’m introducing the first act, the screen rolls up, and takes the dress in the screen, rolls it up, and lifts me off the ground three inches. There’s so much fabric in the screen rolling up that the mechanism breaks. So, I’m hanging this far off the ground with the dress up and ripped and my 1980s kitten play vagina staring at the entire audience. I’m hanging there. I don’t know what the fuck to do but I’m hanging there.
Everyone was staring and it was like this movie where everything is moving really slow and I was like, “This feels like the movie Carrie”. So, I just started telling jokes and kept talking. I said, “Well, at least there’s not a bucket of pig’s blood on my head.” They kinda laughed so I just started making more jokes. Then the audience was suddenly laughing with me.
I was hanging there for what seemed like an hour but was probably, all told, only three minutes. So, I just kept telling jokes then I heard this guy in the audience say, “Did she do this on purpose?” and I was like, “Yes! I’ll just tell everyone it’s performance art!”, right?
The stage manager had to come and cut me out of the dress so that the screen could come down and they could get me down. So, he took off his shirt — he had this cowboy shirt on and he was super cute — and I was like, you are the cutest stage manager, I’m dying. So, they had to cut me down and he put the shirt around me and he asked me out on a date and we went out for two and half years.
But, the moral of the story is, in a situation that is awful, if you have the ability to have them remember something else about you… I could have just been mortified and started crying about this nightmare and then I would have just been this chick with the vag and the tears. Instead, it was this hilarious thing happened to Lizz Winstead and she told these jokes and it was really funny.
Our narcissism is what drives everything. When you fall down, you trip, nobody remembers that 30 seconds after you tripped and fell in front of people. So, give them something else to think about. I’m sure they didn’t forget that they saw this big vagina. But they also remember that they laughed and it was funny and I was funny. But that was insane. That was insane.
To have something that horrifying happen to you that early in your stage career, I felt like what else could be worse?
You become fearless after that.
You do feel a little bit bullet proof so when these trolls come at me and stuff, I’m like, oh yeah, you think I’m gonna be afraid of you? But I don’t care about you.
So where do you see that? When you talk about trolls, what are you talking about?
All of it. Twitter. Comments on your stand-up. Comments on what you write. Uninteresting people have a LOT of free time. There are rarely super-smart people that have time to be writing down internet comments. There’s shit you need to go through in your head every time. Because we all are writers here. We all know that you get something down and you really like it and you get complete douchebags telling you that you’re a complete douchebag. They have no arguments ever. A friend of mine is a comedian and he wanted to do a web series called “Meet the Troll”. She wanted to go, figure out where the trolls live, and go with a camera to their house and go, “Hi, John86loser! Remember when you called me a cunt and you’d like to rape me with your gun? Oh, this is your wife?!” How awesome would that be?
“Oh, your daughter is so cute!”
Yeah, “You’re so adorable. Here’s what your daddy writes on the internet about ladies…” It would be the best show ever!
People would line up to syndicate that!
Seriously! You know, I did this “Ask me anything” AMA thing on Twitter. So I did it and did some video answers and when it was over, I was like, what did I just do? And everyone was all “that’s a big deal” but I don’t understand it.
Barack Obama did one of those. He broke Reddit. Usually Reddit breaks other websites but Obama broke Reddit. When we get big on Reddit, it shuts down our website, mainly because of LOLGOP.
I know! The funniest man on Twitter. Like, honestly, the funniest man on Twitter: LOLGOP. I’m on record. I’m ON record, to your face! Honestly, there’s not even a contest. In fact, it’s annoying! I mean, honestly, it’s like, “You thought that? Why didn’t I think of that?! Where was I?!” I’m all like: Retweet!. Begrudgingly because because my pea brain didn’t think of it and it needs to be out there in the world.
Twitter is annoying. There’s this thing where people will go, “Or, blah blah blah blah…” And you’re like, “Here’s the deal: NO. Or what about what I wrote? How about the funny thing that I wrote?! Sometimes I’ll just block people on Twitter because they’re boring. They’re like, “That’s not funny” and I go BLOCK.
So, I tweet a lot. Because we’re trying new material and we’re trying to figure out what works. I use a lot of my material on Twitter that goes into my act. I have a whole system of I tweet a joke and if it gets 25 retweets in less than a minute, I star it. If you’ll notice, all my favorites are my own jokes. Because that’s my material. It has nothing to do with “Look at me, I’m great!” It’s a log.
“I just love me…” People are going, “Did you notice that all her faves are herself?!”
They are! But it’s a log. So what I do is I have a document that’s running and I take the tweets from that day and I categorize them into “IMS” or whatever the categories are, and then I work them into my stand-up.
To make it even nerdier, I will post a news piece that I want to use on Facebook and then, when I see the comments from people responding to the piece, it inspires me to see, when people see a news story, what their emotional gut tells them. Do they respond most to the fact that he had one leg or did they respond to something else? Then I can get a gauge on what they heard and what they saw. Then I write the joke based on the part of the news story that hit them the most. I can target the humor based on that.
What’s interesting is that, when I started doing political humor and when you’re so “inside baseball”, as we all are, you don’t know what the general public is consuming. It’s very hard to walk the line between people not knowing what I’m talking about and “Oh my God, this just happened!” My whole approach on stage is, “Holy shit, this douchebag struck!” And they’re like, “Who?” To be able to engage people in a way that they don’t feel dumb and they’re still interested in the information is to make it feel like we’re in the clubhouse and I’m going “Guys, you’re never gonna believe what I saw today” and treat it like you got your dad’s Playboy and you’re going to show everybody all the pictures that you saw in your dad’s Playboy and they get all excited.
It makes people feel like they actually care about current events, which is great. And they feel like they heard this little nugget of weirdness and you’re not worried about how to feel. You’re reminding them that they’re living in this crazy circus out there and maybe then they’ll come to you for more of the circus. Then, when it comes time to go into the voting booth, they remember that they’re living in a circus. I can’t do much but maybe I can do that.
What’s it like for you now to look out into the realm of entertainment and see this new way of making people laugh — that you basically invented — where you took reality and mocked it with its own stupidity and absurdity? There seem to be a lot of examples of that now.
Not nearly enough, in my opinion.
So you like that? You wish there was more?
Interestingly enough, Bill Maher and Jon Stewart and Lewis Black and Colbert, we all wish for more shows like that to be on so that there’s more shows like that on! So that there’s more smart comedy on. When you watch, say, some feud between Alex Jones and Glenn Beck where Alex Jones is pissed because Glenn Beck is stealing his schtick, or whatever. You’re like, oh, you don’t even realize that when you do that you are a fraud. Because if you’re a true believer, you want more and you want that to be out in the world. So I’m so excited to see people like LOLGOP on Twitter and Pour Me Coffee; super-smart people in the world who are reminding people in an effective way what’s going on. It’s awesome.
It’s very bittersweet for me because the comedy shows are really the media watchdogs. It shouldn’t have to be like that. It sometimes just feels maddening.
I always use Todd Akin… well not always but since Todd Akin appeared, I use him as an example. So, Todd Akin happens with this whole “legitimate rape” thing and it’s like, wait, he was elected SIX TIMES to Congress and he’s on the Science Committee. And I would think that some journalist somewhere would just go, “Hey, let’s look at who’s on all these committees and see how that breaks down. Oh, wait. This crazy guy was protesting abortion way before legitimate rape, protesting abortion clinics, all this crazy bullshit, he’s on the Science Committee. Huh! A guy on the Science Committee who doesn’t believe in science. That’s kind of an interesting story! Why don’t I write about that?”
But Jon Stewart has to do it.
Yeah. The thing that’s crazy, not only that, the media wants us to take them seriously but they’re reporting with shock and horror that Todd Aiken exists when he’s existed for fucking 12 years on their watch. That’s gross. That’s just weird and upsetting. I feel like I’m glad they’re out there but it just shouldn’t be like this.
With comedy, you’re there to make people laugh, and so the responsibility only goes so far as to what you want to do. But what about stories that are really important to tell that aren’t always a laugh riot? Like a whole routine about fracking is hard. Things that are hard to explain and have a lot of minutia and need nuance, those things are hard to talk about in comedy but you want people to know about them so they can make informed decisions about them.
The NSA thing is a classic example of people going a lot of easy routes. One of the easy routes is hating the guy who did it. Is hating the guy that did it more important than a self-examination of what exactly our government is doing, how does the program work, are we a country that feels okay doing that? None of these things are talked about. It’s just, “I hate that guy” and “We have to do it anyway, aren’t you glad you’re not being blown up by terrorists?” Are all of those things mutually exclusive? Why are you saying that and why are you trying to pigeon hole it?
Marcy Wheeler was very interesting on Monday morning at a panel talking about it and she said it’s an interesting story when it’s political and when the guy that we didn’t want had people wiretapping, that was interesting. What happens when the politics of it is gone and the wiretapping is still going on with the person we like and it becomes an issue that is not just the politics of this person but a policy that’s being carried out by somebody that we voted for? You can no longer go, “That’s the politics of that party” because now it’s the policy of the United States. I would like the conversation to be can we ask Barack Obama and the Obama administration why this is happening? We have a government that does this and a government that has done this for a long time and even the president that we voted for is doing this.
And, don’t forget, Michele Bachmann is on the Intelligence Committee. So the watchdogs of FISA are people who you wouldn’t let walk your dog. We kind of want to abdicate it away if we vote for morons and the morons are overseeing the court deciding these things and we don’t know who is on the court, what they’re going to take and the information we’re going to get. All that stuff should be talked about. And fuck the guy if we hate him, if he gave money to Ron Paul and he’s a douche and he said a racist thing. There’s many douches. I feel like there’s bigger things that I wish could be entertained.
And, by the way, that whole thing I just said? Not funny. Not particularly hilarious. So, it’s for others who are smart to talk about that stuff. When you get into stuff like that that matters, you need a good balance of us, LOLGOP and Lizz Winstead and all the other people, and the people who keep us smart. Because we’re only as good as the people who give us information that we can write jokes about.
A lot of time, when you watch cable news, the “experts” on cable news are from newspapers. So, if newspapers are dying out, who are these people going to have on as their experts on things? Preserving a really strong print media, blog media, keeps the watchdogs healthy.
It’s essential to democracy.
The one thing that I believe about Barack Obama is that, when he knows that people have his back, he will listen and he will hear. When the gay rights movement said, “Fuck this shit. Pay attention to us, we’re a constituency, this is crazy, pay attention”, he did. When women said, “We have your back, go out there with the message that’s right”, he did. He flails when he’s not sure if somebody has his back. And why would ya? You’re a politician.
The Republicans obviously don’t listen to anything, ya know? Earlier today, people were talking about all of these rational moderates and I was like, “Bring them forward! I demand that you bring me these rational people in your party who are upset. Please present them to the group. I would like to meet them!”
Okay, last question. I loved the story in your book about Air America because I think the common perception is that Air America died because lefty radio can’t work.
YES!!! I KNOW!!!
And that’s not the story at all. The real story is that you got fucked over by some shady investors from Guam.
Do you think that lefty radio could succeed under a different model?
I think that lefty radio WAS succeeding under that model. Well, not the model where pretend they have money and they really don’t. That’s a bad model, actually. I would like to never have that model again. But, we broke the internet in streaming. We were listened to…in certain markets we were beating Rush and all these people on terrestrial radio. The messaging was there. The model that we used of teaming people up… Rachel was the smart one on our show, I was sort of the color commentary based on the smart one, and we had Chuck D bringing in a whole separate set of issues of people of color…that was so fun. The shows really worked.
I think that the right was telling the story over and over again that left wing radio doesn’t work. Progressive radio doesn’t work. But nobody ever told the story of Air America and it was surprising to me that no one had ever written about it. I could only tell it from the perspective that I had of it when I was there which was a pretty good perspective. When you write a book that’s been out for two years and nobody challenges a single word you’ve said, that’s kinda like, oh yeah, right? The lawyer for the book had two fact checks. One was is Brian Unger, who was my boyfriend and is a person who is featured prominently in the book, is he okay with you saying he did Ecstasy with you? And I said yeah, it’s fine. Then she asked, “Is it in the public universe that Air America failed, as you put it?” I was like, hmmm… yeah, pretty sure. It’s not on anymore! It didn’t voluntarily close. “Hey, mom and pop Air America is closin’ up shop after a hundred minutes!”
I think the story of Air America, the most heartfelt part for me is that, when the money was really not there and people’s checks were bouncing, the people who had money were paying the salaries of the lower staff. And nobody quit. None of the on-air staff quit. Very few people left. People stayed because they felt so strongly. I would really, really like to see if Fox News started failing and the checks started bouncing, how many people would stick around. That was a really cool thing to see. The bummer was that it got taken over and the second CEO that came in was a raging douchebag — and I say this as someone who was fired by him, his first order of business was to fire me who had started the whole thing — and then he fired a bunch of the comedy writers because he said that humor wasn’t a useful tool for social change. And he also replaced Rachel Maddow with Jerry Springer. So that was a bummer.
It’s almost the antithesis of what happened with the Daily Show where you set its trajectory and off it went. But with Air America, it went just the opposite.
Here’s the difference, though. With the Daily Show, the most wonderful thing was that the executives there said this is a thing that needs to learn how to be what it is. We’re not going to pilot it. We’re going to give you a year and we can constantly be retooling it and restructuring it. Don’t worry that you’re all going to be out of jobs in 12 weeks. Because that’s what shit is. So that was an amazing freedom to work under; to know that, if something didn’t work, you could throw that out and try another thing.
Air America was just full of a lot of people who didn’t know a lot of things. The support system that could just let the creatives be the creatives just wasn’t there.
I feel like Colbert was like that. It started out sort of sketchy and they used that same model that you’re talking about with the Daily Show. They saw what worked and sort of figured it out and then, look out!
That’s right. That’s right.
They just tried a bunch of stuff and what worked they kept on doing and did it better and got rid of the rest.
Right. The Simpsons had the same situation. James L. Brooks said, “Fuck it, I’m doing the show or I’m not doing the show but I’m not doing it with your votes. I’m not taking them.” And now look at them.
I think when creatives are left to be creatives, magic can happen. And when bean counters decide that they know what’s funny, it’s usually a fail.