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Lizz Winstead’s ‘Convention Guide for Us’

Comic and lefty satirist Lizz Winstead, in town for her own take on the Republicans, explains how she came to dance with John McCain and what we can expect at this convention. A Q&A. 

Lizz Winstead, right, with actor and Minnesota native Darbi Worley, left, and actor/comic Baron Vaughn of "Shoot the Messenger."
Photo by Rose Callahan
Lizz Winstead, right, with actor and Minnesota native Darbi Worley, left, and actor/comic Baron Vaughn of “Shoot the Messenger.”

Lizz Winstead — known to at least some of the masses as a co-creator of “The Daily Show” and one of the inaugural “Air America” radio crew — is back in the Twin Cities to celebrate the Republican National Convention.

Well, rip it to shreds, actually. Winstead, a saucy Minnesota lefty who moved to the Big Apple years ago, returns to the Parkway Theater for a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday run of “Wake Up World!” a savage-with-an-unctuous-grin ensemble take on morning show vapidity. You can see clips here, buy tickets here, and read more here.

My mission today, though it traipses over the upcoming performance and media matters, is to provide you with two things:

1. The story of how Lizz — who wore a “Welcome Miserable Failures” shirt around N.Y.C. when the Republican Convention docked there in 2004 — came to dance with John McCain. And:

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2. How the average, politically aware but uncredentialed Twin Citian can make the most of convention week. Again, this will be told by the person who has worn the aforementioned shirt, but has attended and covered conventions since 1996.

Over lunch at Ike’s in downtown Minneapolis, here’s how it went …

David Brauer: You are the only person I know who has danced with John McCain. How on earth did that happen?

Lizz Winstead:
We went to the debates in Hartford in ’96 for The Daily Show. There’s something called Spin Alley. The candidates just go from press organization to press organization. There are boxes that are up on risers. An interviewer talks to a candidate, and the candidate goes to the next box.

Comedy Central never had a box on Spin Alley, so we decorated it with plants and lawn chairs. And John McCain came up to the box and was laughing.

And then he fell off the box while he was talking.

Then he pops back up and he keeps talking! And at the end of the interview he takes me and spins around and he dances with me, and says, “Thanks for the interview. And I said, “Thank you.”

The dumbest things that liberals do is deny the charisma of someone they disagree with. Rush Limbaugh — very charismatic. John McCain — funny and charismatic. He just is. I hate to say it, but he is. They’re up there, people.

DB: You’re a pro at being around conventions, and we in the Twin Cities are rank amateurs. How can the average uncredentialed person have the best convention-week experience?

LW: First, carry a camera. Because there’s going to be regalia extraordinaire that may defy your very belief system. You need to document because you’ll never be able to explain it to people – the amount of flair and buttons and hats.

The enthusiasm for the Republican Party will shock you, especially this year. Because any clear-thinking person would wonder how one drums up a four-day party and then says, “Here’s John McCain!”

It’s also very cathartic to send pictures to your friends and say, “Look at these weirdos who are here.” It’s helpful.

Also, they will be everywhere, so you have to somehow learn to make peace with that. They will want to touch your children and your dog. I was literally screaming at people in New York, “Get away from my dog!” “Don’t pet my dog!” I swear I must’ve said it 50 times.

They’re going to be in every little coffee shop you go to, every restaurant you like. Every Republican and corporate sponsor also has Google, and has rented out and taken tables and what have you. So don’t be surprised when you go to your favorite little places to see people with giant pro-life buttons and gun business and McCain stickers eating there.

DB: Are they going to be pushy? Nice? What’s the vibe?

LW: They won’t be pushy, but they will be enthusiastic — and they will be very drunk late at night. Here’s something that people need to remember: The convention ends at, say, 10:30 at night; the parties start then, so it’ll be really freaky at like 3 in the morning, when drunken Republicans and drunken corporate sponsors and lobbyists are spilling out into the street everywhere hammered.

So if you want to have some fun, take a map and get out on the streets with your video camera and do some citizen-j.

DB: Where are the best parties to do your hanging out?

LW: The tobacco industry — they have the biggest shrimp. Big Pharma. Look for any kind of Pfizer party, the Little Blue Pill party. They’re always good. Norm Coleman’s party should be pretty good. We know Michele Bachmann’s party is going to be a drag.

DB: Will we see French Quarter levels of depravity?

LW: Yeah.

DB: Engage in discussions, or just overhear?

I would say listen and observe. Engaging in discussions with people who are so fundamentally batshit crazy … is it productive, really?

DB: We all live in our little pods, though. A lot of us never get a chance to talk to a really conservative Republican from Utah, or San Diego, even though we’ve been governed by them.

I just have a theory that I don’t engage with people who wear their belief system all over the back of their car, or all over the front of their sweater.

DB: Hasn’t that been us at some point in our lives?

LW: I’ve never been a bumper sticker person! I have a couple of T-shirts I like. “What would Jesus bomb?” is one of my favorites. “Welcome Miserable Failures” is a lovely T-shirt I have from the 2004 convention.

In fact, I would say people should make homemade lawn signs that say “Welcome Miserable Failures.”

DB: You’re calling for active baiting?

It’s gentle and accurate. “Welcome” is nice. “Miserable Failures” is true. [Laughs.]

DB: Let’s not let the Democrats off the hook. Since most of us won’t have been in Denver, what’s the difference between a Democratic group of drunken people and a Republican group of drunken people?

LW: I think Democrats get the cooler music at their parties. But at the end of the day, a drunk is just a drunk. If you can’t handle your liquor, it’s not a good thing.

And really, the party thing more than anything else makes you just realize how much corporate money is in politics. And that’s really the key for Democrats and Republicans is that these giant corporations throw these big giant parties.

DB: Maybe we should get all the sixth-grade classes in Minnesota to just hang outside of these parties at 3 a.m., because that might be the best political lesson they’re going to get.

LW: And remember that it’s happening in Denver. People are going to say, “Look at these gross Republicans and they have these parties thrown by all these big corporations.” The part’s really depressing is where you see the “Yellow Dog Democrat Party,” sponsored by this one and that one.

DB: So why don’t I just kill myself and drop out of the political process and say there’s no way out of this money thing that oppresses us?

LW: If you have a voice and a thought, there’s always someone who doesn’t have an advocate. As long as there’s somebody who doesn’t, I just feel it’s my responsibility to be that person. Theoretically, artistically.

I’ll never forget being on Air America in the 2004 election, and people calling up and sobbing, “I’m moving to Canada.” And I said, you cannot move to Canada. You have the ability to call this show and voice your opinion about why you’re angry, that means you have the ability to stay here and stand up and fight for people who do not have someone fighting for them.

‘Wake Up World’

DB: OK, as I’m sure most people know, you co-started “The Daily Show.” So you had the idea for a late-night thing. Now you’re doing an early-morning parody. Why’d you go early morning?

LW: I guess I sort of evolved into this person who responds to media and information. And in looking at where information came from, there’s 23 hours of morning television every day. And what most people don’t know, the biggest bulk of news division money goes into the “Today Show” and “CBS This Morning” and “Good Morning America.”

DB: They’re the most profitable.

LW: So when I started watching the information that regular folks would be getting early in the morning, the cult of personality was so intense and also, everything was prioritized the same. Matt Lauer going away on his “secret trip” was as important as Walter Reed Hospital.

And then you notice how much of it is craptastic — the Dunkin’ Donuts Swim-Off for Breast Cancer, and everything was “Dunkin’ in the pool.” Everything had a corporate sponsor.

So it was like, Colbert takes on the bloviating talking head, and Jon and the Daily Show takes on cable news as a whole. This chasm was out there, and ripe for taking on the conventions of corporatism and shallowness in the morning.

DB: You really could make a 24-hour parody channel.

LW: Exactly. The conceit of this show is that it’s on a 24-hour network. They promote each other. It’s like, “How do I know this quack doctor is giving me the right information?” It doesn’t matter — he’s got a medical show on the network so he’s our go-to medical guy. Our go-to finance person is some hot woman from the finance show. We have a “Consumption Advocate” who has a show all about products.

Celebrity politics

DB: OK, so you’re a celebrity. McCain’s a celebrity. Barack Obama may lose the election — depending on whether you choose to believe the theory or not — because he’s an arugula-eating celebrity. So give me your take on Obama as a personality and how that translates into whether he’ll get elected president.

LW: You know, it’s funny. I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, I wish that Barack Obama go could on “Saturday Night Live,” in full Muslim regalia and Michelle could have a big Afro, and they could re-create that “New Yorker” cover and say, “See how ridiculous this is.”

DB: Just like John McCain falls asleep on the “Tonight Show.

That’s exactly right. By the same token, when we live in a country where somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of people somehow view him as a Muslim — even though he has a preacher. He’s the only Muslim with a preacher! There’s this whole stigma of Muslims. No one ever talks about how Muslims feel about the fact that someone has to defend themselves and say, “I’m not a Muslim.” I think that’s terrible.

And don’t bring up the bowling! You know what: a lot of people are bad bowlers. Who cares if you’re a bad bowler? It’s not funny anymore, it’s dumb. It’s stale. And the whole forced partying going on for awhile, where everything you saw for a while was Hillary with a shot and Obama and a beer — it was ridiculous.

DB: But doesn’t that tell you right off the bat that Democrats are on the defensive?

LW: Yes. And that to me, that is the most upsetting. You are running against a party that’s in the worst place it’s been in awhile.

DB: And this proves my point that we are, you can argue about how conservative, but we are a conservative country. Because if this was reversed, the Democrat would be getting 20 percent right now.

LW: But do you think it’s the country, or the way the media presents everything to the people?

DB: I can’t unpack those, to this degree. I’m of the camp that it’s not a conspiracy, that it’s whoredom, it’s not conspiracy. They do it because it moves the needle, and the reason it moves the needle is because we’re stupid. Or at least motivated by fear more than anything.

LW: I feel like it’s laziness. When you watch cable, what you see is people wondering aloud. Wondering the same things I am, watching as a viewer, and not answering any questions. Saying things like, “I kinda wonder why Obama went to that church, and we’re going to have four people on to wonder about that, too.”

And then it’s over. And it’s not. There’s nobody who says, “You know I actually went into that church undercover for four months, and followed it, and here’s what I found out. And here’s the AIDS thing they did, and here’s the old folks home, and here’s their community outreach, and social justice part of the ministry.” No one did.

DB: But if you did, then you’d have another 50 minutes of the hour to fill, don’t you?

LW: That’s exactly right. Having to stay on the air in 24-hour news cycles … we have a joke in our show where we say, “Now more than ever, there’s more ways to get less information.”

That part of it’s really frightening. I think when people know something, they do perk up a little bit. Had Katrina not happened, Republicans would still own the information. What happened with Katrina for me was, the media got there before there was some inventing of sorts, which there would’ve been literally in the next 24 hours. And it freaked people out, and at least made them ask the question, “This is how we’re dealing with Louisiana — what’s really going on with the war again?”