Lizz Winstead is on a roll. “I heard Pat Buchanan saying that one of the reasons John McCain lost the election was that Sarah Palin was too pretty. Uh, clearly it was her jarring beauty that cost the Republicans the White House. No doubt people said, ‘Well, I’d like to vote for her, but she’s too pretty! I’m going to vote for that hideous Barack Obama.’ ”
Winstead is parked on a couch at the Steve Allen Theater, where her satire on morning shows, “Wake Up World,” will play tonight and Wednesday. She needs to scavenge for on-stage furniture, but that will have to wait. “Buchanan’s blathering on about how people look at an attractive woman and don’t think she’s smart. I think people looked and listened to Sarah Palin. You know who knew she was stupid right off? David Paterson! And he couldn’t see her!”
This is the mind that co-created “The Daily Show” with Madeleine Smithberg back in 1996, appeared on Air America with Rachel Maddow and Chuck D and is now building a full-frontal parody of a.m. programming like “Today” and “The View.”
Launched in July 2007 under the umbrella of Winstead’s Shoot the Messenger Productions, “Wake Up World” has been running on Monday nights in New York and building its Web presence. Now Winstead and crew have brought their act to L.A. in hopes of attracting more attention from the industry.
It may seem strange that the satire posse has just noticed target-rich environments like Meredith Vieira, Matt Lauer and the co-hosts of “The View,” but then comics aren’t exactly morning people. Neither was Winstead, until she acquired dogs and had to get up early to walk them.
“I started watching these morning shows obsessively,” she says. “The content is filterless. They give 3.5 minutes to the war and then 3.5 minutes to people who have nothing to offer the world, like Ann Coulter. . . . Somebody needs to call them out on their glossing over of everything.”
Winstead’s personality on “World” is Hope Jean Paul, modeled on a number of fortysomething female morning anchors “who think they’re fooling everyone with that half-coquettish, half-drag look. It’s like, would you please stop pretending you’re in your 20s!”
Hope’s co-anchor, Davis Miles, is played by Baron Vaughn, a stand-up comic and actor who appeared on Broadway with Alfre Woodard. The two hosts have tackled hard-hitting subjects such as how to explain the Eliot Spitzer scandal to your children, McCain’s inner monologue while holding hands with the Dalai Lama and “Racial Profiles,” thoughtful portraits of prominent African Americans like Clarence Thomas, narrated in solemn tones and underscored by swelling music: “As a young man, Thomas benefited from affirmative action programs at Holy Cross and Yale Law School, which helped him realize . . . the dangers of affirmative action.”
Winstead credits her conservative father -- a bookie who sold carpeting -- for starting her off: “He’d say, ‘I taught you kids to have an opinion, and I forgot to mention it should be mine!’ ” She was raised in Minnesota, the youngest of five. “I’m the least funny one in the family. My siblings are really annoyed I’m the one who went into comedy.”
That assessment doesn’t jibe with Winstead’s reputation among other performers. “Lizz is a comic’s comic,” observes Roseanne Barr, who first saw Winstead honing her act in Minneapolis. “She was then and is now fast, ironic, well-informed and wry in her writing, and incredulous about everything in her delivery.”
While perhaps less known by the public than her peers, Winstead’s creative influence is hard to measure. “The Daily Show” ethos is so pervasive it’s hard to remember that it began as a zero-budget start-up that no one expected to last longer than three weeks.
“We were sick and tired of the way news was being delivered as entertainment,” remembers comic and producer Brian Unger, part of the original “Daily Show’s” creative team. “We didn’t invent the satirical news show -- there had been ‘That Was the Week That Was,’ ‘Weekend Update’ -- but no one had done it using the same mechanisms as cable television: the graphics, the satellite reports, the tag lines.”
Winstead left the show in 1998 after, among other things, a public clash with then-host Craig Kilborn. But Unger unequivocally credits Winstead with the show’s longevity. “Lizz is still the best ‘big picture’ person I know in comedy. A lot of people can build a great joke, but she can build an entire structure to house those jokes day after day.”
Back at the Steve Allen, Winstead slows down on the subject of “The Daily Show.” “The first series I ever got to do was my dream show. I was young in the ways of being a manager, and there were 900 things to do to get it up and running. So I was very bull-headed about giving stuff up and not always diplomatic. Now I have more wisdom and self-confidence. ‘Wake Up World’ is all-volunteer at this point. People work 20 to 40 hours a week because they think the show is important.”
For L.A. audiences, Winstead promises a segment on Proposition 8, among other new material. “The goal is always to take the powerful down a peg and let them know somebody’s watching. The media used to be the watchdog. Now we have to watch the media.”