Lizz Winstead, Daily Show Creator, on Women in Comedy and the End of the Jon Stewart Era

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Lizz Winstead. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Amidst all the #JonVoyage sadness today, one piece of Daily Show history has gotten a bit lost: It was launched, in 1996, by two women, Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg. "I was in a bar on a blind date," recalls Winstead, a veteran comedian and founder of Lady Parts Justice, a politically feminist nonprofit. "We were all watching the Gulf War unfold and it felt like we were watching a made-for-TV show about the war. It changed my comedy — I started writing about how we are served by the media." 

Smithberg and Winstead then landed a deal with Comedy Central and The Daily Show was born. We spoke with Winstead about the old days, the Stewart days, and how she sees the trajectory of women in the late-night talk-show world.

What was The Daily Show like in its early days?
I told them I wanted to do a news satire where the genre itself was a character in the show. They agreed and they did the craziest thing ever — they didn’t make us do a pilot! They gave us a year guarantee and we got to learn, grow, make mistakes on the air. We got to build a foundation of a show that was reflective of the media that existed at the time, which was basically just CNN. What was cool about the show and how it grew is that as the media itself changed, the show changed to be a reflection of that. He has filled a role where traditional news outlets fail.

You left, and Craig left — then Jon took over. What are your thoughts on the Stewart Years? 
What Jon did — which is incredibly brilliant — was become the voice of the viewer. He surrounded himself with the existing correspondent types in the media but it was his voice and he was able to look at the landscape of the politicians and the hypocrisy of how the media did its job or didn’t do its job. And he did it so well that here we are, having a fucking national sob-fest that he’s decided to go.

Despite Stewart's brilliance, late night is still such a boys' club. Why? 
That is the $64,000 question, isn’t it? I really don’t know. It’s utterly shocking to me. Why is that the case? Is it that there aren’t enough strong women in power who can influence the other people sitting around the table making decisions about late-night hosts? Is it that the people in charge still don’t see funny women around them? If that’s the case, are they living in Uzbekistan in a cave and dying of some hypothermia in the cave? I don’t know how they are not seeing the amazing crop of women who are out there.

Who would you cast? 
Tina and Amy are the dream people but they aren't doing it. You need someone who lives and breathes politics but is also smart and quick-witted. There are news people you could unleash who are funny but people don't know. Alex Wagner from MSNBC is hilarious and smart and funny and I think that she would be funny doing a show. I’ve always said Rachel Maddow should be honing her humor chops more than she already has. Or Helen Hong or Jenny Yang, Aisha Tyler, Sara Benincasa, Joy Reid from MSN ... Sarah Silverman would be great. I just feel like there’s so many amazing people who are wise and great conversationalists that it’s annoying. It’s just annoying.

When you look at someone like Chelsea Handler — that’s a really successful talk show. I don’t know what her choices were for her next project but the fact that somebody didn’t hand her a talk show? She’s very successful and I like that she has a point of view and I like that people love her and people hate her, just like anybody else, just like Jon Stewart, just like anybody who has opinions. 

How do you think The Daily Show would be different if it launched now? What would you cover?|
The show launched with the media that it was given, so if it launched now it’d have to be a different show because the media is different. John Oliver has proven that it could work: He’s a different version of news and media in a new media landscape that doesn’t feel like The Daily Show but is totally amazing. I think there are new ways to do it. I think Amy Schumer is doing a version of it, Bill Maher has conversations around it. I think that there’s tons of ways to do a show that reflects on where we’re at culturally, politically, and with our media.

Tonight, I would be talking about the lineup that’s happening for the debates, and the fact that there’s a kids'-table lineup at five and a prime-time debate at nine. I would totally talk about that. And I would skewer those Planned Parenthood videos.

What is Lady Parts Justice up to?
We just launched a USO tour providing aid, comfort, and funds to clinic workers in states that are being hit the hardest. So we'll go on a road trip soon — it’s a road trip that’s also fun and meaningful. And Lady Parts Justice is performing at Bumbershoot. We have V to Shining V, which is our national day of finding out what the crappy laws are in your state and deciding what you’re going to do about it. On September 26, there will be eight big concerts around the U.S. If there aren’t any concerts in your area, you can also have a house party, learn about laws in your state, get people registered to vote. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.