In these austere times it would be punishingly stingy to save the best for last in a book review, so lets establish right up front that Lizz Free or Die (Riverhead Books, $25.95, 307 pages), a collection of essays by political satirist Lizz Winstead, is awesome. The collection traces Winsteads life from a Catholic childhood in Minnesota, where she first found a sense of belonging in the burgeoning Minneapolis punk scene, to finding her own voice was better suited to observational stand-up comedy. After watching Operation Desert Storm on a sports bar TV while on the blind date from Hell, Winstead realized she could no longer stomach performing a tame act for audiences who seemed to shun her for starting a joke with I think, (even when the punch line was therefore Im single.). Her politics and comedy chops led to the creation of The Daily Show, then a founding role at progressive radio network Air America, where she co-hosted the show Unfiltered with Public Enemys Chuck D. and a relative unknown named Rachel Maddow.
By the time she found herself working as a segment producer for a small show on Comedy Central, Winstead had experienced her political awakening and was working steadily doing standup while learning to write for a television audience. When the show was canceled, she and the neighbor whod hooked her up with the job suggested they pitch their own project to the network. The new heads of Comedy Central werent gung-ho about their proposed SCTV-like idea; instead, they wanted to see a daily show that mocked the news by embodying all its worst aspects. She writes, They just asked me to help create the show I had been wanting to do for years. Yes. Yes, they had. She says less nothing, really about the circumstances under which she left The Daily Show (allegedly due to a rift with original host Craig Kilborn), but has only good things to say about her experience there and Jon Stewarts work on the show. So dont come looking for dirt.
Winstead includes family stories here as well, many of which involve political disagreements with her conservative parents. After hectoring her mother about watching excessive amounts of Fox news and asking if she watches anything else, her mother confesses that she tunes in to Lizzs appearances on MSNBC, But with the sound down, just to see what your hair looks like. Winstead notes, Once I got my self-esteem out of traction, I always remembered where I got my humor, and brought that material and energy to her act.
That dedication to the craft, honed by taking a joke that bombed from club to club and refining it over the course of a single evening into solid material, pays off in these pages as well. Winstead hit my C-spot multiple times. Thats comedy spot, sicko, and what I mean is she angles jokes so perfectly, and with such joyful wordplay, that I often went from laughing to laugh-crying to convulsing as if on a Craftmatic bed with a short in the motor in the space of one minute. I hesitate to give examples because the ones that slayed me may not be your favorites, but theres something here for you, guaranteed. Read about her experience blithely adopting a rescue dog while completely unprepared for its personality quirks. The diagnosis and solutions proposed by her vet alone are priceless, but the story unfolds further and further until youre left reading while racked and wrecked with laughter. All things being equal, it did more for me than that other spot can be counted on to consistently induce, so there.
The funny, sad, angry and pointed tales that make up these messays each stand alone; Winstead brings each piece full-circle and concludes them neatly, often with punch. But its their collective power that makes Lizz Free or Die so compelling. Each incident on her path helped shape a vision of using comedy to speak truth to power, and the media helped Winsteads cause by abdicating any responsibility to the truth whatsoever unless it involved the state of impending celebrity nuptials. Each time Winstead thought she could relax, bam! Sarah Palin. BPs Deepwater Horizon. The Republican primaries. The hits to our collective dignity just keep on coming, and she hits back, brilliantly.
One last thing. Over the course of these stories, both Winsteads mother and father pass away. The story of her fathers death contains a fiendish bit of humor he prearranged at the expense of his five kids, which I wont spoil. But it leads to one of several new words Winstead invents and defines in the book, in this case dielarity, defined as The dark humor created in the environment of or at the expense of someone dying. (While preparing to fly to the hospital for last goodbyes, she packuumed, throwing items in a bag at high speed that would reveal themselves to be completely inappropriate on arrival). The ability to mine the darkness for humor and share it becomes increasingly valuable as we find ourselves in ever darker and more difficult times. Thus, its both sweet and empowering to watch this girl who constantly erred on the side of the inappropriate grow into a woman who makes a living at it. We should all be so lucky, and brave, as to Lizz free or die.
Heather L. Seggel is a freelance writer in Ukiah, Calif. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2012
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