Rather than audience chatter amid a crowded theater, Lizz Winstead‘s hilarious and cathartic new comedy special Corona Borealis: A Night of Comedy Under the Stars – released late last month on Vimeo – is filled with the sights and sounds of the great outdoors. As with everything in 2020, filming this stand-up special was drastically different due to the coronavirus. Shot in two parts with safety in mind, Winstead’s first segment was captured in September at one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes before an audience of 20 in kayaks while the second socially-distanced section takes place in a wooded oasis.
A crackling fire – unexpectedly soothing – serves as the soundtrack to Winstead’s bit about White House superspreader events but this wasn’t the only unforeseen auditory challenge she faced while performing in the nontraditional setting.
“The best part was during the kayak shoot the ambient noise was actually crickets, which is the international sound that you’re bombing as a comedian,” Winstead said with a laugh by phone during a call last week. “That was pretty hilarious. There were a lot of nature obstacles, but I thought it was really fun.”
Winstead is uniquely qualified to mine today’s political landscape for comedy as she is a veteran of the stand-up stage who co-created The Daily Show and co-founded Air America. She also founded Abortion Access Force – formally Lady Parts Justice – as a means to advocate strongly for the reproductive health and rights of women while also prioritizing support for abortion providers.
To the untrained eye, our soon-to-be-ex-president may appear to be a source of comedy gold, but for political comedians like Winstead, he is more of a common criminal than a government official.
“I feel like, it’s been an interesting ride in general. As somebody who likes to do political comedy and talk about politics in the world, the Trump administration didn’t have policies. Donald Trump presented this sort of sociopathic study in depravity that isn’t political humor,” said Winstead. “It’s basically breaking down and analyzing a criminal sociopath. Ted Bundy might as well have been in the White House. I think if you talk to anyone who talks about politics and humor, it wasn’t a fun four years.”
Still Winstead makes finding the funny look easy. She generates big laughs with everything from Trump’s COVID cult to progressives’ frustration with “never Trump republicans.” Jokes are plentiful, but the heart of the special is its thoughtful examination of some of today’s most pressing issues.
Midway through the show, Winstead pressed pause on the comedy to engage in a candid discussion about racism, white privilege, violence, and community policing with Minneapolis Councilwoman Andrea Jenkins, the first Black transgender woman elected into political office in the United States. She represents the district in which the murder of George Floyd took place.
“We have had this national racial awakening. Who leads that conversation,” said Winstead of her discussion with Jenkins, noting that she felt it was important to place the segment in the center of the special rather than as an afterthought at the end. “I wanted to talk about white supremacy and white privilege from a place that I felt like was important for me to talk about, which is what has been my role in it. What is the role of white folks in it? But I really wanted to carve out space in my show for somebody who is living every day with white supremacy. Somebody who is fighting against it and has been fighting against it the whole time. And, someone who can intimately talk about the experience that woke up the nation.”
She continued, “I was really happy on a national level as well as to really get to know Andrea and hear what it means for somebody who is a Black trans woman to be fighting the fight while also being affected by systemic racism constantly just by living her life. She’s a very admirable person. Her work is really important. I think that Minneapolis is really unique. It’s got two Black trans folks on its City Council and it’s a diverse City Council. They’re doing really interesting things.”
As a comedian, Winstead is looking forward to the Biden administration so folks can debate actual policy decisions again. She is also looking for the potential for humor in Joe Biden’s “old guard” history juxtaposed with Kamala Harris’ approach as a woman of color. As an advocate and “old leftie,” she is ready to continue to fight for the world she wants to see.
“One of the things that really terrified me about Trump wasn’t even about Trump himself, but it was so awful that now people don’t want you to criticize anything or suggest that a cabinet choice might be bad because that choice will always be better than whoever Trump would have put there. While that’s true, I voted for a person who I have been told will listen to criticism. Someone who will listen to and make changes based on being swayed by an opinion that they may not have thought of,” she said. “So, I’m not going to sit back and take crumbs because I didn’t get any crumbs at all from the last person.”
Abortion Access Force – which presented Corona Borealis – has moved much of its work online, but nothing 2020 unleashed, including pandemic restrictions, has slowed the efforts of the organization.
“The good news is we’re production people who make videos. The anti-abortion extremists have also had to switch to online, so when they try to stir up trouble online with seminars where they say a bunch of things that aren’t true, we make infographics and we are in their comments section following them and posting the facts,” Winstead explained. “It’s really great to be able to take over a hashtag, not by being trolls, but by having ammunition ready that tells the truth every step of the way.”
Beyond dispelling falsehoods, Abortion Access Force remains dedicated to offering a support system for abortion providers and their clients. Sometimes this means helping to find a lawn care company that will cut grass at a facility – parking a work truck onsite can lead to retaliation from extremists – or providing escorts for patients, or even making sure slammed staff members have a hot lunch to eat.
“They need somebody who is looking out for them so they can wake up everyday and feel good about the important work they’re doing because every single day when they go to work, they walk through a throng of people who are demonizing them and their patients, who are following them home and threatening them,” said Winstead. “The reason I formed the organization to begin with is because when I looked that the landscape there wasn’t an organization that was dedicated to making sure that abortion providers were OK on an emotional level and that they have the support they need.”
We may be in the waning days of the Trump administration, but Winstead is prepared to keep fighting for women’s rights and abortion access regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. She encourages anyone interested to join her in this mission to donate to Abortion Access Force or volunteer to help in a variety of ways.
“We have all sorts of different ways you can sign up and join our mutual aid and help the clinics who need help. You can help expose these fake clinics, that are all around the country, that are posing as real healthcare facilities but really they’re just trying to lure people in to talk them out of having abortions. We try to expose them with reviews online,” said Winstead. “There is tons of activism to do while you are in – and even when you’re not in – COVID.”