Melissa Harris-Perry: Hi everybody, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega, and this is The Takeaway.
It's been 25 years since the launch of The Daily Show. It's had three hosts Craig Kilborn, Jon Stewart, and Trevor Noah. The Daily Show has infiltrated a quarter-century of pop culture, it's satirized five presidential administrations, launched multiple spin-offs, and transformed two generations of young Americans into sarcastic little brats.
Speaker 1: The Daily Show, when news breaks, we fix it.
Speaker 2: Have you had your picture taken with a black person yet?
Speaker 3: Well, I don't think so.
Speaker 4: I see so scientists are all stupid liars?
Speaker 2: White people are and they call it open carry. For Black people, it's called, “He's got a gun.”
Speaker 5: This was not as some people seem to believe another Bush gaff or malapropism.
Speaker 6: Tonight's topic, should medical marijuana be legalized?
Speaker 7: Yes.
Speaker 8: No.
Audience: Yes. [cheering]
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm thrilled to be joined by the incomparable Lizz Winstead co-creator of The Daily Show, which will air at the union special tonight. She's also co-founder of Abortion Access Front. Lizz, thank you for being here.
Lizz Winstead: Melissa, it's so great to talk to you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have missed you. I loved speaking with you. Talk to me about 25 years ago, did you figure you were doing a quick project for the year or that you were creating an American institution?
Lizz Winstead: Well, I would be a jerk if I was like, "I've been hired to create an American institution." [chuckles] I don't think my thoughts are that lofty, but I did know that the country was ripe 25 years ago, for some information because just to set your listeners back to the media landscape that we were living in, there was only CNN, MSNBC was launching shortly after we did and then Fox news in the fall. There was CNN, local news, and then there were 17 news magazines that were all over the airwaves. Then if you remember, during the hype of news magazines, it was just scary stories constantly. It was like, "Your mattress, what you don't know might kill you."
We were taking on the irresponsibility of the news that was going on and then not actually reporting the news but scaring us and doing all of the trials and car chases. As the show evolved, it just followed the trends of the media and how the media did its job helping us understand what was happening to us in our world, and what the powerful were doing with the powerful that they had.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, worth noting, it was two women who started this show. Can you talk a little bit about what that meant 25 years ago and what it might still mean today?
Lizz Winstead: [laughs] Yes, it's always a little disappointing that people, when you tell them to women created The Daily Show, they're always like, "What, really?" It's true facts. I know, shockingly, the patriarchy is not saying, "Let's hear from these women all the time." I think what it meant was, we tried to look at the world through the lens of who was the most victimized by not getting real information.
The thing that was a challenge was when you do a new satire, the first thing you have to do is look at the landscape and create something that looks that landscape. That meant filling your position and filling your show full of vapid looking lantern-jawed white men and women who were very perky. What we did was we created a comedy show that operated like a newsroom and then wrote text that was not going in for the joke, but that was a prioritizing the banal and elevating it so that folks could understand like, "You know what, they are giving a lot of import to something that is ridiculous with the hopes of people would laugh, but also that people would challenge themselves to dig a little bit deeper and not necessarily trust the people who are giving them information.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's go back 25 years one more time. Talk to me about the OGs. What were you all up to? Why did this feel so magical to so many of us watching it?
Lizz Winstead: That's why we wanted to do this special that's on tonight was the OGs have never been together in a room to really tell the story of what it was that brought them to the show and how the show actually came to be. One of the secrets that I'll tell you now, but you have to really watch tonight is what we did was we tapped into some comedy writers, but mostly, we tapped into journalists who were disgruntled by spending 1,000s of dollars to go to school to actually report stories that mattered and then found themselves at networks where they're sent out to cover the O.J. trial or cover the Jeffrey Dahmer murder. There is no one funnier in my experience than a brilliant news reporter who has been subject to not being able to do their job but have to report on trash.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Man, there should be a lot of geniuses I could name them when it comes to comedy geniuses relative to that.
Lizz Winstead: You know that. You know how hard you've laughed in newsrooms Melissa being there, and that part was really great. When you think about Brian Unger, who was the prototype, and the person who really launched The Daily Show correspondent that you know today. We'll be able to hear his stories of what made him decide to leave journalism and come to The Daily Show and how he really helped shape that correspondent.
We started out with zero budget because back then, cable was a place where you said, "I'm willing to take less money because you're going to give me freedom." The freedom that the network gave us was, we didn't have to do a pilot episode, which is a test episode that normally happens on TV. They gave us a year on the air to grow the show, which meant we could really tap into some really brilliant brains and say, "If you leave your jobs, you have a year of job security to help make this show great.
That's really just the beginning of it, but to hear about A. Whitney Brown, who a lot of people remember from SNL and why he came on and Madeleine and I. Madeleine didn't want to do the show, and I was somebody who was desperate to do the show. She had the production chops and I had the politics and the satire chops. As she was making her decision, I was just praying to the-- I don't know what's one prays to, by saying, “Please Madeleine, decide this is important to you.” Sure enough, she did, and hence the show was created and born.
Melissa Harris-Perry: 25 years later, is the news environment that you were satirizing initially, any better?
Lizz Winstead: I think it's better. It's also different. I think anytime that you have a flood of information, it lends itself to be a place where also then a lot of garbage can collect. As the media just grew and grew and grew, that meant it's not just cable and network news, it's its Twitter, its online platforms, it's Facebook, it's all of these information aggregates that now also contribute to how The Daily Show satirizes information. I think it's news and information that we're looking at as the places that we satirize, not just news anymore.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there a way to do satire without being mean?
Lizz Winstead: I think that you've got to really punch up. I think that if your eye is on the prize of taking on the people who have taken power and use it for evil or stupidity, you will always win. If you don't punch down, but hold accountable those who could make the world a better place, I think you're going to have a winning strategy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I like that distinction. You don't punch down, maybe not even lateral. You do the accountability piece. Oh, last thing, when people want to watch, what should they do?
Lizz Winstead: It's streaming live on rushtix.com. That's R-U-S-H T-I-X.com. You can go get tickets. It's also a benefit for Abortion Access Front, which is my nonprofit, so you're going to have some fun and you're going to do some good.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love it. Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show. Everyone, check out the 25th reunion special tonight. Thanks so much for joining us, Lizz.
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