On the ‘Vagical Mystery Tour’ with Lizz Winstead

Lizz Winstead (co-creator and former head writer of The Daily Show) has put her passion for politics to work. After founding Lady Parts Justice League, “the first not safe for work, rapid response reproductive rights messaging hub that uses comedy, culture and digital media to sound an alarm about the terrifying erosion of reproductive access so people will get off their asses and reclaim their rights,” Winstead decided to take the show on the road. In May, LPJ launched the Vagical Mystery Tour, a 16-city national tour to bring comedy, music and activism to cities with some of the strictest birth control and abortion laws including Witchita, Indianapolis, Omaha, Birmingham, and Louisville. Guest comedians such as Aparna Nancherla, Gina Yashere, Maysoon Zayid, Helen Hong, Alonzo Bodden, Joyelle Johnson and more perform sets followed by a talkback after the show. At each talkback, local abortion providers and activists make the needs of their clinic known, giving an opportunity for the audience to step up and volunteer. The comedians also jump in on the outreach, pulling weeds, fixing fences, and raising morale at the clinics. I talked to Winstead about reproductive rights, the horrors of the Senate GOP healthcare bill, and bringing comedy to the deep South.

How has the tour been going so far this summer?

Really fun! We decided to go out for a long period of time on the road and do a show with a talkback for our audience and the people who need our audience’s help – it’s a grand experiment. It really paid off. You know, you go to these states who are really hard hit like Mississippi and Alabama and Arkansas, and people who are working really hard to change stuff – they come out in droves. They were so appreciative that we brought a show to them, because A, a lot of times they have to travel really far away to even get a really cool show, and B, we can say “We see you, we love you and know you’re doing really great work, and your politicians are the ones who are horrible.” So they really appreciate it on a lot of levels, just packed houses, it’s been really good.

How did the idea for the Vagical Mystery Tour come about?

When we started LPJ, we thought we would be like Funny or Die for all these laws that are affecting women – abortion rights laws, sexual discrimination laws, try to tackle rape culture. And we love making the videos, but we realized that the videos were the jumping-off point instead of the end point. So we got a bunch of comics to go on tour with the idea that gathering folks at a comedy and music show is a great way to get people in a room and then after a really fun night, you can hear from the local providers and activists who say “Hey, here’s what’s really at stake in our state, here’s what we plan on doing about it, here’s where we need your help. Sign up right now.” So we have tables in the room and stuff. We were doing one-offs in certain states. We went to North Carolina for ten days, we went to Fort Worth, Texas, but we thought if we did a big national tour, we could get national press to focus on the laws that are happening in all these states, we could get folks to get their local press to write about it, and then we get people to come out. It’s sort of a grand scheme to grow activism and grow support in places that are working so hard and oftentimes don’t have a minute to sit up, take a breath, and figure out how to gather more people to grow their troops. But we can provide that and it’s really fun.

Have you had any particularly surprising audience reactions during the talkbacks?

I think what’s been really cool is that we would tell the providers ahead of time to think about what they need: “We’re going to come to town, how can we help you?” So they would make a list of stuff that we could do - we have been planting gardens and weeding and building tall bushes to block protestors. But we always get a tour of the clinic as well and that clinic tour time is when we really see how beautiful the clinic is and how compassionate and passionate these people are about their work. But it’s also when they kind of reveal stuff that they hadn’t thought of when we were planning our trip. So they might say something like, “We have a large refugee population from Syria and sometimes we can’t find translators.” So for us, it’s like oh my gosh, we live in New York, what if we have friends translate something that could help a Syrian woman read about what her day would be like or see a video of someone telling her about her procedure so she feels more comfortable?

I think the biggest thing we learned through talking to the clinics is that if you provide abortion care in really hostile states - they’re a small business right? So for any other small business if you have leaves in the gutter, or the roof leaks, they just call somebody and they do it. Here, people won’t show up, because they provide abortions. So through our audiences we’ve been able to find contractors, find a handyman, find someone who can fix up their website.

And then with us, so many comics volunteered to come out on the road, but then some just couldn’t find the time. So our big ask is “Hey, when you go out on the road can you offer four tickets to the local clinic to help boost their morale?” Because so often they are isolated. What we hear over and over again is “Thank you for coming here. You know, no one ever comes to visit us. People treat us like pariahs.” And you know, I’m somebody who had an abortion and I know that it changed my life. I had such kind, compassionate care and I want to make sure that anyone who needs an abortion can get that too.

Were you as active in the reproductive rights movement when you were just starting out in your career?

I’ve always been part of pro-choice benefits or fundraisers for clinics, but I didn’t really take the time to explore what was at stake. I’ve always been political and I’ve always tried to fight for the underdog and expose hypocrisy. But it wasn’t until 2012 when I saw these laws happening in all these states all at once. There were 27 states that got assaulted and clinics were just shutting down, and I was like, “Why have I been not paying attention to this issue?” A, because I’m somebody who got to be where I am because I had an abortion, and B, why do we not know about this stuff? And then digging deeper and seeing that it turns out when a bunch of dudes run media conglomerates, they’re not looking at women’s issues as human rights and they’re not looking at reproductive rights issues as issues that everyone should care about. Women don’t get pregnant from vibrators. We’ve all got to figure this out together. If you claim to care about economic justice and equal rights for all and independence and bodily autonomy, then you have to center government control over half the population’s bodies as a thing that is part of your work.

Have you had any interesting interactions with protesters at the clinics?

Oh yes. In fact, the protesters have also shown up at our shows. What I find the most interesting is that they claim to care about abortion and saving lives, but they never talk about the person who is pregnant. What we find to be really interesting is that when the protestors are in front of the clinic and they see us out there talking, we’ve been able to talk to these protestors and they’re so interested in shaming women. That’s really what their joy is. One guy actually got an erection yelling at Joyelle Johnson, telling her that she was a killer, and it was so gross and we got the whole thing on video. It’s like, you’re literally turned on by shaming women. But we were able to move them away from the doorway so like a dozen women could go in for their appointment without getting yelled at by those guys, because they don’t really care who they’re yelling at, as long as they are yelling at a woman and telling her she’s a piece of shit.

Especially in the American South, in Jackson, Mississippi where the population is like 75 percent African American, that means that their clientele is going to be more African American. And when you see a bunch of white guys screaming at black women that they don’t have ownership over their bodies, it’s really just mortifying and horrifying and also probably the third or fourth time that day these women have had some kind of experience, whether it’s a micro-aggression or just out-and-out racism of having shit screamed at them, and it’s a real wake-up call as to where we are at as a nation and where we are at valuing the autonomy of women. You know, with comedy you can get people in the door in a different way; you can expose hypocrisy in a brand new way.

It’s been a really great bonding experience for the comics to have them engage profoundly with an issue that really matters. Especially since a lot of independent clinics provide a lot of really incredible trans-care for people who are poor and live in rural areas. So to have trans comics in the show like Ian Harvie and Jaye McBride and Dina Nina Martinez, just to have people come to a show and see all these different faces and experiences on stage as just a reflection of the world we live in, the audience and the people who use the clinics.

Do the comedians all build their set around reproductive rights or is it varied?

No, and that’s what’s so cool. People build their sets around their own experiences. So you just have this really rich show. Because I’m a political comedian, I’ll take that mantel of just laying out the landscape of where we are in America, but also because I write so much, I have jokes about politicians from every state so they get to hear about their local douche bag and they’re so excited. Because a lot of times, America doesn’t know who the junior senator from Iowa is, but I do and I got jokes about that bitch so I’m going in. It’s Joni Ernst, by the way, in case you were wondering.

What state or issue do you think is the most pressing at the moment?

I wish I could say “oh that’s easy,” but it’s not. It sort of vacillates between Missouri, Alabama, and Mississippi, and then Oklahoma, but then Michigan and Ohio, Texas – it’s so crazy. I mean just yesterday, the Missouri legislature passed a law that you can fire someone if they use birth control. And your landlord can throw you out if you use birth control because you’re morally objectionable. It’s like, how the fuck does this make sense? So you think a productive worker is somebody who is knocked up all the time? Explain to me how this shit works? It’s so absurd. Oregon is the only state that hasn’t curbed access to abortion since Roe v. Wade. Every state has some shit-show law. Everybody needs a stronger activist base, everybody needs to laugh and to feel like their humanity is being tapped into. That’s the thing – if you bring a comedy show to a place, you’re saying, “We think you’re smart, we think you’re fun, we think you deserve some joy and we’re here to bring it.” That’s a really nice thing to say to a community. The audiences have never been more fun or just great.

After the election there was a lot of talk about reaching across the aisle and talking to people who think differently than you to try and find common ground. Do you think that it’s possible to change someone’s mind? Or are you just trying to activate people that are like-minded and get them more involved?

I think it’s more to activate people who are like-minded and get them involved. I think as the world has gotten weirder and worse, and literally Trump just says “blurgerblurgerblahblurger” and people go “yes, exactly” – I don’t fucking want to reach out to those people, I just want to marginalize those people because they’re useless, they don’t care and at this point shit is scary. I don’t want to reach out. I want to activate the people who have sanity, to help them prioritize this as an issue that they care about. And just get rid of people who can tolerate the idiocy and the ignorance and the ugliness that is the GOP and the GOP is Trump. And I don’t want to separate the two because they are one in the same. They are all brokers in shit that is profoundly destroying the lives of people who are marginalized. It is crazy.

When I look at this healthcare bill that just happened – you know, my folks were WWII veterans, my dad sold carpeting for 35 years, his pension was tiny, when they retired they were both really ill, his entire pension went to paying the extra healthcare that Medicare wouldn’t cover for them and if they didn’t have five kids who could help them out, to help them live where they could eat food, pay for their medical expenses and have shelter – and that was when it was decent. And to cut that money off and to screw with disabled people and elderly people and sick people and if they don’t have the safety net of family or if their families are poor and don’t have extra money to be helpful, we’re literally going to throw people out on the street just so rich people can have a tax break. So you know what? If you vote for that, I don’t really give a fuck about reaching over any aisle to you because you haven’t reached out to anyone and you don’t care about anyone. Then there are some people who don’t think that the bill is taking it far enough – it’s like, who are you? You make orcs look fuckable.

What’s next for Lady Parts Justice League?

We’ll take a little bit of a breather and do some videos in the fall and then we are launching a really cool thing at the end of July to expose crisis pregnancy centers, which are a whole other thing that lots of people don’t know about. So we’re going to be letting people know that there are fake clinics out there funded by your tax dollars, created by religious zealots that are lying to people about abortion and they were created with the sole purpose of trying to convince women not to have abortions. Their signs look just like Planned Parenthood or just like the local clinic – you wander in there accidentally and then they pull you into a room, take your phone away and just start shaming the fuck out of you. So we have a big outreach thing we’re doing to let people know about that. We’ve got lot’s of stuff going on. It’s going to be fun!  

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

The Vagical Mystery Tour runs through July 22nd, 2017. Find tour dates and lineup here. Join the Lady Parts Justice League here.

Sydney Parker is a writer living in Seattle. You can read more of her writing on Carnival of Souls or follow her on Twitter @Carnivalosouls.

On the ‘Vagical Mystery Tour’ with Lizz Winstead