Comedian Iliza Shlesinger, 33, was raised in Dallas and graduated from Emerson College. A film major, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her stand-up career, and she’s the only woman, and the youngest comedian, to win NBC’s Last Comic Standing. Her debut one-hour comedy special, War Paint, was named one of iTunes’ Top 10 Albums of 2013, and her 2015 follow-up, Freezing Hot, prompted Esquire to name her one of the country’s top working comedians. On television, she’s hosted the CBS syndicated comedy dating show Excused and the TBS game show Separation Anxiety. She created and stars in a digital series, Forever 31, on the ABCd platform and will release a book, Girl Logic, in 2017. Her newest stand-up special for Netflix, Confirmed Kills, premieres on Sept. 23.
Jonathan Soroff: You recently did a tour of the U.K. Did the humor translate?
Iliza Shlesinger: Absolutely. They had trouble with the English, but we got through it. I think my humor is pretty universal. I’m not talking about flying on private jets or saying, “Don’t you hate it when Vikings come in and raid your village and kill your parents?” It’s easy societal stuff. Men and women are the same everywhere. For the most part, girls feel the same everywhere. So it’s pretty easy and accessible.
Biggest way your comedy has evolved? Well, I started in my 20s, and what are you gonna talk about? What you know. Drinking. Maybe dating. So with this latest special, given the chance to do a third Netflix special, I felt I had an obligation not just to comment on what women are thinking, because I’m kind of known for that. I wanted to give credence to our thought process and stand up for girls. I wanted to have a little more compassion and understanding, although some girls are bitches.
Favorite venue to perform in? My comedy is very big. I occupy the space a lot. I enjoy a big crowd. Whether it’s 1,000 or 3,000 people, it feels the same. Not that I’ve done an arena tour, but big crowds feel comfortable to me. I like that energy. That being said, when I get the opportunity to do a more intimate venue, that’s when you get the chance to do some experimentation and digging. You can do those calmer or deeper jokes and do some real work.
Favorite talk show to appear on? Having only really done one, I’m gonna go with Jimmy Fallon’s. He’s had me on The Tonight Show three times. He’s a really cool guy, genuinely excited about the guests. He’s happy to have you. And it feels good to have someone like that be a fan. But I did do a USO tour in Afghanistan with The Today Show. Jay Leno was with us, and he was wonderful. So congenial, and his stories from nearly 30 years hosting The Tonight Show are amazing. And he’s amazing onstage. I’ve done bits with Craig Ferguson, and I’ve met Arsenio Hall…I guess I’ve done more than I thought.
Worst part of touring? Literally everything except the moment you walk onstage to the minute you walk offstage. But I’m actually built for it. My dad was a road warrior. And I love my fans. Sorry, Beyoncé, but I have the best fans in the world. They’re rabid; they make GIFs and they make T-shirts. And I love putting my art out there and seeing how they make it their own. I love when someone in Denver says, “I saw you perform in Bagram or Kandahar.” They made it back alive. It gives me chills. And it’s cool to get to know the country.
Does Emerson secretly rule Hollywood? First rule of Emerson College is you don’t talk about Emerson College. Kidding. We’re not “ruling” Hollywood, but to quote Fight Club, “We’re the people who do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep.” Emersonians aren’t doing any real grunt work like that, but we are in every production office, on every executive team, in every writer’s room, part of every TV show and at every comedy club. We are everywhere!
Most inappropriate thing you ever did on Boston Common? I have a specific memory of making my sophomore year film on a Bolex in the snow, ugh. It wasn’t inappropriate but it was really fucking hard.
Funniest person you know? For the purposes of not having an issue later, I’m going to say my father.
What was your parents’ reaction when you told them you were becoming a comedian? I don’t remember, but that’s also because: A) I didn’t care what anyone thought, and B) I never for one second thought they wouldn’t support it. My parents are these witty, funny New York Jews, and they’ve always been supportive, whether I was in a sketch group or writing a play or anything I wanted to do creatively. So either they saw it coming, or they thought, “OK, we’re here for you. How much money do you need to borrow?” And it was $1,000 for a computer, and I paid it back. My mom raised me to be very independent. The day I got to LA, I got a job. I’ve always been self-sufficient, so for anyone to tell me what to do or not to do is a very foreign concept to me.
Was there ever something you said on stage that shocked your parents? No. On stage, I am very much who I am off stage. I say “fuck” a lot. And of course, a good dick joke every once in a while is a good thing. But my voice has never been a particularly crass one. I think society tends to think that anytime a woman is both speaking and walking, she’s out of line. I’ve had less intelligent people say, “Oh, you’re so bawdy and raunchy!” And I’m like “I don’t recall describing my vagina in detail.” That’s fine if that’s your thing, but people have a hard time wrapping their minds around a woman saying the same stuff a guy would say. Now that that little diatribe is over, the only thing that got to my mother was a joke I made about silk blouses being burkas for American women. My mom really took umbrage at that. She was like “I love an elegant silk blouse.”
Was your show Separation Anxiety an update on The Newlywed Game? No, because for the season that it was on, the show was about any kind of relationship, not necessarily a couple. It was characterized as a “dating” show, but it really wasn’t. It could be best friends, a brother and sister, whatever. It was a really fun experience. TBS and 5×5 Media really gave me the freedom to do what I wanted.
How do you deal with hecklers? Well, my act is very rapid-fire, so I have to decide whether it’s worth breaking the momentum to address them, and usually it’s not. Also, a lot of the time, the rest of the audience can’t hear the heckler, so if you address someone or snap at someone, it’s sort of like lashing out into a void, and you kind of lose the audience for a second. It looks like you’re just yelling at a wall.
You hold the microphone in an unusual way. I do. Rappers hold the microphone like that. I guess it’s just that there’s such an aggressiveness to my comedy. I want to be in your mind. I hunch over and try from the stage to get as close to you as possible, and there’s so much tension. And I want you to get me. There’s nothing casual about my set. There’s a toughness to it. But maybe it’s just that I listened to too much hip-hop growing up.
Anything you’d never joke about? For me, personally, I don’t think the Holocaust is funny. I don’t think slavery is funny. I know I sound like a dumb pageant queen, but racial humor doesn’t do it for me. Child molesting…let’s see, the list of things I find not funny is pretty long.
Ever perform drunk? No. And that is a thing for me. When I first started, I was 23 or 24. I’d have a vodka cranberry and get on stage. Then when I was about 25, I got the flu, and I stopped drinking for a while but kept performing. And I was like, “Oh! I don’t need a drink to perform.” Then I did Last Comic Standing, and it was such a high-pressure situation, I didn’t want to alter myself in any way. I felt, and continue to feel, an obligation to my audience. These people are paying a lot of money to see me do what I love to do. I think I owe it to them to be sober for the one hour that I’m required to work. Some comics drink onstage. Some comics use it in their pacing. But when I see a guy up there with a beer and he’s only doing a seven-minute set, I’m like, “Who the fuck do you think you are? You didn’t earn that drink.”
A joke you regret? Regret might not be the word, but I think on War Paint, I had this whole thing about women going to the bathroom together, and how it’s a sacred place for women. That’s where we’re honest. That’s where we’re kind to each other. That’s where we loan each other things. But getting to the bathroom in a club, I made a joke about women holding hands and I said, “Let’s make a chain of whores and get through the club.” It’s funny. People laugh. And women even make T-shirts that say “Chain of Whores.” Now, I’m trying to be more responsible and not use words like that in conversations pertaining to women. I wouldn’t say that now. It teaches some women that it’s OK to use that word, and it’s not.
Does comedy always come from a place of pain? I don’t think so. It can, and it helps if something horrible has happened to you. But sometimes it’s just a way to work out a grievance with society or to question the status quo and ask “Why?” I think that’s why a lot of comics are Jewish, because our religion teaches us to always ask “Why?”
Styling: Alvin Stillwell; Hair and makeup: Harper / EA Management; Wardrobe: Raven + Lily Sweater