Iliza Shlesinger Talks Women in Comedy: 'I Don't Think the Bar is Set Very High'

by Emily Krauser 9:05 AM PDT, August 27, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

Pardon us for using a cliché to explain a cliché, but that whole "women aren't funny" adage has been beaten down like the dead horse it is. The all-around amazingly hilarious improv-TV-movie-host duo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have done a solid job taking down the comedy patriarchy; Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Amy Schumer kill basically everything they do; and Iliza Shlesinger was not only the youngest person to win Last Comic Standing back in 2008, she was also the first woman to do so.

One of the outlets that seems to have taken notice of the plethora of female talent is Netflix. Though it doesn't feature an even ratio of male to female comedians, the popular video-streaming service does have a number of specials from talented women in its arsenal, including two from Iliza.

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The 32-year-old Texas native has come a long way over the past decade. Her first hour special, War Paint, was acquired by Netflix in 2013, and her follow-up, Freezing Hot, debuted as a Netflix Original last January. "It's nice to have someone put faith in you in a business where you're constantly having to prove yourself," she admitted. With the web giant prepared to work with Iliza again on a third special next year, ETonline talked to the comedian about her journey from reality TV champ to a leading lady on the comedy circuit. Funny for a woman? Try just funny.

Photo: Iliza Shlesinger

ETonline: How did competing on Last Comic Standing, and reality TV in general, inform your comedy?

Iliza Shlesinger: I moved to L.A. in my early twenties at the height of reality TV, around Rock of Love and Girls Next Door. I was a huge fan of all of them. This was a new medium, and I couldn't get enough of it. The way that watching absolute garbage TV helped me is that when I finally got on a reality show, I knew how it worked. I always credit a big part of my success on Last Comic Standing to two things: One, they love to make women look bad. There's got to be a villain on every show. Knowing that, I made sure not to give them a single soundbite. I never said anything bad or had an attitude. Two, face time is your asset, so I made the decision that I was never going to say anyone else's name. If I did, they would cut to them, so I always made sure to make every question about me. The truth is, it was about me. It was my story. I really used being a student of reality TV to my advantage on that show.

One of the most interesting things about Freezing Hot is that you feature hashtags, which are traditionally used by networks for fans to use as a show is airing in first-runs. With Netflix, there's no set time someone is watching, so what made you decide to use them?

I specifically did it because Netflix doesn’t share their numbers. I put them in so I could sort of gauge who was watching it. I also love my fans very much. I fully acknowledge that without them, I would have nothing. It's a fun way to interact with my audience and let them feel like they're interacting with me, and these hashtags have permeated people’s lives. All day every day, people send me pictures of their flatbread, their blousy cow outfits, of raptor vag -- like making faces, not their vaginas. I believe in creating an environment with your fans, and a language. It's just been a really fun social experiment.

He's behind me, isn't he?

A photo posted by ilizas (@ilizas) on

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What are the biggest changes you've noticed from when you first started in stand-up to working through bits today?

In my first set, I had a joke about herpes medicine. That's horrible, right? I hate that I did that joke, but whatever, it's self-aware, almost like investigative journalism. There's even a difference between War Paint and Freezing Hot -- it's not just about positing a premise, it's about really diving into it and almost trying to offer an explanation for our behaviors. It's a lot of speculation and questioning why things are the way they are, very curious comedy. I would hope it got smarter, more introspective and more personal. I had a period where my comedy was very female-focused. In my next special, I want to give people what they want, but at the same time, I have to grow as an artist. If I didn't, then I would just be a female humorist for the rest of my life.

Netflix is also home to specials by Jen Kirkman and Chelsea Handler, and they seem to be putting more faith in female comics more than some other outlets. Was that something you paid attention to when working with them?

I'll look at lineups at clubs, and I won't see a woman performing there for months, so I’m very used to being the only girl. That being said, I didn't notice that Netflix had a ton of women versus not a lot of women. It played zero into my thinking, because being the only girl is great and being supported by other women is great, so either way, it's good. I went with Netflix because it is the best choice for comedy. The women they have on there are not garbage comics. Jen Kirkman is a smart girl. She's an author. These aren't girls who are getting up and telling one-dimensional dick jokes. These are people who have a body of work, so I think it's less about the female thing and more about, 'This set's funny, and not just for a girl.' Look at someone like Tig [Notaro]. She's a unique comic, and that's a very heavy story she tells. There might be some specials put out there just because a person is famous, but I think that Neftlix really acknowledges real comedians.

One of the things that's especially interesting about your comedy is that you skewer how we are as women, but it never feels cruel.

I appreciate that. That's something I do naturally but am also mindful of. Women are so horrible to each other. We're chastised for everything that we do, and we call ourselves and each other horrible names. Even if I'm making fun of women, I'm coming from a place of love, because I've been there. I'm holding up a mirror to let girls know that what they're doing isn't necessarily wrong, because, guess what, I probably feel the same way. I have the license to say these things because I've lived through them.

I look at other girls' stand-up and it's all about, 'Here's how horrible I am, what a disaster I am. I'm such a slut.' You will never, ever catch me calling myself those names, because what all women who do comedy fail to realize is that you are teaching men how to treat us when you say things like that. When you get up there and talk about how many dicks you've sucked and how slutty you are, you're teaching men that that's how you view yourself and it's okay to treat you that way.

When you were coming up, did you ever feel like you weren't respected because you were a woman?

It's funny, when I hear a woman's voice on stage, I listen because I'm waiting for them to tell me how awkward they are in bed or how much like a guy they are. When I hear a girl doing normal jokes, I perk up. I'm sad for the landscape of comedy, because I don't think the bar is set very high for women. Fortunately, and unfortunately, girls always say how hard it is, but for a long time, girls have been able to coast by on, 'I'll just be gross or crass or shocking.' There's no heart behind it. I think I've chosen a path of most resistance, because I've decided I want to say something awesome and authentic. I don't know if that will render me the most popular at the end of the day. As long as you're okay with your act, whatever it is, that's all that really matters.

Do you find that female comics are supportive of one another?

I personally didn't have a class that I came up with. I won Last Comic Standing three years in, and then I started headlining. That is something you do alone. I don't have that group of girls that I moved out here from Chicago with and we all started together. I kind of piecemealed people together based on talent. That being said, if I see a girl who's funny, I'm the first one to walk up to her. I see it with other girls in comedy. You've got to have an ensemble. I think guys would like it if we hated each other, because then they could pit us against each other. They're hoping we'll fight each other, and then they're hoping that we'll kiss.

It would be great if the world were like Taylor Swift, where she's surrounded by all these perfect women. You rarely see a female comedian who surrounds herself with women who are better than her, because nobody wants to get outshined. Gone are the days of the ugly female comedian. There's an acknowledgment of people who are also funny, but you have to be an idiot to hire someone who’s better or going to get more attention than you.

What are the most frustrating things that still exist as a woman in comedy?

It's so hard because I've never known comedy any other way. But it's the landscape and people, what they expect from you: 'You're a girl, so you'll be okay with making blow job jokes.' Nothing in any of my acts makes you think I would do that. It's a bar that we haven't raised. I always think, 'Could I ever see Tina Fey doing a blow job joke?' No. You have to decide where your standards are and either accept work or don't, but never allow anyone to put you into a box.

The other thing that irks me is that I don't like being asked what I think of other female comedians. In no world are you ever going to get me to say anything bad, and, in most cases, we're nothing alike. The only thing we have in common is that we both do stand-up. You would never say to Chris Rock, 'What do you think of Kevin Hart?' in the middle of an interview that isn't about Kevin Hart. That's frustrating. But, I've been saying this since the day I started comedy: What girls don't understand is that what you view as a weakness is actually a stepping stone. Maybe you're the only girl on the lineup, maybe everyone's being s**ty to you and disrespectful, but the second you get on the stage, that's your eight minutes to dominate. Once you get up there and you crush, you're undeniable. You will be the most memorable one on that lineup, because you're the girl who did a great job, so use that opportunity to shine bright. Quit complaining and go write some better jokes. Nobody wants to hear about your vibrator.

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Iliza is touring in England until August 29 before returning to North America for shows in the United States and Canada throughout the rest of the year. She also hosts the podcast, Truth and Iliza.