Iliza Shlesinger may not yet be a household name, but with her razor sharp wit and strong work ethic, she soon will be. As a matter of fact, you may recognize her as the youngest female winner on NBC’s reality television series ‘Last Comic Standing.’ Since emerging victorious from the show, she has continued to prove that she is one of the hardest working women in show business. Between her work as sidesplittingly funny comedian, she also hosts her own web series called ‘The Weakly News’ and will soon take a spin as the host of a dating series called ‘Excused.’ As one of comedy’s bright stars, she shows no signs of slowing down and is gearing up for a huge 2011. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Iliza to discuss her roots, the influences that inspired her to pursue comedy as a career, all her upcoming projects and what the future might hold for this comedic dynamo!
I want to give everyone a little bit of background on you. First of all, where’d you grow up?
I’m originally from Dallas, Texas. That’s where I grew up.
What initially drew you to comedy and why did you take a chance on doing that professionally?
I wish I had a better answer for this – such a boring answer. I was always funny, always, always the class clown. I always loved making people laugh. My objective in any conversation growing up was to make people laugh. I love doing it, and that’s how I made my friends, and how I deal with everything is humor. I always find humor in everything. And I always knew in my heart that I would do comedy for a living, whether it was sketch or improv, ‘cause I did those growing up and I loved ‘Kids in the Hall’ and ‘In Living Color’ and ‘Saturday Night Live,‘ and I would write sketches and I always thought about comedy. Whether it was that or comedy, I always knew I would do comedy for a living. And then I did improv in high school and then I did sketch in college, and then at the end of college I wrote a one-man show. And I think it was in writing that that my thought process went from writing dialogue and scenes to writing a linear monologue, which is what standup is. And it just seemed like the next step for me in the comedic evolution, and I felt that my thoughts were being best expressed in a monologue versus sharing onstage with someone else.
You touched on some of your influences. Is there somebody who influenced you comedically as far as a standup?
That’s a good question. I think that if you wanted the honest truth, when I first started doing standup I didn’t know a lot about standup. Like, I had seen Ellen DeGeneres growing up, and what I always liked about Ellen was that she was a funny person. Her stuff was never – it was never hitting you over the head with sexuality, it was never girly, it was just everyday things. And I’m obviously a straight girl so I have to talk about the opposite sex at some point, but I like to think that my comedy reaches men and women equally. It’s not male bashing. It’s not female-centric necessarily. So I think I took that from her.
I also remember seeing Pablo Francisco when I first started and loving his energy, and I think that seeing a comic like that kind of gives you the green light where you can go ahead and be energetic, too. That’s how I am naturally. I also spent a lot of time with Bret Ernst when I first started doing comedy. We met and I always thought he was such an amazing comic. And as a young comic, getting to be around comics that have been doing it longer, you learn a lot of lessons from stuff like that. So I was fortunate to be surrounded by all these amazing comics. You get to kind of learn and take what you want from those experiences.
A lot of people are gonna recognize you from your stint on Last Comic Standing which obviously worked out pretty well for you. You always hear reality TV’s a little bit twisted, but how reflective of it was that competition to what we saw on TV to what you actually went through?
It was depicted pretty much as it was. The difference between ‘Last Comic Standing’ and a normal reality show is that the objective of that show is to show standup comedy and open up the world of comedy. We weren’t competing for the affections of Bret Michaels and we weren’t doing it just to win money. I actually didn’t even know what the prize was ‘cause I had never watched the show before. You do that show because you want people to see your standup, so your heart is in a different place then it would be on, like, a basic show where you’re just competing just for the sake of winning.
What you saw was pretty much what you got. The only thing they cut out really was a lot of downtime and sitting around. For the most part we all got along in that house. It was boring compared to most because there was no fighting, there was no huge backstabbing, because we are legit professionals. We’re not a bunch of hookers giving fake blowjobs to see who can win a rose ceremony. [laughter]
Winning that was a big moment for you, but I was curious: maybe even before that as a comic, was there a point in time where you say, “Okay, as a standup comic, I’ve made it”?
No. I don’t see how you could when you’re doing five shows a week in, like, random parts of LA at $20 a pop. I don’t think that you could ever say, “Now I’ve made it!” [laughter] And I don’t think you could ever say you’ve made it. If you’re the kind of person that has drive – I mean, I know that I do – your hunger’s insatiable. And at no point thus far have I been satisfied, nor complacent, nor do I choose to rest on my laurels. There’s no growth from that.
It seems like you’re constantly working. How do you go about crafting your act? Can you tell us a little bit about your process?
Yeah! Everyone does it different. I personally – my whole life I’ve always kept a little book with me, even before I knew that comics did this. I looked in my closet, and had all these books that I kept as a kid to write down ideas and thoughts and jokes, and I never knew why I did it. It was like a natural thing. I’m like, “That’s funny, I’ve got to write that down,” ‘cause I have a horrible memory. So for me it works. I’ll just be talking, I’ll be like, “That’s funny. That’s a funny thought.” And what’s tough as a comedian, you’re crazy and you think the way that you’re seeing the world is normal, so you have to train yourself to kind of clue yourself in and be like, “Oh, that’s not a normal thought. You should write that down.” So it’s really recognizing when you’re having an abnormal thought that you have to write it down, because I think the way I look at the world is normal, but it isn’t and that’s what makes me a comedian.
So I’m constantly jotting down things in a book or texting things to myself. What I do is – when I am not on a road and I do solo shows around town, I’ll write out a couple of those premises or thoughts, or even just, like, a sentence that I thought was funny, and you go onstage and you talk it out. It’s a fantastic process because it’s so important to go up. People are always like, “Oh, I’ll just write at home.” You can write all day long, but when it comes to actually speaking and getting a reaction from the crowd, your joke always changes. So for me that’s why I go up so much, ‘cause I’m always wanting to try out my new stuff, and you’re constantly honing and shaping old stuff and mixing it. So it’s an ongoing process that requires a lot of attention. This isn’t like a thing where you can get up once a week and expect to become great.
I’m sure you probably get a similar question to this a lot since you’re a female comedian. Do you think it’s harder to get recognized as a female comedian starting out, or is it just hard to make your mark in general?
Okay, I cannot stress this enough. It is easier for a woman by virtue of the fact that there are less women doing it. You are in the minority; therefore, more attention will be paid to you. Almost every show I do I’m the only girl on the lineup, so guess who’s gonna stand out more than the guys? It’s gonna be me.
Now, that works against you. If you are terrible, then you kind of – sadly, it’s like you represent women. If you’re a girl and you eat it on a lineup, then they’re gonna be like, “Yeah, women aren’t funny.” But when you’re the girl and you go up there and you rock, then they’re like, “Wow, that girl was funny!” and you start to change that stereotype. I don’t pay attention to stereotypes because I don’t say, “I’m a female and doing it for women.” I’m just a person and how people choose to categorize me is another thing. But, girls, it’s yours to lose. You have every advantage by being a woman. I think at the beginning people here and there would be a little disrespectful, but at the end of the day if you get up there and you’re funny, that’s what does the talking. That’s all there is to it.
I wanted to talk a little bit about ‘Man Up and Act Like A Lady‘ DVD. How nerve-wracking is it to put together a full album of your material, and how do you prepare yourself for a task like that?
It wasn’t nerve-wracking. I mean, that album I had been ready to do for a while. It’s tough because you go in there and – we shot over a weekend. We shot a couple shows, and then you edit them together. It’s tough because you hope – “Oh, my God, I hope no one gets up and stands in front of the camera. I hope no one yells something and, you know, messes up the joke. I hope no one’s drunk” – which happened. So you’ve got to scrap a lot of stuff because you can’t control those other elements. I actually had one girl passed out during that taping and she was yelling stuff, and I didn’t want to yell, “Shut up! I’m trying to tape my set!” [Laughter] So it’s – and it’s also tough because by the time you shoot it and edit it and print it, months have gone by and all those jokes are a little different. When you go back and listen to it two months later you think, “Oh, I hate that joke now.” or “That joke is so much better now.” Even two weeks later your jokes are different! So it’s hard to listen to that because you’re in such a different place.
In addition to the DVD release, when might we get to see some other new material from you?
I am working on an hour special, so hopefully – because I’ve got so many things coming up within the next year, hopefully we’ll get it out. I’ve already written it out, which by the time you get around to shooting it I’m sure all that stuff will be out the window! [Laughs]
One of your other cool projects is the The Weakly News. How did that originally start and what can you tell us about it for people who might not be familiar with it?
‘The Weakly News’ is on TheStream.tv. It was initially a labor of love. There was a website called TheStream.tv and this guy was giving people their own web shows. And people would come in with ideas, and I was a guest on a show that’s no longer on. And the producer was like, “Anytime you want to do a show, let me know,” and I needed a creative outlet. This was before ‘Last Comic Standing,’ so about three years ago, or maybe even four, and I was like, “I need to do this just to have a creative outlet that was awesome because I could use pictures and it was more sketchy.” It was like a combination of sketch and standup, which I had missed doing. So I just put it together. I was like, “If I did a news show, this is what it would look like,” and it turned into this sort of grassroots, ‘Wayne’s World,’ basement production kind of hodgepodge of news and humor and inside jokes and aggression, and we got a little cult following. And it’s cool because people come to my shows and they know things from the show, or you know, they come and visit me from other states at comedy clubs and they’re like, “I’m a huge Weakly News fan,” and it’s cool to know that people are watching. It’s always nice to know that. And it’s evolving. We’ve got a new studio. We’re gonna get another studio and I’m looking to try and turn it into a TV show, and that’s looking pretty good. So it’s just proof that if you do something you love doing, everything else follows.
It was recently announced that you are going to be doing a reality dating television show called “Excused”?
Yes! It has been picked up for 130 episodes. That’s a lot of matchmaking! [laughs] And it’s picked up for over 80 percent of the country. I think for the most part it’s gonna be on CBS and then some other cable channels will probably pick it up. It’s the same people that did ‘Blind Date,’ which is a show that I know that I loved watching. It’s one of those shows that you don’t necessarily have to watch every week but when it’s on you’ll definitely spend three hours watching a marathon of it! [laughs] So it’s a dating show and it’s getting back to the format of being on five nights a week. We’ve kind of gotten away from that in the last 10 years with things like ‘The Bachelor’ and stuff like that are on once a week. So this is get them in, get them on camera, see if they fall in love, see what happens, and it’s my job to facilitate all that as the host, and to make people laugh. And what’s special about this show is that I get to be funny. I mean, I even told the casting director. I was like, “You could find someone more attractive to read cue cards.” [Laughter] So they let me do what I want with it, and it’s pretty funny!
When can we expect to start seeing that?
We’re gonna start shooting in April and it will air this fall, this coming fall of 2011.
Awesome! You’ve got a busy year ahead for you.
I know. I have chest pains thinking about it, but I think it’ll be okay. [laughs]
As a comedian on the road, I’m sure as a comedian you see quite a few things. What was the craziest thing that’s happened to you while you’ve been on the road?
While I’ve been on the road? Well, I was gonna say the whole country of Egypt fell to pieces while I was on the road! That had nothing to do with me, but that was pretty crazy to watch. [laughs] I wish I had a better answer. You know what? I’ll be honest. I’m not a huge partier. I think with male comics it’s different and a little safer for a guy. “Oh, I went on the road and I F’d 12 college girls and I did a bunch of blow!” As a girl your life isn’t really like that. I like to do my job sober. I like to come back to my hotel and watch HBO and do writing. I definitely see a lot of fights. I saw a very large black girl take a Jell-O shot like a champ. She drank about 100 milliliters of Jell-O – I don’t know why I said milliliters – in, like, 5 seconds, so that was kind of gross. That was in Kentucky, obviously. [laughs]
What about hecklers? What’s the worst thing you’ve run into as far as that goes, and how have you dealt with that situation?
Okay. Well, this story I’ve told a lot, and I feel like if this person reads it they’re gonna be like, “Oh, that was me.” I don’t get a lot of hecklers. People tend to be really happy about being at my shows and I tend to be able to get people to be quiet if they are heckling. I’m just gonna show you that one time I had to get personal, and I flipped a couple of tables in my rage, and that’s all I care to talk about. [laughs] But I got them to be quiet, and if I see them again there’s gonna be more than a table flipped. But other than that I’m a total lady, and I’ve never been in a fight in my life, but everybody has their breaking point.
Sounds like one hell of a night. [Laughter]
Yeah. It was one of those things. It was like, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know I could get that angry.” But, like – I mean, I’m sure guys know what that’s like. Like, I know guys fight. I don’t think girls should fight. It’s kind of trashy. But I literally – it was 45 minutes of them just being annoying and no one helped me out and I just snapped. So the good news is 45 minutes is my breaking point, so now that I know that I’ll learn to remove myself from the situation. [Laughter]
As a comedian, who are some of your peers that you enjoy watching? We want to try to point some people in the direction of good comedy.
I think – I think Pablo Francisco’s hilarious. I also like – I mean, their styles are totally different – I think Sebastian is amazing. Now I’m drawing a blank. Hold on. Let me think of it for two seconds. Gosh, who else is funny? It’s so unfair ‘cause I watch so much of it and I’m friends with so many comics.
Actually recently I heard you on Joe Rogan’s show and I thought that was pretty interesting, you guys bantering back and forth for a while.
Yeah, I think he’s so funny and so smart, and when you look at him you’re like, “Oh, he’s the Fear Factor guy and he does UFC,” and a lot of people actually, if they’re not educated, wouldn’t know that he’s so poignant and eloquent and intelligent in his standup. I think more standup comics could stand to learn a lesson from him, because it’s one thing to make a statement. It’s another thing to back it up and get the credence with a lot of facts. Bret Ernst is another comic that does that. I have a lot of respect for him. I think John Caparulo’s hilarious. I think Kyle Dunnigan is very funny. I think – who else do I think is funny? Now I’m just like – Alonzo Bodden is a great comic. He is very smart. I really tend to gravitate towards intelligent comics that are making a point versus making, like, bong jokes and, like, jokes about f’ing all the time. I think Bryan Callen is another great comedian. He is on the other end of that spectrum. His act is, like, something out of – I don’t know, like out of an acting exercise gone haywire. Like, he’s just amazing and so unique. I think he is so much fun to watch. I think Maria Bamford’s very funny. I think Paula Poundstone’s very funny.
Do you think there are any misconceptions about yourself that you could dispel, if there are any.
I don’t think I’m popular enough for there to be any misconceptions. Sorry, since you’re writing an article about me. [laughs] You know what? You tend to know what people think of you if you have a bad reputation. I think if you treat people the way you want to be treated, which I do, you tend to get a good reputation. I always try to help other comics. I know that some people think ‘Last Comic Standing’ was rigged, so that’s stupid. Aside from that I don’t think people spend a lot of time spreading rumors about me. Hopefully one day they will.
Fingers crossed, right?
Yeah, right? [laughs]
What’s the best piece of advice that maybe someone gave you that you would pass along to someone who was interested in going into standup like you have?
First of all, a comic told me this when I first started, and it’s so basic and you can apply this to everything, but it really took being told this by another coming that was successful to hear it and have it stick. It is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. And that’s tough because a lot of comedians are natural sprinters. And it is – and especially, I look at my career, I had a lot of success very early on. And it’s tough when you get that and you’re like, “Great! The world’s my oyster! What’s happening?” And you don’t realize, like, that was one flare-up of energy and motion, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s going to be a pattern that’s going to be repeated anytime soon. So just because you get something, yeah, there might be a butterfly effect, but number one, you’re not owed anything. You’re gonna have to work and the rest of the industry has to catch up. So just because you won ‘Last Comic Standing’ doesn’t mean you’re gonna be headlining, you know, theaters across the country the next day.
You know, that show isn’t an end all be all. So I think a lot of comics need to remember, just because you didn’t get a showcase this year, just because you didn’t get a manager, as long as you’re moving forward things have a natural way of following you. I just might take time, and that’s a very hard pill to swallow, especially when you’re used to operating at 1,000 miles an hour. [laughs]
What else is in store for you for 2011? We’re catching you kind of early here, but I figured if you’ve got anything we should be on the lookout for…
We have the pilot coming out and I have a couple of production deals in place hopefully for a late-night talk show. So we’re gonna be sorting that out and seeing which network would be the best fit, and we’re trying to push the Weakly News into that, into making it more of a late night thing. I also have a book coming out pretty soon. We’ve been working on that pitch. So it’s a lot of things that are being set in motion; once the show is out I think those things will come to fruition a lot quicker. But a lot of touring – I’m gonna be shooting a show, but people can always go to my website to see where I’m gonna be next, which is just www.Iliza.com.
What can you tell us about the book project? Sounds intriguing…
I’m doing a book on my life as a standup comedian – I’m just kidding. My career is, like, five years old. [laughs] The book’s gonna be about social observations. A lot of my comedy is about observing people and talking about what it is that makes people tick, and a lot of times – it’s about the subtexts of the choices that we make in life, the message you think you’re sending to people versus what people are actually receiving, and how there’s a big disconnect in between. It’s gonna be funny, sort of an anthropological collection of data in a funny way.
That’s awesome. I can totally see what you’re saying with that and kind of see where you’re going. That’s awesome.
Thank you very much for your time. We will definitely follow up with you in a few months to see how everything is progressing! I really appreciate it and I wish you all the best!
Thanks for the interview. I had fun and I look forward to talking to you again soon!
For the latest information on all things Iliza Shlesinger, check out her official website at www.iliza.com and follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/iliza! Get her new DVD, ‘Man Up and Act Like A Lady’ at here official store and take home her appearance on Comedy Central Presents via Amazon!