Iliza Shlesinger is battle-tested. The stand-up comedian has, over the course of her eight-year career, produced four late-night pilots for various cable networks only to see them sink into the Hollywood ether. The first one hurt so bad she cried for weeks. It was six years ago and, for a relatively green comic, one of those make-or-break moments. The shoot went so well that during filming, a female executive pulled her aside and whispered in her ear, “If this doesn’t go, you can punch me in the face.”It never went. And she never got her punch.
So it seemed almost wonted when, in early September, she was subjected to one of the most surreal “pitch meetings” imaginable. In an icky Starbucks bathroom. In Midtown Manhattan.
“I was shopping for an outfit for the Today show and running from one store to another so I had to pee so bad—and then I got a call from the network, so I put in the headphones and ran into a Starbucks bathroom and just started pitching the series,” she recalls. “And I’m peeing, but sort of half-peeing and trying to hold it so he couldn’t hear—I didn’t sit on the toilet, I was just sort of squatting—and by the end of it he said, ‘OK! Let’s take a beat, think about it, but that sounds great!’ And then 20 minutes later I got a call saying they were interested.”
The 33-year-old’s career has been, she says, a “slow build.” In 2008, she was the winner of the NBC reality series Last Comic Standing, which pitted 12 comedians against one another in grueling, head-to-head competitions. Despite being one of only two women in the mix, Shlesinger bested the bunch—succeeding where other Last Comic contestants like Todd Glass, The Daily Show’s Roy Wood Jr., and none other than Amy Schumer had failed.
Then the problems started. With the reality show win came money, a development deal, and the immediate shot at being a comedy-club headliner. And a hearty serving of jealousy. “I was there with all my heart and soul, thought everyone was my friend, and then I won the competition and found out, oh, these grown men you just beat are definitely not your friends. They got really catty and bitchy. Women are always assigned those traits, and no woman had ever treated me that way. It was weird to see grown men acting like Mean Girls.”
“It was like cattiness with testosterone, and we would get in these arguments and they’d be so terrible, and I’d find myself going toe-to-toe with these grown men,” she continues. “In my head, I couldn’t understand why everybody was being so mean, and it left me so callused. It was all, ‘You shouldn’t have won!’ so I left that thing made of stone. Nothing in my show-business career will be as hard as doing competitive stand-up and then being hated by people you thought were your friends.”
Things are looking much, much better for her these days. She’s just had her third Netflix special, Confirmed Kills, premiere; is hard at work on the second season of her scripted web comedy series Forever 31 on ABC’s digital platform ABCd; will start production in December on her late-night talk show on the ABC-owned Freeform network, which is currently set to air in the first quarter of 2017; and has to have the draft of her first book, Girl Logic, in by Jan. 1st.
So when I meet the striking Shlesinger for coffee at a Flatiron hotel in Manhattan, she’s understandably exhausted—and practically freebasing tea.
“It’s a lot of good stuff happening at once,” she says, her eyes perking up behind thin-framed glasses. “It seems like it’s all a tsunami, but I’ve been at this for a really long time. People don’t see the failed pilots, blind script deals, network deals, auditions, screen tests, screenplays that get some attention. It’s been years of, ‘She’s the voice of our network, we’re interested!’ and then nothing.”
She pauses, and smiles. “Now it’s goodbye to my social life, but that’s fine with me! I never had a great one in the first place. I have my dog, Blanche. She’s an older woman. She’s timeless.”
One of my favorite Shlesinger jokes is, like the best of her material, about the oft-ridiculous relationship dynamics between men and women. This one involves the female obsession with pairing up to go to the bathroom: “You can’t go to the bathroom alone… you might not come back. Cause no girl’s ever been to the bathroom alone and survived. It’s true. The last woman that attempted it, it was 1937 and her name was Amelia Earhart.”
Her stand-up style is similar, in some ways, to Aziz Ansari: She is loud, fast, and physical. She’ll wax rhapsodic about women’s mermaid fantasies—just kidding, she hates the fucking mermaid fantasy—and is known for her “party goblin” bit, about the not-so-imaginary monster that lives in the recesses of your brain. “She will awaken when she hears you say, ‘I guess I’ll just come out for one drink,’” she quips in Confirmed Kills. Then, well, she’ll make you “eat that sandwich out of the garbage, then text your ex that you love him and turn your phone off.” Shlesinger’s devoted fans are so enamored with “party goblin” that they’ll design T-shirts of the rowdy fiend. Others go as far as painting their faces green.
Shlesinger had only been a comic for a few years when she took home the competition crown on Last Comic Standing. She grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, watching shows like In Living Color, Kids in the Hall, and Saturday Night Live—looking up to physical comedians like Chris Farley, Jim Carrey, and Cheri Oteri—making her friends crack up in her spare time. With zero industry connections, Hollywood seemed like a world away. But she knew she was going to be funny for a living, so when she graduated from Emerson College she moved out to L.A. and, cobbling together some bits from a one-woman show she’d developed in school, began trying her hand at stand-up.
She was, of course, met with the usual resistance. “People always say ‘women aren’t funny,’ but that’s because there aren’t as many women doing it, so when one woman isn’t funny, it speaks for the whole group and people judge that. But there has to be more men that are unfunny because there are more men that do stand-up,” says Shlesinger. “It’s always me in the clubs and I look at the roster for the month and it’s all men. I’m not selling out arenas, but there’s no other woman really touring the way I do. And it’s not easy.”
There are also the inevitable haters, sad (mostly) men who take the form of Twitter eggs. All female comedians have had to deal with a deluge of bullshit from puerile, misogynistic men, epitomized by the ridiculous anti-Ghostbusters backlash this past summer. Shlesinger is no exception.
“Those people are always there—living under rocks, beating their wives, hating their penis sizes. You can’t control that,” she says, matter-of-factly. “The internet gives you anonymity, and you’re allowed to ruin someone’s day. But I’m not going anywhere, and these other women aren’t going anywhere, and that anger will begin to dissipate over time when the idea of a ‘female’ comic fades away and it’s just ‘comedian.’”
The comedy landscape has shifted dramatically since Shlesinger’s first late-night pilot six long years ago. We are living in the post-Bridesmaids era, where a major Hollywood studio will green-light a $144 million all-female Ghostbusters remake, and where the funniest person on Saturday Night Live is a gay woman (the incomparable Kate McKinnon). And in the late-night realm, there are now at the very least a handful of female hosts—including Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee on TBS, Chelsea’s Chelsea Handler on Netflix, and Amber Rose over on VH1. While Shlesinger’s show won’t be as political as Bee’s (“We don’t need more people telling us how much they hate Donald Trump,” she says), it will be decidedly hers, in a voice that she’s been sculpting for years.
“This late-night thing has been a goal of mine forever,” she says. “I thought, OK, if I can command these men’s attention for hours and hours day after day, week after week, why won’t you let me do it on a TV show? So it was being at the right place at the right time, and I think I earned it.”
As for that insane Starbucks bathroom meeting, well, that seems to have paid off, too.