Digestible Feminism: Iliza Shlesinger on Comedy and Separation Anxiety

Comedy Features
Digestible Feminism: Iliza Shlesinger on Comedy and Separation Anxiety

Iliza Shlesinger is an incredibly physical comedian. In recounting the things women do (think Pinterest obsessions, barely eating in front of a date and going out with the gals), she isn’t afraid to strip away the restricting layers society places around how they should look, act and sound, and get a little weird. Scratch that, get a lot weird.

Shlesinger inhabits her comedy, hyperbolizing it with voices, mannerisms and more. She explodes women’s behavior, taking it down at times to an animalistic form, like when she turns into a hangry man-eating lizard, or when she talks about her inner party goblin who only emerges at the first sip of alcohol. For those reasons, she’s almost closer to a character actor than a traditional stand-up comedian; she produces a tangible type of comedy that punctuates her verbal beats by calling attention to all the ways women comport themselves, and the underlying humor entrenched in each minute action.

In 2008, Shlesinger rose to fame after becoming the first woman to win Last Comic Standing. Since then, she’s released two Netflix specials, War Paint and Freezing Hot, and is getting ready to begin work on her third. Not content to relegate her voice to the stage alone, Shlesinger often seeks other platforms, which will soon include a book titled Girl Logic due out in 2017. As the host of TBS’s new game show Separation Anxiety, which premieres tomorrow night, Shlesinger brings her particular quirk to a comedic premise exploring people’s relationships with surprising heart. She spoke with Paste about her gift for physicality, how she plans on changing people’s minds about feminism and the communication black hole modern dating has spawned.

Paste: Your physicality really impresses me. All of the mannerisms you develop, whether wiping away a tear or stomping around like a hangry dragon woman, are so precise and for that reason so precisely funny. Where does that physicality come from?

Iliza Shlesinger:This is such a weird answer, but it really does come from within, and this vehement desire to convey with every cell of my body what I want the audience to hear and feel. It just comes out. I’m not trained in the theater, I’ve never taken a movement class; I grew up watching sketch and cartoons. Voices and characters were always huge for me, so I think it’s being a student of that. It comes naturally to me.

Paste: Well, and it adds so much.

Shlesinger: Yeah, I also think I’ve never been one to stand still. I’ve always had a lot of energy. Some comics can stand still and do an hour, and for me it’s a performance and I need to move, even if it’s pacing. I think some people process thought by tapping their foot, some people have tics. For me, the stand-up and the movement go hand-in-hand. I treat it almost like a mini-sketch versus stand-up.

Paste: That makes sense. I consider what you’re doing as a form of character acting. How do you find each voice?

Shlesinger: I appreciate that. I go up every night and I do my set, so I’m very particular about the words I use. I think choosing specific synonyms really elevates your art. If you’re going to say “hand-hewn” versus “handmade,” you’re painting a picture with your words, so you want to be specific with that.

The truth is, I really only have three voices: There’s the girl voice, and then every guy sounds like a Guido, and then there’s anything sort of mystical or mythical, like the party goblin or the pharmacist. So I don’t think I’m winning any awards for my diverse character array. I also think, coming from a woman, people enjoy it so much because women aren’t given permission to be ugly or quirky or weird, and I’ve been doing it my whole life so to me it feels very natural.

Paste: You definitely move away from these notions society has about how women should sound and behave. What’s your underlying purpose—besides creating laughter—at challenging how society sees women?

Shlesinger: There are definitely times I think I was maybe a little hard on girls, but I was only able to be that way because I’ve been that girl. When I did Freezing Hot,, I wanted to have some responsibility for what I said and give explanations about why we do the things we do versus just observing them. Then in this next special, it’s a lot of feminism, but it’s digestible feminism. The person whose mind you’re trying to change is the average white male. I’m not trying to change the mind of the other girls who follow me because they already agree with all that. So the objective here is to have an open and honest dialogue and say, “I can do whatever I want,” and it doesn’t have to be scary to men, and it doesn’t have to be unattractive to women.

A big message in the next thing is that women don’t like to say they’re feminists because men don’t find that attractive. And I’m on a mission to be like, “Hey, let me just make sure we’re clear on what a feminist is,” and not do it in a way that turns men off. Of course, my objective in life is not to turn men on, but if you kick a door in and kick a dude in the dick and tell him you hate him, he’s not going to want to listen to your message. So for this third album, especially as I’ve gotten older—I just turned 33 a few days ago—it’s about me telling women, “Hey, I’m just like you. I’m the girl next door.” I don’t have a hook, like there isn’t something about me where I can say, “Society has mistreated me because of X, Y, and Z.” It’s me saying, “Hey, I’m the blonde girl you went to school with that looks like you and I still have a bone to pick, and here’s why it’s okay that you voice your opinion as well.”

Paste: I appreciate that you want to be this champion for feminism, and get people on board with the idea because it is so important.

Shlesinger: It is important. Growing up, I always stood up for myself; I guess I was a feminist before I even really thought about what that was. It’s important that men don’t feel they’re being screamed at, because that doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s important not to put men down, and I know that men have the upper hand in general, but that doesn’t make you seem any bigger. When women get up there and they’re like, “Men are so dumb, right ladies?” They’re not dumb, and you look like a child when you stay that stuff. Men do dumb things, for sure, but really, for me, I want girls to know…I want to be their champion, and I want to be their voice. This is going to sound so terrible, but for girls who haven’t had it as tough as other girls, I think society is mean to them. I learned this when I moved to L.A. I was never the hot girl growing up, but I started doing comedy and all of a sudden it was “Oh, you’re hot so you must be an idiot.” And I’m like, “Why am I hot? Because I look like a girl who maybe was a cheerleader in high school?” There are these preconceived notions. People put shit on women because of what they look like and because you’re not overweight or you are what society wants you to look like, people think your life is easy. And I know that sounds like poor little rich girl crying, but everybody’s got their pressures and every girl deserves to feel like she has a voice, no matter if she’s pretty or ugly.

Paste: How does humor help you get your message across?

Shlesinger: That’s my tool. Everybody’s got their strength, and, for me, you disarm them with humor. Be a little self-deprecating. Comedy gods will reward vulnerability, so the more you open up and the more honest you are the more they love you. A couple of years ago I wrote a joke about getting ready to go out. I said something very personal that’s kind of gross; I was like, “I’m going to do my hair, do my makeup, and shave my big toe.” To this day, women come up to me after a show and whisper, “I shaved my big toe for this.” Girls want someone else to say to them, “Hey it’s okay that what you’re doing you think is gross because I do it too.” We make women think they’re supposed to be perfect, and there’s all kinds of gross stuff that feels so good when someone acknowledges it. Humor is the best way to do it because it’s disarming, and it’s the only way I know how to approach it.

Paste: Right, we all have these weird little quirks. When you talk to someone and realize “Oh my god, you do this too?” it suddenly it opens up this community space and it’s lovely.

Shlesinger: It’s lovely, and we all share this big, dysfunctional heart. When I talk about girls in bathrooms or girl behavior, I’m not chastising you for getting drunk and walking down the street in your heels and falling over. I’m saying I did it too; I’ve been there, I get it, there’s nothing wrong with it.

Paste: You’ve hosted before. What’s it like being back in that role with Separation Anxiety?

Shlesinger: It’s fun. As a girl, I never dreamed of hosting a game show, but as a comedian my objective is always to get to do my comedy on a bigger, better stage. The production company that created this called me and were like, “Look, we want you to make this funny, and you can do whatever you want, and we really want you to make it your own. That’s why we want you.” And to hear that… I wouldn’t have taken the gig if it was a cue card kind of thing. They let me make it funny; they let me bring my dog onstage; they let me pick out my own outfits, which was a huge mistake because at the time I was like “I should do all crop tops!” and now I look like an extra from Bring It On.

Paste: This seems like a game show with a heart.

Shlesinger: If you’re going to win a quarter of a million dollars, me and the people at home want to know you’re going to do something good with it. We like to hear that, especially as Americans, because Americans love an underdog and we love a good story. That’s why we love reality TV. Some of it. So this show, without its heart, is just a game show. They were very specific about getting stories out of the contestants. Who doesn’t want to ultimately see people happy? It’s really a lesson in judging a book by its cover. It’s nice to see these are good people and this money means the world to them. Even if they don’t win, we always make sure people leave with something.

Paste: Still, that heart really surprised me on a network like TBS, which often goes for a different kind of comedy.

Shlesinger: It’s a new game show. It’s modern, it’s fun. As much as people love to crap on millennials and the next generation coming up, my generation is much more likely to get behind something if there’s a cause, even if we’re totally garbage normally. We had a gay couple, which I thought was so cool, because I don’t think enough shows do that. We’re doing new things that other shows aren’t doing, and it’s hosted by a woman. It’s fun and groundbreaking. It’s got heart and it’s got humor.

Paste: Not only hosted by a woman, but one that isn’t afraid to go against traditional female hosting stereotypes.

Shlesinger:I remember growing up and watching Jenny McCarthy, or even Nicki Cox to some extent on Unhappily Ever After, or Christina Applegate. These are women who are much more attractive than I am. Like naturally hot. Like I’m a cute girl, but they’re hot. And they didn’t give a fuck. If you want to call it goofy or whatever, sort of living on your own terms and doing what you think is funny, it’s the kind of humor you would do with your girlfriends. And they all do it on the stage. For me, I don’t feel comfortable unless I’m making a face, or making a joke. I do feel uncomfortable standing in a dress and really expensive high heels and not saying anything.

Paste: Your comedy is so attuned to relationships and all its foibles. I can’t help but ask, what’s the most absurd trend in modern dating that you’ve come across?

Shlesinger: This sort of weird, unspoken rule that you can communicate with someone and then just stop speaking. And I’m talking online dating apps. What I’ve observed is sometimes a guy will want to talk to you just to prove that he can match with you. You’ll be in the middle of a conversation, and you’re like, “Oh you like Seattle? I like Seattle too,” and then they just never write back. If you did that in real life people would be like, “That girl is the rudest girl ever.” Men initiated this behavior and then girls started playing the game. So now what we have is an entire generation of people ignoring each other but still double tapping on each other.

Something interesting I found on this app that I tried, of all the men where I initiated the conversation (and by initiated I mean something psychotic like “Hey!”), either they never wrote back, or we exchanged a couple lines of dialogue. Of the ten men I initiated conversation with, none of them ever asked me out. Of the 15 plus that initiated a conversation with me, all of them asked me out.

Paste: Yeah, that seems to be the case nowadays.

Shlesinger: That’s a big enough sample. So the message to women is this, and look I’m not bitter; this isn’t a scorned woman thing, this is an angry woman thing. I’m angry that women get treated this way. The message is, “Hey, make sure you look pretty, be in shape, get your hair done. Sign up for this app, in some cases pay for them, and put out great pictures, but don’t you dare try being proactive and talking to a man because they don’t like it.”

Paste: Right. They tell women it’s the 21st century and it’s equal opportunity messaging, but that’s not the case.

Shlesinger: Here’s the difference between guys and men: Any man that I’ve ever liked or fallen in love with, they’re like “Of course you can talk to me first.” There are great men out there. But it’s sort of this man-child, babyish…I had one guy the other day, he texted me and he’s like “Happy Birthday!” and I was like, “Thanks!” And he said, “Where are you?” I told him where I was, which was in West Hollywood, and he’s like, “Are you going to come to the East Side?” and I was like “No,” and he’s like “Ok, we can just try for another time.” I was like, “Or I can just block your number.” What is that? The flip side of that story, I met someone a week ago who is flying to meet me in L.A. because he’s like, “I want to see you, that’s what I’m going to do.” What girls need to take away from that is if a man likes you, he’ll move a mountain and there’s really no gray area. It’s either, you like her or you don’t.

Separation Anxiety premieres March 8th at 10pm EST/9pm CST on TBS.

Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.

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