Iliza Shlesinger on Her Netflix Special, ‘Forever 31’ and How Women Need to Treat Each Other
When you watch Iliza Shlesinger’s new Netflix special, Confirmed Kills, she’s talking about being at the club and trying to find her lip liner because she’s always adjusting her makeup. The impression is that you’re in for an hour of “bro-girl” comedy, about drinking and sex and light stuff about relationships.
But then, Shlesinger goes deep, going into monologues about how women see themselves (a rant against mermaid imagery is a highlight) and how they treat each other. It’s an act that’s been changing and maturing for a decade, even after becoming the first female winner of Last Comic Standing in 2008.
Shlesinger has had a busy year, not including her gig hosting the TBS game show Separation Anxiety. She toured and made the special, created a web series for ABC’s digital channel called Forever 31, sold an idea for a pilot, and is writing a book called Girl Logic, which will be released in 2017. Oh, and it was just announced that she’s developing a talk show for ABC’s cable network Freeform, to debut early next year.
TV Insider sat down with Shlesinger to talk about all of this, as well as being a “smart standup” and if she sees any parallels between her career and that of a fellow LCS alum, Amy Schumer.
You’re quite busy this year: the special, the Forever 31 series, and now you’ve the talk show on Freeform.
Oh, yeah. I just wrote the 2nd season of Forever 31, so that starts filming soon, the talk show. Hopefully a show getting made into a pilot, and I’m writing another script. Then I have a book coming out in 2017. Hopefully, one of these things works out.
2015 and 2016 must have been a couple of busy years for you.
I think people never see all the work under the surface. They’re like, “Oh, it just happened.” You’re like, “No, it’s scraping and clawing.”
In the special, you start with a bit about a person’s “party goblin,” which you’ve talked about before, and then go deeper into issues of how women see themselves and treat each other. Was that your intention all along, to write it that way?
I knew that going into a third Netflix special, I felt this obligation to say something, I guess, important. To say something substantial. The material, you can’t force it. It comes out how it does, but I felt this obligation to not necessarily just comment/make fun of girl behavior, but also kind of explain it and let girls know, “Hey, I’m on your side. Somebody gets this.”
You have a thesis that you start with, like I talk about women and vulnerability, then I started to begin to see everything through that lens and the jokes were filtered through that ancillary statement to support the thesis of this whole thing. I didn’t want to be [that I was] 33 and still talking about only drinking. I think that there are plenty of women out there who do not speak for me, who only tell dirty jokes and talk about sexual escapades, and I think women are more than that.
I’m never going to betray who I am. I’m a person that likes to go out and have fun, but I was very cognizant of the fact, about halfway through, that I was creating something substantial.
Where did you develop the physicality of your stand-up?
I’m a very passionate artist, and it’s very hard to get an attractive picture of me doing stand-up, because I’m always hunched over or making some sort of whimsical creature face. Part of it comes from my desire to get a message across, and it pours out of me so intensely that it manifests itself in a voice or in the physicality of it. It’s not just enough for me to stand there. I want to crawl into the audience’s brain and into their heart and make a nest.
If I had to look at influences, I watched a lot of cartoons growing up and I watched a lot of sketch comedy, but cartoons in particular. I only realized this recently. I walk around singing songs from random cartoons or doing voices or bits in my head to this day. As your childhood, these things stick with you. My brother does voices too and my dad’s pretty animated. It’s just always been a way of conveying your opinion as this very textured way of speaking and going into different characters and stuff like that. It’s become so natural. There’s not a friend I have who doesn’t have a little weird creature name. We call each other weird names and we do voices. When you’re talking to me, if you’re my friend, it’s a very safe place to act like a weirdo.
You talk a lot about being in your 30s. Your series is called Forever 31. How did turning 30 impact you?
Honestly, I don’t know if part of it was refusing to not care or just genuinely not caring, but everybody loves to capitalize on this like, “I turned 30. My movie’s about turning 30 and how I handle it.” I was cool with it. It’s not as if you turn 30 and you s–t the bed and never date anyone again.
I definitely felt a little more confident in my sexuality and I definitely felt just like, “I’m 30 now. I can have these opinions. I’m not the baby of the bar anymore. I don’t have the immaturity of my 20s.” I felt like I had arrived at some sort of adult station in life. Lucky for me, stand-up comedy is a job where being older does give credence to your point. I don’t want to hear a 23-year-old’s take on the economy. I don’t care. Not that you want to hear a 33-year-old, but at least I’m better than them.
You make references in the special that I wouldn’t think a 33-year-old comedian would make. You mention R. Crumb, for instance.
In your web series, you mention a few fun facts about mistletoe. Is it you’re just a very curious person? Do you read a lot?
I think that’s it. I had a wonderful education. I was very fortunate that my mom and stepdad sent me to a wonderful private school, where I really learned I think the bulk of my academic knowledge. I wasn’t a great student, but I loved learning, and I loved facts. I will sit in front of a dictionary and just read. I may not even retain all the words, but I like accumulating knowledge.
There’s just an oddly academic approach I’ve taken with stand-up, and those facts, they’re seamlessly woven in. I don’t sit down and like, “I want to say something smart,” but I think that you write what you know. Whatever I know just kind of pours out and then that becomes a joke.
You basically just take the knowledge that’s at the front of your brain, and work around that, I guess.
Yeah, and it happens to be references to R. Crumb or The Canterbury Tales or symbiotic relationships. It’s just stuff that’s there and I may as well use it for this, because I don’t really need it otherwise.
If you recoil at this term, please forgive me, but the start of the special felt very “bro-girl” at first.
I’ve never heard that term, but I get it.
But then it gets deep. Do people come to you maybe after your set “Hey, I had an idea about the comic you were at the beginning of the set and I was pleasantly surprised at the end?
I don’t know if it’s that immediate. It’s more of a slow burn, and I say that because I, while I’m not the most famous comic on the planet, I have been very, very fortunate to have a very loyal fan base. I get a lot of fans coming up. They’re like, “I voted for you on Last Comic Standing,” and they stuck with me. I think because when I started stand-up, I was talking about things that made sense. I was a 25, 26-year-old girl. I’m going to talk about drinking and dating, or whatever I was talking about. Pizza.
Do you look at Amy Schumer’s career and find any guidance? Obviously there’s a lot of parallels, like Last Comic Standing, and the fact that her act has changed and matured over the years.
No, I don’t think I’m famous enough to see any true parallels. I think any time a woman is able to get a spotlight, it’s great for other women. She doesn’t speak for me and she and I are similar in that we’re both very strong women that are doing comedy on our own terms, but we both definitely have our own voices. I have a tremendous amount of respect for any woman that does this job and is able to retain any sense of dignity or grace, because it’s a gritty job.
What will your Freeform talk show be like?
It’s funny because if you ask a man, “What’s your talk show going to be?” they would be like, “I’m just going to do a talk show. I want to be funny.” Basically that’s my answer. I’ve been commanding audiences for hours at a time for the last 9 years, 8 years. However long I’ve been doing stand-up professionally. This will be not “funny for a woman.” This will not be chit-chat. This will be me up there making social commentary and taking swings at it just like everybody else on late night.
My obligation is I never play to the back of the room. My objective is to say funny things that are smart. I think women are owed more than just women getting up there and talking about sex and gossip. How are we supposed to be elevated as a culture if the guys get sports and politics, and girls get Justin Bieber facts? While I’m not doing The Daily Show by any means, I could never take on that task, I am going to be up there being … Like Ellen. She’s funny for a person. It has nothing to do with her sexuality.
Like Samantha Bee.
Samantha Bee gets up there, she does her jokes. It’s not like, “Oh, that was a girly political joke.” I tremendously respect just getting up there and being like, “I’m smart enough.” I think with a lot of men, they see women, or women have talk shows, and they think, “Oh, that’s girl stuff,” but I’ve had male fans since I started. Even though women love my stuff and I love them, men are … You can’t afford to alienate half the population. My male fans are very supportive. Sure, some of them are creepy, but I know that my guy fans are there because they like the act, and I’m not hideous, which helps.
Is it going to be half an hour, hour, daily, once a week?
Oh, my god. If I had my way, it would be a 24-hour show and people would just watch me sing songs to my dog. I don’t know. We’re going to work out the details, so I don’t know. Basically, what we’ve done is we’ve told everyone we’re doing a show. Now we have to go do that show.
How did you connect with ABC to do Forever 31?
I had sold the script with Cindy Chupack to ABC and they didn’t make it into a pilot, but they said, “Would you do a web show? We’re creating ABCd. It’s our digital division. We would love to have your show be one of the first shows on there.” I wrote it specifically for them.
The last episode of the first season was the only one after the pilot where you weren’t doing your fictional vidcast. Are we going to see it go away from that in Season 2?
The last episode was really like a part 2, because I wrote the episode too long. They were like, “We’ll make it a part 2,” so I was okay with that. In this one, there’s kind of … I’m bad with structure, so I’ll be like, “Let’s have an act break on page 80. Why not?”
We’re going to see a bit of a departure, but there’s still scenes woven throughout. I wanted to be cognizant of form when I was writing this. We do retain the web show, but at the end of the day, this is a show that’s commenting on life. It’s not only about the web show. The web show is the platform we used. We keep the web show. Might be an episode or two where we’re not there, but yeah.
What’s the book going to be? Is it going to be a memoir?
No, I didn’t feel that I had reached the level of success where I was allowed to look back and analyze it yet. It’s called Girl Logic and it’s with The Weinstein Company, and it’s my take on what I believe to be a thought process that women apply to almost everything. I believe that women are required to be so many things to so many people and because of that, when making decisions, we must consider past, present and future, because we have so much riding on the line, whether it comes to physical expectations, personal expectations, societal expectations. It’s that lens that we look at everything through, which drives us crazy, but also is necessary. It’s a sort of a sociological look at women’s behavior.
Iliza Shlesinger: Confirmed Kills, Now Available on Netflix.
Forever 31, Now Available on ABCd and ABC.com.