Fighting for Her Life
Iliza Shlesinger, whose comic style mates icy reserve with feverish belligerence, hits the road.
On the way to meet Iliza Shlesinger at a cafe in Los Angeles’s Hancock Park neighborhood, I pass a fourteen-foot-tall version of the comedian. Freezing Hot, the billboard announces to everyone driving down South La Brea Avenue. That oxymoron, the title of Shlesinger’s recent Netflix special, is also a neat description of her comic style, which mates icy reserve with feverish belligerence.
In person, the 32-year-old Shlesinger doesn’t seem that much smaller. She’s not particularly tall, but she’s aggressive enough that she takes up a lot of psychic space, a style she first adopted growing up on the northern edge of Dallas, where being Jewish made her something of an outsider. When she was five, her best friend, a Baptist, delivered some bad news. “She said I was going to hell if I didn’t believe Jesus Christ was my personal lord and savior,” Shlesinger recounts between sips of tea. Which led to her first snappy retort. “I said, ‘Well, I have naked pictures of your mother.’ ”
Plenty of female comics—think Tina Fey or Sarah Silverman—have specialized in delivering caustic wit in a sweet manner. But there’s another school of comediennes—Joan Rivers and Sandra Bernhard come to mind—who don’t bother making nice. Shlesinger, who will play shows in Austin, Dallas, and Houston this month, belongs to that second cohort. She dives right in to sexual matters and unapologetically describes herself and her friends as man-hungry predators. One of her signature gambits onstage is to leave words behind completely and engage in a semi-terrifying, prelinguistic bleating.
When Shlesinger first moved to Southern California and started doing open mikes, ten years ago, she discovered that what worked on the playgrounds of North Texas worked on the stages of Los Angeles as well. “That aggression was my way of getting men’s attention, starting off with a bang, because most girls aren’t like that,” she says. “My motto was ‘Kick the door down.’ ”
By now, the door seems pretty well kicked down. In 2008, after a few years of woodshedding, she landed an audition on the sixth season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing and ultimately became the first woman to win the show. “I was fighting for my life on national television every week, and you can’t afford to be meek,” she says. That success led to television appearances with Lewis Black and John Oliver, USO tours in Afghanistan, and then her first Netflix special, 2013’s War Paint. “Our society operates on a currency of women’s insecurities,” she says in Freezing Hot, and tightly wound, neurotic women are her greatest subject. Two female friends going out for tapas? “I’ll go with you,” Shlesinger chirps. Then she switches to a deep growl. “Subtext: I’ll watch you get fat.”
“Freezing Hot was a bit more introspective than War Paint,” she says. “Also, less sheep noises and more confidence; I wore a tank top.”
Before a full house at L.A.’s Laugh Factory later that night, Shlesinger sticks with her borderline cruel manner, gaining velocity as she toggles between rugged male voices, girly whines, and a few bleats. Routines about weddings, Pinterest (“porn for white women”), and drunk twentysomething girls peeing in public draw loud applause.
She then hops in her car and heads to another set at the Improv. This time, Shlesinger expands the bit about drunk girls out on the town. A table of young women seated near the stage roar with laughter.
“That crowd was too young to talk about weddings,” she says in the parking lot afterward, explaining why she emphasized her drinking and dating material. “One of the great things about stand-up is that you can walk into a room full of strangers and suss out what our shared experiences are. Then I make them understand that I am in your head.”