Anyone who’s seen Iliza Shlesinger perform can describe her distinct brand of comedy. In short? Confident, plucky and self-deprecating.
“More bug parts on my face,” she pleaded to her makeup artist, who was brandishing a fluffy brush above her sharp cheekbones before a photographer snapped a picture of her in a restaurant foyer, not too far from her house in Laurel Canyon. Flouncing her blonde ‘do, she blurted, “I have 20 pounds of some Indian woman’s hair in my head.”
Always true to her stand-up style, which can be described as frank, personal and feminist, the 33-year-old comedian is taking steps to move from the trenches of clubs bearing names like Funny Bone and Levity Live toward the mainstream. On Tuesday, she makes her debut on TBS, hosting a prime-time game show called “Separation Anxiety,” in which roommates, spouses and other pairs test to see how well they know each other for a $250,000 prize.
TBS’ words that won her over? “We want you to make this as funny as you can and be yourself,” Shlesinger said. Executives let her write her own jokes, pick her own outfits and have her dachshund-Chihuahua, named Blanche, waddle under audience members’ chairs during taping.
For someone who confesses to being her happiest in a vintage T-shirt and leggings, Shlesinger faced a big adjustment in assembling her wardrobe for “Separation Anxiety.” While her personal closet is stocked with James Perse T-shirts, Rag & Bone boots and skinny jeans by J Brand, she’s sporting an array of ensembles on the show including a floral-print cocktail dress, a black T-shirt over jeans and a cropped sequined tank paired with a black pencil skirt. “The producers might have given me a little too much license in the clothing department,” she laughs. “I’m never wearing a snakeprint see-through T-shirt on TV again.”
The sartorial challenge was that “there is nothing glamorous about me. I don’t enjoy wearing dresses. I don’t enjoy the process of getting dressed up.” Even in her stand-up routine, “I pace like a tiger. I fall to the floor. So I can’t be in a dress, you know. And you don’t want to be in something so distracting that people aren’t paying attention to the words coming out of your mouth.”
Shlesinger learned to be adroit in her points of view and delivery from her parents, who were Jewish and from New York and were transplanted to Dallas. Raised by a single mom, she watched a lot of TV, including “Saturday Night Live,” “The Kids in the Hall,” “In Living Color” and “Martin.”
While her handlers deflect questions of her winning “Last Comic Standing” in 2008 as old news, it’s still noteworthy because she is the only woman to have prevailed as champion in the nine seasons that the competition was on TV. On top of that, in a cover story for next month’s issue of Town & Country, Tina Fey expressed that it is “a terrible time” for women in comedy. “If you were to really look at it, the boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage, while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less,” Fey told the magazine.
Shlesinger absolutely agreed. “Men are given a lot more chances to fail,” she said. “It’s changing, and we’re slowly getting more chances, more movies. The last step in this evolution is getting rid of the precursor ‘female’ in female comedy. Just comedy. Tina Fey is funny for a person. She’s not funny for a woman. Ellen [DeGeneres], Paula Poundstone, Melissa McCarthy — these are funny people.”
Still, Shlesinger fully embraces her feminine identity. In the photo promoting her 2013 stand-up special “War Paint,” she smirked in the nude, with her long hair covering her breasts and red lipstick smeared on her cheek, resembling Botticelli’s Venus who had been co-opted by the Guerrilla Girls.
“I chose to be topless on the cover of ‘War Paint’ for exactly two reasons,” she explained. The first was to thumb her nose at people who chastise women to be ashamed of their bodies. A willowy blonde who began toning her physique as a swimmer and lacrosse player in high school, Shlesinger isn’t going to hide her curves, especially now that she’s shelled out thousands of dollars for a personal trainer in Los Angeles.
“I don’t think I’m the hottest girl ever,” she said. “But what’s the point of having a good body if you can’t be proud of it?”
The other reason was to stand above the pack of doughy-faced men fronting their stand-up specials on the digital shelves organized by iTunes and Netflix. “Even as a woman, what jpeg are you more likely to click on out of curiosity?” Shlesinger asked. “A white guy in a backward hat holding a microphone? Or a naked girl? And I knew my material was solid. So I was like, if I could get you in the door….”
The gambit worked, opening many doors in the entertainment industry for Shlesinger. After “War Paint” broke into iTunes’ top 10 albums in 2013, she released her second stand-up special, “Freezing Hot,” two years later. She’s set to film her third one in Chicago next month. Following the premiere of “Separation Anxiety,” she’s prepping the release of “Forever 31,” a comedy in which she plays a Web show host dishing with her friends about life in their 30s for ABC’s new digital platform. ABC is so bullish on the still-unseen series, which is loosely based on Shlesinger’s life, that it has already renewed it for a second season.
What’s more, Shlesinger is developing a sitcom with DeGeneres’ production company and filling a book with personal essays and her observations on life. She’s also penned two movie scripts that are being shopped around Hollywood. Mum on details, she wanted women to have fun in her films, much in the same way that Seth Rogen and his crew have a blast in theirs.
“Why can’t women play like guys and not have to talk about the fact that they’re women?” she said. “These movies don’t hinge on getting married or boyfriends or break-ups or anything like that. Just like most male movies don’t address those topics, women are so much more than that.”
Shlesinger’s dream job is to swivel in the chairs currently occupied by Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and other late-night TV hosts. The fact that “The Daily Show” alumna Samantha Bee snared a rare spot on TBS amid the all-male midnight lineup is, in her view, “one more step in that direction of allowing women to move away from the conventions that we’re assigned to — like dating and babies and weddings — and get to talk about other stuff.”
Shlesinger believes she’s got the chops for leading her own late-night talk fest. “I think I’m really good off the cuff,” she said. “And I like people. Not on airplanes, but in general.”