LOS ANGELES — Comedian Iliza Shlesinger’s online bio describes her as an “absolute monster on stage.” This isn’t promotional hyperbole. This is an absolute truth.
Her new Netflix special “Freezing Hot” is set to premiere on January 23 and features a cavalcade of creature-like characters: the party goblin who lives inside her brain and wakes up at the first sip of liquor; the evil, enchanted witch that girls become at the first sniff of a broken heart; an anthropomorphic vagina that is actually a velociraptor.
Shlesinger, 31, dominates the stage with an intensity that at times borders on manic, manipulating her voice with the ease and range of a classically trained actor, unafraid to let physical comedy render her unsexy. (It doesn’t.)
She is a comedy beast.
“Freezing Hot” opens with fans streaming into The Gothic Theatre in Denver as Shlesinger prepares the at-home audience with a to-camera introduction of what to expect: “A healthy dose of very honest, hilarious, aggressive comedy.” It’s the follow-up to Shlesinger’s 2013 special “War Paint” for the on-demand Internet streaming provider which is expanding its original programming roster at an exponential rate.
‘My whole life, I knew that I was going to be funny for a living’
“I feel like for the first time in my life, ‘Oh, I got to the cool kids’ table,’” Shlesinger tells The Times of Israel of her relationship with Netflix. “It’s the coolest kids table. You go to all the cool parties, and kiss all the hot boys.”
It’s hard to believe that Shlesinger wasn’t a cool kid in youth herself. She exudes a tangible confidence, both on stage and off.
“My whole life, I knew that I was going to be funny for a living,” says Shlesinger. “I was always rewarded for being funny. I liked being funny.”
Shlesinger grew up in Dallas, TX, and actively participated in the large Reform community there: synagogue, Sunday school, bat mitzvah, confirmation, a trip to Israel, and even a year in the international Jewish youth leadership organization, BBYO.
‘I had the chemical outline of a Jewish upbringing’
“I had the chemical outline of a Jewish upbringing,” she says. “We did all the holidays, but it was Reform, so I could wear what I wanted, and I ate a lot of bacon. Let me just say that right now, and get that out of the way.”
Shlesinger credits humor’s prominence in her childhood home, in some measure, to her heritage.
“I think part of being Jewish is that innate desire to question things. Rabbis sit around all day, and question the Torah. Giving yourself the room to question things, in a religion, just breeds thinking,” says Shlesinger.
Shlesinger found herself questioning uneven gender breakdowns from her earliest comedic pursuits, as the only girl on her high school’s improv team, and the only girl in her sketch group at Emerson College that wanted to write material.
“I always felt like I belonged up there with the guys. But I think a lot of girls miss that part of their self-esteem of, ‘You’re just as funny, and don’t let them tell you that you’re not.’”
Shlesinger performed a one-woman show in college — “like everyone does,” she says with a laugh — and found that she could utilize characters she’d created in sketch, and string them into vignettes following a monologue format. But it wasn’t until her enrollment at Semester at Sea, a shipboard program for studying abroad, that Shlesinger first performed stand-up at regular open mic nights, sharing her observations of what was happening on the boat as jokes.
The positive response pushed her to move to LA. After Semester at Sea, she never performed at another open mic.
“I didn’t even know they existed!” says Shlesinger, explaining that other comics invited her to perform sets at their shows from the beginning. “I didn’t know you were supposed to wait in line. I think a big part of starting a new career sometimes is that ignorance can help you. I just did it my own way, and it worked.”
At 24, Shlesinger auditioned for NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.” At 25, she won. She was, and remains, the only female and youngest comic to win the title.
“It’s a blessing and a hindrance at times,” says Shlesinger, citing that she missed out on the “comedy trenches” experience, “sort of like skipping high school and going right to college.” The win provided opportunity, but also an immediacy in proving her worth.
‘My comedy is a bit cartoonlike, if I really think about it’
“When you’re given that much of a boost that early in your career, you really only have two options, and that is to sink or swim. Granted, I’m not selling out Madison Square Garden. But at 25, I was a headliner.”
Now 31, Shlesinger remains a headliner, selling out shows nationwide and performing frequently on Comedy Central and late night TV. She hosts a podcast, “Truth and Iliza,” where she and her guest “talk about all the things that bother us,” and “kvetch,” she says on a recent episode.
Shlesinger’s stand-up, however, is less a means for her to gripe, and more harkening back to her roots observing her favorite subject: girls. Impersonations are the linchpin of her act.
“My comedy is a bit cartoonlike, if I really think about it,” laughs Shlesinger, citing healthy doses of Nickelodeon animated series from her childhood, like “The Ren & Stimpy Show,” “Rugrats,” and “Doug,” as crucial in shaping her voice, both figuratively and literally.
She employs some incarnation of a high-pitched, squeaky voice to delineate most girls, though the inflections and rhythm change depending on the character. Then there’s the staccato alien-dolphin-lamb bleats she uses for the woman trying to get someone’s attention, and the raptor mating call — a low frog-like croak followed by a shrill shriek — central to a bit accompanied by “#VaginalPuppetry” and “#raptorvag” lower-third graphics in “Freezing Hot.”
At first blush, it’s easy to mistake Shlesinger’s raptor shrieks and alien bleats as mockery, since they’re used largely to lampoon women. But Schlesinger isn’t throwing women under the proverbial bus. She’s both in the driver’s seat and along for the ride, breaking down the behavioral peccadilloes and complicated thought patterns universal to all women, Shlesinger included.
‘I think what differentiates my act from other female acts is that I’m not there to vilify anyone’
Speaking to her stand-up start during her Semester at Sea, “I’d make fun of the girls [in my act], and every girl was like, ‘Oh my God, I know a girl who does that.’ And I’d say, ‘No, you don’t know a girl who does that. You are that girl. Because I am that girl. We all do the same stuff.’”
Think of Shlesinger as a mole: she knows the truth, and she’s trafficking it back to “the enemy”: men, who make up the core of Shlesinger’s fan base.
“I think what differentiates my act from other female acts is that I’m not there to vilify anyone,” says Shlesinger. “If anything, I blame girls once in awhile, in a loving way, and I can because I am one.”
Shlesinger’s audience has been largely male since her start on “Last Comic Standing,” but Shlesinger says that’s changing. When men approach her after shows, and thank her for demystifying the peculiarities percolating inside their girlfriends’ brains, Shlesinger reports with pride that those girlfriends now approach her, too.
“The girls are like, ‘How did you give away all our secrets?’ Now he knows everything.’”
For one thing, male fans of Shlesinger now know that their girlfriends’ sweet voices are facades, concealing the true demons within. To wit, Shlesinger’s most frequently used character is what she refers to as her “demon voice,” a throaty and nightmarish grumble that often escalates into a roar.
The contrast of angelic and soft alongside harsh and scary is purposeful, explains Shlesinger.
“The demon voice that I do represents, not so much your dark thoughts, but your real thoughts. I like the idea of girls being sweet on the outside, but on the inside it’s just a mess of crazy emotions, and anger, and always feeling fat. It’s the inside of a girl’s brain.” Shlesinger laughs. “It’s how we feel all the time.”
The angel/demon dichotomy is very funny, but it comes from a very serious place.
“Society throws a lot at women,” Shlesinger says. “Literally everything that you do is wrong. There’s a lot of inner turmoil, and you’re supposed to just keep it all inside, and smile, because if you complain, then you’re a whiny bitch.”
If Shlesinger has one message for women, it’s to flip that age-old script.
“Men are not stupid, as all sitcoms have taught us to believe. We’re all our special kind of crazy. We’re all trying to figure each other out. And all I’m trying to do is shed light on the fact that we’re all trying as hard as we can.”