She finishes a set at the Improv, grabs Blanche, her Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix, and rushes out the door to an Uber. She hops out at the Comedy Store on Sunset, whisking through the kitchen and mentioning that the place was once a mob hangout. She plunks Blanche in a seat and darts to the stage, where she edges into a bit about how coy women can be at attracting men, those poor, unaware, testosterone-cursed creatures.
Iliza Shlesinger is gone before it fades, finding Blanche, jumping into another Uber and tracking back to the Improv for a new 20-minute show before heading home, popping a melatonin (“If I don’t catch my sleep wave just right it’s like, ‘When’s my dog gonna die, what if L.A. catches on fire?’”) and thinking how much there is to do, how unfinished it all is, this career, its skits and voices, its clever stories about who we are when stripped to our magical, exasperating essences.
“I don’t like to waste anyone’s time,” Shlesinger, 34, said a few minutes before her first Improv set. “People paid money. They bought tickets.”
A gifted stand-up comic, Shlesinger has the work ethic of a centrifuge and the enticing flair — blond ponytail, denim and black T-shirt with biceps ready — of a cheerleader who could tame a Harley. She’s starred in three Netflix specials, hosted a late-night show, “Truth & Iliza,” on Freeform, and is the only woman to win NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.” Between gigs and entertaining U.S. troops abroad, she auditions for films and shops screenplays, asking: “Where’s the girl’s ‘Pineapple Express?’”
Her book, “Girl Logic,” to be released Nov. 7, is the latest turn in a brand of comedy that has sharpened its focus on women’s empowerment and how girlfriends, wives and daughters should navigate a male-dominated world through a sisterhood of shared mission. She is a nuanced feminist and a comic with the instincts and sensibility to address women’s rights while inviting men — who in her humor can be monosyllabic and imposing but are mostly well-meaning if misguided — inside the tent.
“My career is a love letter to women,” she said. “But without men listening you can’t have feminism. If there are no men participating in this thing we call feminism, it’s just a bunch of women yelling at each other. In order to be heard, you have to say it in a digestible way and that’s what makes people open to hearing it. I’m a big fan of looking at things analytically and the jokes kind of ooze out of that.”
On stage at the Improv, where she’s been a paid regular for years, she poses the question that if men are predators and women are prey, “What’s the predator if he’s hungry most likely to go after? The gazelle running at 90 mph unencumbered by self-esteem issues, like ‘I have a PhD and own my own home.’ Hahaha. ‘I know my self-worth and I actually like my dad.’ Hahaha. Or the hot little broke rabbit that caught its foot in a trap and is like, ‘Help, how does basketball work?’”
The joke treads on gender roles and stereotypes but avoids sermonizing. Shlesinger, who bristles with confidence and does not abide posers, can be merciless when she spots an overzealous, agenda-driven comic.
“I almost threw up the other night at a show,” she said. “Some guy gets on stage. If you’re going to lecture me on politics, you better be smarter than me. He was liberal and we all agreed we didn’t like Donald Trump, but he gets up there and he just starts ranting. He’s preaching to a choir. He’s like here’s the thing about our society. And I’m like you pulled up here on a bicycle and not for environmental purposes, so I don’t want to hear this. You don’t have the right to lecture me.”
Some female comics accused her of doing just that in June when she complained in a Deadline interview about what she saw as limited breadth and creativity from women stand-ups.“I’m banging my head against the wall,” Shlesinger was quoted as saying, “because women want to be treated as equals, and we want feminism to be a thing, but it’s really difficult when every woman makes the same point about her vagina, over and over. I think I’m the only woman out there that has a joke about World War II in my set.”
That rattled a corner of the industry and drew stinging tweets, including from comic Liza Treyger, who wrote: “It’s just truly nuts for any comic to tell another comic what they can and can’t talk about. Not feminist to tell women what to say.” The Twitter skirmish faded but raised questions about how women write, perform and experience socially and sexually explicit comedy in an age of President Trump and threats to civil rights.
Shlesinger roams the stage like a cross between an ebullient pit bull and a Tasmanian devil. She stomps, twists and stalks, summoning an array of voices from a whiny Valley girl to her infamous Party Goblin, who, with a witch-like cackle, lives inside your head and coaxes you toward things you probably shouldn’t do. Her skill with intonation and inflection was honed in her childhood when she and her brother mimicked cartoons.
Amid a packed house and clinking glasses at the Improv, she slipped into a voice that sounded like a robot from the 1960s cartoon “The Jetsons” and pretended she was scanning a man for flaws and attributes: “Is he balding but in a weird way? … Is his shirt unbuttoned too low for his ethnicity? Is he wearing embroidered jeans? If so, is he a European male or just someone from Arizona?”
“Nothing stops her,” said Jessica Wellington, a comic who has sought career advice from Shlesinger and opened for her in Las Vegas this year. “She puts a light on things other comics aren’t talking about.”
A picture of Shlesinger hangs at the Improv. It shows a woman standing alone on stage: low-riding jeans, zip-up hoodie, mike to lips. It was taken about a decade ago; she is sure of herself, but still young and years away from the success that would come. There’s a purity to the image, a woman on the verge, a comic listening to the whispers within. Many stand-ups she knew back then didn’t make it, peeled away by drugs, demons, families and the things that happen in life.
“I’m lucky that in this competitive, harsh environment that is Los Angeles, I’ve found a home,” she said. “Every time I land at LAX coming home on a Sunday morning from whatever theater or whatever tour I was on, I take this weird comfort in knowing I have made a safe space in a city people are terrified of, that most people find beyond threatening.”
She has craved this craft since she was 16 and she and her father “and a room full of lesbians” attended an Ellen DeGeneres show in Dallas. The nights in her world now belong to comics, a tribe that floats from club to club with notebooks and scribbled asides, and twinges of doubt chased away by crystalline punchlines. The other evening at the Improv, she followed on stage, and an hour later passed him in the black painted hallways of the Comedy Store, where she chatted with Chris D’Elia and told another comic: “Hey, that goldfish bit is so funny. I told my mother.”
She recalled 12 years ago trying to steel herself before she went onstage. “There’s a handicap stall in the Hollywood Improv,” she said. “It’s the biggest stall, obviously, and I’d go in there and I’d run my set. I’d spend so many minutes in there. I’d drink a cranberry vodka. You’re nervous you’re going to forget it. Now, I don’t get nervous. I’m chomping at the bit. But then you get off stage. There’s a reason comics kill themselves — because nothing compares to that moment on stage. Then around 2 a.m. it crashes.”
A child of divorce, Shlesinger was raised in Texas. Her mother worked at a marketing company and her father was the funniest person she knew. Strong-willed and outspoken, she often felt alone as a child and was insecure about her nose, which she had fixed when she was 18. The decision is one of a number of self-explorations on insecurities, beauty, dating (one guy faked suicide after she broke it off) and “whatever emotional weirdness you might be holding inside” she addresses in her book.
“Girl Logic” — published by Weinstein Books, but completed and marketed before the sexual harassment accusations around Harvey Weinstein that forced the Hachette Book Group to take control of the imprint — is a call for women to celebrate themselves and not succumb to fashion, politics and media that often degrade them. She notes how her own comedy has grown more socially conscious from those days when she called a line of drunk girls on a dance floor “a chain of whores.”
“If I had to do it over again,” she writes, “I wouldn’t have used that word; I was playing on lazy stereotypes. It may pack a punch, but as a constantly evolving woman and comedian, it’s my job to look beyond the humor and ask myself if I want to be part of making a derogatory word commonplace. I don’t.”
That sentiment became more pointed in recent weeks as the Weinstein scandal engulfed Hollywood. “Right now we’re dealing with Harvey Weinstein and all this stuff,” she said on stage at the Improv. “I just want to bring up the idea of self-worth. I get so tired of this endless conversation of women feeling like we’re not good enough. A lot of that comes from our bodies and our body image issues and in general always feeling like we’re wrong… It’s exhausting.”
It’s the kind of fight that keeps Shlesinger hurrying between gigs, Blanche in tow, to another 20-minute set or a Netflix special (her fourth is expected next year), stalking the stage the way she does, outlasting the last laugh and the quiet after everyone calls it a night.
Adam Eget, a booker for the Comedy Store, has known Shlesinger for about nine years, “just when she started getting heat” after winning “Last Comic Standing.” Not long ago he asked her if she could do two shows a night: “She said, ‘I’ll do four a night.’ There’s not enough spots in the world for her. Some comics can get lazy but she’s incredibly hard-working. Two things will be on her gravestone. ‘Iliza didn’t suffer fools and she was NOT shy.’”