When the Straight caught up with Iliza Shlesinger, the former dating-show host was on her way to a first date of her own. After witnessing hundreds of awkward interactions on the reality-based Excused—and perhaps going on a few clunkers herself—she knows enough to keep her expectations at a minimum.
“It’s our first date but I don’t want to go on a date,” she says over speakerphone while navigating her car through sunny Los Angeles streets with her trusted pooch, Blanche, at her side. “I wanted to do it in the daylight with animals so it couldn’t be misconstrued as anything in case he’s the worst.”
Relationships aside, things have been looking up for the 31-year-old standup. It’s been six years since she became the first and only female—and youngest overall—winner of NBC’s Last Comic Standing. In the ensuing years she’s been headlining clubs all over North America, which pays the bills but is a slow haul to mainstream exposure.
So she took matters into her own hands and exposed herself. Literally. She put out her own special, War Paint, which became available on Netflix and iTunes late last year and made several top-10 lists for 2013. And not just for the racy cover.
“I was very proud of it,” she says. “I really put a lot of heart and soul into it. As a comic, I don’t think we ever feel validated, but I know it’s a good special. And I think it really resonated with a lot of people. And it was very important for me to do it on my terms. I wanted to do the cover my way for specific reasons—my jokes, my point of view. I put out albums before but this one was a wide release and I feel like I came out of the gate being like, ‘I’m a girl, this is what I feel, I’m not afraid to say it, and I don’t have to do filthy, horrible, low-hanging-fruit jokes to get the point across.’ I think we got the authenticity of it regardless of how popular it was. I think that’s what really resonated with people. And I’m topless on the cover.”
Ah, yes. There’s that, too. Not that you see any of the juicy details, but she is clearly starkers underneath her blond locks. As Joni Mitchell says, “Sex sells everything.” Shlesinger makes no, um, bones about it. Nor did she receive any flak for it.
“I don’t think I’m famous enough for anyone to care,” she says. “And it isn’t like I’m Gloria Steinem doing it.”
Shlesinger’s act takes aim mostly at her fellow women. But not you, dear female reader—rather, the types of vapid, nightclubbing sorority girls who wouldn’t be caught dead with a newspaper in their hands. When she puts voices to her targets, it may sound like she’s just taking aim at nightclubbing airheads, but she’s got you in her sights, too.
“My things are universal truths,” she says. “Male-female interaction, the way women think. It doesn’t matter what kind of woman you are. I try to tap into what makes us women. And I think that’s why girls like it so much, because I’m letting them know all those crazy thoughts you thought were just in your head, they’re in my head, too. It’s okay. Let’s all take a breath.”
But back to the revealing cover. Shlesinger claims she did it for two reasons: because she could and to get noticed.
“I feel like our society wants women to be ashamed of their bodies and be insecure, and I was like, ‘What? Society told me to be in shape, so I’m in shape. And now I can’t show it off?’ But I did it also for marketing. Simply that I don’t have a billion fans and I don’t have a huge TV show behind me and I don’t have a PR team, so if you’re a guy sitting on an airplane with your iPad and two comedy specials come up and one’s a dude holding a microphone and one’s me like that, you’re gonna click on mine 99 percent of the time for nothing else than out of curiosity. And I like that the material’s strong enough that, once you click on it and you’re mildly disappointed that I’m in fact clothed, you’ll stick around because the content is great.”
Her ultimate goal, though, is late-night—not guesting, but hosting. She’s made four talk-show pilots with major networks and has hosted her own web show. But are the networks ready for her?
“We have room in the late-night landscape for two men with brown hair named Jimmy but women aren’t allowed. Got it,” she says. “In the meantime, I’ve got my standup and I’ve got my special and the objective is to just keep doing what I love and growing [my] fan base and keep making these pilots.”
And maybe, if her date pans out, she’ll have someone to share her successes with.
Iliza Shlesinger headlines Yuk Yuk’s next Thursday to Saturday (May 22 to 24).