Breaking into Hollywood isn’t for the faint of heart, especially in the world of stand-up comedy. But Iliza Shlesinger proves that having a big heart is essential for the industry to produce good, interesting talent.
It’s what she has proven with her recent three-part comedy series, Iliza’s Locals. First premiering on 800 Pound Gorilla, it is now on YouTube and features 18 of Los Angeles’ best budding comics doing rapid-fire sets.
“I wanted to create something that no one ever created for me,” Shlesinger tells Los Angeles Confidential.
The 2008 winner of NBC’s Last Comic Standing, Shlesinger’s fruitful career has included six Netflix specials, including 2018’s Elder Millennial and last year’s Hot Forever; endless shows around the world; writing and starring in romantic comedy Good on Paper; a livestreamed cooking show during the COVID-19 lockdown with husband and chef Noah Galuten and two books, Girl Logic: The Genius and the Absurdity and, most recently, All Things Aside: Absolutely Correct Opinions.
She also found time to conceptualize and execute Iliza’s Locals.
“These are comics that I really believe in, that I think are very talented and I was just watching year after year, people getting passed over for no particularly good reason,” she explains. “ It's incredibly frustrating when you're in that position. Hollywood is just fraught with rejection. And I thought to myself, ‘There's got to be something somewhere between an hour Netflix special and getting some sort of new faces showcase or seven minutes at a comedy club. There's got to be some way people can share their comedy in a polished way.’”
We speak four days after Iliza’s Locals hits YouTube, the same day the TV writer’s strike begins. Shlesinger’s efforts to lift up her rising peers feel particularly noteworthy at a time when other industry workers are fighting for fair financial compensation and job security.
“Obviously I wasn’t so prescient to know what day that would come, but I do believe the hardest thing to do in Hollywood is to get a yes,” she says. “Stand-up has been so good to me, and I've created a lot of those opportunities for myself. And it's just so hard to get anyone to help you. And very few people did and I just thought, ‘I may not be the biggest comic in the world, but I have the power to do a small thing for these comics.’ And I don't think we have enough in show business of people just walking up to people being like, ‘Hey, I like what you're doing. I'd like to help.’”
Read more from Shlesinger below about Iliza’s Locals, her upcoming tour and why we all need comedy.
What was your process like handpicking each comic?
It's funny you asked that. When this was quote-unquote greenlit and our production date [was set], I actually had very little time. I am out there in Hollywood almost every night doing multiple shows. And so I had a sense of what other comics I see out there really putting in the work. The comics that we picked for this are hustlers. These are not people who dabble in stand-up, and I did want to reward that. And so I did my best to go around and watch the shows that I was on. Normally I do my set, I say hi to my friends and then I leave. And so I made a list, I asked around other comics at those levels, “Who are you hearing good things about? Who do you respect?” And the comics I didn't know I went out of my way to go watch them. There were comics that we reached out to that were unable to make the tape date and so I had that balancing act of making sure the lineup represented L.A., so it was diverse, making sure it was genuinely funny and making sure it was people who need a nice piece of tape, not an actor who just dabbles in stand-up. I wanted to showcase, above all, communicability, dedication and hustle.
In the second episode of Iliza’s Locals, you say that you think L.A. makes the best comics in the world. Why is that?
I mean, I'm a product of the L.A. comedy scene. I'm from Dallas, Texas, and I went to school in Boston, but contrary to popular belief or random intros I get when I go on stage, I started my career here. I think L.A. is where everybody comes to make their dreams come true and we have such a wide-range perspective.
I think it's the best; maybe I'm biased. You come to L.A. to put yourself to the test. You can be funny and be from anywhere, but L.A. is where we grow some of the best stand-up.
The show description for Iliza’s Locals notes how the L.A. comedy scene has been having a renaissance in recent years. Why do you think that’s been happening?
Podcasting had a lot to do with that, for better or for worse. Podcasts and people being able to share their voices… At the Comedy Store, there was a dip in attendance for a little bit. But now the Store is packed almost every night. And this was prior to Emilie Laford coming on and now that she's the general manager, that's going in a great direction. I think more people are given opportunities. I think there are more alternative shows and by alt-show, I mean just not at a comedy club, but anywhere. I think more people have access to create stand-up and put it online. People weren't doing that before because you wanted to save it for special. Since that's not always attainable for everyone, so there’s finding massive success doing their stand-up and just putting it on Instagram or on TikTok. So comedy always finds a way. And those experiences are great online, but if you really want to experience stand-up comedy in its truest form, you got to go out to see those comics who are out performing in L.A. There's more opportunities. There's more stages than ever before. And I think that comedy is paying more than it ever did. When I started, you would do your spots for free. I remember when the Improv paid like $14 a set and you look at London and you look at New York and they were actually paying and that was a foreign concept here for many, many years. For the last couple of years, we are starting to acknowledge comics for their time and their skill. So you can make a nice chunk of change by just hustling around the city by picking up stuff here and there. I don't know what other people make. And it's not about the money as much as much as being acknowledged for their time. And people just want to come out and laugh. I think it's safe to say as a society, we've been through it. People want to be out in the world. They want to sit in a room with strangers and laugh at their pain in the dark and drink some expensive vodka sodas.
Your Hard Feelings Tour starts in July and makes its way around the U.S. mainly in the fall. How do you feel about heading into your biggest shows ever in Denver and Boston?
Boston, I didn't even know that TD Garden was an option. For me, it's always like let's get in there. Let's play a ton of theaters. Let's do an arena one day, but it just is something in the back of your mind. I think people think of Madison Square Garden as “The Arena”. And we knew we wanted to grow the Boston shows even more, and my agent suggested TD Garden. And I was just I was like, “Let's make it happen. That's the next logical step.” Ever since Dane Cook did an arena tour forever ago, I think all comics have their goal set on that and for many comics, they are playing arenas and so I'm excited to finally step into that. As far as Ball Arena goes, we were on our way to the shows in Denver last year, which are always incredible, and I looked up and I saw that [venue] I was like, “What's that?” My tour manager was like, “That's Ball Arena.” And I was like, “We're going there next.” And it happened. So these arena shows are a product of coming into markets and proving myself over and over. And of course, Netflix helps. Wink.
How different is this upcoming show from your previous sets?
Look, at this level of the game, you are paying to see me and my point of view and the energy that I bring. It's not so much that it’s different, but I can just tell you what this set is. It's obviously a funny, very energetic set. I have no problem, as we've seen in the last few specials, addressing difficult topics. I always want women to leave feeling good, but that doesn't mean all— I call it digestible feminism. It doesn't mean you unabashedly s*** on men. That doesn't help anyone. I always want anyone who bought a ticket to leave feeling good, feeling seen and I offer up myself as a punchline. And so it's just a lot of voices, as to be expected.
I describe my act as aggressively whimsical. I think it’s just a really good time and it's fast-paced. I think I could be making a lot more money by splitting up my one hour into three by talking slower, but it is what it is.
Why do you love comedy?
We need it. I love to laugh. I love that, at its essence, comedy is saying the thing other people are afraid to say or the thing that seems weird or wrong or the thing that you think you are weird for thinking, and articulating it in a way so that other people see themselves in you. And I love that because it validates my own thoughts. I think, more than ever, we need it. And when I say we need comedy, I'm not saying we need to be able to say horrible things to each other and then be like, “It was just a joke.” People need to heal. People need to let their guard down. People need to laugh at themselves and each other without being offended. It's what breaks through to people. It’s what gets through to people more than anything else. If you can make someone laugh, it's a turn-on, it lets down their defenses and get insight into their souls. And so it is just this all-encompassing healing thing. And if you're really good at it, you can make a living and it's the best job in the world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Jen Rosenstein