On a sunny, private patio populated by trilling birds and brightly colored Acapulco chairs, Iliza Shlesinger nestles into a squashy outdoor couch next to her rescue dog, Tian Fu. She’s confident and casual, donning a T-shirt, jeans, high-top sneakers and a baseball cap. Her low-key, approachable demeanor belies her status as a celebrated writer and stand-up comic. Her second book, “All Things Aside,” and sixth Netflix special “Hot Forever” both come out on Oct. 11.
Since making her first major mark in stand-up as the winner of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” in 2008, the Dallas-raised comic has become one of the most compelling voices on stage, so much so that simply going by the mononym “Iliza” is suitably warranted. She’s also shown her authorial prowess with the publication of her first book, “Girl Logic,” in 2017, as well as her acting skills in the 2021 Netflix film “Good on Paper,” in which she starred and wrote. Shlesinger even had an eponymous sketch show on the streaming giant leading an ensemble cast and showcasing a new facet of her ever-evolving art form. Fans have seen her and her comedy evolve from “party goblin” to a mother and voice of the “elder millennial” generation.
“I started doing specials in my 20s so I talked about all the things that you should be talking about as a girl living in L.A. — dating, drinking, all the fun things,” she said. “I carried that for a few specials and then in ‘Confirmed Kills’ it became less about making fun of us and more about defending women and explaining why we are the way we are.”
In “Hot Forever,” a nearly 40-year-old Shlesinger says she now focuses her material on telling it like it is, keeping it as sharp as possible. “I talk about how any experience as a woman, whether it’s about gender, ethnicity, race or sexuality — all of these narratives matter,” she said. “They help not only to color our lives, but to increase visibility of narratives that are not talked about as often.”
One of the narratives to which Shlesinger is referring is her harrowing experience with a miscarriage. Discussed in detail in “All Things Aside,” she believes that by normalizing dialogue that shares our vulnerabilities, especially about women’s health, that we in turn reduce the shame and stigma that surrounds it. As a writer and comedian, Shlesinger’s goal is not only to be seen and heard herself, but for her fans to share in that validation. She wants inclusivity to span across all of her work.
“We’re living in a time where you have all of these guys out there saying horrific things about women and building these massive followings off of darkness, anger and hate,” she says. “I never wanna meet that with an equal amount of hate. I want to build something that inspires confidence and that says the thing we feel in our hearts and minds. I want to plant my flag and be like, ‘I’m here on the good side. I am fighting for what’s right.’ I want the men on our side who are good and I want women to know I’m with them.’”
Shlesinger’s stand-up and writing is not only impressive because of the vast array of topics she covers, but also for her immense intellect. In her 2018 special “Elder Millennial,” she references a nictitating membrane, the translucent inner eyelid typically found in reptiles and birds. Her vast lexicon and emotional intelligence are also flexed in “All Things Aside,” where she shares stories on experiences as amusing as pooping while on magic mushrooms along with stories on heavier subjects like the futility of obtaining a restraining order against a stalker.
But with these unapologetic thoughts, and the voice to say them, comes the anxiety faced by many comics: How will the audience react? Will they understand? Or worse, misunderstand? In an era where “wokeness” and cancel culture have destroyed careers and people, sometimes rightfully so and other times because of a misinterpreted joke, it’s understandable that artists, especially ones whose craft relies on their own personal observations and opinions, feel nervous when creating new work. It’s one thing to say you don’t care what people think, but actually not caring is a formidable challenge, though not impossible.
“I spend a lot of time on the internet, which can be good because you have your finger on the pulse of how society is feeling,” she says. “The bad thing is you can hear the comment section for everything you say before you even say it. When certain people comment, it’s rarely from a place of helpful critique and more of just wanting to see something burn. I have confidence, but the challenge was about my lack of confidence in the public’s ability to understand the intention that I was so vulnerably putting forth.”
“I allowed that crippling fear to seep in,” she continues, “then I thought, ‘Screw it, I’m just gonna write from the heart.’ In the book, I don’t apologize and I don’t mince words. If it bothers you, just read another sentence. We have to be able to disagree in a moment and choose to move on. I think that our society looks for imperfections as a reason to completely write something or someone off.”
The collection of essays in “All Things Aside” are rich with personal anecdotes — both heavy and lighthearted — as well as Shlesinger’s core values, which she hopes to impart to her readers. It’s vibrant and entertaining, relatable and poignant, and above all, it’s funny. Her voice is so eloquently translated from the stage to the page that it’s impossible not to hear her narrating in your head. She makes fun of things she disdains, uplifts that which she reveres and even points out her own shortcomings, as comics are wont to do. All things aside, she wrote from the heart, which is the only way to do it.
“First and foremost, I hope when people read ‘All Things Aside’ they laugh,” she says. “It’s my job as a comedian, as a writer, to constantly check in with myself, my relation to society and commenting on not just our culture but on the commenters. I also hope they find themselves in the pages. The whole reason we create art is to relate to people — at least that’s why I do it. It makes us all feel a little less alone in a world that is becoming more divided. All I ever want is to constantly be evolving into better versions of myself while pushing my comfort levels, because that’s what art is.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.