The current pandemic has forced change into everyone’s lives. The majority have been forced online, seemingly moving from Zoom call to Zoom call – realizing quite how difficult it is to work 10 feet from your cozier than ever bed. For a small insanely lucky number, life has barely changed. Take us at DiscussingFilm for example, with everything being run over the internet before anyways, work has become no harder in reality. For a comedian, however, touring around the globe, traveling to film sets, and working on producing a follow-up season to your hit sketch comedy show – you would expect life to grind to a halt.
Though Iliza Shlesinger is not your typical comedian. This may be the single most generic line in the book when describing an entertainer, but it is simply so intensely applicable to the New-York born comedian. She has set trends from day one as the first, and so far only, female winner of NBC’s Last Comic Standing. She has since followed the well-trodden path of so many comedians and has diversified into what appears set to be a bonafide movie career. Netflix’s 2020 action-comedy Spenser Confidential was just the next step. Known also for her Netflix sketch series, The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show, she is soon to be taking a more dramatic turn in Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman, alongside Vanessa Kirby and Shia Labeouf no less.
We were lucky enough to have Shlesinger for an exclusive interview. We talk about her various ongoing projects, rise to comedy stardom, and in honor of her well-known humorous approach – we get personal and unravel how current dire times have affected her lifestyle. Check it out below!
DF: Thank you for joining us Iliza.
IS: Thank you for having me.
DF: Right, it’s sort of impossible to avoid, but diving straight in – we were wondering how your professional life has been affected by the pandemic, the ongoing issues with coronavirus?
IS: My touring has come to a complete halt, as I’m sure it has for anybody who tours. But you know, necessity is the mother of invention and I need to entertain – people need to be entertained. So, my husband and I started “Don’t Panic Pantry” as a daily televised, or I guess a simulcasted cooking show, and will encourage them not to panic, keep calm, and carry on. Teaching people to cook with what they have, encouraging them to go out less and stay home more. It was our way of contributing to flatten the curve.
DF: Oh, that’s wonderful. You mentioned about canceling your tour. Do you plan to sort of change your material then? Are you working on new stuff at home or are you going to stick to your planned set once this is all over?
IS: I always feel that mood and vibe dictate the material that will be done. I, of course, have the hour that I was working on prior to this and when we finally get back on the road, we’ll see. You know, people might not want to talk about this again. We may have done all the coronavirus jokes that there are to do, but at the end of the day, people come out to these shows because they want to forget their problems and feel good. I’ll just have to see where I am mentally when it comes time to get back on stage.
DF: You mentioned “Don’t Panic Pantry”, that very much fits into who you are as a comic in that you’re quite lighthearted but always willing to address social issues. Do you feel that as a comedian, as an entertainer, you have a necessity to address these topics and try to aid in that way?
IS: I think if you are in a position to not be worrying about where your next meal is coming from and you’re not living paycheck to paycheck, as I am fortunate enough to be, then your energy should be focused on helping others. I think it’s one of the greatest things we can do as humans. As an entertainer, I am equipped to do very little other than talk about myself and make people laugh and my husband’s a chef! So we combine those two things. In times like this as a celebrity, you think, “Well, what can I offer?” – and that’s raising money and raising morale, entertainers have a very long history of that. That was the best I could do with what I had – making people laugh, be informative, sort of give them, we do it at 5PM pacific standard time every day, sort of hearkening back to the idea of appointment viewing TV.
This gives people a place to be, myself included every day. You know that we will be there every day. It’s comforting – it’s the same reason we watch sitcoms. You leave the characters you love in the same place every day, you know that we’ll be there. I think it gives people a moment of calm, something to look forward to, and somewhere to be. It gives you a little bit of a routine, which is weird that as a comic I would ever be giving anyone structure. But here it is.
DF: You mentioned structure. As a comic, you’re used to being on the road every, almost every single day. We were wondering, what has your everyday life been now that we’re in lockdown? Are you writing all day or just finding other ways to pass the time?
IS: Maybe it’s because of the way I was raised, my mother was never bored. I believe that there’s always something to work on and there’s sort of two schools of thought right now. There are people who believe you don’t have to spend every minute being productive and it’s okay if you just kind of sit quietly. Then there are people that are busy chugging away and picking away at their goals while everybody else is just taking a knee. So you could do it either way. A healthy combination is good.
I can’t do stand-up, but this gives me all the time to flesh out all of the outlines I had to and work on – you know, I have a film that’s coming out and I have other films that are in the works. So it gives me time to tend to all my other projects and create new things, whether it’s podcasts or books, all the other little seedlings that have been planted. So I’m looking at this time as a time to sort of calm down, go inward, and tend to all of the other things that don’t get as much time when I’m doing stand-up.
DF: That actually leads quite well into the next question. Obviously, you are incredibly versatile, you’re doing great…
IS: I’m sorry, let me just add one thing to that! All of that being said – there are plenty of days where I get up at 11, drink eight cups of coffee, and just check my phone until around 8:00 PM and then go watch TV. So, I try to earn my laziness with productivity.
DF: Absolutely. So you’re a very versatile entertainer. You’ve done talk shows, sketch shows, books, stand-up, and acting. Do you have a long term goal for the entertainment industry or are you just hoping to continue to do everything, do whatever you feel like in the given moment?
IS: I think it’s a little bit of both. The goal is always to be bigger, better, and create on my own terms. The bigger you get, the more people sort of allow you to do what it is that you want to do. But I also believe in challenging myself as an artist, whether that is with a book or trying to crank out hopefully a great second season of the Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show, doing more movies, action movies. I really am a big fan of being braced, ready, and open to all the exciting opportunities that come along. If you limit yourself to just one thing, you’re going to miss out on creative growth. As an artist, that’s why I do this – so I can get bigger, better, funnier, and reach more people.
DF: Do you see then a move into acting? Are you hoping to maybe become more enacted as a comic or are you just sort of taking it as it comes?
IS: You know, it’s not for lack of trying. I’ve read for major movies for years and years. When I got Spencer Confidential, that was just one small step toward the goal of being able to be this multi-hyphenate. Stand-up just always happened to be the thing that perpetuated itself. I kept getting more and more opportunities and they feed into one another. Hopefully, I will get more opportunities as I’m seeing now because they know me as a stand-up and because I can act. I just want everything to feed everything else you know? I want to have the time to do it all. If there isn’t the time, I’ll make it.
DF: You’re doing a film, Pieces of a Woman, which is a more dramatic role. Not much has been revealed about the film, but it definitely sounds like it’s a slight departure from where Spencer Confidential was action with elements of comedy. This seems like much more of a straight dark drama. How did you find the process of going for a more dramatic role?
IS: It’s a complete departure. That’s an example of Kornél Mundruczó who’s the director of that. He liked my stand-up and thought I could do this. You know, stand-up comes from pain. I think being serious is a little bit easier because seriousness isn’t subjective, comedy is. I’m an energetic entertainer and my instinct is to always make things a little funny. So I enjoyed the challenge of keeping things small, slight, and minimal. Once I understood what the tone was, I realized, “Oh, all I have to do is be as serious as possible and not try to make anyone laugh” and then it sort of clicked. But yeah it totally is a very serious subject matter – very sad. I was also with these heavy hitters. We had Shia LaBeouf and Ellen Burstyn, so I was definitely low man on the totem pole even though I was fourth on the call sheet.
DF: Leading on from the previous question of doing all these roles – did you feel that having done writing, acting, and stand-up comedy that a sketch show was just the logical next step for you?
IS: I mean nothing is logical in this business. I had done several stand-up specials for Netflix and they had been wanting to move into the sketch space. This conversation took place about over a year ago and they offered me the show. One, it’s great when you can be offered stuff, but two, I was always a fan of sketch comedy even before stand-up. What I grew up watching was sketch and I would write my own sketches. I was also in a sketch troupe in college. When I do my stand-up, I always see them as sketches. I try to create characters, moments, and feelings versus just set up a punch.
So you have all these thoughts, feelings, and tones in your head. Sketch is a chance to show and I believe stand-up is a chance to tell. Stand-up is just you and the microphone and you’re just painting a picture with your words. With sketch, you get this ensemble, you get costumes, you get makeup, and you get this chance to paint a full picture of the weirdness in your head. I was so excited for that opportunity. It was just a chance to show another layer of my creativity.
DF: You mentioned earlier about a potential season two. Is that something that is actively in the works or are you awaiting word on that?
IS: Hopefully both. Netflix is very secretive and while I see the thousands of people weekly, daily, DM-ing me about the show, you never quite know what number it is that they have in their head. I’ve been working tirelessly. You know, I am the star of the show. It is my show. So I believe you have to be your own best hype man. I’ve done every interview on every show, constantly coming up with content, trying to push the show out to new audiences. I’ll never understand people who create something and then just don’t support it after. People need to find the show and if I’m not in love with my show, who will be?
DF: With moving into sketch comedy, what was the process like? Moving from obviously a very singular style of comedy – as you mentioned before stand-up that if it bombs, it’s all up to you. If it’s funny, it’s all up to you and it’s down to you basically. How was it moving into a far more collaborative space when it comes to where the comedy was coming from?
IS: I loved it. I didn’t want a big writer’s room. I only had three other writers, so including me, I was the head writer, that’s four total. You have these writers submit packets so you know what they are capable of writing. Because I’m already an established comedian, they know what I’m looking for and they write for my tone. I loved the collaboration. Stand-up is such a solo sport, so getting to delegate and lean on people and have other more accomplished writers help me refine my own sketches – I was very proud to hold my own in that room, but I loved getting notes and thoughts from them because they were people that I trust.
I think the thing with stand-up is – it’s hard to collaborate because someone will just come up to you and be like, “I’ve got a joke for you” and you’re like, “well who are you? How do I know? I don’t trust your collaboration”. These people, they write for Portlandia and Saturday Night Live and have their own scripts. So I trusted them going in and it worked. It’s a beautiful thing to get to creatively trust someone. A great example of that was my director Laura Murphy. I loved working with her and from the get-go, she demonstrated that she understood pacing, timing, vision and that we were on the same page. Once you’re locked in with a director, it just makes it so much easier to not carry the entire world on your shoulders as I’m very used to doing with stand-up. I very much enjoyed the process of this.
DF: Was it odd though, early on having a director? When it comes to stand-up, you’re very much almost your own director – you’re deciding how everything works. Was it odd receiving the first sort of note when you were told, “I think it would be funnier if you did it this way” or did you sort of revel it?
IS: No I didn’t even question it because you’re doing so many things. You’re shooting multiple sketches in a day. You’re exhausted. You’re making the show on the other side of the country. The fact that I trusted her, and at first, you’re watching to see what kind of jokes they make. I had been in a writer’s room with her and I had met her obviously. At the end of the day, I’m still the executive producer, so if I feel very strongly about something, we’re going to do it that way and usually, it’s a compromise. If I felt one way about a joke and she felt another, we do both versions and then we see what happens in the edit because I sat there for every single episode and every cut in this show was something that I oversaw and green-lit. People forget that it doesn’t matter what goes on on set, it’s all about the edit. So get all the material you want. There should be no problem. No one’s ego should be big enough that you won’t allow somebody to implement their idea.
DF: Spencer Confidential was your big move into film. Can you recall what it was like working on the production?
IS: It was so much fun. I’ve said this before, you’re on a set with Mark Walberg and Peter Berg, these are two men that not only have a history with one another but huge careers, and it was so egalitarian. Peter listened to my ideas and let me form ‘Cissy’ into the character I wanted her to be. I didn’t want her to be this one-dimensional angry ex-girlfriend. We’ve seen that before. I wanted to give her levels and he also wanted that. Mark was so collaborative when it came to improv. There weren’t a lot of conversations, but in the scene, he’s such a pro and so available and open to back and forth.
I always say this, but these men did not have to be this way. A comic comes on your set, you give her this part, you don’t have to listen to that actor – but they did. They added additional scenes with me I think because everybody liked what I did, which was the biggest compliment of my career. I will forever be grateful that these two guys who have their own huge careers established let me on their set, listened to me, and treated me like an equal. Especially in stand-up, you run into absolute psychopaths every day who will treat you like garbage unless you stand up for yourself. I came in ready to stand up for myself and I didn’t have to because they never put me down. I always felt treated fairly and I had a lot of fun.
DF: Would you then say perhaps a move into acting might be something you kind of want because you feel like you’re being treated better? Is that a bit of a jump for us to imply that?
IS: No! I mean it is a jump because the higher up you are on the call sheet – if you’re number one or if you’re the director, you set the tone. I’ve been on amazing movie sets. I’ve been on bad movie sets where the tone, the vibration is really bad and everybody is in a bad mood. I’ve been on bad comedy lineups. It all depends on what it is you’re willing to bring, how professional you’re willing to be. You don’t pick one profession over the other because of how your feelings are getting hurt. I love doing acting because I love the challenge, I love the collaboration process with other actors. I love learning from people who are better than me, and I like being around other people.
Both have their exhausting moments and good and bad qualities. But I guess the goal would to be so in control and in demand that I get to be in charge of setting the tone on a set. I would hate to think that I would ever be a reason somebody didn’t want to come to work. So I had such a great time and I learned from such a great example – from Mark Walberg on Spencer Confidential. When I went to do The Iliza Schleisenger Sketch Show, I wanted everybody to know that I was happy to be at work and I wanted them to be happy to be at work. So there were no bad days and if there was, nobody saw them.
DF: This is a bit of a left turn, but with your stand-up, one of the things that everyone loves is that you’re very open about your private life. Does it ever have an effect on your everyday life that so much of what is private to you has been made public through your comedy?
IS: No, I’m kind of an open book. We all have secrets, we all have personal things and it’s up to you to decide what you’re comfortable with. I’m not so famous that paparazzi have ripped secrets away from me. We all have things that happen to us and situations that you can’t control. But if somebody knows what my living room looks like, the nickname I have for my dog, or what songs I sing with my husband – that’s because I chose to share it. Now it’s not strategic. It’s just that I like creating moments with fans. I like creating weird, fun inside jokes. I believe that’s how you create strong bonds and I do it naturally. I organically do these things whether it’s with my friends or from the very first web show I ever had in like 2006.
As you get older you look back and you’re like, “Maybe I shouldn’t have posted certain pictures” or whatever, but it’s all a part of growing and you just hope that you don’t make any mistakes presently that will affect your future. You let people know what you want them to know. They don’t know personal, intimate details. There are certain things some celebrities do that I would never do and then there are details I would reveal that others wouldn’t. You always want to remember that we live in an age where people expect everything from you and you have to draw a line. That line is very personal. For some people, it’s never showing a picture of their kids, for other people it’s never showing their spouse, for other people it’s not responding to fan direct messages. You set the parameters and you work within those based on what you’re comfortable with because at the end of the day, you don’t owe anyone anything. Fans think they’re getting a lot of me, but they’re only getting what I choose to give them.
DF: Yeah that’s absolutely a great answer. Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to make our audience aware of?
IS: We have “Don’t Panic Pantry”, which thousands of people tune in every day at 5PM pacific standard time. We would love to see people cook along with us. I have my podcast Ask Iliza Anything, which is wherever fine podcasts are sold, like iTunes. This is just because we’re all quarantined, there’s always my book Girl Logic which you can get on Amazon or Audible. I also have a film coming out. We have a distribution deal with Universal. We shot that around November and we are picture locked and putting the final touches, so hopefully that comes out soon. Margaret Cho is in that with me. It’s a movie that I wrote myself and got a little bit of money for. People can, of course, watch The Iliza Schleisenger Sketch Show and Spencer Confidential on Netflix.
DF: Pieces of a Woman, we are not aware of any release date. Is that coming out anytime soon?
IS: That I couldn’t tell you, but I can tell you that there were no explosions or huge special effects, so I can’t imagine it will be that long before it comes out… at least there were no explosions in my scenes!