December 16, 2018

Comedian Iliza Shlesinger’s success is a laughing matter

Iliza Shlesinger is a working, touring comedian. She is Jewish, in her 30s, and she is bitter.

Why bitter? She still feels resentful that Birthright Israel declined her application for a trip when she was 22 because she had been to Israel once before when she was 14. More on that later.

Otherwise, she’s feeling OK because she has a special on Netflix, her third, called “Confirmed Kills,” which was released in late September. She currently stars in the web series “Forever 31.” And she’s scheduled to start a national tour in November that includes a February show at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles.

Shlesinger recently agreed to an interview with the Jewish Journal at a market in Laurel Canyon. In her lap, she held her dog, Blanche — a Pomeranian-Chihuahua-Belgian Malinois mix she got at a shelter — while her assistant took a nearby table and opened a book.

As Shlesinger talked, several people approached to say hello — not fans but friends from her Los Angeles neighborhood. She looked a lot like one of them, attired in black pajama bottoms, a black T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the rock band Queen, and trendy eyeglasses, with her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail — quite the departure from the see-through blouse, black bra, skin-tight black pants and black boots she wears onstage.

“I like wearing black pants; it makes me feel punk rock even though I’m not,” she said. “I have a mortgage.”

In that harder look onstage, Shlesinger often unleashes physical comedy. Lately, she’s been opening her act by executing a karate kick to go along with one of her jokes — right after Blanche has run across the stage wearing a pink outfit.

Shlesinger’s climb up the stand-up comedy ladder got a boost in 2008 when she won the competition show “Last Comic Standing” — the first woman and the show’s youngest contestant to do so. 

Shlesinger was born in Manhattan and raised in Dallas by a stay-at-home mom and a father formerly in the clothing business who now works in finance. The two are now divorced. But like any good Jewish parents, they have been supportive of her career choices.  

“Aggressively supportive would be putting it mildly,” she said.

“My parents are very funny. I told them I was going to [become a comedian]. … My dad was like, ‘Get me the graphics for your tour! We’re going to make T-shirts and make a fortune!’ My mom’s always got ideas for stories or bits or whatever.”

Though Shlesinger said she isn’t a regular synagogue goer — and she admits to throwing an annual Christmas party in her home with all-Jewish guests — she says her comedy is informed by her Jewishness.

“Judaism is so steeped in asking, ‘Why?’ Rabbis and men sit around in rooms all day questioning Torah. I think that trickles down in questioning other things,” she said.

Some of the questions she raises in her latest special include:

• Why would anyone go on “Shark Tank,” the reality TV show on which people pitch entrepreneurial ideas to a panel of judges?

• Why are some women interested in becoming mermaids? (The tagline for her special, in fact, is “She’s hunting mermaids.”)

• And why would a woman looking for her lipstick empty her purse on a nightclub dance floor?

“Everything is rooted very much in truth,” she said. “I don’t believe in getting onstage and lying to the audience.”

Shlesinger continues to be a regular at the Improv and The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. As for what happened with Birthright, Shlesinger insisted the organization made a huge mistake not letting her go on that trip.

“I tried to do Birthright when I was 22 and … they were like, ‘Have you been to Israel?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, when I was 14. I would like to go back now with some money and other people.’ And they were like, ‘Sorry, you can’t.’

“Meanwhile, my friends that have never had bat mitzvahs and are like a quarter Jewish are going and getting drunk in Tel Aviv!” she said. “So, you guys [at Birthright] messed up! This Jew had a lot of money and you messed up!”