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‘Forever 31’ Creator Iliza Shlesinger Talks Opportunities For Comedians In The Digital Arena

Deadline logo Deadline 6/12/2017 Matt Grobar
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With her third Netflix special, Confirmed Kills, under her belt, and a new short-form series for ABC titled Forever 31, comedian Iliza Shlesinger could be a contender in multiple categories at this year’s Emmys. In Forever 31, Shlesinger is able to give cinematic form to ideas and stories she’s discussed on stage, continuing to discuss the way women are treated in comedy and the way they treat themselves, in turn.

Speaking with Deadline, the comedian discusses the possibilities short-form content offers for comedians and the way in which she has used social media as a tool to both track and engage with her fans.

How did “Forever 31” come together?

As a comedian, I’m always looking for new ways to express my comedy and my opinions, and sometimes things are more complex than just stand-up. ABC presented the idea of launching a digital platform. The digital platform is so hot right now, and everybody’s jumping on with that, so when a huge company like ABC says, “We want to give you a digital show,” I was so excited.

I pitched this idea of “Forever 31″— at the time, I think I was 31 or 32, and a big part of my comedy is wanting to speak to women and people that are my age in a funny and relatable way. I think the landscape of what’s available out there for women is not as extensive as it could be. That’s something that drives me; whether it’s my book, Girl Logic, or my television show, Truth & Iliza, I wanted to speak in an open and honest way that wasn’t always sexual, that didn’t always limit us to women that are desperate for marriage or babies.

Being in your 30’s is really your first foray into adulthood, and I wanted to address that in a smart and relatable way. I wanted to honor the thought processes and situations that happen to people at those ages, whether it’s losing friends or going for a goal you’re not getting.

Frankly, as a comedian, this was my first chance on the other side of casting, of setting up a scene, of writing. And what’s great about the digital platform is, as an artist, the stakes are a little bit lower. This isn’t a multi-million dollar TV show, so ABC was great about allowing me to execute my vision and giving me the support to see on the screen exactly what I wrote on the page.

For the longest time, digital platforms were looked at as a lab. A lot of shows went from digital to television, so this is your chance to express yourself unencumbered by executive decisions because you’re a lot closer to the art. It’s no secret: If you aren’t a huge star, when you get up to a certain level, there’s a lot of opinions weighing in.

The network was very respectful of the fact that my voice can’t really be duplicated by someone else, and they allowed me to write it myself, which I knew I could do.

They just give you a lot more leeway at that level. And the product turned out great; we got a lot of fans, and I believe it was the number one show on that platform.

You address the status of women in comedy in this series in a farcical kind of way. How do you really feel about the way women are represented, or represent themselves, in this arena?

I’m so glad you asked that because I put in those sketches and no one’s ever asked me about it because I think people were too busy laughing in agreement. As a comedian, I have a set of morals. I have a specific point of view. I think a lot of what I see out there, out in comedy clubs, watching contests, watching TV, watching movies—gathering data from these different matrixes…

When you’re a woman in comedy and you get a break, people get so excited about it, but while we have to work hard to get that attention, I do think many women think, “Oh if I just act like a guy, if I go for that low hanging fruit…” Everything’s about sex, or how weird I am. It all just kind of runs together.

I could walk into The Improv, close my eyes, and I can’t tell one girl’s act apart from another. That’s not saying that 30-something white guys don’t all sound the same sometimes, but I’m banging my head against the wall because women want to be treated as equals, and we want feminism to be a thing, but it’s really difficult when every woman makes the same point about her vagina, over and over. I think I’m the only woman out there that has a joke about World War II in my set.

I think shock value works well for women, but beyond that, there’s no substance. I want to see what else there is with such complex, smart creatures.

That’s why women like Tina Fey do well. It’s smart, and men can laugh at it, too. I consider myself one of those comics, and quite frankly, I’m appalled by what is expected of women, and what women offer in response in that.

Today, some regard comedians as modern-day philosophers. I’m not sure if I’d call it “didactic,” but with recent, prominent comedy specials, there’s often a specific message involved.

First of all, I do think it’s didactic, but I think in order to be didactic, one must be autodidactic. I think in my comedy, in its infancy, I talked about what I knew, and then it evolved into being proactive about women, versus just talking about what we’re like when we go out at night.

The show I made recently, my late-night show, I couldn’t have done it without the last couple years of reading and listening and seeking out knowledge, beyond being in college. I don’t think the idea that comedians are New Age philosophers is a new one. It’s always been our job to call it like it is. You can cite Richard Pryor, you can cite George Carlin, and even before that.

I do think now, with the stakes being as high as they are, it’s not so much that you’re forced to be political, but I’ve taken it upon myself to be social, and you can only move the needle in a certain way. If I walk into a comedy club and I start screaming about politics, you will, right off the bat, isolate half the audience.

People go to comedy to maybe learn a little bit, but to be entertained, so for me, with feminism and women, I was thinking from a point of view that I fully am enveloped by being a woman, by living in this society. Of course, you’re going to entertain, and your thing might just be knock-knock jokes, but I feel I have this audience, and people look to me for a bold take on things and an intelligent take. Comedians are smart. You have to be to command an audience for that long.

You have a chance to lead people with your humor, and it’s a responsibility that we all take very seriously when it suits us. [laughs]

What went into putting together your Netflix special, Iliza Shlesinger: Confirmed Kills?

Confirmed Kills, I’m so proud of. I consider it my opus. I think I’m making points, not just about feminism, but about our generation, about society as a whole, our reliance on technology, things like that.

Netflix—and I’ve said this for years—they are the cool kids at the lunch table. They’re the place to be, and they’re very easy to work with. You tell them your intentions and they say, “Here’s a bunch of money, go be creative.” There’s not a lot of meddling.

They have so many shows now, but a couple years ago, they were the ones coming out with Orange is the New Black. That, to me, was a flagship show, in terms of creating exciting roles for women and minorities, gay characters. You weren’t seeing a lot of this, and I think a lot of other channels took note and realized people are thirsty for this diverse and textured content that isn’t just about a girl trying to date, or a couple trying to make it.

While you poke fun at the silliness of hashtags and social media in Confirmed Kills, you also employ hashtags throughout the special. What was the thinking behind that?

It’s not ironic at all. People like to interact with what they’re watching, whether it’s letting the show know that you’re a fan, whether it’s giving an opinion, whether it’s participating. I think that’s a key part to ingratiating yourself to your audience, and it was born out of the idea that Netflix doesn’t give out their numbers. You know you have a great special because your ticket sales go up and because Netflix invites you to events.

I just performed at their 100-millionth download event at the Shrine, but you’ll never get the numbers out of them, so I built in these hashtags for a couple reasons, the main one being so I could informally track the viewership.

It gives you a sense of the volume of people watching it, and what they like—not that what they like can be repeated. If you love the “blousy cow” joke, I can’t do the joke again. But I did it because it was my only way of keeping track and keeping relevant.

It’s interesting because you create this art, then you put it out there, and it’s not yours anymore. I’m kind of known for having these fans that take these hashtags, and they materialize into costumes, into jewelry, into hats and T-shirts, and they come to my shows dressed up. The hashtags have been instrumental in my connection with my fans.

Your stand-up delivery is remarkably athletic—you’re very physical with your storytelling. Where did that style come from?

I don’t know where you’ve been for every other interview I’ve done, but you’re asking me everything I’ve ever wanted someone to see in my comedy. The honest answer is my whole life, I’ve been a fast talker. The note from my drama teacher in school or from my mom was always, “Slow down.”

Anybody that moves fast will tell you being forced to be slow is excruciating, and when I initially started stand-up, I would talk fast out of fear of people not laughing. I figured, if I say it fast and I get through it, and you don’t laugh, you won’t notice that you didn’t laugh because I’m already on to the next joke.

Initially, it was fear-based, and then it sort of evolved a couple years in. I became this comic that goes on diatribes. I’ve been compared to Dennis Miller in that way. My mind is very fast.

This is such a weird thing to say, but Robert Downey Jr. is great with that, or Boston Legal—James Spader would always go on these magnificent, verbose diatribes, and it’s almost like you stun your prey with this speed, and then when the dust settles, they realized what you said was very smart and poignant. I always follow it up with, “You guys can digest that later, on the ride home.”

The physicality and the speed of my act is nothing more than my desire manifesting itself physically, in my need for you to hear what I’m saying, and I want to bring you in. I often hunch over, or I get down really low, and it’s not because I’m an old Yiddish storyteller; it’s because if I could crawl inside your brain and give it a hug, that’s what I want to do.

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