Iliza Shlesinger: "Standup Comedy For Women Is One Giant Sexual Harassment"

Photo: Desiree Navarro/WireImage.
"Women aren't crazy."
Those are the first words of comic Iliza Shlesinger's new book, Girl Logic. In the book, Shlesinger examines the female mindset through a series of personal essays about her experiences as a comedian. She describes Girl Logic as "a characteristically female way of thinking that appears to be contradictory and circuitous but is actually a complicated and highly evolved way of considering every choice and its repercussions before we make a move toward what we want."
Girl Logic, Shlesinger explains, can manifest itself in seemingly mundane decisions, like what to eat for dinner. But it can help women make more informed decisions about bigger things, too. And Shlesinger has plenty of experience observing and talking about girl logic. She has three Netflix specials under her belt. And her FreeForm show, Truth & Iliza, hasn't shied away from talking about vaginas. Shlesinger's built her comedic voice around discussing how women think, and her book explores girl logic's rationale in impressive detail.
During a recent phone call, Refinery29 spoke with Shlesinger about the idea for Girl Logic and what it really means when we call women "crazy." She also shared her experience with sexual harassment in the comedy industry, which she says is unfortunately "commonplace."
Refinery29: Congratulations on being a headliner at the New York Comedy Festival. You said in Confirmed Kills that your lipliner joke didn't land with a North Carolina audience. Is there anything that you've noticed that New York audiences particularly respond to?
"You know, the kinds of people that come to my show can be found everywhere. And those kinds of people are open-minded people who want to be included. Smart, fun, cool people, and I'm very lucky they seek me out whenever I come to whatever city that is. I just stay away from personal vehicle jokes in New York, because not a lot of people there drive. But no, at this point, I'm not too worried about it. I'm not too worried about any jokes going over anyone's head."
Are there other comedians you're particularly excited to see while you're at the festival?
"There's one podcast I'm trying to do, I'm trying to fit in the schedule, so I don't want to say it if I'm not able to do it. I'm excited to be included with such a great lineup of comics. My buddy Phoebe [Robinson] is going to be there, she's from 2 Dope Queens. I won't have time to watch anyone, because this festival lands the week my book, Girl Logic, comes out, so I am literally just bolting back to New York press events. I'm looking forward to finding time to sleep. But that might prove to be a fruitless endeavor."
Did you always know in the back of your mind that writing a book was something you'd eventually do?
"No, I never… this book had a couple different iterations before we arrived at sort of positing the thesis and writing it more like a college essay. But no, about two years ago, maybe three, I had this idea, and it took a long time to get the right theme together, the right group. You always think writing a book is something you do, but people typically do it as an autobiography, and I definitely didn't think I had the right to write an autobiography at this point in my life. So, no, writing a book wasn't a long-term goal. It's also very hard to do, so I don't know if it will be a goal again."
When did you first develop the notion of "girl logic?"
"Well, I think it's a lifetime of observation. And it comes out a lot the way girls interact, the way we process things, and the way we talk about ourselves, breakups, food. You see that in my first Netflix special, War Paint. You see it again in Freezing Hot, more defined. And then it comes full circle, me speaking as a woman, in Confirmed Kills. And I think that 'girl logic' is just a term I use to encompass, slash encapsulate, all of these nuances. So, in a sense, I've always been living it, observing it, and in the last several years, talking about it. And this is my way of conveying it in a digestible form."
The first words of the book are "Women aren't crazy." Do you find it depressing that in 2017, we still need to be making statements like that?
"I mean, I think it's the least depressing among things like people not understanding that no means no, the fact that women still have to make it clear that 'It's my body, it's my rights.' So among other things, it's depressing. And I think it's sad, but you almost have to do a certain degree of deprogramming. Even when it comes to the way women talk to other women, it's just so, so easy to write off these beautiful complex creatures who don't fit into a box as 'crazy' when a woman doesn't fit into what your version of a woman is. And I'm just doing my part to get rid of that mindset in our society. That being said, some girls are crazy... By the way, some men are super crazy as well. And that's in the book too. Some men are super crazy, and horny, and gross."
You mention your mom a lot in the book. Was she always supportive of your desire to become a comedian?
"Yes. I think it's sort of a trope that when you're a comic, your parents are ashamed of what you've chosen, or you've abandoned the family. My parents are both very funny people. And my mom, she's never been anything but supportive or anything but proud. And she's always just allowed me to be me. There's gentle guidance, obviously, because she's my mother. But I'm very lucky that I had a mother who was proud of me from the beginning. And I think she's proud of the work ethic that I have and the teeny-tiny things I have achieved. And I think it's fun for her to get to tell her friends that her daughter's on TV. Even if she called me after James Corden last night and told me that my dress didn't fit."
Oh no!
"The email said, 'Great set. Didn't like the dress on you.'"
That sounds like a very mom response.
"You know what? I take it with a grain of salt.... She's never done anything to hurt my feelings. She's giving a blunt opinion. And if we're being totally honest, it was a beautiful dress that, when I moved around, crept up. So she's not wrong. But I don't think beautiful dresses like that are made for girls to imitate goblins in."
You issued a statement about the fact that your book is being published by Hachette's former imprint Weinstein Books, in which you condemned Harvey Weinstein's behavior. Have you observed sexual harassment within the comedy industry?
"Oh my god, standup comedy for women is one giant sexual harassment. Just one giant harassment. You know, I think it's important to acknowledge that there are women who have had it and continue to have it way worse than me. I do believe, you know, you are surrounded by crazy people in show business. And it's funny, or it's interesting, the Harvey Weinstein thing happened, and these are all actresses. And everybody’s getting the courage to come out, and this happens on a daily occurrence in standup."
"I'm not going to say names or stories, because those are those women's stories to tell, but the amount of bullshit that's commonplace, that we just put up with, because we're like, 'Oh, it's just a guy, Oh, he's just a comic.' And it's just something you’re supposed to deal with. And what's more, what's sadder is that not only are we complacent with the disgusting harassment, a lot of men are complicit in it. A guy does something disgusting, you rarely hear about other male comics rallying around him, or, I guess, gathering around him, to tell him, 'Hey, dude, maybe you shouldn't slut-shame that girl. Maybe you shouldn't make fun of her. Maybe you shouldn't be sexually harassing a woman.' I've definitely seen that. I've talked to male comics about it, and I'm like, 'This is your friend, and you said nothing.' And they're like, 'Yeah, he's our buddy.' There's a big 'Yeah, but he's a good guy.'"
"That, or people just don't know about it. Or it happens in green rooms, it happens behind closed doors. One of my first memories of going to a gig — I walked into a green room, and this guy just made some disgusting remark about my boobs. I hadn't said anything. And I looked at him, and he looked at me, and he went, 'Welcome to the jungle.' And now the guy's a total loser no one's ever heard of. And I see him often, and he says 'hi,' he has no idea that he said that. So there definitely is this… they say horrible things to you because they think you don't matter. And they think you don't have a voice. And that's why it's important to not only have a voice and feel confident in that, but it's important that other comics and other entertainers support these claims when they're true."
It's awful that that happened.
"I also, I want to add this, and people will probably take this out of context. Because I found a decent amount of success early on, I kind of got a pass. I skipped a lot of the opening for comics, I skipped a lot of gritting it out in the trenches with male comics on the road. I skipped a lot of that power dynamic where men feel that they can assert themselves over women, because I was above them. At many of the venues I was playing, I was the headliner. So your opener's not going to come onto you, because the power dynamic has shifted, and the woman is in charge. So I'm grateful for that, and it only makes me more steadfast in my desire and want to help other women and to make sure that they don't take shit lying down. Lack of power is no excuse to be treated like garbage."
All anyone can speak to is their own experience.
"Yeah, and that's just been mine... my heart breaks for women when I hear those stories. This is art, we're trying to make people laugh and be happy. And when people bring their black hearts into it and just want to hurt you because they see you as a threat or they hate themselves, that's when it gets sad, and that's when it gets scary."
In the past, you've praised shows like Orange is the New Black and Veep for creating more complex roles for women. I was wondering if there are other shows that you consider particularly groundbreaking on TV right now? Other than yours!
"I watched Fleabag, which is an Amazon show. I think they're doing a season 2. I thought that the main character in that is a character you don't get to see a lot of. That type of woman, or a softer side of a woman like that — I thought that was great... I think what Samantha Bee is doing is great. People listen to her, and it's not because she's a woman. It's because she's good at what she does. I think that that's great..."
"Kate McKinnon basically drives SNL, and she's a genius... I watch a lot of dramas. I like House of Cards, which no one's allowed to say right now. But Claire Underwood's character is super fun to watch. So I guess, I think Fleabag's probably the best one, off the top of my head. I just came from Netflix, and I was thinking about The OA, which is pretty interesting. But that's not really, that’s more of an ensemble. So strike that. I guess those are my answers. I'll probably think of like a billion more after we hang up."
That's okay! Have you watched Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, just with the talk of your book and women being called "crazy?"
"You know, I've never watched it, but I think Rachel Bloom is adorable. And here's a young woman who had her vision for a show, and she executed it, and she put herself into it. She loves singing, so she made a show about that. And the fact that she got a chance at that is really, it's great, and it's what we all strive for, as women and as artists in general, getting to do the show that you want to do on your terms."
Yeah, it sounds like a dream.
"I've never watched her show, but my buddy Mayim Bialik loves her. And Mayim's a good person, so I'll take my cue from that." [Editor's note: Bialik also wrote the foreword to Girl Logic.]
You ended Girl Logic with a few words of advice for aspiring comics. Is there any other advice you'd give to young women who wanted to pursue careers like comedy that might not be as traditional as other fields?
"I don't want to be an asshole and quote Thoreau, but I think his quote is, 'Go forth in the direction of your dreams.' I want to say that’s the quote, maybe you can look it up and write it down. [Editor's note: The Thoreau quote that's often cited is 'Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.'] But it really is about moving forward with the voracity of a hungry animal. And that's why they're called starving artists. I mean, that's not why. It's because they make no money. It's moving forward with confidence, even at times when you don't feel confident, and reminding yourself that you are worthy,and you deserve a shot. And not giving anyone the power to take that away from you, even when you feel like stopping. Which I do today, because I'm exhausted."
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
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