The early days of the pandemic were a tough time for live comedy. Venues shuttered across the country, forcing comedians onto Zoom and social media. But while many spent the last two years in limbo, stand-up comic and actress Iliza Shlesinger seemed to thrive.
Shlesinger is one of the most streamable comedians on Netflix. Currently, she stars in five stand-up specials on the service, as well as The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show and 2021’s rom-com Good on Paper, which she also wrote and produced. The latter, which co-starred Ryan Hansen and Margaret Cho (as Shlesinger’s dubious BFF), is based on her real-life experience dating a con man who almost duped her into marrying him.
In 2020, Shlesinger also launched a drive-in tour and created a cooking series on Instagram with her husband, chef Noah Galuten, called “Don’t Panic Pantry.” The two prepared meals like noodle kugel, latkes and filet of sole as a way of helping Shlesinger’s 800,000-plus followers cope with lockdown.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we committed to doing one a day as a way of keeping people calm, informing them and dispensing intelligent information,” Shlesinger says from her home in LA. “Then as the world started opening up, we wanted to still keep doing the shows. But it was really born out of a commitment to helping people stay home and not go crazy. It was a source of sanity for people during a horrific event.”
The more than 230 episodes were so popular they led to a forthcoming cookbook by Galuten, out next year, with a foreword by Shlesinger. The comedian is publishing her own second collection of essays, All Things Aside, in October.
“They’re just my take on everything from the mundane to the important,” she says. “Everything from miscarriages to first loves to alarm companies to matching sweat-suit sets. Comedy is always about touching people. Being vulnerable with a punchline.”
Despite her varied roles, Shelsinger’s roots are firmly planted in stand-up. The first woman to win NBC’s Last Comic Standing, she riffs on topics like dating woes, gender stereotypes and female camaraderie. Across her five specials, Shlesinger has evolved from single thirty-something to married woman. Her current tour, “Back in Action,” began last year while she was pregnant with her first child and resumed performing just six weeks after giving birth to her daughter.
“I toured 14 cities in Europe while seven months pregnant,” she recalls. “After I gave birth, I was healthy enough and got clearance from my doctor to go. So I poured myself into some postpartum maternity leggings and hit the road.”
Still, she says her new material doesn’t revolve entirely around motherhood.
“My baby is not even five months old, so I would be remiss if I spoke about motherhood because I haven’t had all those experiences yet,” she says. “I also like to connect with people who don’t have kids. My comedy is very much informed by the people around me and what society is going through. George Carlin said that comics are modern-day philosophers. I’m here to sort of hold up a mirror to society, reflect back and talk about what we’re going through.”
However, there are limits to what can be addressed through comedy.
“You have to be mindful of being too topical because then it’s irrelevant,” she says. “Unfortunately school shootings are perennial, but [so] are women’s empowerment and the frustration my generation feels. Half my audience is men, so I’m also mindful of the fact that people wanna feel good, they wanna hear funny voices and they wanna leave their troubles behind. So if I can change a couple of people’s minds about the world and inform them, but also keep it light and fun, then everybody leaves happy.”
And though she kept herself busy during quarantine, Shlesinger adds that she missed the close, communal element of performing live.
“The best part is connecting with an audience,” she says. “Our nation is so divided and we’re all so polarized. It’s really easy to sit behind your computer in whatever state you live in and decide that everyone’s an idiot, but it’s another to know everyone’s an idiot—I’m just kidding.”
Sat, 8:30pm, $45+
Mountain Winery, Saratoga