How Iliza Shlesinger Plans to Bring "Digestible Feminism" to Late-Night TV

"People are going to get offended by virtue of the fact that I woke up this morning," says the comedian and host of Freeform's first late-night show.
Courtesy of Freeform
Iliza Shlesinger

Iliza Shlesinger is ready to bust through the boys club on late-night TV.

After rising the ranks in stand-up comedy, the 34-year-old comedian won NBC's Last Comic Standing and went on to host two relationship-themed game shows — syndicated series Excused and TBS' Separation Anxietybut her new Freeform series, Truth & Iliza, is all hers. "At the end of the day, I take responsibility if it lives or dies," the host and executive producer of the cable network's first late-night show told The Hollywood Reporter

Truth & Iliza kicks off a six-week run Tuesday night. The show is live-to-tape, filming from Hollywood Center Studios in Los Angeles, and each episode will revolve around a question that Shlesinger plans to answer with societal observations, sketches and in-studio celebrity and expert guests.

"Yes, I’m a woman hosting a late-night show, but the last thing I wanted to do was create The Girly Show," said Shlesinger of bringing her brand of "digestible feminism" to a little-courted TV audience, the multifaceted woman. ”There's a feminist point of view, but I’m trying to create a show that lives between the space of politics and pop culture that’s funny and intelligent."

Below, Shlesinger speaks with THR about what viewers should expect, why it's missing from the crowded landscape and how being as good as the guys landed her here.

You've done other shows before, how is Truth & Iliza different?

I hosted two other shows, but this is mine. I'm the executive producer. These are my jokes. I have my hands all over every aspect and have a say in everything. I've come upon this fan base that when I started out wasn't the way it was, so creating this show is not a responsibility I take lightly. Our society is such a mess right now, and I feel that no one is speaking to young women in a funny and informed way. I'm the kind of woman where I vote local elections and want to be informed, but I don't have time to run down to LAX every time something bad happens for a protest. For the longest time, I felt I had to choose what kind of woman I wanted to be when I watched TV. And I didn't want women to feel that way when they watch my show.

What is the format of the show and what can viewers expect to see each week?

Every episode will have a theme. There are two bits where I explain why something of the world is of importance. One is called, "You Can and You Must," with the idea being that we look at the barrage of news and all of us, so overwhelmed, say, "Ugh, I can't even." And I say, "You can even and you must and here's why." And then we have "Iliza Breaks It Down," where I liken something important happening in the world to something personal. It's about making things relatable and making horrible news fun and digestible. We decided not to do a monologue, but this is anything from sketches to interviews to man on the street. Freeform is letting me experiment, for the most part. They wanted me for the comic that I am, and I really respect that.

What are some of the show themes?

Our first episode is called, "Well, What Can We Say?" We tackle this idea that we’re living in a fear culture where one wrong tweet can ruin your life. Are we not saying things because we're so terrified, or is it because we're trying to be polite? The second episode is, "How Do You Get Woke?" and takes on racism and sexism. This idea that everyone is just supposed to act like they've never done or said anything ignorant and we're all supposed to move forward without answering questions about each other. We have an episode about female competition, one dedicated to millennials and an episode asking, "Is Society Devolving?" Then our last episode is a surprise. 

You'll also have celebrities and experts. What type of guests did you go after?

Guest booking is tricky because I want to stick to the fact that guests are smart and have something to say, so it’s a balancing act between entertainment and intelligence. There have been people that we’ve passed on that have been a big name, but we didn't know how they would tie in to the theme. If that’s the game we’re playing, then I’m no different than a fun show and there’s plenty of those. Hopefully one day we can book whoever we want whenever we want, but right now as a woman in late night I'm trying to make some points. Some dream gets right now would be Shigetaka Kurita, the creator of the emoji — it would be interesting to meet someone who saw that humans would want to communicate with pictures when, in essence, that's what we evolved from doing with hieroglyphics — the trailblazing RuPaul, and Elizabeth Warren because she kicks so much ass.

The news cycle moves so quickly, how do you handle the challenge of being up to date by the time you air each week? 

You don't want to comment on things that have been treaded upon and you don't want to be the last one to talk about something. But we've been doing practice episodes and some of those ideas will still be relevant when we start airing, we'd just have to tweak it a little bit. Bill O'Reilly will be a distant memory by our first episode, but ladies, the good news is that we are not short on men harassing women, so there will always be more jokes at the ready.

Do you think the success of other female comics on late night, like Samantha Bee on Full Frontal, are now influencing other networks to court more?

I don't know how Freeform arrived at the conclusion that they want to be in the late-night game. It’s shocking to me as a woman who has been trying to make a late-night show a reality for years and who always has had a specific idea in mind. I don't compare myself to other women and it’s shocking to see how antiquated peoples’ thoughts are, where we say, "Well, if one woman can do it, then it’s OK." But if one woman fails, we automatically think, "All women aren't funny." So any woman who's been allowed to enter this pantheon of late night, or of comedy, and does well, it does nothing but help.

What about being compared and boxed in with other female comics?

To say "boxed in" means that we have no way out. I've kicked this door down with everything that I have. I've risen in the ranks of stand-up because of sheer grit. Here's the thing: You can't use it as a stepping stone and a crutch. I've never been a fan of excuses. Either being a woman is hard and that’s it, but if you get up on a lineup and you're the only girl, people remember you over anyone else. It’s a challenge and it’s just part of life, unfortunately, but all you can do is move with grace, be kind and not take any shit. My perfect idea of feminism is that we judge based on character and merit. It’s my goal to empower women that are younger than me, women that are looking for something and women around me. My showrunner, head writer, manager and lawyer are all women, and that's because they showed up and were good and that’s it.

How do you plan break through the boys club on late-night and lure those built-in audiences?

I’m a pretty mainstream comic. I go to cities in middle America and sell out venues, so I think I have an appeal to people who feel marginalized but also mainstream people. As a woman I'm versatile. I'm Jewish, which is weird for some people, and I'm a woman with opinions, which makes people uncomfortable, but I'm still an upper-middle-class white girl just like so many women. Of course, you want everyone to give us a chance. The fact that it's on a brand-new cable channel creates a tiny bit of a challenge, but it also gives us an opportunity to do what we want to do and not be beholden to the same sort of rules that some of the older shows are. Hopefully one day we will be, but right now we get to create our own animal.

How do you court women without alienating men at the same time?

It all has to do with perspective and voice. The majority of my fans were men when I started. Women started digesting stand-up on their own really only in the last couple of years. I've watched my audiences go from men, to men with dates, to women by themselves, to women with other women on bachelorette parties. My intention isn't to spread hate speech, I don’t hate men. I'm angry at some things, but I'm more frustrated as a woman trying to be successful when anyone tells me I can't. I get frustrated when women are mean to other women and when I'm not heard as a human. There's a way to communicate with everyone without alienating anyone.

Are you limited with what kind of risks you can take, and how, for lack of a better term, PG-rated you have to be on Freeform?

There’s my line as a comic and then there’s the network line with standards and practices. There are some subjects that are so complex. Do I really want to go into a 12-page monologue about Sean Spicer? No, but maybe a joke or two. We only have 20 minutes of real estate to do a half-hour show. People are going to get offended by virtue of the fact that I woke up this morning, so we're really just worried about what’s funny and the line is ever-moving, but we definitely won’t shy away from something. For example, as we speak, I’m having a $4,000 vagina costume created for our last episode. 

Truth & Iliza airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on Freeform.

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