Iliza Shlesinger Is Beating the Apocalypse With Home Cooking and Two New Shows

In the middle of the pandemic, the comedian has launched two very different shows designed to make her audience feel good: an Instagram cooking joint and a fresh sketch series.
Iliza Shlesinger'Spenser Confidential' film premiere, Arrivals, Regency Village Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 27 Feb 2020
Iliza Shlesinger
Rob Latour/Shutterstock

Iliza Shlesinger is keeping busy during quarantine. The comedian and actress is reading lots of books (her latest: Kristin Hannah’s World War II-set drama “The Nightingale,” which offers some serious perspective during a fraught time), gearing up for the release of her untitled Universal comedy (directed by Kimmy Gatewood, Shlesinger also stars in the passion project), and missing her stand-up shows hard. But, every night, like clockwork, Shlesinger has one activity she can’t miss: serving up a fresh episode of her fledgling Instagram cooking show, “Don’t Panic Pantry.”

Alongside her husband (and professional chef) Noah Galuten, Shlesinger has spent the past month crafting tasty, pantry-friendly recipes for her followers. Galuten excels at breaking down recipes into easy to follow steps, all the better to ease already addled minds. The recipes are primarily built around ingredients that people already have on hand, or can buy during one big grocery trip (that’s also why the duo plan out the DPP meals a full week ahead, giving their audience plenty of heads up about what they need for each evening’s show).

It’s perhaps not how Shlesinger expected to be spending this particular period of time, but it does highlight her unerring can-do, DIY spirit. Two weeks ago, Netflix launched the first season of the Shlesinger-led sketch show, the appropriately named “The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show.” When the new series hit the streaming giant, Shlesinger was already two weeks into making her other new show.

We decided [to ‘Don’t Panic Pantry’] this pretty much the moment everybody was put on lockdown a month ago, so we’ve been doing this from the very beginning,” Shlesinger told IndieWire during a recent interview. “The initial impetus for this was that everybody was freaking out. You’re at the grocery store, people are in hazmat suits, they’re screaming, everybody’s buying toilet paper. We were trying to encourage people to not panic, cook what you have in your pantry, and if you do need to shop, here are some of the essentials you should be buying.”

As fun and frisky as the show is, great care was put into crafting it on the fly. Shlesinger and Galuten want to feed people and give them something to do, but they also want them to view the nightly offering as something reliable in an increasingly weird world.

“We did this as a way of tempering people’s fear, and when it became clear that this was going to be longer than a week, it turned,” she said. “It just went from a funny outlet for me to entertain people and my husband to inform people to something that has become a bit of a panacea. We want people to know you have somewhere to be at five o’clock every day and you have the comfort of knowing we will be in the kitchen in a great mood every day, and you can cook along with us.”

The daily show is also helping keep Shlesinger’s standup muscles limber as she endures something oddly unfamiliar to the “Last Comic Standing” winner: weeks and weeks without a traditional performance. Before the world “came to a screeching halt,” Shlesinger said she was booking 5,000-seat theaters, and was on track to ante up into small arenas by 2021. That, like so much else, is on pause right now.

“I miss my job very much,” Shlesinger said. “People always ask me like, ‘oh, what are your hobbies?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t have hobbies. I have my job. My job is my hobby.’ It’s my love. It’s my heartbeat. It’s everything. Standup has been the one constant thing in my life for 15 years. … My favorite thing to do was open my calendar and think about all the fun cities I was going to get to go to and how I was going to work on that material and experience those people. I’m trying to piece it together now through social media and reaching out to people and creating.”

Fans of Shlesinger don’t have to look too far to find even more of her work. After five standup specials with Netflix, the streaming giant launched the comedian’s first sketch series earlier this month. Filled with zany characters and relatable situations (Shlesinger, it seems, may be one of the last comedians able to find truly original humor in air travel gags), “The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show” is both fun for her long-time fans and a nifty entry point for newbies. And, like “Don’t Panic Pantry,” it is designed to make people feel good.

“The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show”Courtesy of Netfix

“I really wanted to do a show that wasn’t heavy-handed politically or socially,” she said. “I think sometimes when it comes to women, we’re discouraged from that because we’re supposed to be making a social statement or it should all be about feminism. I think the most feminist thing you can do is be a weirdo and not care what anyone thinks.”

Okay, some of the sketches have what Shlesinger would term a “social point,” but many of them — like an entire gag about the kind of girl who wears perhaps terrifyingly high and tight topknots — are built to help everyone get a good chuckle. The sketch series allows Shlesinger to dig further into the kind of weird wackiness she always like to poke fun at.

“You’re always subconsciously logging information,” she said. “I’ve never thought, oh, should I do this as sketch or standup? It’s never deciding between the two. Your life is made up of weird moments, weird thoughts, weird interactions, strange encounters, odd characters, and sketch is all about showing and standup is all about telling. For me, sketch is all about, what if an emotion or a thought occupied an entire scene? What if a feeling were a whole person? It’s all about bringing color and texture to these odd moments.

Since making her debut on Netflix in 2013 with the standup special “War Paint,” Shlesinger has been a steady presence on the streaming platform. She’s not taking that visibility for granted, however. While she said she’s never been given hard viewership numbers for her specials — that’s part of the reason why she peppers her jokes with hashtags, all the better to track the social media chatter about her work — the sketch show is a different story, and she’s hoping to be able to continue it.

“I do know about the ‘Sketch Show’ streams, and I know that we are on track for a second season, but I don’t know that we’ll have one yet,” Shlesinger said. “Which is why it’s so important that people keep discovering it and keep finding it in their algorithm. Let the algorithm work for you!”

Shlesinger is working even harder. Also on Netflix for fans of her irreverent humor: Peter Berg’s “Spenser Confidential,” which stars Mark Wahlberg, Winston Duke, Alan Arkin … and Shlesinger in the rare movie role. She appears in the comedy as Wahlberg’s sassy ex, and no, having five comedy specials with the streaming giant did not get her in the door for the Netflix Original film.

“It wasn’t like, this is our girl, you’ve got to use her,” Shlesinger said with a laugh. “Netflix is an amazing tool for promoting you and getting you out there, but there are people who watch ‘Spenser Confidential’ that didn’t know I did standup and there are plenty of my fans that didn’t know that there was a movie. So it’s all on you as a talent to constantly be generating that content and showing people that catalog.”

“Spenser Confidential”Daniel McFadden

While Shlesinger hasn’t landed many film roles over the years (which, of course, no one has a better sense of humor about than the comedian herself), she seems pretty jazzed about what happened with the movie. The audition process? That was thrilling for her, and she happily put her own spirit into it. She was given just one note before coming in to read for the role: no Boston accents. She didn’t go for it.

“One of the lines was, ‘Every day I pray to St. Jude for a fuckin’ reason to leave you,’ and I’m thinking, you can’t say that without a Boston accent,” she said. “It just drips Boston. And I was like, you know what? I believe that the writer wrote this with a Boston accent in mind, and I’m just gonna do it. Nobody ever booked the part because they were like, ‘I went in, I made no bold choices, I didn’t make it my own, and I got it!'”

Shlesinger did the accent. “I memorized the lines and I just leaned into that accent and did a heavy eyeliner and it just worked, and it shouldn‘t have worked,” she said. “I’ve read for so many things over a decade and I seldom book anything. By seldom, I mean literally two other times. And it worked. It clicked.”

She might want to get used to it. Last December, Shlesinger completed another film, this one a dream project she wrote herself. The currently untitled Universal Pictures comedy — though Shlesinger says she has a title in mind — was directed by “GLOW” star and fellow comedian Kimmy Gatewood and features Shlesinger in the lead role. Details have been kept mostly under wraps, but Shlesinger said it’s based on a true story, and reportedly follows a hapless singleton who falls for a guy who is not entirely what he seems to be.

“Every time I didn’t get the part that I wanted in a movie, every time I had an audition that didn’t go well, every time somebody said no or the phone wasn’t ringing, I would turn to the script and I would just keep writing on it,” Shlesinger said. “I just thought to myself, ‘One day somebody is going to want to read the script and you better have it ready.’ This movie is hours and hours and hours of me sitting alone late night in various cities or by myself in my living room, just sort of typing away at what could be something one day.”

She’s not bothered about having to wait for the film to come out whenever things get even somewhat back to normal. She’ll be ready when it happens. “I know that I was already so grateful for my career, but I don’t think I’ll ever roll my eyes when I have to wake up from a nap to go to a show ever again,” she said with a laugh.

“The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show” and “Spenser Confidential” are currently streaming on Netflix.

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