Two Drink Minimum is a comedy-based column by Vague Visages writer Jacob Oller.
Personae are often a necessary component of entertainment, especially something as intimately accessible as stand-up comedy. There’re fewer things more personal than expecting someone to make you laugh. But when that persona starts to crumble, to show its seams right in front of you as it’s in the middle of constructing itself, it’s not only terribly sobering, it’s disconcerting.
Imagine if halfway through Larry The Cable Guy’s drawlin’ “Get ‘er done” he stops and adjusts his de-sleeved button-up shirt while muttering to himself “No, no that didn’t feel right — once more, please.” The illusion, something extraordinarily important to comedians, is shattered. They’ve lost much of their storytelling pathos, their power.
This is what happens to Iliza Shlesinger in her third Netflix stand-up special, Confirmed Kills. Filmed at The Vic Theatre in Chicago (a brisk walk from my apartment), Shlesinger breaks onto the glitter-glam stage like a low-rent Lady Gaga. Her clubbing outfit echoes her repeated refrain of “party goblins,” addressing both her audience and a recurring Ke$ha-filtered bit ala “you might be a redneck if.”
Invoking the party goblin as the millennial drunken ID, she snorts and utters random phrases like an old hag as she jumps into jokes and stories about hangovers and midnight mistakes. The audience seems cold to the material without the typical social lubricant of local city talk that usually breaks the ice, but they soon warm to her vivid descriptions of settings, places and situations. The mid-laughs, those at funny turns of phrase during the joke or at plot twists during the story, inevitably fizzle at the climax, never culminating in satisfying punchlines. The stories hint at more than just a party girl’s Twitter feed, but they turn progressively dumber, baser and broader.
Despite this, Shlesinger purports to be the “alpha” of the club who’s smarter than everyone around her. She speaks briefly to this, but only to further define her role — the idea that she can wear fishnets out in her 30s because she went to Stanford (she went elsewhere but Stanford sounds better in her joke). Before attempting to reconcile her intelligence with her image, she must first establish her wider appeal.
This is the sort of calculated brand marketing that removes any comedy. It’s more social media star than performer. Her rhythms are intense, loud club-thumpers that ask little from the listeners and are aimed at the top. They can become overly repetitive, like in an excruciating final Shark Tank bit that sounds like a particularly obscene rake making love to a chalkboard, but more often it sounds deliberate. Well-rehearsed.
It’s pop music because Shlesinger knows exactly what her audience expects.
Yet when she tries to blend her personality into the routine, it comes out as a bitter cocktail. Her love of physical grotesquerie (her mimed hobbling goblin) and the pretense of club culture clash with her armchair anthropology when diagnosing differences between men and women like it was the 1950s.
There’s a mean-spirited feminism here that fights its own and gnashes its teeth at the women who don’t fit the requirements. And that Shlesinger defines things through her white experience (as a joke at first and then… not so much) doesn’t help. Her description of a black man as attractive because she had to compliment him after pointing out his race is an odd and standoffish dig at PC culture by someone who ostensibly wants to develop it.
Then again, Shlesinger also uses the phrase “white-girl crazy” and imitates a black woman with an accent and swaggering step, so maybe the comedian should reassess her strengths.
She backs her way into myopic and confrontational feminism through her party girl aesthetic, riding a problematic parabola too far. There’s an interesting character here with interesting material, though crossfit and eating disorder jokes don’t fit. An embrace of this lifestyle with an analytic eye (that Shlesinger obviously possesses) brings a level of nuance to an otherwise untapped comedy market in the same way that many pop stars have embraced sex-positivity in their new albums.
But Shlesinger needs to do a bit more reading before attempting to incorporate this into her jokes, which are too comically conservative to house the politics she’s dipping a toe into. Feminism is advocated for while she tells girls to kill themselves. Anyone with a hyphenated last name is a butch lesbian and only thin white girls, who’re after men with Tim Allen stand-up personalities, deserve to have the same smug mixture of enunciation and presentation as her.
Shlesinger rails against reclaiming sex-positive words and tells women they only hate sexual harassment when a man is unattractive, all while hashtags fly onscreen for her barely-informed audience members to tweet out to their even less-informed peers. In a world where attention comes from ever-increasing provocativity rather than coherence, she’s a YouTube star-level attention black hole.
It’s a savvy marketing strategy for extremely capitalist comedy, but the Shlesinger routine never amounts to anything more pleasant than being stuck sharing a cab with someone that seemed much more interesting several hours and drinks ago.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Chicago-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.