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Iliza Schlesinger talks stand-up comedy

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published March 06. 2014 4:00AM   Updated March 07. 2014 4:19PM

Comedian Iliza Shlesinger had to set the alarm to call a reporter for an early interview - if by early you mean "noon." A traveling comic's life is decidedly nocturnal. Shlesinger had done two late shows the previous evening and, wired on coffee and Red Bull, wasn't able to get to sleep until the wee hours.

Noon, then, came cruelly too soon.

"I'm in my hotel bed and I'm so tired," she says by phone from San Antonio. She's also jealous of her dog Blanche, who, snuggled next to her, opts to gently snore through the interview. But Shlesinger cheerfully declines an offer to reschedule.

In conversation, she's thoughtful and passionate about the art of standup and appears genuinely grateful for the interest in her career - which brings her to Comix in the Foxwoods Resort Casino for shows tonight through Saturday. A Dallas native, the 30-year-old Shlesinger moved to Los Angeles to try standup after graduating from Emerson College as a film major. In 2008, after working increasingly in clubs, she became the first woman to win NBC's "Last Comic Standing" competition.

Since then, she hosted over 200 episodes of the syndicated CBS dating show "Excused," starred in her own "Comedy Central Presents" special, and has appeared on NBC'S "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" and E!'s "Chelsea Lately" and "The Soup." Last year, Shlesinger appeared in the Diablo Cody film "Paradise," where she worked with Russell Brand, Holly Hunter and Octavia Spencer. Her debut one-hour comedy special, "War Paint," hit #1 on iTunes, and her own late-night talk show pilot is in development for VH1.

While she's relishing the opportunities, Shlesinger says at heart she'll always be a standup comic.

"It's weird and I don't remember it, but my mom says I told her from the time I was small that I wanted to be a comedian," Shlesinger says. "I enjoyed doing improv at Emerson, but I also realized I didn't need an ensemble with me to get my point across. At the same time, I honestly think standup is a skill and, while it can be honed, it's also one of those situations where you've either got it or you don't."

Indeed, thousands of folks, after being told they were hilarious at parties or holiday gatherings, have been humiliated at open mic events in comedy clubs.

"It's very different. You have to have the ability to convey your point of view to total strangers," Shlesinger says. "You're not with a bunch of friends who know you and your history and your sense of humor. A lot of the time, that's a 'you had to be there' situation for it to be funny, and you WERE there.

"Onstage, you have to capture lightning in a bottle and bring strangers into a new world. They have to immediately relate to you, and you have to get them to experience and appreciate the story through your eyes."

Shlesinger also thinks a successful comic has to expose insecurities, fears and weaknesses. She says, "There's very much a vulnerability factor. You have to be willing to let the audience inside, and that's intimidating. Not everyone can do it."

Shlesinger is also at that point in her success where audiences are starting to anticipate "greatest hits" bits.

"I definitely appreciate fans, and we have an obligation to entertain them - but not to pander to them," she says.

It's a particularly fine line for Shlesinger at this point in time. She's taping a new one-hour special this summer and has to write all new material and road-test it.

"My job is to be funny every night," she says, "but I can't tape a show and use old jokes. It's weird. I am to the point where people expect me to do this or that joke. It's very flattering, but I don't even remember some of them anymore. You have to evolve. I listen to material I did three months ago and cringe. The good news is, you never stop learning. The bad news is, I can't seem to get it perfect."

Iliza Shlesinger, 8 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday, Comix, Foxwoods Resort Casino; $25-$50; 1-800-200-2882, foxwoods.com/comedy.

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