The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Iliza Shlesinger (“Excused”)

A hallmark of attending the Television Critics Association press tour and the various panels and events surrounding it is that you really never know who you’re going to end up chatting with. On one evening this time around, I went to the Paley Center and found myself chatting with Joe Regalbuto (known to most for “Murphy Brown”, though I’ll always remember him best as Rex Smith’s scientific sidekick on “Streethawk”) and “Waltons” creator Earl Hamner, Jr., then had a chance to say “hello” to one of my past interview subjects for both Bullz-Eye and the Onion AV Club, Ed Asner. But that was a special Warner Brothers event celebrating the history of the studio’s TV series, so I wasn’t entirely blindsided by their appearances there…unlike the gorgeous blonde in a traffic-stopping dress who strolled into the CBS all-star event even though, I felt quite certain, she wasn’t actually on a CBS show.

I mean, you wouldn’t forget someone who looks like this, would you?

And I was right, as it turns out.

Well, sort of, anyway: Iliza Shlesinger isn’t on CBS, per se, but she hosts the syndicated dating show “Excused, “which – provided it appears in your market – appears in on your TV screen courtesy of CBS Television Distribution. Funnily enough, I’d worked with her publicist on several past projects, which is why the publicist came up to me and asked, “Would you like to talk to Iliza?” Like I’d turn down an offer like that…

(Plus, as I told Ms. Shlesinger a few minutes later, I also immediately thought, “Hey, I’ve actually watched that show, so I won’t have to sit there bluffing my way through the next several minutes!”)

Iliza Shlesinger: Did you want to sit next to me?

Bullz-Eye: I can, if that’s permissible.

IS: I’ve saved this seat especially for you. Now, I’ve just eaten a piece of tuna, so don’t think I have bad breath.

BE: I won’t.

IS: I say that because you have bad breath…but hopefully only because I just saw you eat a piece of tuna, too.

BE: Let’s go with that, then. So I understand you guys have been picked up for a second season.

IS: Yes. Well, I hope so, anyway, because we’ve been filming it.

BE: And the schedule’s pretty ridiculous, from what I hear.

IS: We’ve been filming an episode a day, and we’re doing 100 episodes. Last season, we did 130. I’ve logged more TV hours than Regis Philbin.

BE: You just flew in from Canada, right?

IS:I did the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. We did a TV taping in front of 3,000 people last night. So I literally didn’t go to sleep and flew five hours to get here. And then I put this dress on.

BE: Which is an impressive feat in and of itself. How is it balancing your stand-up with the show?

IS: They feed each other, but at the same time it’s difficult, because you film all day, then you get out at 9:30 or 10 o’clock, and then I have to rush to the local comedy venues to get a couple of sets in to just keep sharp. So it is exhausting, and I can’t tour, but it’ll be worth it when we get done taping and I go back on tour. It’s important to do both, though, I think.

BE: How did you find your way into this gig in the first place?

IS: Excused? You wanna know the honest truth…?

BE: Sure, why not?

IS: I would love to say that they found me, but I auditioned. My manager called and said, “Do you wanna audition for a dating show?” And at first I said, “No,” but then I went to the audition, and they were so open to me having my own jokes, which you rarely see in comedy on TV, especially… I wasn’t a famous person, I wasn’t someone who had set any precedent with any sort of body of work, but they really let me come in and sort of shape the show. And I think the show you see today is a collaborative effort. Mostly from me. [Laughs.] And the producers allowing me and having enough faith in me to do the comedy I want and really trusting me to take it in those directions. So I’m eternally grateful for that.

BE: How hard is it to keep a straight face with some of these contestants?

IS: Not hard at all, because it’s seriously sad sometimes. [Laughs.] There have been times, and I’m sure they have them on outtakes somewhere, where I just lose it. And fortunately a lot of the comedy comes when I’m watching someone on the hidden camera, so they can’t see me keeping a straight face or not. And thank God for editing, because it’ll always look like I had the utmost candor. So that’s good.

BE: Did it take you awhile to find your rhythm doing the show, not having had a job like this before?

IS: Well, you know, comedy’s comedy. There’s different kinds of comedy, obviously, but…last year, when people came to the front door and I made fun of them, it was a lot of one-liners, and my act…I don’t do one-liners. I don’t do “yo mama” jokes. [Laughs.] So it was an exercise in a different form of comedy, and I so enjoyed it, because you get to use a different part of your comedy brain.

This year we’ve gotten rid of that part, but it’s more talking and finding comedy in the moment. Organic comedy, which I love. It’s crowd work, but with only a couple of people. So it’s good. [Hesitates.] You have great questions!

BE: And this is off the top of my head. I didn’t even know you were here!

IS: Well, they’re really good. I’m not joking with you. Like, usually the questions are so horrible, and it’s hard not to give jerky answers. But these are really good questions!

BE: [Blushing.] See, now you’ve complimented me, and now I’m drawing a blank.

IS: Should I start asking you questions?

BE: Yes, probably.

IS: Why did you grow that beard?

BE: Well, you know, it just kind of came naturally. I didn’t have to work very hard at it at all.

IS: [Laughs.] Nice.

BE: So it’s obviously at least partially out of your hands, but how long do you see yourself doing the show? Are you enjoying the experience?

IS: I do enjoy it. Like I said, it’s a grueling schedule. You’ve got to get up early every day, and…I’m not a make-up person and I’m not usually a tight-outfits person, but every day you’ve got to get up and get made up. But, you know, when you’re in the moment – and any comic will tell you this – it’s just like being on stage. It’s just so fun to do that. And at the end of the day, I get to make comedy during the day and at night. And not a lot of comics can say that for their careers.

BE: You mentioned that you’re not a one-liners kind of comedian. How would you describe your act for someone who hasn’t seen it?

IS: Observational. I’m more of a storyteller. Self-deprecating. Making fun of the world and just laughing with people. I mean, I think that’s what comedy’s about. You try to keep it honest, try to keep it intelligent. That’s something I try to bring to “Excused,” as hard as it is at times.

BE: Have you found that your audiences are recognizing you from the show now?

IS: It happens, yeah. Usually it’s, “You’re the girl from ‘Excused’!” No name. [Laughs.] And that’s fine. The more it’s on…I mean, it’s on enough that people are starting to pay attention to it. And one thing I’ve noticed is that, this fall, a lot of networks are launching comedy dating shows. I wonder where they got that idea…

BE: I can’t imagine.

IS: Nope. Me, neither. [Laughs.] So I like to think of myself…even though comedy dating shows have been around, I like to think of myself as the new age grandfather of comedy dating shows. Not as hot at Jenny McCarthy, but…I think we’re ushering in a new era of dating shows.

BE: Well, you know, Jenny McCarthy’s set the bar pretty high.

IS: Yeah. I can’t jump that bar. [Laughs.]

BE: So you said people are starting to say, “You’re the girl from ‘Excused,’” but is that a step up? Did they used to just say, “You’re the girl from that show’?”

IS: They used to say, “You’re the girl from ‘Last Comic Standing.’” Or any sort of bastardization of that title. [Laughs.] And then it’s usually, “You’re Alisa! Aliza! Uh…” And I know they mean well. The point is, they’ve seen the show. That’s what it’s all about. I always have my hair down, and I think that helps. Long blonde hair and a funny last name. It clicks. But, yeah, it’s happening more and more, and it’s pretty cool. It’s a cool thing to walk off an elevator and have someone be, like, “Oh!” And you know what? Not as many people as I thought, but…I’ve had about four people tell me I’m excused. I thought that was something that was going to plague me and eventually be the end of me.

BE: And it may yet.

IS: It may still. We’ll see how popular Season 2 is. But people have been pretty good about that. I think because they’re a little afraid of me. [Laughs.] And then I have people who Tweet me and ask me to excuse them. I’m, like, “I don’t know how awful-looking you are, so send me a picture…and send me five dollars.”

BE: Which actually ties into what I was getting ready to ask you: how has social networking helped your profile?

IS: You know, Twitter’s a great tool. It adds a lot of garbage to cyberspace because not everyone needs to know every thought, but it really helps people to get to know your brand of humor and your brand of comedy. And in terms of publicizing your shows and your side projects and your main projects…you know, if used properly, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s also lightning in a bottle. You know, you got one guy who Tweets something about his foot and gets a million hits, then you’ve got someone who Tweets constantly every day, and nobody’s reading them. You never know.

BE: Do you use YouTube to promote your act at all?

IS: I’m familiar with the YouTube. [Laughs.] It’s a tough thing, though. I know “Excused” has its own channel, which is great for outtakes and content that you don’t get watching TV…which, if you’re a fan of something, you want that premium content. But for comedy, it’s a tough thing, because when you put a bit on YouTube, that’s where it lives forever, in perpetuity. And you want sometimes to work on bits and then debut them later, so I usually pass on people filming my sets. I’d rather have the television channel film me and broadcast them. But I am on YouTube. Some of the clips are old, though. In fact, most of them are.

BE: Do you incorporate any of your experiences from “Excused” into your stand-up?

IS: You know, like I kind of mentioned earlier, I think they feed one another on some level. And the prowess that you gain from being on a show like this, where you always have to be on your toes, helps with stand-up. I have one or two bits, but…dating’s relatable, and human interaction certainly is, but what I actually do is so unrelatable. It’s hard to set up a joke with, “So you know when you’re on the set, hosting your dating show, and the director’s just so…” [Starts to laugh.]

BE: Actually, that’d be a great bit.

IS: Well, I’m going to start doing that, then. [Laughs.] If the show becomes popular enough, I can probably do that. But it’s like when celebrities try comedy, and they’re, like, “So you’re on a movie set…” People are, like, “Nope, never done that.” So you try to keep it humble and keep it simple.

BE: Who’s the most ridiculous contestant you’ve had on the show?

IS: “Who isn’t?” is the better question. You know, every week…there’s ridiculous and then there’s creepy and then there’s weird. We have people who…I dunno, usually when people get blackout drunk, that helps. Sometimes people take it too seriously and cry. I’m trying to think… Off the top of my head, I’ll give you the honest answer: after this many episodes, it gets a little blurry. So few things stick out. We did have one guy reveal that he had a genital disease. That was great.  [Laughs.] Real fun to witness. And I think it’s a little funny when they get angry. I think it’s funny when they get angry at me. I’m not the one determining their fate, whether they believe it or not. But I am the one speaking to them, so…I’m the easy excuse on “Excused,” I guess.