When it comes to standup comedy, comparing men and women is one of the oldest tricks in the book. It takes a lot to bring something new to the formula, and brash comedian Iliza Shlesinger has made it her niche. Her subjects are well-tread, but her approach to the material is outrageous, honest, laugh-out-loud funny, and even a little bit subversive. Freezing Hot, her second comedy special, shows a (slightly) matured Shlesinger compared to her first (2012’s War Paint)—but only slightly. This is the woman who has an extended bit about “vaginal puppetry,” after all.
Shlesinger, the winner of the sixth season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing, has gone through a subtle, but well-known change over the past three years: the transition from being in one’s late twenties to being an early thirtysomething. Her jokes are less about making out with boys, though she still speaks of her inner “party goblin,” which commands her to dance on tables and publish nip-slips on Instagram. Rather than talking about the stages of wild drunkenness, Shlesinger speaks about going on a disappointing date with an accountant who—gasp!—only had one drink the whole night, which meant she couldn’t drink as much as she wanted. And when he shot down her hopes of making out with just a cheek peck, she comes up with the worst possible text message response: a shrimp emoji.
Nonetheless, much of Shlesinger’s material still involves that tried-and-true battle of the sexes. It’s easy to forget that almost all of the comedy we see is written by and geared towards male sensibilities. Women are cast as crazy, shrewish harpies with more makeup than common sense, and we’ve come to accept that as a standard trope and perhaps even find it amusing. It’s so common, and so ubiquitous, that it’s easy to forget how deeply sexist it actually is to cast men as the rational norm and women as the irrational other. Shlesinger doesn’t take to the stage to refute much of that. She still casts women as irrational, but she fully admits to being part of the bedlam. She does the same thing that millions of male comics have done before her, but she flips the idea on its head to make it more empowering than embarrassing.
In Shlesinger’s world, women are terrifyingly insecure in public, and compulsive hedonists when alone. They can’t decide what jacket to wear during autumn (every girl’s favourite season, by law), and they obsessively plan their weddings on Pinterest to the point of complete mental breakdown. But there’s always a method to the madness, and those methods expose some of the darker parts of the female experience. While Shlesinger may not come at her comedy with an explicit feminist slant (in fact, she denies being a feminist in interviews), she never backs down from revealing just how screwed up the world is for women in Western society. She lures the audience in with a long, breathless sequence poking fun at how women are always cold, and then points out that “girls get cold easily because we’re not allowed to eat as much as we want in one sitting” and “you can’t admit you’re hungry because that’s admitting weakness.” For many of us, that’s punch-in-the-gut correct.
As Shlesinger is very good at pointing out, women really just want to eat nachos and sit around in sweatpants, and society has no place for that sort of behaviour. So we twist ourselves into knots, transforming into unrecognizable creatures so that we can appeal to male sensibilities and navigate complicated social situations—and that is what’s irrational. Even the most reasonable feminist has had that friend who gets Pinterest-obsessed about their wedding (or have gotten a little obsessed themselves), and far too many of us have come home from a night out with friends and pigged out on chips after hours of pretending we’re not hungry. These situations are outrageous, but ultimately relatable. The insane thing isn’t the behaviour, but the fact that we have to pretend to be something we’re not.
Shlesinger is a fabulously engaging performer; her sequences have an absolutely fantastic build, and she knows how to extend the tension leading up to the punchline. She’s also got a fantastically sharp tongue, and is able to sneak jokes by so quickly that you almost don’t catch them. She goes all out with her facial expressions and sound effects, zipping from a flirtatious baby voice to a demonic growl in an instant. She makes great use of physicality in sequences like the soon-to-be-famous “Raptorvag,” wherein she figures out a female equivalent to male dick-waving and demonstrates the aforementioned “vaginal puppetry.” It really must be seen to be believed.
There are some moments when it’s a little frustrating that Shlesinger sees women as such crazy, irrational wackjobs, but her observations are almost always rooted in reality. “I truly believe our society operates on a currency of women’s insecurities,” she says, and she lays out the twisted but strangely understandable reasons behind famous female behaviors. While some women may find her unfunny, one never gets the impression that Shlesinger is punching down at her material, and that’s always a welcome perspective when it comes to standup comedy. For her, women are still a treasure trove of comedy, but she is an active participant in the very behaviours upon which she riffs. If a man were to perform this material, it would be out of touch, dated, and really offensive, but with the relatable Shlesinger behind the microphone, it’s hysterical.
Check out ILIZA SHLESINGER’S FREEZING HOT on Netflix and Netflix Canada right now.