Within the first five minutes of Elder Millennial, the latest comedy special from Iliza Shlesinger which streams Tuesday on Netflix, the 35-year-old comic uses just as many voices, characters and contortions to tell a story. The story itself, which concerns her engagement, is quickly subsumed by the comedian’s performance, leaving the audience is none the wiser (and for the better).
“The only way to tell those stories is to become them,” Shlesinger explains. “I see them so vividly in my head, and when I tell them the voices come out, the body movements come out. I just want to pull the audience into that picture in my mind. I feel like I’m trapped sometimes, and I just want to say, ‘Can’t you see what I see?’ It just feels so natural, trying to pull them into my brain and wanting them to experience it.”
Often touted as the 2008 winner of NBC’s reality competition Last Comic Standing, Shlesinger has made a name for herself on Netflix, where her first special, War Paint debuted in 2013. Since then her profile in (and beyond) the stand-up world has exploded, thereby exposing her many voices and characters to as many eyeballs and eardrums as possible.
Yet the global fame hasn’t fazed Shlesinger, even whenever anyone compares her stage presence to the late Robin Williams, the comedy giant best known for his use of voices and characters.
Iliza Shlesinger on Robin Williams
“There’s no higher compliment than being compared to a genius like Robin Williams. I think to be a comedian that’s living and breathing now, you couldn’t have grown up without watching him. To cite him specifically as an influence, however,” she cautions, “I couldn’t say that I would do that. For me, it was more sketch comedy like In Living Color and Saturday Night Live.”
“Of course we watched all of his great movies. Mrs. Doubtfire comes to mind in terms of characters and things like that,” Shlesinger continues. “I wouldn’t cite him as a specific influence, but subversively, he was always in the ether. We all have our own way of storytelling, our own presence on stage. If you look at someone like Steven Wright, who is the best at standing still and speaking softly, he’s brilliant at it. At the other end of the spectrum, you have people like Robin, who keep moving around, sweating and drinking all the water.”
Based on her performance in Elder Millennial, Shlesinger definitely leans much farther toward the Williams end of the spectrum. Even so, for comedy aficionados and general audiences alike, it’s not too difficult to see both styles on full display in her latest hour. The comic credits her love of sketch comedy and her time in a high school improv troupe, as well as her years at Emerson College in Boston, where she joined the Jimmy’s Traveling All-Stars sketch comedy group.
She also cites a video camera she bought herself one spring break back in high school.
“I bought a video camera instead of going on spring break, not that anybody invited me on spring break. I voluntarily bought this camera and I was always making these funny videos with it, with no real guidance. I thought I was living in a vacuum,” she recalls. “When I got to Emerson, I remember looking around the campus and thinking, ‘Oh my god, these kids are just like me!’”
Elder Millenial debuts July 24 on Netflix.