Iliza Shlesinger says a lead role rejection prepared her for a life in comedy

Iliza Shlesinger on how the hard knocks of high school drama prepared her for the even harder knocks of professional comedy
Iliza Shlesinger says a lead role rejection prepared her for a life in comedy

Illustration Matt Chase

When i was a teenager, summer meant going to a creative arts camp in upstate New York. I was coming from Dallas, where all my peers were cheerleaders or football players. Big difference. At camp I could paint, take a puppet-making class, do improv. I was obsessed with In Living Color, Saturday Night Live and Kids in the Hall, so this was my chance to make my own sketches and videos. To see if I was funny.

My second year there I auditioned for Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The play would come to mean a lot to me—it’s about realizing the gift of life while you’re living it. The main character is a girl named Emily, and there’s a narrator with a large part, plus lots of family members and townspeople. But I didn’t get those parts. I got Lady in a Box.

My character was planted in the stalls, and her big moment comes when the narrator speaks to the audience as if they’re part of a town hall meeting. I raise my hand and ask of the town, “Is there any culture of love of beauty?” The narrator says there’s not much, but that the residents take pleasure in the little things in life. That’s it. That was my part: one line. But by the end of the summer I knew this play inside and out. 

When I arrived at my new high school for freshman year, I was excited to flex my newly acquired East Coast acting skills. Then, the school announced the fall drama production would be Our Town! I thought, “I already know all of Emily’s lines—I’ll win the part, obviously. This is the beginning of my career.” After the auditions, brimming with confidence, I strode up to the casting sheet to find I’d been given the role of … Lady in a Box. 

That was 18 years ago. Since then, I’ve pursued a career in comedy and I’ve managed to make people laugh, but I’ve also had to devote the last decade of my life to my craft. This means giving up going to weddings, birthday parties, weekends with friends, family occasions. Being funny means constantly writing, tweaking, polishing and questioning your work. It means 6 a.m. flights, erratic schedules, performing an hour of stand-up with the flu. It also means rejection. 

Looking back, I think my time as Lady in a Box must’ve been show business preparing me for what lay ahead, basically saying, “Hey, kid, it doesn’t get easier. Get ready now.” Because nothing is guaranteed in this business. No matter how much you want, or think you deserve, show business gives and takes with the same hand. I once had a casting director say to me, “I wanted you for the role, and they basically flipped a coin and you lost.” So yeah, it’s not always a perfect science. But it’s up to me to keep coming back. And I do. Because I love it. Maybe one day I’ll even get cast as Emily, and maybe by then I won’t want the part.

Iliza Shlesinger is the host of the Freeform late-night talk show Truth & Iliza. Her upcoming book, Girl Logic: Understanding That You Make Sense When You Make No Sense At All, will be out in November;