There seems to be a pervasive belief among comedians lately that a general awareness of racism is an antidote to racism. If you acknowledge that racism exists, then you can get away with saying whatever you want about race. In her new stand-up special Iliza: Confirmed Kills, Iliza Shlesinger makes black women the butt of the joke in a truly bizarre and misguided bit that’s insidiously dressed up as an innocent observation. Shlesinger claims that black women have an unshakeable sense of self-confidence about their bodies, capping off her “point” with an impression of a black woman receiving a compliment. The joke lacks insight and is based on faulty assumptions that ignore any kind of social or historical context for black women’s bodies: It’s just an excuse for Shlesinger to trot out an impression of a black woman. It’s only a few seconds, but it unsettles nonetheless. And it’s not her joke to make in the first place.
Fortunately, Confirmed Kills doesn’t amount to a full hour of racial humor, but any time Shlesinger does wander toward the subject of race, she fails to make any kind of real point. She reiterates multiple times that she’s white and that being white is great, but that self-awareness doesn’t really discount the extreme whiteness her comedy gets filtered through. The comment on black women’s self-esteem comes after a long-winded and frankly confusing explanation of how famous women of color made it acceptable to have curves and how that then made it acceptable for people to tell white women that they need to be as thin as possible. “Because we are not spicy,” Shlesinger says of herself and fellow white women. “There’s not a chili pepper,” she says, pointing to her chest. She might be aware of the fact that she is white and that her whiteness affords her certain benefits in life, but she’s certainly unaware of how the language she’s using perpetuates the notion that women of color are exotic. And are people really still trying to make jokes, in 2016, about Jennifer Lopez making butts “cool”?
Shlesinger’s greatest comedic weapon is her voice, which she distorts to fit the tone of whatever she’s talking about. Or sometimes her weird inflections are just weird and serve no other purpose, but it works. Shlesinger has infectious energy and commands the stage, which is a very good thing, because sometimes her bits drag on a little too long. While the pacing of the special is off, Shlesinger remains high energy enough to still be engaging. She starts off with her well-known “Party Goblin” bit, and it certainly makes sense to bust out material that her fans will appreciate, but as with a lot of Confirmed Kills, it goes on for a bit longer than necessary and is really only saved by its weirder moments, like when she impersonates a drunk girl confessing a secret. But Shlesinger really goes after women who identify as mermaids for a large chunk of the special, and that bit never finds its feet.
When Shlesinger goes weird, she shines. The asides that sound more like ad libs than meticulously planned parts of the set (and there really are some parts that come off as so rehearsed that they border on unnatural) are her funniest moments. Confirmed Kills has several hilarious isolated moments, but the macro structure of Shlesinger’s joke-telling wavers. Shlesinger pointedly lays foundation for her jokes, but it’s weak foundation predicated on very surface-level ideas about men and women. Her attempts at social commentary are where everything starts to fall apart. Her dissection of the different generations is full of obvious jokes and also pretty dismissive of race. Shlesinger admits that it’s easy for her to romanticize past generations as a white woman, but again, awareness of privilege isn’t a funny or interesting point of view for comedy.
She ends on her strongest bit, which tellingly doesn’t revolve around any kind of forced point about society or culture but is just a weirdo act-out of an imaginary Shark Tank pitch in which Shlesinger’s aptitude for cartoonish voices, dynamic energy, and genuine absurdity all meet in perfect harmony. She goes long, but this time, it works, because the material feels more distinct and novel than much of the rest. Separated into smaller pieces, Confirmed Kills has its moments. It just feels like a rough draft.