A monthly column, Funny Feminism features conversations with feminist-identifying artists who use humor in their creative work.
Last year, when I moved to New York, a mutual friend of Liz Glazer and I told us that we had to meet. This mutual friend said that Liz was a lawyer and law professor who was about to walk away from a tenured position to focus full-time on standup comedy. The first time I met Liz several months ago, she invited me to check out a weekly night she was co-hosting with her good friend and comedic partner, Rhett Sever. Their night, Say Everything, stood out from traditional standup shows because audience members are actually encouraged to speak up and interrupt the comedian on stage with questions. These questions can throw off a comic with prepared material and these performances become intimate one-of-a-kind detours that often lead to either catharsis or collision. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that Liz and Rhett are doing something really special and important, as some of the conversations I’ve had with strangers at Say Everything are not ones I’d likely have at any other comedy night and I thank them for that. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to talk to Liz about her own creative practice immediately after she dragged me to my first and only SoulCycle class. After class, I was drenched in sweat, while Liz, the SoulCycle regular, was glowing. That Liz got me to bust my ass to techno music on a Sunday morning is proof of the sort of energetic draw she has. It’s no wonder she gets people to spill their guts on stage every week. Below are excerpts from our drenched discussion.
Cathy de la Cruz: Can you talk about your journey into comedy? I’m curious about how you went from being a lawyer and a law professor to a comedian.
Liz Glazer: In 2009, I moved to Chicago for the semester because I needed to move away from New York. I was being very self-destructive here. I was in a relationship that wasn’t working. I was doing drugs more than I wanted to be doing drugs. I felt like I maybe could have gone on, but I remember when I got the phone call from Loyola University Chicago, I was like, ‘I’m ready. Just take me somewhere.’ I was really depressed. I went to Chicago for that semester and I started doing improv because I needed to do something unrelated to my job. I took an improv class at IO, which was formerly called Improv Olympic, and became very affected by it. I thought I was terrible at it, but I was just really afraid and I noticed that I was really afraid. Improv forced me into this zone of discomfort, of being vulnerable and being myself and not caring what people were thinking of me when they looked at me, and I had not ever really been exposed to that.
My earliest experience of being on stage was when I was 4. I took a ballet class because there was ice cream in the lower level of the dance studio. During our recital, all you had to do was hold the hand of the person next to you and walk in a circle. At four years old I questioned what we were even doing on stage: what was everyone thinking of our dumb dance moves? There was no choreography. Why was I even on stage? What gave me the right? Instead of just holding two people’s hands and walking in a circle, I took the middle of both circles in the stage and started bawling my eyes out. I feel like that could have been a viral video if it had happened in 2015. That could have been my early start.
I was really afraid of being the center of attention even though I loved it and I’ve always had that kind of complicated relationship with attention–like my Bat Mitzvah was a real mess. I could not handle the attention because I always knew that I wanted to be the center of it, but I didn’t feel like I deserved it. When I started doing comedy, I had to come up against that.
CD: How many years were you practicing law before you turned to comedy?
LG: There were three years of law school plus two years of working in a law firm. I went to the University of Chicago for law school also, so Chicago has this connection for me for all of it. I worked for a law firm in New York for two years. Before I started comedy, I had been teaching for 4 or 5 years, but I just retired after 9 years. I’ve been working a total of 14 years in a legal capacity.
CD: Have you met any other “lawyer-comedians”?
LG: Yeah, I have, but I don’t 100% know their stories because we’ve never chatted it out about what it’s like to work in law and comedy. I’ve never met anyone who was a professor and had tenure and gave it up to do comedy.
CD: Can you talk about the decision to trade in a tenured professor gig to follow your comedic dreams?
LG: There’s a pretty crazy story with it. I first started doing standup in 2013. It was all rush and I felt this total flow and I didn’t know where it was coming from, but it was amazing and felt like a professional orgasm. The only way that it differed from a real orgasm was that I was 100% sure that it happened.
LG: It also produced kind of a manic time period for me and that wasn’t all good or pretty. I was teaching at Northwestern at the time and in a way was at the height of my career. Things were going really well and I think that’s important to note because it was a moment when I was able to discern having had this experience of doing awesome on stage–that from all the good feelings I had from accomplishing all the law stuff, it was nothing compared to that one moment on stage. I don’t think I would have been able to see that if things weren’t exactly as they were at that time. It produced a kind of mania and one of the byproducts of that mania was that I had this vision or a daydream where I was on a late night talk show and the host who was male…
CD: It sucks that women don’t even get to host late night talk shows in our dreams.
LG: Right? Hopefully that will change soon. The host in my daydream was like, ‘So Liz, you were a law professor for a decade and then you started doing comedy–what the fuck?’ And I was like, ‘Actually, it was 9 years.’ And at that point, I had been teaching for 7. I don’t know where that joke came from, but I started laughing about it thinking that there’s something funny about doing a job like law, which is so detail-oriented and everyone’s going to say for the rest of your life, if you do something great next, you did it for a decade, but who doesn’t round up to 10 from 9 and every time they do that, you being the anal retentive former lawyer/law professor and also anxious person that you are, are going to correct them and say, ‘It’s actually 9’. So I had this in my head and I actually wrote it down because I needed to remind myself of it: ‘Don’t quit your job for a bit.’ Especially since I wasn’t even sure if I was funny.
LG: Then during my 8th year, Hofstra University, like many other law schools, was experiencing a moment of reevaluating their budget, which caused the dean to offer all of the tenured faculty members (of which I am one) buyout packages. I was actually on the way to my best friend’s mom’s funeral in the car with the funeral procession with two of my high school friends taking this phone call and the dean is saying all the different options, and he’s like ‘Well, you could go to a quarter time or half-time or you could quit after this year and you get this amount or you could quit after next year, which would have been my 9th year and then you get this amount of money in exchange for that. And I said to him, ‘Oh, I pick that one.’ And he’s like, ‘Wait, Liz–you don’t have to pick any of these. I really just have to call you. That’s all that has to happen. Do you get what I’m saying?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I get what you’re saying.’ And then I told him the story I just told you. And he was like, ‘That’s the weirdest thing in the world, but just weird enough to be weirdly right.’ So I made that decision a year and a half ago and now this is the moment of retiring. I have one set of grades due. I know it’s not everyone’s story.
CD: What has the response to your comedy been like from your law colleagues?
LG: I think some of them think I’m crazy and talk about that behind my back, but I don’t know. There’s a lot of, ‘You’re so brave.’ And then I’m like, ‘It’s not fighting in Iraq.’ It’s talking about how gay I am on a stage. I’m very committed to knowing exactly what I want. I’m writing a show about this, which is going to be called, “(Very) Early Retirement.” It’s been one of those decisions where I actually had to shut out what anyone else thought of it.
CD: You described what you felt as a ‘professional orgasm’ feeling on stage during your first standup performance. Can you talk more about that first standup performance?
LG: Yes. I was dating this wonderful woman at the time, Ilana, who continues to be a great friend of mine. She had moved with me for the semester that I was teaching at Northwestern in Chicago. We were leaving for the theater and she gets so much mail it’s like a joke. I don’t get anything in the mail ever because I’m afraid of people coming to my door. As we were leaving for the show, she was in the entryway to our apartment building and she saw a package and was like, ‘Oh, let me just bring it in and then we’ll go.’ And then she looked at the package and said, ‘It’s for you.’ We were both like, ‘What?! That’s so weird.’ Because it really was. I really never get mail. I put it on the kitchen counter and I took out scissors to cut the tape from the box and as I’m about to do that, I’m like ‘Oh. I have no idea what this is. Truly. It could be anthrax, porn, whatever.’ But I don’t know and I do know that I’m nervous to be onstage and I also know that the way to get comfortable even if you’re nervous is to get vulnerable. And one of the ways of the easiest ways of being vulnerable is to be uncertain. And I was uncertain what was in that package. I stopped myself and thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to open this on stage.’ Then it was my time to go on stage and I explained what had just happened to the audience and I opened the package and what was in the package was comedy-gold which came in the form of three packages of six plastic hanger protectors from my mother because two weeks prior to that, she had visited me in Chicago for fun and she stayed with me and Ilana and noticed that my cat, Mona, was very into perching herself on top of my suits for school in my closet and my mother knows I don’t care enough to like buy hanger protectors, so she went home to New Jersey and went online and ordered those hanger-protectors to come to my house. I explained that on stage. I don’t remember what else I talked about.
CD: Can you tell me about the one-woman show that you did? Do you plan to do more solo shows?
LG: I wrote “A One-Woman Wedding” and I performed it on June 17, 2013 in a bar in Chicago. I married the most vulnerable, hateful, shameful version of myself—that’s the arc of the play. It was split up into half of the beats were ceremony, half of the beats were reception. And I played my mother, my father, my brother, a rabbi, the band, the dancers, and my ex-fiancé who made a cameo. I was supposed to get married actually a year before on that date and I wrote the play as the one-year anniversary of that civil union that didn’t happen.
I would explore that again. It was really good. I don’t mean that as an assessment of the work really so much as it was an experience that allowed for me to achieve the feelings that I was trying to achieve by writing it and acting in it.
CD: How long was it?
LG: It was 40 minutes.
CD: And it was your first solo show?
CD: Did it come about through a class?
LG: It was in that same sort of manic time when I had the 9-year/10-year joke. I was like, ‘I have to marry myself.’
CD: Is there documentation of it?
LG: It’s on video, but I’ve never watched it.
CD: (Laughter) Prior to that, did you have an acting or a writing background?
CD: You just did it?
LG: I just did it.
CD: There must have been something to get you to take that initial improv class besides having some free time. What was that initial improv spark?
LG: A friend of mine in law school dated someone who I thought was really funny, and she was connected to the theater and so that was inspirational, but I think I just knew I needed it. I knew I needed it to feel free. I think I gravitate toward those things. I don’t think I would have been happiest as my sexual self if I hadn’t been in a heterosexual relationship that was headed for marriage before I started dating women. I needed to be almost at the thing that I was supposed to want to then say, ‘Actually, I don’t want this—it doesn’t fulfill me to a core.’ I gravitated toward that fulfillment with improv and comedy. I gravitate toward it with SoulCycle. I gravitate toward it with kissing girls.
CD: You said perhaps half-jokingly that for you, standup is a lot about “talking about how gay I am on stage.” Do you feel like that was something you had to suppress in other areas of your life until now?
LG: I once got a comment on a teaching evaluation that my attire was offensive because I sought to make myself gender-neutral and just comments about how gay I am, and how that’s not relevant for class and the thing is, I teach Property. (Laughter) At the time, I remember that I taught Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which is the same-sex marriage case in Massachusetts, as part of the marital property unit in the class. The case was in the book, but I didn’t teach it for a few years because I had gotten these comments that the reason I had included it was because I was gay.
I have the background of having gone to Orthodox Jewish day school and my dad still thinks that I talk about being gay too much because it makes him uncomfortable. I know it comes from a place of love from him—he’s like, ‘You’re more than just gay.’ And I’m like, ‘Right, but being gay makes me really happy.’ If I have a week where I’m thinking about being really gay, then I’m going to talk about being really gay.’ That’s the whole thing with comedy—you’re doing your own thing and there’s no curriculum. I can talk about whatever I want and that’s exactly the freedom that I need. I’m not saying anything super edgy. It’s not so much that I say super edgy things—I just want to be able to say anything. I don’t want anyone to be like, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have said that.’ And so I will gravitate toward things that make me feel the ability to just be totally myself. I think the SoulCycle thing—that makes me feel that way; comedy makes me feel that way; being in relationships with women—not all of them every single time, it depends on the woman, but that makes me feel that way. Dancing, singing…
CD: Do you remember what felt like the biggest performance bomb for you?
LG: There have been so many.
LG: I went through a period where all I would talk about on stage was suicide. I have this idea for a scene about the G train and how it’s super slow. I used to live off of it at 7th Avenue and at 7th Avenue in Brooklyn, the G train like stops at like 5 miles an hour, you know, when it shows up and even if you wanted to kill yourself, I don’t think you could in front of the G train. And so I was like, wouldn’t it be such a funny scene if I was in front of the G train in this heroic effort to kill myself, but then had to get off of the track after it didn’t work. So I feel like I bombed for a few weeks because I was working on that scene in my head, but I needed to work that out. I guess the risk in doing comedy the way that I’ve done it is that sometimes if I’m in a place of working some stuff out, I just might not be funny for a couple of weeks.
CD: It sounds like you’re working in other mediums besides standup—you’ve got your 750-word-a-day project, I see on social networking that you’ve got the Penny Project and the #DearLiz project—I’m curious if you think that all the different creative work you do has different audiences?
LG: I know that it does because a friend of mine who’s a very big fan of my standup is like, ‘You’re great except for that penny thing.’ (Laughter) But then there are people who are so into the pennies; people who are just diehard penny freaks and I love it because I’m a diehard penny freak. All of it comes from something that just makes me so excited. I see the connections. The Penny Project is like finding a way to extend moments that make you feel happy. For me, that is why I’m doing all of this.
CD: Do you feel like all these different things that you do are separate Lizzes or do you feel like they’re all coming from the same Liz? Do you feel like there’s ever going to be a way to combine everything?
LG: I think so. My therapist says that we’re working on integration. She thinks I’m coming into myself more, which is cool. It also makes me think, ‘What was I like before? Was I so bad?’
LG: But I know that that’s not true. It’s just that people don’t always understand how I could do all these different things that I like to do. And I don’t understand, but I’m just really driven by passion. If something is pulling at me, I’m just going to do it. I ultimately want a life that allows me moments of breathing and resting and playing in a way that’s not just about the work, but I’m not there yet. Right now because this is such a transitional moment when I switch gears and it’s great because I feel like I’m always caught up in some romantic distraction and I don’t feel that way right now, which is great.
CD: When I first met you, I thought that was the moment because I think that’s how you introduced yourself sort of—‘I’m doing comedy, but I’m leaving this position.’ But now I realize that this is the actual moment.
LG: I’ve been readying myself for it for a long time.
CD: Do you identify as a feminist comic?
LG: The question of am I a feminist comic—yeah totally. I’m absolutely a feminist. The only reason I get a moment of self-consciousness or hesitation is because whenever I subscribe to an –ism, I always wonder if there are people who are like, ‘Well, she’s not enough of a feminist.’ Or something like that. I really admire Amy Schumer and I admire the way that she’s able to say, ‘I really care about issue X. Here’s a way of demonstrating what it is I care about issue X. And I’m going to go for it.’ I don’t do that. I think part of the reason I don’t do that is I don’t think I’m good at that. Also, it feels like more what I did in law and that’s not the way that I do comedy. Maybe one day, I don’t know. I think Amy Schumer’s amazing, I think she’s brilliant and she does that amazingly. I don’t know if I’m a feminist comic in that sense because I’m not writing those kinds of jokes, but I do believe in feminism and I work as a comic. I think Say Everything is a really special environment because there’s no advantage to being anybody there.
LG: The best thing you can be is ‘blank’ to do that show. If you just let yourself do great, you will. You don’t even have to be a comic to do great on that show. I’ve thought about just having people I know get on stage even if they’re not comedians because everyone’s a comedian sometimes I think.
CD: Who are some of your comedic and/or artistic influences?
LG: My first improv instructor, Lyndsay Hailey, and my current acting coach, Brad Calcaterra. Abby Sher, who is a writer who was in Second City—she showed me how being honest could be funny—and also her mentor and mine, Susan Shapiro. Joan Rivers and Amy Schumer who have demonstrated that to me by example. Tara DeFrancisco is a wonderful comedian in Chicago who was also a huge influence on me just in terms of having a sense of play. I love Jenny Slate also. I like girl comics. I don’t have anything against boy comics, but I’m in it for girls. I like hearing what women have to say. And my mom. I always knew that my mom wanted to be more of a performer than she ever let herself be and I think that whenever I summon whatever is inside of me to perform, I think of my mother. It was a different time when she was growing up, and she wanted to be an opera singer, and her father told her to be a teacher and she was a teacher for 33 years. She did all the things that you’re supposed to do and I, in a way, am not doing those things. She’s a big influence.
Say Everything happens every Thursday night from 7pm-9pm at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar in NYC. The show is free.