Iliza Shlesinger Keeps On Truckin’ With ‘Comedy Tailgate’ Drive-In Tour (Cover Story)

Iliza Shlesinger
Christopher Patey
– Iliza Shlesinger

The concept of standup comedy is one of vulnerability and risk in the first place – alone on stage, tasked with bringing an entire crowd to the point of uproarious laughter, nowhere to go if it doesn’t work. The best comics not only get through it but make a career out of it, and take their lumps as learning experiences and ways to improve. 

“I believe in battle scars in this career,” red-hot comic Iliza Shlesinger told Pollstar ahead of her “Comedy Tailgate” tour that just kicked off Oct. 2 in Pittsburgh. 
The tour is somewhat of a risky endeavor itself, considering the coronavirus pandemic, logistical challenges of putting on a drive-in tour and everything else happening in what has been a turbulent year. 
“I’ve done standup on aircraft carriers, I’ve done standup in the middle of the Iraq desert, I’ve done standup at a charity event, I’ve done standup for three people in the back of a comic book shop,” she adds. “Being able to pivot and shift and adjust is a big part of the craft.”
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Shlesinger, with five Netflix specials and a couple of decades of standup under her belt despite being just 37 years old, didn’t blink at the chance to do a full drive-in tour, one of the largest routed tour of its kind during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m a big believer in just – put your head down and just go, one foot in front of the other and be open to new experiences,” she says. “But above all, I’m grateful we were able to carve out this opportunity. I love doing standup, I love engaging with fans and seeing our country, and just being able to move about the country. It’s really getting a little piece of my heart back, it means more to me than people will ever know.”
Shlesinger has blossomed as one of the top touring comics in recent years, from winning NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” in 2008 to now headlining theatres across the world, including selling hard tickets well into the 3,000-4,000 ticket range, such as four shows at The Wilbur in Boston (4,094 tickets), 3,501 tickets in one night at the Chicago Theatre in 2019 and, this year, multiple sellouts in Australia before the pandemic put regular touring on hold.
Iliza Shlesinger
– Iliza Shlesinger

She’s in many ways grown up in front of her fans, with her Netflix special “Elder Millennial” telling spooky tales of the the analog land line and, most recently, with “Unveiled,” a decidedly feminist and confident take on holy matrimony –to much comedic effect, of course.

“I like that I’ve been documenting via standup specials my experiences as a human on this planet since my early 20s,” says Shlesinger, who with new husband and professional chef Noah Galuten started a Facebook/Instagram cooking show called “Don’t Panic Pantry” that has run more than 140 times during the pandemic. 
“I started doing standup in my 20s, talking about being a younger person going out and all of that, and it’s all still applicable,” she says. “So I love that younger girls are now finding that, and it’s like, I’ve got something for whatever you’re going through in life, as long as I’ve lived it, and the new material will deal with newer experiences.”
It’s become clear with the drive-in tour that an artist has to really want to make it happen, and Shlesinger is no different, although as a comedian some of the logistical problems that come from a touring band are alleviated somewhat.
“She has the appetite and wants to get out there and work,” says United Talent Agency’s Joe Schwartz, who was instrumental in putting together the tour. “If you ask 10 different comedians who have done these drive-in shows, you’ll get 10 different responses on how they enjoyed them. It’s obviously different than going in and playing a theatre, where there’s a back wall and you can time the laughs and all that. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Iliza to have the motivation and the drive to go out and do this and see her fans and perform in a scenario that is relatively new for our business.”
With UTA’s established comedy department and offices across the pond as well, the tour was very much a team effort between not only agent and promoter but within the agency, too.
“Just figuring out who were the best partners took a lot of teamwork across our entire company,” Schwartz said. “Without everyone working together canvassing and having these relationships, this probably wouldn’t have been possible.” 
While UTA also put together drive-in tours for electronic artist and “Loop Daddy” Marc Rebillet and comedian Bert Kreischer, the Iliza tour was considered different for its length and travel considerations, which meant multiple promoters as well.
“It was kind of a mix of people who took the initiative, the promoters who took a chance on the Marc Rebillet tour and Bert’s tour, but at the same time we are working with a number of local promoters for Iliza’s tour as well as a national promoter to make sure we have the absolute best partners in every market,” Schwartz said. This includes local independents such as Nederlander Concerts as well as noted comedy promoter Outback Presents. 
Comedy has shown that while it may not be pandemic-proof, there are some advantages to the medium. 

Iliza Shlesinger
– Iliza Shlesinger
“Comedians have very low overhead and for the most part it’s just us, not like a band with a lot of moving pieces,” Shlesinger says. “A lot of promoters don’t want to take the financial risk – a lot of people lost a lot of money during this, and that extends beyond promoters. That’s ticketing, larger promoters, smaller promoters, everybody renegotiating these deals. You realize how vulnerable certain industries are. 
“I will do these drive-ins as long as it’s financially viable, I’ll do them as long as it’s necessary, and I will take safety precautions. I’m happy to do shows inside as long as it’s safe. I’ll do a show on the Moon! As long as people are willing to come out and see me, I have the jokes.”
For the current tour, which kicked off Oct. 2 at the Starlight Drive-In in Pittsburgh (see also: Iliza’s take on the tour opener) , Shlesinger says it was important to present the tour with the drive-in concept front and center.
“I branded this tour the Comedy Tailgate Tour because I really wanted to lean in to how specifically Americana – not only car culture – a drive-in is. It’s nostalgia for a specific type of American party but also to let people know this isn’t a theatre. You can bring food, you can bring alcohol, you can tailgate, you can hang out around your car,” she says. “It’s more of a communal hang, socially distanced. I wanted people to rethink the way they’d come out to see this show, more like you would to see live music at an amphitheatre, so it’s more of a late-summer, fall hang. I think you can even bring your dog, but that’s venue-specific. It’s not a stuffy theatre, it’s an American tailgate drive-in party.”
As with many events announced since March, there wasn’t a lot of lead time for marketing and promotion, but Schwartz says ticket sales have “gone extraordinarily well” with multiple shows in multiple cities.
“Capacities of these venues are all over the place,” he says. “We’ve got venues on this tour as small as 250 capacity cars, and I think the largest she’s done is 700-plus. She’s done a couple drive-ins [before the Tailgate tour] and one was 1,000-plus. Sales are going extraordinarily well, with second shows added in a number of markets. We’ve only done a little bit of marketing and a lot of stuff will be kicking in as the show dates draw a little closer.
“People are looking for things to do that are safe. I’m just happy we were able to figure something out, not just for fans of Iliza’s but fans of all comedy.”
 A big part of any tour is sponsorship and branding, which UTA places a priority on, and Monster Energy was a big one to secure for this tour.
“We have a great relationship with Monster and they’ve always been fantastic supporters of music, and now they’re really supporting artists and helping with promotional challenges we wouldn’t have in a typical touring year,” adds Chelsea Gosnell from UTA’s Brand Partnerships division. “I think that’s where the opportunity is even greater for brands and artists to work together, to create overall mutually beneficial partnerships.”
“Monster does really cutting edge marketing and was hoping to do the same thing in 2020,” Gosnell adds. 
“As we started to describe what Iliza was doing, as she’s been turning challenges into opportunities this year from the beginning, with ‘Don’t Panic Pantry’ etcetera, Monster Energy was the perfect fit. “Considering the amount of dates, particularly for a drive-in tour, they were excited to work with her in 2020 and provide the support. There are unique challenges this year and they were able to really amplify and help us with some of those challenges, so we are excited to work with them.” 
– Yarmouth
Iliza got her first drive-in chops well before the Tailgate tour, as pictured at the Yarmouth Drive-in on Cape Cod in West Yarmouth, Mass., July 31.

Added Schwartz, “More than ever, it’s on the artists to leverage their social media channels and galvanize their audience on their own, and then promoters do a lot of the traditional show marketing, going to radio stations, buying ads, spending on digital media, normal-times routine stuff like that. But, here, we really loved the opportunity to take advantage of some unique channels we don’t normally have access to, aside from their large social media presence. 

“We’re talking about relationships they have with thousands of in-stores across the country and their street teams – it’s a lot of outlets that are unique in this challenging time to spread the word on entertainment, it seemed this was an opportunity to do something a little different and reach the largest audience possible.”
Although Shlesinger herself is as go-getter as they come, she said she came down with COVID-19 in March before everything shut down, and the first-hand experience has her taking the virus seriously.
“I had it at the very beginning of COVID, in March. At the time there was kind of a lot of shame if you went to the doctor if you weren’t already sick or elderly. So I remember thinking I had this, and we were already  quarantining, but at no point was I scared or felt like I needed medical attention, so I stayed home and monitored it,” she says, adding that for a few days she felt she couldn’t get warm, and filmed “Don’t Panic Pantry” by herself. 
“It definitely  wasn’t as bad as a lot of people get it, but it also definitely isn’t something I would enjoy going through again. Having had it, knowing in its least horrible form how bad it is, I take extra precautions, mask wearing and really just trying to help your neighbor by not spreading something.” 
Going forward, Shlesinger says she’s ready to do whatever is necessary to keep performing and keep her fans engaged, as she keeps up the momentum as one of the hottest touring comedians regardless of the global gathering situation. 
“I’d love to get back to the regular tour,” she says. “We postponed all the live indoor tour dates and were able to rebook them immediately for 2021. 
“We have them held, hoping we can get back to that, hoping we can get back to full capacity, but in the meantime we’ll do what we can with what we’re given, and create new opportunities, whether it’s online, or drive-ins. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit and a will to entertain, like most comedians do, you’ll figure it out.”