Some comedians hide behind their standup, sheepishly shrugging off accomplishments and sinking into social anxiety the second they finish their set. Today’s subject breaks from that mold; she is brazen not only about her accomplishments as a comedian, but also about just how much fun she’s having doing it. Her life isn’t without hardship and embarrassment; she has clearly embraced the “make-them-laugh-with-you” model of standup, in which she uses humor to make her daily pitfalls and anxieties relatable and laughable. She’s hyperaware of the tactics she uses to diffuse tension in her life through comedy—she’s been doing it almost her whole life, even though she just started standup a mere six years ago. While her confidence could be viewed as cocky by some, Liza Treyger‘s success is well-earned, and her desire to relate is something we all can understand.
When did you start performing comedy?
Officially, for standup, I was 21, and I was invited by some dude to go watch him at an open mic at a coffee shop, and while I was watching the other people, I was like, “I think I can do this.” And so, I went up and did a set, and ended up obviously bombing, but I came back the next week and started doing it every day. It was an accident, I wasn’t raised as a comedy fan, or knew about stand-up comedy. I remember putting on an improv show in high school. For class projects, I’d always try to do a movie or a sketch, so I feel like I always wanted to do something fun, but I didn’t find my true happiness until standup.
So were you a class clown growing up?
I don’t think it was anything conscious. Looking back, obviously I’m tying in all of these things to explain why I am the way I am, but at the time I didn’t really think about comedy. I definitely talked too much, and I still do. I remember in fifth grade I had a post-it on my desk, and I had to keep a tally for every time I interrupted or didn’t raise my hand, and so I was always getting in trouble for talking. I still get messages from people like, “Oh, I went to college with you, I didn’t know you did comedy!”
What does your family think of your standup? Have they seen any of your shows?
My parents are foreign, foreign, foreign, so they don’t really understand my standup per say. And I’m pretty dirty, and right now I’m in a phase where I’m talking a lot about how much I party and have sex and stuff, so I’d prefer they not be there. My mom said a few years ago, “How could we not be happy every year there’s progress?” And I thought that was a great way to look at life. There is no guarantee, everything is up and down, highs and lows. It’s just a rollercoaster ride, so it is a nice way to think about life. They really like when I’m in magazines and on TV, obviously. I think they wish that I wanted to get married or have kids and more traditional things, but I think they’re okay with it. My sister has kids.
She covers it for the both of you.
Your jokes have sometimes been labeled as “bad feminist” jokes, do you consciously try to write jokes about feminism, or is it just the natural experience of being a woman that creates the jokes for you?
I don’t know if I started in a conscious way to create feminist material, but a lot of my material is pretty feminist-leaning. I think that naturally came out of frustrations I had with it; I’m not someone who sits down and writes—that’s not my style. I usually go to open mics and talk things out. Whatever makes me laugh, or things I’m excited about, I’ll try to put in my act, so those discussions I have with really badass women about frustrations we have, or how dudes just get away with being gross went into my act. I didn’t start out with, “I’m going to prove these points,” but I think I do a really good job at taking serious stuff and making it silly and easy to understand for people who want to disagree with feminism or certain views that I have; I think I make pretty good points.
My dad will make jokes, and he’s known in the family as a really funny guy, but every time he tells me a joke, I just stare at him blankly, and then he’ll explain it to me, and it’s still not funny.
You emigrated here from Russia when you were very young, but I was wondering if you were at all inspired by Russian comedy?
Well, I came to America when I was three, so I don’t really have any opinions on Russian comedy. But my dad will make jokes, and he’s known in the family as a really funny guy, but every time he tells me a joke, I just stare at him blankly, and then he’ll explain it to me, and it’s still not funny. So I don’t think I get Russian humor at all. That’s why when I write a joke that translates well and my parents laugh I get really proud, but I don’t think they get all of my jokes.
A lot of people say trauma begets comedy, and I would say that emigrating from Russia to seek religious asylum would constitute trauma, do you have any sense that your move to the US has led to your sense of humor?
While I do want to talk about my family and my upbringing so badly, I’m not there yet. I have a lot of ideas, but I have a big issue with making fun of my parents. “Ha ha, they don’t speak English, how funny!” I just respect them so much. They’ve done amazing things—bringing a tween and a young toddler to a place where you have nothing; you don’t know the language, you don’t have jobs, you don’t have anything—and just starting over, working gross jobs, going to school, providing for your family. That’s all so badass, so I am waiting until I’m more mature as a comic to really be able to write the jokes that I want to write about them. I’m sort of working on it a little more, and I have some material about them. I work with Sabrina Jalees a lot and she has a lot of opinions about me and the way I was raised, in that I don’t have that many skills. My parents were so old and foreign that as a child in first and second grade, I knew just as much as they did about the culture. I really had to learn everything on my own, and I really want to talk about that. Someone would be like, “Why didn’t you RSVP to my party?” And I would say, “I don’t know what the fuck that means, my parents don’t know what that means.” My parents would go to parent-teacher conferences and I would have to translate. I was a young girl translating almost everything for my parents.
I think that’s why I don’t have any kind of stage fright or fear of public speaking—I was forced to do it and be embarrassed at such a young age. I think trauma is an awesome place to write comedy from, and to be able to relate to audiences. Most people, at some point, have been embarrassed by their parents, or been poor, or had a hard time in school, or gone through heartbreak. I think the reason that comedy works is that you can relate to audiences on a unique level, and bring humor to issues that they might not have been able to do on their own. Also, the things I used to be embarrassed about, the more I tell those stories, the less the emotion hurts. I just keep talking about negative experiences until it’s a joke, and when people are laughing at those embarrassing things and they understand it on this cool level, it just takes the power away from these scary, negative things. Comedy can definitely be cathartic in that way.
Have you ever bombed on stage? If so, what did you learn from the experience?
I mean, when you start, you bomb a lot. It gets harder and harder to bomb as you do this more. But I used to run this show in Chicago called Riot Comedy with a couple friends, and it was at the back of a weird restaurant, and I also used to work at the restaurant. There was one day where none of the staff could work the show, so I had to be a waitress. In addition, a bunch of people form my high school were there for some reason. So I went up for a twelve minute set and bombed—just silence. And then I had to put my apron on and continue waitressing the show, which was just so embarrassing. Ken barnard, who is an older comic, gave me great advice that I’m glad I learned early on. He said, “You’re bombing, so instead of just pushing along with these jokes that you have, step back, acknowledge the situation, fuck around, and have a good time. It can’t get any worse.” If I can’t win them over, I usually just get mean. I’m like, “You unhappy motherfuckers.” The worst is watching someone you love bomb.
How do you think your comedy has changed since you first started doing it?
I try to live in the moment at all times. My ultimate goal is to be myself on stage, maybe a little exaggerated but pretty close to myself. So I’d say my voice is closer to my reality than it was when I first started. I’ve only been doing it six years, so there’s only so much you can learn. I’ve started listening to my sets, which helps tighten stuff up. It’s all about confidence; the more you do anything, the more confident you’re going to be. I don’t get that nervous anymore, I’m just confident to go up and tell a story or go on a riff. I think I’ve become a lot better at crowd work and moving that into jokes. I would like to become better at writing tight jokes. I think everything I write about is just personal experiences and what I’m thinking, and I would like to write about current events or things that are outside of my life.
Is your goal eventually to turn your stand up into some kind of writing job for television?
No, anytime my manager or agent sends me something to write for, I’m like, “I don’t think so.” I would love to have a TV show and be able to interview people, I would love to create a show in my voice. I don’t think I’d be able to do it better than someone who writes everyday, or someone who has a passion for writing. I don’t submit late night packets, I don’t think I could write for a 50-year-old man. I want to be in charge.
Most people, at some point, have been embarrassed by their parents, or been poor, or had a hard time in school, or gone through heartbreak. I think the reason that comedy works is that you can relate to audiences on a unique level, and bring humor to issues that they might not have been able to do on their own.
Do you have any kind of inferiority complex as a Chicago comic who moved to New York, a much bigger comedy scene?
No, Chicago got lucky. Chicago had the best people that were above my class—Kyle Kinane, TJ Miller, Matt Braunger, all those people were amazing. And when I started, I had Sean Flannery, Prescott Tolk, these amazing comics… even that show in the back of the restaurant, Hannibal Buress dropped in and did sets. We had these awesome role models and we worked really hard, because that’s what they all did. I moved to New York last year, and when I moved, a ton of my friends had already moved here, so the pressure of making new friends wasn’t present. I think instead of an inferiority complex, the Chicago comics came in thinking, “We’re better than everyone.” We’re fun, we know how to party, and we’ve been supporting each other for years, and now we’re all here. It was just a blessing. I’m sure people are sick of us as more people continue to move from Chicago, and we’re a tight-knit community. From Chicago, I got to do a lot of festivals, and traveled, and a lot of people will come visit Chicago. So I never felt an inferiority complex, comedy-wise. I just feel like Chicago’s the best.
Do you prefer one comedy scene to the other?
I’m glad I’m in New York now, I’ve never been happier. There are so many opportunities here, and so many funny people. Like, “Oh, my friend’s on a TV show and I get to go to a taping,” or, “We’re going to record a fun podcast together.” There’s just so much here, I love it, and I do not want to go back to Chicago at all. But I’m very thankful that I started in Chicago. Everyone’s different, but for me and my personality, starting in a smaller scene where you’re getting a lot of opportunities was easier. It’s definitely tougher to start in New York, but if you do, and you’re a badass and you get through, you’ll probably have tighter jokes, and you have great role models to look up to. So I don’t know if I prefer one or the other, but in my progression, I’m really happy I started in Chicago.
How has comedy affected your mental health?
One thing is, you’re constantly trying to think of jokes and material and overanalyzing everything, so I think in that way, it makes you go a little crazy. Every bad or embarrassing thing that happens, you’re like, “How can I make this relate to people?” So you’re just overanalyzing everything to an insane degree, and overthinking everything. I do a lot more drugs, that’s for sure. I’ve never really dealt with mental health issues, and I don’t want to seem flippant, but with comedy, it is nice to be more open about our faults and insecurities. Everyone is a little crazy. It’s nice to be around comics, who are openly crazy. It’s a loving and open community, because if you’re dealing with something and you go into your bank job or your teaching job, you have to hide your emotions. I’m sure that’s so hard. With comedy, what’s great is that you can have a mental breakdown on stage, and people will understand you, and you won’t feel alone. I know there’s a therapist in Chicago who works with like eight different standups, and he kind of gets it. You’re in a community of people who are open about themselves and aren’t trying to hide their issues. If you do have mental health issues, comedy is a great tool. On the flip side, depending on what’s going on with you, there’s less structure in this job—you’re on the road a lot, you’re alone, the hours are crazy and inconsistent. There are more opportunities to fail because there is no one forcing norms on you.