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On Tuesday night, TBS debuts Separation Anxiety, a brand-new game show hosted by comedian Iliza Shlesinger. (It’s like The Newlywed Game, but with a significant twist.) To find out more about her new gig, we hopped on the phone with Shlesinger to talk about the show, her Jeopardy! skills, and whether there’s a glass ceiling in the game-show world.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So the show has an interesting premise — how would you describe it in your words?
ILIZA SHLESINGER: Basically, the show asks the question, “How well do you really know someone you think you know really well?” So it’s a relationship show, but relationship meaning anyone that you’re close to. Could be your sister, could be your wife, could be your best friend — we have all different types. The anxiety part comes from us separating two people who’ve been very close, and they each think they’re playing a different game. And that’s frustrating because one thinks they’re playing for $2,500, and the other one knows they’re actually playing for a quarter of a million. So it’s watching how frivolous and careless the person playing for $2,500 acts and watching the stress on the face of the person who knows exactly that 100 times more money’s at stake.
It sounds complicated and then you watch, you’re like, Oh my God, this is so fun!
Not all talk show hosts are also comedians. Do you find that you have to pull back jokes to spare the contestants’ feelings? Or for the sake of the show itself?
Well, I’m not exactly Don Rickles, and I also hosted another show for two years [the syndicated Excused], which I think is a huge part of why I got this show. Whether I want it or not, I happen to have a God-given skill for making fun of people just enough that they’re laughing with me. Especially as a woman it’s a skill that I have. My rule is, you can always push a little farther with men than you can with women. And I do things to let the contestant know I’m on your side. So it’s not about pulling back — it’s about reading the room. Is this person stressed? Well, maybe now is not the time to crack a joke. Is this a time they’re supposed to be having fun? Then you can laugh with them. My job up there is to sort of facilitate the situation and make sure that they’re having fun… and then halfway through when it gets serious, I turn it all off and become ice-cold, which I find enjoyable. [Laughs]
And when you watch the show, you see it doesn’t take itself seriously. And I mean that in the most jocular sense versus a condescending way. So yeah, [hosting] is a skill that at first I was reluctant to demonstrate, but I’m not exactly host-y as much as just kind of being funny and pouring that into the form of a game show host.
This may sound like a silly question because like you say, this show itself is pretty silly, but: 99 percent of the time, game show hosts are men. Is there a sort of glass ceiling when it comes to women hosting game shows?
That’s funny. A glass ceiling filled with money, that sounds like a show!
But, so, another reason I liked this gig was that my whole life, I’ve been playing in a boys’ club. Especially when I started. There have never been a ton of female comics, and even to this day when I get asked to do shows and I’m on lineups of heavy-hitting comics, I’m always the only girl, and there’s a reason for that. And I don’t even care if that sounds egotistical, there is. So I didn’t think about the fact that I’m a female host because comedy is comedy, and if anyone knows me, they know that my comedy is funny for a man or a woman. Jokes are jokes and if they’re good, they’re good.
So I was excited. Aside from Jane Lynch, whom I love, I liked that there were no other women doing it, because I don’t think really women get a chance to express themselves sort of off the cuff and do what guys do, the way guys do it. I think when girls get a chance to do their comedy in a man’s world, they usually get dirty or they get crass, or everything becomes very sexual, and that’s just never been my path. So I didn’t really think much about the fact that I was a girl, but I did think about the fact that there was only one other woman doing it. And I am in good company with her. I’m in a good pantheon. She’s amazing!
So other than Hollywood Game Night, if you could go one on game show as contestant, which would it be?
Honestly, I think I would crush Jeopardy! I put it on in my green rooms when I have shows all the time. If you stand outside the green room you just hear me yelling things like, “What is Constantinople?”
What would your final Jeopardy! strategy look like?
I’d probably be playing for charity so I’d probably be conservative. Because you don’t want to be the dick that was like, “Sorry, I didn’t know it was Mesopotamia. Later, cystic fibrosis. Good luck.”
Separation Anxiety debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on TBS.