"I love weird characters": Iliza Shlesinger on creating Cashew Albacore & her Netflix sketch show

The comedian also spoke to Salon about her IG show "Don't Panic Pantry" and why Pomeranians are funny

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 28, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show (Netflix)
The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show (Netflix)

A few weeks ago, I realized that the only thing my "quarantine brain" wanted to watch was sketch comedy; "Contagion" content was no longer up my alley and I'd exhausted my list of non-quarantine podcasts. The show that made me realize this was Netflix's "The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show." 

I's a wonderfully weird, fast-paced series, filled with bizarre recurring characters (including my favorite, demented airline owner Cashew Albacore) and parodies of some of the shows currently sitting in our Netflix queues

Shlesinger spoke with Salon about the transition from stand-up to sketch comedy, what she's watching in quarantine and her new Instagram Live show, "Don't Panic Pantry." 

Okay, so — can we please just start with Cashew Albacore? I've been walking around my apartment yelling, "Dingle dangle!" What is the genesis of this character? 

We were in the writers room, just talking about stuff. And somehow, as I do, I started going on this rant about how I always feel when you fly, they make their safety announcements, but it's perfectly timed to when you're falling asleep. Like, "Welcome to our airlines! We have a credit card! Wake up!" I take a lot of 6 a.m. flights, a lot of early, international flights — and just when your REM is kicking in, they feel like it's a cool thing to do. 

So then we started talking about the idea of what it would be like if somebody owned an airline just to mess with people, and that was the impetus for it. Then I went home and the inspiration just flowed through me, like "This is what he sounds like." And I was like, "What if he was a maniac in just every sense of the word?" 

I love weird characters, like weirdly dark characters.

Hence the mouse that lives in his neck hole . . . 

And that he locks people in rooms, and the meat belts. And I just love — I guess I wouldn't call it wordplay — but I love putting weird words together and then I think people enjoy saying them back. I have a weird knack for that. I remember that I sat on the couch, was watching TV, and I just wrote that out, and then it came to me "Cashew Albacore, that's his name." I don't know where I got it, but I know that phonetically when you say "Cashew Albacore," you're like, "Oh yeah, those words go together." It's almost like science. 

Because of your career, your stand-up specials, you already have this really strong, really established voice that I think a lot of people recognize. What was the process of translating that into a sketch comedy series that felt natural for you? 

I think it's all about staying honest with what I think is funny. I think you're given this opportunity to show, not tell. Stand-up is all about telling, and sketch comedy is all about showing — characters, costumes, makeup, an ensemble. And I think staying true to what I think is funny versus what I think would be expected. Of course there's always a little social commentary, but it's evergreen because it's not topical. 

And at a certain point, you have to trust your commitment to things, like, "No, I find this funny and I'm sure if I could just convey it in the right way, people will also think that it's weird and funny, because people like weird things."  

So that was it. Just keep hiring people, hiring writers that respect my vision for things and that I trust, a director who I want to collaborate with — and making sure that we execute something that I would actually laugh at, that's something that I actually want to say, versus something that I think I should say. 

The audience is 50% men, 50% women. I think everybody wants to find the algorithm that works for them, and everybody wants to find their audience — and I have such a diverse audience, it's such a mixture of people. I really wanted to make a show that wasn't just for women, and it wasn't a show where I was a girl trying to be funny for guys. I just wanted to be honest and vulnerable about the weirdness in my head, and I want it to be a show that everybody who's weird could watch and enjoy. 

Essentially, I made the show for me and my fans are an extension of me.

Well, and one of the sketches that had me in absolute tears was the "Star Is Born" sketch about the woman who sings small songs for tiny dogs. And I read there was a casting call for Pomeranians for the sketch. Could you talk a little bit about that day, what it was like? 

Oh my god, I would have loved to have been there. Unfortunately, I couldn't be there, but I did get to look at pictures of them. So, kind of like in "Mad Men" when they bring in hot girls and all the boys are like, "I can't get enough of that Pomeranian body."

You know, we all have weird things in our heads and for me, it's fluffy little dogs, and Pomeranians I think are the funniest-looking ones. I was like, "This is my show and with what little extra power I have, I'm lording over these tiny dogs." 

So that was it, but it's this cool thing that is never lost on me, where you come up with something insane in your brain and put it on paper and the next say someone in props or wardrobe is like, "Hey can you pick between these two meat belts?" or "Which Pomeranian do you like better?"

And, as an artist, getting to a place where people don't question — they just go along with you — I don't think you can ask for anything more.

Speaking of, how did you go about choosing the people who were going to be working on this show with you? Because in stand-up, you're up there alone. You're either making it work alone or you bomb alone, so what was that process like? 

Well, I'll answer it in two parts. I'll answer first by telling you about the writers, and then the actors. 

For the writers, I have a voice and I'm a writer myself. So this wasn't a case of, you know, some executive finding me and they were like, "Let's make her a comedy star and give her a writers' room." This is not a sitcom, it's not a huge show. We wanted a small staff, but I also wanted to make sure that if you're on my staff, you're there because of your work. 

So when the packets were submitted — we had about 28 packets submitted — I had all the names taken off. That way I knew that I could read objectively and it wasn't skewed by the color of a person, or their gender or anything like that. 

Of course, I ended up with three Jews in the end, but I wanted to make sure I was picking blindly though so that it was based solely on compatibility. So we ended up with some former "SNL" writers and some former "Portlandia" writers, and I was very proud of that. 

Then for the acting, that was scary, because as a comedian you're so used to doing things on your own, so this is real trust. And we shot it in New York, not LA, so I couldn't just pull from all the funny people I knew in LA. So we made an effort, you know I wanted to have a diverse cast, but not make the fact that they were diverse the focal point of anything — I wanted it to be "funny for funny."

I wanted to give women funny things to do with me. I wanted people to do these sketches and enjoy that they were part of it, not be like, "Oh, I got this script, all right." So we chose a core cast that I really loved. 

Right, and one of the things that I found really interesting watching this is, you know, I've been watching a lot of television recently, both for fun and for work.

The perfect job for a country in quarantine, right? 

Exactly. And most of your sketches from this series are based on TV and commercials  — "Female Jackass," "Mom Alerts," "Live, Laugh, Top Knot" — which leads me to ask, what are you watching right now while under stay-at-home orders? 

You know, I read this article about how everything we watch right now reminds me of a time gone by. People going out to lunch, kissing strangers — which I haven't done in a while because I'm married  — but it creates a little bit of anxiety. 

And then on the entertainment side, I sometimes get anxious knowing that, "Oh, I read for that role," or "I know that person." You can't help but sometimes think, "Where do I compare in the landscape of creating things?" 

And I know for me that TV should be escapism, so that means that I don't watch a ton of comedy. I like to watch something that I couldn't have written, couldn't have read for it. Something that I think, "I could never create something that good." 

Like right now, we're watching all the seasons of "Mad Men." It's incredibly comforting to have a show that has a catalogue and, you know, every night you can treat yourself to like seven hours of TV before bed. So that's what I'm watching. 

I've also been trying — and this is going to be such an annoying answer — but I'm really trying to spend my days writing all the outlines and scripts and all the things that I didn't have the bandwidth for when I was touring and just kept saying I would get to; I'm using my time to actually take those items off my list. 

So other than like an hour of television at night or two, I try to just exist within my own head. I do the occasional workout sometimes. The other day I was so anxious about something that my husband made me go outside and lift up my shirt so the sun could hit my belly. He was like, "You need vitamins, go stand in the sun for a minute." 

Yes, I love that. I've half-convinced myself through this isolation process that I want to become an urban farmer when this is all over because I have the smallest patch of grass and I'm like, "Ah, this is where I belong in the sunshine." 

Right! And I think what's interesting about this pandemic is that for some people, you can really figure out what you want to do with yourself, your time. Like, "Oh, you want to make friendship bracelets for a living? You now have 50 weeks to do it." I've got all these outlines and scripts I need to polish, and the universe is like, "Well, do it."

So in addition to working on stuff in your backlog, you and your husband, Noah Galuten, have this really fun daily Instagram series called "Don't Panic Pantry." I was curious what inspired you to jump into that? 

So "Don't Panic Pantry" will, this week, "celebrate" — which I cringe as I say that word because nobody wants to be trapped at home — our 40th episode. So several weeks ago, I turned to Noah and said, "Let's make a cooking show." 

Occasionally, when he's cooking, I'll go live [on Instagram] and people that want to connect with me log on, but then they also have questions for him. And he's, you know, a cookbook author and a real, pedigreed, bona fide chef, so I was like, "Let's do it."

Initially we were calling it quarantine cooking, then somebody said nobody wants to think about the quarantine, it's like calling it "Medical Meals" or something like that, so we landed on "Don't Panic Pantry," really selling the idea of not panicking. This is our attempt to flatten the curve from our own house, because when this all started, all you could do was tell people to stay inside because everyone was going out to go shopping. 

So the impetus for the show was to inspire people to stay calm, first and foremost, and to cook with what they have. And Noah would make an ingredient list, that way when you do have to go shopping, you could do it all at once. This is our way of showing people, "Look, you've got us to count on and we will commit to being here every single day at 5 p.m."

You can hang out with us. People sometimes cook the food, and most people show up just to eat and watch us. 

I think as an entertainer, I'm qualified to do very little right now other than make people laugh. And so this is our way of entertaining, educating and helping people forget whatever stresses they have just for that little time. It's really kind of like what you do in a stand-up show. You know, you leave all your problems at the door and you come sit in the darkness and you laugh for an hour 

"The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show" is now streaming on Netflix. "Don't Panic Pantry" goes live on Shlesinger's Instagram daily at 5 p.m. PST. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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