Who doesn’t love a good, guiltily pleasurable dating show? The courtship market can be unrelenting in its heartaches, so it’s always a confidence booster to watch single guys and dolls fumble through awkward first meetings, dates that are systematically arranged through superficial selection processes and drawn-out elimination rituals. The participants claim to want to find true love, and, eventually, marry the person he or she connects with in front of cameras, crew members, and millions of viewers watching from the comfort of their “love” seats. As shows like The Bachelor, Flavor Of Love, and A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila have proven, of course, the unions rarely, if ever, amount to anything more than brief flings predicated on in-the-bedroom fun.
With such a low success rate, it’s no wonder that ardent viewers of TV’s most popular dating shows would readily admit to watching the programs simply to laugh at the foolish contestants, not root on the thought of someone finding his or her soul-mate. The producers behind the latest entry into the format’s catalog, Excused, definitely understand that; after all, they’re the same minds behind Blind Date, a dating show that emphasized comedy over romance. And Excused is no different; two hot women sit alongside host Iliza Shlesinger, watch a lineup of men pitch themselves to the security camera atop the mansion’s front door, and then either excuse the duds or permit four lucky gents to enter the house. Which leads to one-on-one sessions, more excused guys, and a chance for the final man to excuse one of the two ladies himself.
In set-up, Excused doesn’t sound that far removed from past shows like MTV’s Next, but the new CBS-backed date-fest, which begins airing in syndication today (check for local air-times on the official site), has something that past shows haven’t benefitted from: a host who’s really damn funny. For Shlesinger, a Dallas, Texas, native, Excused represents her first front-and-center TV gig, capitalizing on her conquering of NBC’s Last Comic Standing in 2008 and subsequent appearances on Chelsea Lately, The Soup, and Comedy Central Presents. Throughout episodes of Excused, the stand-up comedy veteran deflates the egos of excused male contestants with off-the-cuff insults and often hilarious one-liners. She, like us viewers, knows that dating shows work best when humor trumps mushy feelings.
Complex recently chatted with Shlesinger about the funniness of Excused, what sorts of dating tips guys can learn from the show, what you should not do when it comes to impressing her, and why money-grubbing women are a disgrace.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Complex: With the overflow of reality dating shows on TV, what do you think makes Excused unique?
Iliza Shlesinger: I’m not trying to be cocky, but I’m the thing that makes it different, because the people at Excused let me be funny and give me the comic creative license to say whatever I want to the daters—that’s what makes it so fun.
You’re pretty brutal toward the guys.
Uh, yeah. [Laughs.] But we really try to walk a fine line, because you don’t want anyone leaving feeling bad for themselves. If you’re a douchebag, you probably need to hear some of this stuff, but I would never want to hurt anyone’s feelings, like, “You’ve got an ugly face! You’re out of here.” The important thing people have to realize, so as to avoid anyone attacking me in public, is that I just carry out the wishes of the contestants; you’re excused by them, so I just have to find a way to do it.
It seems like the perfect gig for a comedian, then. How’d you land the job?
Good old-fashioned auditions. I went in at first, and it was one of those auditions where I wasn’t really thinking too much about it; I was just like, “Oh, it’s just a dating show.” So I went in, threw out the lines, and just made my own thing up, and made them laugh. They kept calling me back, and it was one of those things where, as they kept calling me back, I thought it was some kind of mistake. Like, I never book anything. [Laughs.] But then I got it, and here I am.
You just referred to the potential job as “just a dating show.” Are these the kinds of shows that you actually watch?
Not lately. I was a huge Blind Date fan, though, when I was younger; that was on when I was in high school. Excused is made by the same people who made Blind Date, actually. I think Blind Date and Singled Out were the first shows to make it actually funny and lively and young, at least for this generation. I was a huge Jenny McCarthy fan, and then Blind Date was such a great show because they had all the thought bubbles and everything like that.
We’ve now gotten to this weird place where all these dating shows are so serious, and people are competing and they’re in a massive house. It’s just gotten so crazy, so why not have a half-hour of just fun and make fun of people, and also try to hook them up?
Lately, most, if not all, of the dating shows feel totally scripted, and the contestants talk like they’re reading off of cue cards. Excused, on the other hand, feels much more natural. Why do you think that’s the case?
I think the stakes aren’t that high. We’re not here trying to find love; we’re not here because someone needs to get married. These are people that just want to have fun. Some people are actually looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend, or someone to actually date, but it’s very light-hearted. Everyone on set is really comfortable, and the whole crew offers everyone drinks as soon as they arrive on set.
It’s almost like a game show. At the end of the night, when I’m sitting next to whoever’s left, I’m always like, “Did you have fun today?” And they’re always like, “Oh, I had the best time.” So even if you do get excused, or someone hurts your feelings, people still have fun, because it’s about finding love, but it’s really about having a good time.
In the episodes I’ve seen, even the guys who get excused leave either laughing or with smiles on their faces, not throwing furniture and wigging the hell out.
Well, that has definitely happened. [Laughs.] I think the key to excusing someone is, if you’re excusing someone in a funny way—I mean, they’re on the show in the first place, so they have some interest in being in front of the camera—but if you excuse someone in a funny way, I think they can’t help but laugh. Like, “Oh, yeah, I do look like Ronald McDonald—OK, she got me there.” So most people have a sense of humor about it. And, again, it isn’t like there’s $2,000 at stake if you can get in the front door; people aren’t so disappointed if they get excused. [Laughs.] And I don’t know why I picked 2,000—that’s not even that big of a number.
Yeah, they’d be disappointed if they won only $2,000.
[Laughs.] I know I sure as hell would.
For a comedian, it must be a great job to be able to make fun of people on the fly, rather than have to write up a whole long stand-up routine.
Totally, it’s so fun. It’s like I’m getting to do crowd work, and I’m getting to say stuff that I probably wouldn’t normally say to people. Again, the last thing I want to do is really hurt someone’s feelings, but if you have a stupid shirt on then you probably need to know that. I don’t know any other show…. This is a real show, it’s not some crappy reality show that they shot for $10 on some random network that nobody’s every heard of—it’s CBS Syndicate, and they really have put a lot of faith in me and have just said, “Just be funny.” There’s no script, and everything that comes out of my mouth I’ve pretty much made up right then and there, after we clear it with the producers. [Laughs.]
So that’s cool, because I get to make it up based on the people who come to the door, instead of a script, and I think that adds a real element to it. I think people can tell that it’s real comedy, and people seem to gravitate toward that.
Have there been things you’ve said that the producers have called you out on, for crossing the line?
Yeah. Oddly, they don’t like the word “douchebag,” which is such an apt and perfect word for so many things. [Laughs.] It’s just little things here and there. I’ve gotten used to saying whatever I want, so it is hard sometimes. I’ll be like, “But the guy is a douche!” And they’ll come back with, “Sorry, you can’t say that.” And obviously I can’t curse. It just pushes you to find a more creative way to get your point across, and I can’t argue with that.
The female contestants excuse guys for small things like wearing the wrong shirt, little things that will make guys think twice before they step out of their homes. Do you see Excused as a cautionary tale for men?
Kind of. Look, at the end of the day, everyone should have their own separate style, and there are plenty of girls that would be like, “Oh my god, that’s so hot—his shirt is always buttoned in one place!” But I’m not one of those girls, and obviously the girls on the show are judging you for a reason. In some cases, we’re doing it to be nice. A guy might have something on that’s undeniably unattractive, so I’m letting him off easy by being like, “Yo, your pants are not cute.” And it’s so funny because it’s like, “Well, who’s this girl to be saying all of this?” I’m certainly not a supermodel. But I am funny, so, at the end of the day, I think that wins. And they also can’t talk back because I’m the one with the microphone—that conquers all.
On these dating shows, there are always a few guys who show up and you can tell right away that they’re only there to get rejected; there’s really no chance that the female contestants would ever pick them.
Yeah, definitely. There have been times where guys have come to the front door and I will literally just stop and stare at the camera and wait for a producer to talk to me, like, “Are you serious with this person? Where did you find this guy—the DMV?” And they’ll be like, “Just do it. Just go for it.” [Laughs.] So I’ll say back, “I don’t want this guy to find me at a Starbucks and claw my eyes out because I said he looks like an ostrich.”
What has working on Excused taught you about the dating world?
For one, I now know firsthand that there are a lot of people who haven’t quite mastered the English language, and I see that everyday on set when people try to talk. I think that the overall theme, and I’ll stick to this, is that nice guys do finish last. Every girl’s like, “I want a bad boy—I want a guy who’s totally douche-y and wears Ed Hardy!”
But there is something to be said for actually being yourself. Don’t be a shrinking violet, but the guys who come on and say, “Hey, baby, I’ll take you to Cancun,” like that’s a fucking prize…. Girls are turned off by that. If a guy is just genuine and honest, girls gravitate towards that, and girls love it when you open up. If you get excused, at least you can sleep well knowing that you gave it your best shot, as opposed to trying to be something that you aren’t.
One thing that I’ve noticed about so many of the girls on the show, and I don’t know why girls do this—I certainly never have and none of my friends do it—but this whole thing where they think it’s OK to talk about how much they want to spend someone else’s money. It’s this odd phenomenon in our society lately where we’ve gotten more and more comfortable with just saying this. I’ll be like, “What do you look for in a guy?” And the girls will be like, “Money, motherfucker! Yeah!” I don’t know any guy, besides a guy in a strip club, who’s just dying to give you his money—it’s so unattractive and tacky, and girls keep doing it. It’s the weirdest thing; I wish someone would just shake them and then hug them.
It’s funny, because if a guy were to say something with that sentiment to a girl, the girl would excuse him in a heartbeat.
We’ve had guys who have been like, “I just want to get laid!” And then the girls will say, “OK, well, that’s not fun for me.” Of course that is your objective, sir, but don’t say it. [Laughs.]
In one episode, the girls invite a muscular, football-player-like guy into the house, but once they’re give one-on-one time with him, he has zero personality. That shows how you can pick someone solely based on looks, but that’s not enough.
That’s absolutely right. The show is totally about first impressions, but also second impressions. It’s interesting, because your good looks will often get you in the front door, but looks will rarely ever keep you there. I have, on several occasions, been very surprised. There’s been a guy who I’ve found very attractive, a big guy with muscles, and the girls excuse him because they can’t talk to him. So, the first part of the show is very much a man’s world; like, what do you look like and what’s your quickest line. And the second part of the show is a girl’s arena, because it’s more about, “So, what’s your personality?”
Prior to filming Excused, you were primarily a stand-up comic on the road, but I’d imagine that your schedule doesn’t allow for as much of that now. Has it been difficult to keep doing stand-up while working on the show?
The show is 130 episodes shot pretty much in a row, so we’ve been shooting since April and we’ll wrap in October. So, for the last couple of years, I’ve just been a road comic, and this brought that to a screeching halt. Now, I can’t go out from Thursday through Sunday because we shoot Friday nights. I’ve managed to do a couple of college shows recently, and a night in Vegas, but I have to be back there ready to shoot the show bright and early on the Monday morning.
Filming 130 episodes in a row seems overwhelming; by episode 40, I’d think that you’d start to hate humanity, after hearing so many dumbass guys kick game and seeing so many girls chase money so shamelessly. Has it been overwhelming at all so far?
Doing 130 of everything in a row is exhausting, but I am happy about this. It’s great to be surprised on a daily basis. What I do like about the show is that I’m constantly surprised; it’s a brand new cast everyday, so I’m always surprised by something. Once in a while, we do get genuinely normal and nice people. [Laughs.] It just reminds me that not only crazy people go on dating shows—it’s also people with law degrees, and doctors and people who work in real jobs who just wanted to come on and have some fun. So it doesn’t get as boring as people would think, but, if it ever does, there’s always alcohol.
If you weren’t hosting one, would you ever go on a show like Excused as a contestant?
I don’t think I could go on one of these shows, actually, because I get annoyed very easily. [Laughs.] Within the first four minutes, the guy would talk and I’d be like, “No…. I just can’t. I can’t deal with you.” I’d probably just emotionally shut down. I’ll be honest, these people put in the time. You are there on set all day, you’re drinking, and you have to keep conversations going all day long, so it definitely takes some stamina. I give people credit because around 3 o’clock I have to have a nap. [Laughs.]
It seems like anyone would want the chance to meet hot girls and/or guys on one of these shows, but what do you think it takes for someone to actually do well? Is it as simple as “be yourself” and not act differently in front of the cameras? Avoid going on and dropping lame one-liners.
The kicker is, yes, sometimes that actually works, but it depends on who’s judging you; if you have two stripper sitting in the room and you say, “I love throwing money! Let’s make it rain,” then the girls will be like, “Fuck yeah, let’s get it!” But if you have two college graduates who say they love children and then you say that, they’re going to think you’re a creep. So I think the key is to, yeah, just be yourself because you don’t know who’s judging you.
Something else you can do that doesn’t really tug on my heart strings, but it does for a lot of the other girls, is say, “I love working with kids.” Like, teachers will never get excused right off the bat. Or any time the guy says he’s served in the military, the girls most likely won’t excuse him.
Why wouldn’t somebody who’s good with children tug on your heartstrings?
I don’t know, I like little kids, I guess. Some women are more maternal than others, so when the guy says, “I teach a cooking class with kids every week,” the girl says, “Oh, I love it!” But I’m like, “Yeah, he could have bodies in his basement—so what if he gives to kids?” Another big thing girls like is when guys say that they’re close to their families. That wouldn’t tug on my heartstrings, though, just because I’d think that he’s lying. “You’re just making it up—you don’t work with kids.” [Laughs.]
We actually have had one guy do that kind of lie. We do these personality profiles on everyone, so once you’re allowed in the house, we watch a little background package that was taped previously, where the guy talks about himself. This one guy told this story about a crazy night in Las Vegas, where he went and there were tons of strippers and someone passed out, slept with someone, woke up, and then didn’t remember it. The girls were skeeved out by that, and, of course, he was excused. Shortly after, the guy sent me a Facebook message—which I don’t encourage people to do—and he wrote, “I can’t believe you excused me, I was just telling you the plot of The Hangover! I couldn’t think of a good story.”
What a clown. If that was the case, why didn’t he recite the plot of The Wedding Planner or any other romantic comedy?
[Laughs.] Yeah, totally. That’s the kind of guys we’re dealing with here.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)