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Meet Liz Glazer

Today we’d like to introduce you to Liz Glazer.

So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
When I think of the events leading me to retire from a tenured position as a law professor after nine years to pursue standup comedy, the first day of the spring semester of 2013 comes to mind. I walked to my new office at the law school where I was a visiting professor. As I rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, there was an office buzzing with activity and an open door. Two research assistants examined data and passed notes to each other and to the professor, who read the notes aloud in the direction of the speakerphone on the desk where they all sat. I know this part isn’t true, but I like to remember them all in lab coats in an office filled with Bunsen burners and steaming potions. The chemistry in that office was so exciting and alive and when I got to mine, I looked up the professor’s profile on the school’s website and downloaded his CV.

The professor taught first-year property law, just like I did. I was impressed but not surprised to find more articles listed on his CV than I could count: multiple law review articles published each year, far exceeding the publication requirement for any faculty member at any law school. Then I noticed something equally impressive but much more surprising: at some point he started publishing law review articles in Russian. I knew this professor’s wife was Russian because she was also on the faculty. I heard that he learned Russian after they began dating and that they only spoke Russian at home and to their children. I heard he learned to read and write in Russian. I found all of that impressive and admirable, especially in contrast to my own experience promptly forgetting the Russian I spoke with my father until I was eight which was when I decided that speaking to my dad in a foreign language wasn’t cool. But what impressed me most wasn’t the intellectual feat but the emotional commitment to our shared job.

I wrote the articles required for me to earn a research grant each summer, get my contracts renewed and ultimately get tenure. I enjoyed writing them, for the most part (writing an article with 443 footnotes generates at least a few less-than-joyful moments) and teaching my classes but for me, academia got close to what I wanted to do with my life, but never felt exactly right. That same semester someone I had a crush on told me I could do standup comedy for the first time on a show she was producing. I figured she’d be at the show, so I did it.

I had been speaking in front of classes at that point for seven years but in the absence of a looming final exam, I didn’t know what qualified as material. Luckily on my way out the door to the show I noticed a package I wasn’t expecting, decided to open it on stage, and it turned out to be 18 vinyl shoulder covers my mother had sent to me because she noticed my white-furred cat Mona perched in my closet on top of the dark suits I would wear to school. Thankfully, explaining all of this to the audience at the moment was strange and specific enough to make them laugh. That night felt like a professional orgasm, which was kind of like a regular orgasm but I was a hundred percent sure it happened.

The next morning I woke up feeling like I had just performed at Madison Square Garden. Suddenly a narcissistic daydream came to me where I was being interviewed on The Tonight Show and was asked: “So let me get this straight Liz, you were a law professor for a decade and then you decided to be a standup comedian?!” In the daydream, I responded, “Actually Jimmy, it was nine years,” and Jimmy Fallon, the audience, and I all laughed. In order to stop myself from doing anything stupid, I got a Sharpie and wrote in all caps on a piece of printer paper: “DON’T QUIT FOR A BIT…ESPECIALLY IF IT’S MAYBE NOT EVEN FUNNY.”

I knew there was something funny to me about rounding down from 10 to 9, the fact that someone who had trained as a lawyer would be argumentative enough to round down, and the fact that I would round down even if it was to my relative disadvantage, but still I really wasn’t sure. I thought about that daydream a lot, and serendipitously one day the following year— my 8th year of teaching and 11 months after my first set —the dean of the law school called to say he was offering all tenured faculty members buyout packages in light of a budget problem at school (the school is fine now, to my knowledge). He proceeded to detail each of the available packages and their commensurate rewards. There was a long list of options but I remember the penultimate option was retiring at the end of that year and the last option was retiring at the end of the following year, my 9th. I told the dean I picked the last option, which seemed to surprise him. He explained that this wasn’t like a multiple choice standardized test where if I didn’t pick one of the options I didn’t get credit for the question; he was just required to offer me all of them. I told him about my daydream and a year and a half after that conversation I taught my last class. These days I spend most of my time writing and performing comedy. I wear a lab coat while I do it and I light Bunsen burners for ambiance.

That’s not true, but I do feel actively engaged in the work that I do. I feel very thankful for that, and for the fact that my current professional life allows me the flexibility to accompany my dad on a trip to Latvia that he’s been planning. My Russian is only so-so, but I will definitely translate my jokes before we go and find a stage there to tell them.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
In a way, yes but also of course not. I heard an analogy once that it’s a good thing when you’re driving you can only see until the next curve in a road because if you saw the entire route directly in front of you, it would be too overwhelming to drive. I think that’s an apt analogy for how things have gone.

I truly love the work, because when I am working on it, I feel the most myself. As beautiful as that is, it is also painful to remember how badly I bombed at my friends’ parents’ synagogue’s talent show. Then there’s the set I did on a well-known show where the biggest laugh came from someone’s Siri accidentally going off in the middle of my set to say, “Sorry, I didn’t quite get that.” In both of those situations (and others like it—I’ve definitely bombed more than twice), I was nervous and I wanted the set to go well. That’s probably my biggest struggle: doing well when I really want a set to go well. I’ve gotten better at this but the anxiety about a performance going well continues to be a thing for me especially when I perceive that a set could be a big deal (there was industry in the audience at the synagogue–this is LA after all). Things that have helped me in these situations are writing more, listening back to my sets, meditating, Liz Caplan’s amazing vocal warmups which help me to make the experience less about how well I do and more about connecting to the audience, and Lesly Kahn’s method of rehearsing my material with an awareness of the thoughts fueling each line.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I am a standup comedian. More specifically, I get the greatest satisfaction from making connections between things that have happened to me—sometimes over a long period of time—in order to construct funny and insightful stories. I think what distinguishes me is how much I delight in details. Many of my favorite comedians are honest and truthful, and I try to be that way also, but I think I may be more empirical. I love the data. I remember a lot of details and dates, and sometimes that stuff can be too much to include in a story because it’s distracting or boring, but there are times when including those types of details works for me because it’s, I think, part of my stage persona that I would remember the dates so precisely, especially when they probably wouldn’t be significant to anyone else. For example, a favorite set I did was one where I was booked on a show after a booker and I had been trying to figure out a date for two years. We had messaged two years prior to the show about trying to find a date, and then I never heard from him and was too ashamed to follow up, and then two years later I did and I got to do the show. Because of this, I decided to do the set that I would have done two years earlier, to the day. The set was about a failed relationship from which I experienced a lot of heartache, but the day I focused on in my set was the 2-year anniversary of the day I helped my ex-girlfriend move into a new apartment that she only lived in for a couple of months before she got bedbugs and we broke up.

In that vein, I’m working with the amazing David Crabb on a show called “(Very) Early Retirement” which I hope to take to law schools around the country in the coming year. It’s about how I retired at 35, and I imagine it as an ode to the lawyers and legal academics I met who loved their work in a way that modeled a passion for work that I ultimately discovered in standup comedy. It’ll include some of the stories in this article, as well as others and an explanation of the Rule Against Perpetuities, which is a very hilarious unit in the first year property curriculum.

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
1. Listen back and/or watch my recorded sets regularly, and transcribe what worked so that I can start with that when I am next on stage;
2. Ask to be on shows. Of course, do it graciously and without attaching to any particular booker saying yes or no, but do it often. I only started doing this regularly about a year ago, but I’ve grown more in the last year as a comedian than I ever have before and I think this is why; and
3. Cover every mattress and pillow I own with bedbug protectors.

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Image Credit:
Stewie Vill, Sharra Lou Botuyan Arriola, Haldane Morris, Stephen Todt, Alex Simmons

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