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How Leslie Liao left Netflix’s HR department to become a rising star in stand-up

Christina House/Los Angeles Times

Christina House/Los Angeles Times


Woman in gray business suit in front of a purple and blue wall
SoCal comedian Leslie Liao at Jewel in Los Angeles .
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)
 

Pacing the stage, Leslie Liao muses about the various moisturizers she, an almost 37-year-old, feels compelled to use. “I spend most of my time rubbing creams all over my body. … Face cream, eye cream, foot cream, just constantly creaming myself.”

She continues; a mic drop about modern dating imminent. “I just learned there is a neck cream. I have to cream my neck. … I overheard a man complaining once how he spends all his money on drinks for girls and it’s so unfair. Bro, I am wearing $300 worth of face paint and body jam to not scare you away. I’d like my Moscow mule now, please.” The crowd erupts with laughter.

“That joke was a real conversation I had with a man years ago,” Liao says, seated outside at Jewel in Silver Lake. “He was really making the argument. He was like, ‘I would love if a girl bought me a drink.’ And then I went on this rant. I was like, ‘Do you know? I had to put on my face for you to even talk to me. I’m in debt. So, you owe me a Moscow mule.’ And he laughed so hard.”

This is precisely the type of deadpan observational humor Liao, an L.A.-based comedian, tends to lead with. In addition to riffing on various body creams, Liao’s shows cycle through such topics as the cognitive dissonance of “being attracted to men” but “not finding men attractive,” fixing said men, growing up Asian American in Orange County, and putting a 100-mile search radius on dating apps to achieve “maximum efficiency,” among other daily indignities.

 
Woman in a business suit walking and looking back in front of a cafe mural
The comedian’s two worlds started to overlap late last year when Liao booked a gig on “The Tonight Show” and a short set on Netflix’s “Verified Stand-Up.” “My bosses at Netflix saw me on Netflix. They saw me on Jimmy Fallon,” Liao says. 
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

 

 

Liao might be self-deprecating about her hyper-methodical nature, but it’s because of her personality that she finds herself here today working as a full-time comedian, free of the corporate world for the first time in her adult life. From 2017 to January of this year, she was living a double life—from 9 to 5, she worked in HR at Netflix. In the evenings, she did stand-up. One had nothing to do with the other. “I just didn’t sleep,” Liao says of that time. “The shows were so late. I would have to be awake so early and be so sharp. Some meetings, I would have to lead them. They’re not always a Zoom meeting where you can be off camera and like, put your feet up and secretly be in PJs.”

The comedian’s two worlds started to overlap late last year when Liao booked a gig on “The Tonight Show” and a short set on Netflix’s “Verified Stand-Up.” “My bosses at Netflix saw me on Netflix. They saw me on Jimmy Fallon,” Liao says. “In a nice way, they were like, ‘What are you doing here? They were so cool and supportive. They were like, go be a star. They didn’t fire me, but they were like, ‘It’s your time.’”

Though she was well on her way to achieving financial stability as a stand-up, Liao maintains that she needed a little bit of a nudge from Netflix bosses to take the leap away from a corporate job. “It was so scary — because all I knew was having a somewhat safe day job. But I’m so happy.”

Since leaving Netflix, Liao has applied her high-key scheduling to a creative’s life. Her Google Calendar reveals a rainbow of appointments and events. (“When comics see my calendar, they scoff, laugh, and barf.”) When she arrives at the café for her photo shoot, Liao has on an oversized blazer and pulls two pairs of potential shoe options out of an oversize black tote — low-top sneakers and heeled black boots. She ultimately picks the sneakers, agreeing that the juxtaposition of a workwear top and casual trainers feels symbolic.

When fellow comics find out Liao had been employed at the streaming behemoth, Liao says, they nearly always ask if that’s how she got her foot in the comedy door, to which she responds with a look that can only be described as, Girl, no. “Do you think I’m gonna slide my demo under Ted Sarandos’ door?” she cracks. “Do you think I’m gonna find any exec in Content and try out a bit in the elevator? Do my shtick in the cafeteria?”

 
Woman in a business suit standing in front of a mural
Born to Chinese immigrant parents, Liao was drawn to entertainment from an early age (she’s a big fan of Jim Gaffigan, Conan O’Brien, Mitch Hedberg, and Tig Notaro).
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)
 
 
“Honestly?” she continues. “If I went to any comedy exec at Netflix and told them, ‘You should put me on Netflix, I’m a comic. Did you know? Have you seen my stuff?’ They should fire me. It’s so inappropriate and unprofessional — and lame. They would have had every right to escort me out of the building that day.” Liao never even imagined that she’d be a stand-up comedian. Born to Chinese immigrant parents, Liao was drawn to entertainment from an early age (she’s a big fan of Jim Gaffigan, Conan O’Brien, Mitch Hedberg and Tig Notaro), but she always pictured herself doing something behind the scenes. “I used to want to be a ballerina,” she says. “And then it turned into like, some vague version of a corporate job. I was like, I’m gonna have a briefcase and a blazer.”

Case in point: When Liao would watch the Academy Awards growing up, she liked how the celebrities would thank their agents in their acceptance speeches. “I’d be like, that sounds cool. I didn’t want to be Charlize Theron or Halle Berry. I wanted to be their agent. For whatever reason, it didn’t click for me to want to be the star. I wanted to be who’s helping the star get that gig.”

After attending USC Film School, Liao started doing what many 20-something entertainment hopefuls do — work as an assistant and begin climbing up the ladder. Prior to landing the job at Netflix, Liao assisted a comedy producer at Universal Studios, where she volunteered to help scout new talent. That’s when she started attending stand-up shows every other night. “They didn’t really need me to,” she laughs. “I was an assistant, so they were like, ‘Please stay and answer the phones. None of us are asking you to go to the Hollywood Improv. But I just got in the habit, and I loved it. I tried to make it part of my job.”

Liao didn’t even consider doing stand-up until witnessing a less-than-impressive showcase. That’s when the wheels started to turn: Should she try this herself? “At that time in my life, in my late 20s, a lot of my friends would tell me I should do stand-up. … But I never thought I could do it. It seemed like such an imaginary world to me. I didn’t know any comics personally. My parents had such business-y jobs. So, I couldn’t grab on to the idea that I could be on stage and people will clap for me. It just didn’t seem real.”

 

Woamn leaning on a fence looking into the camera
“I was scared of it going well,” Liao says when talking about her budding stand up career. “Because I knew that it meant I would never stop.”
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

 

 

Prior to her very first set at the Haha Comedy Club in North Hollywood, Liao took a writing class, where she’d write, hone and workshop ideas along with a handful of fellow students. For graduation, the class performed sets for friends and family, each comic cheering the other on. “[The class] was designed in a smart way to [show you] this is how good it can be. You could have an amazing night, rather than starting on your own and having a ton of s— shows. I remember it like going as well as it possibly could. I remembered all the jokes, and everyone laughed where I thought they would, and at one moment I even riffed. “I was scared of it going well,” Liao continues. “Because I knew that it meant I would never stop.”

And she hasn’t. In addition to making the rounds at go-to venues like Dynasty Typewriter, the Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory, last summer Liao was included in Just for Laughs Festival’s New Faces of Comedy showcase. Next month, she’s playing the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever as part of Netflix Is a Joke Fest.

Her path to comedy might be unconventional, but Liao has zero reservations about starting slightly later than most. If anything, chasing a comedy career in her 30s has proved advantageous. “I think I waited till I was 30 to make sure that I could feel a teeny bit confident to preach my thoughts onstage into a microphone,” Liao says. “A lot of comics start young, like at 20, or a teenager. I’m like, where’s the life you’ve lived? I knew I was lacking perspective in my 20s. I had to live some life to have things happen to me and be like, ‘What was that?’”

Author: Editors Desk

Source: Los Angeles Times

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