When Liza Treyger’s Chicago cohorts gathered at the Town Hall Pub in Lake View for a farewell roast of the New York–bound comic in April, they zinged her with one-liners like “Liza Treyger is a feminist the same way Osama bin Laden was into urban renewal” and “Give it up for the best reason against the 19th Amendment.” Treyger couldn’t stop smiling. “Having the people you love take time out of their lives to write horrifically mean personal jokes about you is very nice,” she says, recalling the night. “Everyone laughed so much our faces hurt.”
Treyger, who is performing at the new standup festival the Comedy Exposition this month, has amassed plenty of fans over the past five years, rising to the upper echelons of Chicago comedy thanks to her seesaw self-esteem (“Everyone loves summer–no. When it’s warm out and my thighs touch, it hurts so much”) and less-than-ferocious political opinions (“I’ve learned that I’m a casual feminist. I want to be respected and have the same opportunities as men—but, like, carry my luggage”). Says Chicago comic and friend Natalie Jose: “Liza is honest and straightforward without any sugarcoating. Her comedy is sneaky-smart.”
Born in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, which was once part of the Soviet Union, Treyger, now 26, immigrated with her family to Chicago in 1990 (they were granted religious asylum along with other Jewish families). They landed in Rogers Park but eventually settled in the northern suburb of Skokie. “I did get made fun of for my school lunches,” she remembers, “but I had badass lunches, and they just had peasant sandwiches.”
Though Treyger was the class clown in high school at Niles North, it wasn’t until she was invited to perform at an open-mike event while a student at North Park University in North Center—she’d already made a chaotic detour through Iowa State University (“There were horses on campus; it definitely wasn’t my scene”) and the music program at Columbia College (“I’m tone-deaf, so that was dumb”)—that she discovered comedy. “I did well kind of immediately,” she says. “Looking back at old sets, I’d be embarrassed, but even my second time onstage, I was killing it.”
By her senior year, Treyger and fellow standups Lauren Vino and Renee Schultz started the weekly comedy show Riot Comedy at Chicago Joe’s in North Center. “My friend [comedian] Danny Kallas was like, ‘Just work with women,’ ” recalls Treyger. He was right: The female-run showcase soon became one of the city’s most popular.
On the strength of such off-kilter lines as “New York is so cocky—I prefer a city where there’s an alley I can pee in,” Treyger has landed a half-hour Comedy Central special and a regular gig as a panelist on E!’s Chelsea Lately. “I’ve always been a fan,” she says of host Chelsea Handler. “I like badass bitches.”
Having her own show is a dream, but right now Treyger has a more modest goal in mind. “I want people not just to say, ‘Oh, it’s Friday, let’s go to the Chuckle Hut,’ ” she says. “Instead, I want them to say, ‘Liza’s in town, let’s go see her.’”
3 months ago