Cameron Esposito: ‘Standup became a place where I could make my own safe space.’
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How many people can say that 1,000 people attended their bachelor(ette) party?
That was about the size of the audience for comedian Cameron Esposito’s first hour-long special, Marriage Material, which she recorded just two days before marrying her then-fiancé (and opening act) Rhea Butcher. Recording the special was a celebration of her fast-growing comedy career, as well as a homecoming to Chicago. That’s where she grew up and where she and Butcher had their wedding in December.
In anticipation of the special’s premiere on Seeso today, Esposito and Butcher — who regularly co-host the Put Your Hands Together podcast and “show behind the show” at UCB in LA — brought their acts to Austin’s South By Southwest (SXSW). There they co-hosted a standup show featuring Brooks Wheelan, Moshe Kasher and Jonah Ray to promote their upcoming Seeso Original Series, Take My Wife, a half-hour, single-cam comedy series about the comedian couple.
In addition to the showcase, Esposito performed a solo show to promote the new special, which was directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. Esposito’s SXSW show was a bit different—she performed at the intimate Hideout theater in Austin, where she did 30 minutes of newer material, told a ridiculous story about Snoop Dogg at a previous SXSW, and even did some crowd work, before getting into the meat of Marriage Material.
In the special, Esposito offered a confessional set, telling her coming-of-age (as well as her coming out) story. She recounted what it’s like to grow up as “a little queer girl” at a time before that was something people talked about—especially in a Catholic Chicago family and school system.
“I think part of the reason I got into standup is because—and it’s difficult for everyone—but when I came out, it was very traumatic. I felt very alone and not really safe or listened to. Standup became a place where I could make my own safe space,” Esposito said in an interview before the show. “It’s a weird choice for a safe space, because it’s going up in front of people who can heckle you, but it also isn’t, because it’s so honest and raw.”
She opened her set with the fact that the only sex education offered to her involved a priest showing her class a video of an abortion, in an attempt to scare them into abstinence. That was no problem for Esposito, who was dating the star of the football team at the time (she was the mascot—a bright, red bird) but knew that wasn’t for her.
“There’s a reason why there are so many movies and TV shows about high school,” she said. “It’s such a raw time for everyone. It’s a universal experience through a specific lens, and that’s what standup is, too.”
While Esposito’s story of teen confusion will be relatable to many women, it comes from a perspective that is rarely given proper attention in mainstream media.
“The ways that our stories are told, we’re either a side story or we’re a sob story,” Esposito explained. “We’re the object of affection of a guy who’s really going through a hard time because he’s in love with a lesbian, or we have cancer and our spouse’s medical insurance won’t cover us. It skips the nuance and the fact that you move through that and you become a person and you just live the rest of you life.”
By putting herself out there and by showing her vulnerabilities on stage—in her special she also talks about her newfound pangs of baby fever—Esposito hopes to connect with audiences who went through the same thing. That’s not to say the entire special is about her sex life.
“I feel like when you speak from a perspective that is outside of the dominant straight male perspective, people are like, ‘Why are you hammering this home so much?’ That’s the number one thing I hear as criticism. Like, we get it. You’re gay. [Laughs] That will be on my tombstone: We get it, she was gay.”
Marriage Material also gives Esposito a space to talk about issues close to her heart like marriage equality, and she takes on an activist’s tone when talking about subjects like Planned Parenthood, gun control, and politics (“We’re a Hillary family,” Esposito said). She sees performing as having a face-to-face discussion with her audience, no matter what their views.
“You can actually really work things out and come to a common understanding,” she said.
This happens even more often when she performs on stage with her wife Rhea. Esposito loves being able to see her react in the moment, and share her differing perspectives in real time. Anyone who is or knows a married couple knows there are always two sides to every story.
“Since standup began, there have been people processing their romantic relationships on stage. We called our show Take My Wife because of that old format of jokes,” Esposito said. “And what’s awesome about doing it with Rhea, is that you get to actually hear the other side. The wife or husband that people talk about on stage, speaks back.”
Being married to your touring comedy partner has its challenges, of course. That’s a lot of pressure to put on any relationship. Their dynamic is clear in that Rhea will often warm up the room for her wife, but after two-and-a-half years of doing so, that may have to change.
“She’s such a brilliant comic, and I trust her so much. Eventually, I will have another opener because now she’s at the level where she’s going to headline on the road. God pity that person who has to step into those shoes,” Esposito said, adding that having her partner-in-life also be her partner-in-comedy is an experience she’s not sure how other comics live without.
“I don’t know how other people are doing it,” she began. “It’s a wonderful job, but it’s isolating to have an experience that is so singular.”
Plus, it seems like it’d be a lot of fun, right?
“Well, that’s just a well-curated Instagram account,” Esposito said.
Marriage Material is available today on Seeso.com. And look for Take My Wife, coming later this year.