Comedian Cameron Esposito on Being a ‘Same Sex Symbol’ and What to Expect On Stage

To say that standup comic Cameron Esposito has had a great year would be a gross understatement. Esposito, who sharpened her witty chops in Chicago’s improv comedy scene, made her television debut just last fall with a bit on The Late Late Show, where host Craig Ferguson and fellow guest Jay Leno spontaneously dove into her act, launching her onto the Internet’s vast radar. This October, she has released her second comedy album called “Same Sex Symbol,” which reached number one on iTunes’ comedy charts, and has been touring prolifically to bring her Midwestern charm to live audiences. Los Angeles residents can share laughs with her at the Hollywood Improv on December 19.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. Her hilarious and prolific resume includes producing not one, but two podcasts, writing a regular humor column for the AV Club and a weekly live show at the UCB that she collaborates with other standup humorists including her fiancé. It is no wonder that Consequence of Sound recently deemed her their comedian of the year.

Often seen sporting a denim jacket and asymmetrical haircut, she affectionately refers to as a ‘side mullet,’ Esposito has memorable, engaging routines that crack fun at her life experiences and human observations. Her material draws deeply from her personal journey, such as attending Catholic school, discovering her lesbian identity at age 20 in suburban Illinois and spending years wearing an eye patch.

Watching Esposito’s sets gives the impression that she truly knows how to engage with her crowd. She emits a warmth and physicality that stops well short of slapstick, but brings energetic vibrancy to the room. For Esposito, it’s all about capturing a moment and sharing a laugh with her fellow humor enthusiasts.

Many people become comedians to joke about their past pain. On “Same Sex Symbol”, you discuss a lot of your hardships growing up like wearing an eye patch for eight years. When did you realize that comedy was a possible means for emotional release and that it would be your career choice?

I only realized after I was doing it that it was a coping mechanism we all use. Most comics are people who have that overdeveloped sense of humor to deal with trauma or stress. Everybody does that, comics just learn how to be really good at that. Other people are great at crying, or expressing emotions in other ways. Comics use humor, and I kind-of backed into it. I started doing improv in college, but I’m from an area where people didn’t really go into the arts. It wasn’t a viable career option, so I had other jobs during the day even when I was doing improve professionally at night. I went back to grad school to get my masters in social work, a very lucrative career (she jokes). I was happy in the program, but one of my classmates asked me, “Why are you here if you have another passion you want to pursue?” I was about 25 when I dropped out of grad school. I started doing comedy when I was 18 or 19 and in that seven years I was doing both.

You’re from Chicago, where improv is generally the style of choice. Did you start in improv or does the improv style influence the way you perform or write standup?

Strangely enough, I quit improv soon after moving back to Chicago. I was doing it in Boston, and when I moved back to Chicago the vibe of that particular scene wasn’t mine, so that’s when I started stand-up. Because that city believes in improv, the standups that come out of there can be flexible on stage. They can move with the energy in the room and the flow of what’s going on. This is true for a ton of comics right now that have formative years in Chicago. T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani, Hannibal Buress and Pete Holmes, they all do stand-up, not improv. It’s divided, but the improv focus leads people to want to be in the moment in the room – it makes the standup seem different.

How do you get into performance mode? Do you have any rituals?

I just need it to be really quiet backstage and I just shake my arms and legs. I used to be a swimmer in high school. You know in the Olympics, athletes are behind their blocks shaking their arms and legs out? They are really focused with their heads down. I am in the same zone. Somebody once tried to come backstage and talk to me who, and I was just like ‘no.’ I try to read what’s going on in the room to see what I’m going to walk out to.

How often and where do you perform in LA?

I have a weekly show that I run and co-produce with my fiancée (Rhea Butcher) and our friend, Ryan McManemin, who runs ASpecialThing Records. The three of us produce a show every Tuesday night at the UCB called “Put Your Hands Together,” which also goes out as a podcast. It’s a first of its kind; it tries to replicate the feeling of a live stand-up show. Everybody does seven-minute sets and we put the whole thing together as a full package. People can experience a showcase show with a lot of headliners when they live in like, Kansas City, where they might not be able to get that consistent flow of LA comics. Other than that, I am mostly on the road.

You are engaged to another comedian, Rhea Butcher, who often performs with you. Is it hard to live with another comedian? Are you constantly working on the next joke or competing in any way?

Interpersonally, between the two of us, we are actually very serious, which is hilarious. Comics are people who take joking around really seriously, so we are like the most serious people in the world. You be really serious about jokes, something has to be off with your ability to calm down about things. I think it is competitive, absolutely. Sometimes she has a really great line and I wish I could use it and vice versa. But I also think that being a woman, being a gay woman, and doing this job are all three really specific experiences. We have really different backgrounds but we really experience a lot of similar things that we can relate to. That is something I didn’t even realize I was looking for, but I’m glad that I found it. We’ve been engaged about a year. We got engaged right after DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) was overturned because we wanted to do something to mark that massive moment.

On “Same Sex Symbol”, you talk about the confusion people have about lesbians. Why do you think there is still so much confusion?

I think it’s that we haven’t had a chance to talk about it yet. Just looking at comedy, the first wave of acceptance was Ellen DeGeneres coming out. It was a massive moment and it was very powerful, but her television show ended when she came out. There was a black mark on her for years. She had to work her way back into people’s home. Now her daytime television show is so successful and [her character in “Finding Nemo”] Dory was successful. That actually did matter in terms of her exposure in the media – her being a little fish! She took so much of the beating coming out the closet; there just hasn’t been enough of us. The first people coming out the door had to gingerly step out. It’s important to be honest because people talk about lesbians like they’re not in the room. We’re everywhere.

Why in particular did you decide to put the track with the superfan “Julep” on your record, “Same Sex Symbol?” (A track where she interacts with a super-fan named Julep in the audience)

You just couldn’t ask for anything better than that! Part of making a great recording is trying to make it seem like a show. It’s so difficult to actually capture standup for audio or TV. It’s so different than what it really is like in the moment. There is this great experience that we all shared in the moment and it actually translated perfectly to audio because nothing happened that was beyond what could be seen. It’s those real moments that make things interesting.

What can people expect to see at your show?

I’m trying to write all new material. The thing about putting out an album is that that material is done. I’m going to try to have new stuff. It’s definitely like a hustle to get your next thing, but the thing about stand-up is that you’re only as good as your output. So wish me luck and come out next week!