Artwork by Cap Blackard. (Buy Prints + More!)
2014 has been a sobering year for comedy.
While the interconnected world of sketch, improv, and standup has never been a stranger to darkness, whether it be in the scathing jabs and observations upon which many a comic great has made their bread and butter, or in the devastating diseases of addiction and depression that have burned out so many of our brightest stars before their time (Chris Farley, John Belushi, Freddie Prinze, Mitch Hedberg, and many more not-so-famous names). However, a distinct shift has occurred, and it has not been ignored.
In addition to the stunning blow of Robin Williams’ suicide in August, which marked the beginning of an important and necessary discussion on the dark side of comedy, the pioneering Joan Rivers died at age 81, and we finally started talking about how underrated she is; inspirational SNL vet Jan Hooks died at 57; and the once untouchable Bill Cosby, America’s favorite dad on The Cosby Show, is being mourned as the loss of an ideal, having fallen from public favor as 17 women, so far, have come forward with damning allegations of sexual assault.
But out of all of this tragedy, there have been a few glimmers of light. The touching tributes that comedians have penned to Williams, Hooks, and Rivers, for example, have revealed a loving and familial support network underneath this particularly oddball and often rowdy business, primarily hubbed to the comedy capitals of Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, that many an outsider might have hitherto assumed was strictly dog-eat-dog.
Maybe we have been craving optimism. Subconsciously, perhaps, we have been waiting for a comedian to come along whose work stems from a place of joy instead of bitterness, who is clever and edgy without being overly cynical, who exudes positivity, inclusiveness, and genuine heart, with the quick wit to hook us in and the talent to keep us coming back for more.
And we found her.
Cameron Esposito entered into the pop cultural zeitgest on September 3, 2013, when she made her late night standup debut on CBS’ The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. That evening, Jay Leno, also a guest, invited her to the couch and called her “the future” of comedy.
On September 4th, that prescient soundbite — plus the YouTube video of Esposito’s act and the subsequent joshing with Leno and Ferguson — appeared at the top of nearly every entertainment blog, marking what was, in retrospect, Esposito’s launch into the majors.
“My life has changed since then, which might not usually be true,” says Esposito over the phone. “[A late night set] is not usually something that gets a lot of coverage. Like, what would you write about? Summarizing jokes? So yeah, it was wild. It was wild that it ended up having that great of an impact.”
While many a young comic may have cracked under the mantle that the former host of The Tonight Show laid upon her shoulders, the 32-year-old Esposito has upheld it admirably, and with a healthy dose of humility and perspective, too.
“A late night set is usually just a part of the whole awareness campaign that you ride for the entirety of your life,” she elaborates, in her deft, self-effacing style. “A good number of people see you, it goes well on that night, and then it kind of dies the next day. What was unusual about that particular event is that because Jay happened to stay and watch the set, and because he was leaving [The Tonight Show], and the idea that two late night hosts would ever be together, and then also that somebody would be making their late night debut that night, the stars just aligned.”
But, of course, the rave reviews came from more than just being in the right place at the right time.
“I actually have an improv background and I can totally do crowd work, so they had them the right comic,” she says, acknowledging the fact that yes, she totally deserved it.
Esposito grew up in Western Springs, Illinois and attended Catholic school in nearby Lisle. As she recalls in her October-released comedy album, Same Sex Symbol, she went from wearing an eye patch and a coonskin cap as a Davy Crockett-obsessed tomboy to donning a red bird costume as her high school football mascot, definitely queer but not out, yet.
These days, Esposito is “a confident and happy gay person”, which she also affirms on Same Sex Symbol, brimming with her signature confidence and wide-eyed, infectious glee.
“As you can tell by my haircut, I am a Thundercat. And also a GIANT LESBIAN.” (Pause for uproarious laughter from the live audience in Portland, Oregon). “Of course I am, OF COURSE I AM. I look like most of Portland’s men.”
Then, later: “I finally got my look sorted out, you know, my gender represented to you accurately, my gender being fighter pilot.”
After that momentous Late Late Show gig, Esposito has appeared on E!’s Chelsea Lately, TBS’ Conan, NBC’s Last Call with Carson Daly, IFC’s Maron, Adventure Time on Cartoon Network, Pivot’s Take Part Live, and podcasts like Comedy Bang! Bang! and How Did This get Made, in addition to hosting her own podcasts, the live standup show Put Your Hands Together and the action film-centered Wham Bam Pow, held every Tuesday night at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre in LA.
So, what is a typical day like in the life of Cameron Esposito?
She briskly runs through the list: “I get up at about seven o’clock in the morning, if I can sleep in, and I immediately start panicking about the amount of things that I need to do. And then my fiancé takes the dog out, because I am the last person to take the dog out.”
But she also makes sure to emphasize that “the most interesting thing about being a standup, especially when you get to the point that you’re based in LA, is that most of your life is not about getting on stage and telling jokes.”
Each morning, she says, “I e-mail and write and plan, and I sit at my computer in my pajamas, for like five hours, and just try to get caught up. And then I go for a massive hike, to try to make sure that my heart doesn’t explode, because I’m very amped all of the time.”
When listening to Esposito’s standup, it’s clear that she’s a natural wordsmith. Phrases like “Free Willy-ing in the doorway” to describe a drunk guy about to fall on his face and “a Jackson Pollack situation” to describe the scene of getting her period inside of an airport bathroom are not only vivid and inspired, but roll off of her tongue with a colloquial ease that, unlike many other up-and-coming comics, is polished without sounding rehearsed.
“Most standups do sit down and write, but I actually don’t,” Esposito says. Instead, she prefers to work out her material on the stage.
“I started doing improv, and when I transitioned to standup, I never had a problem with taking up space on stage,” Esposito explains. “I feel like standups come from one of two camps; it’s like they’re comfy onstage from the beginning and have to learn how to write, and actually make decent material that’s worth people’s time, or they come with a billion jokes that they grew up watching on late night shows and so they’re like, almost monologists, and then they need to learn how to be on stage. And eventually, the comics just kind of meet in the middle, like whatever your initial skillset is.”
According to Esposito, a lot of her jokes are born onstage during her weekly show, Put Your Hands Together.
“I come up with a concept for the week, kind of outline some thoughts about it, and then I talk it out,” she says. “I used to run an open mic in Chicago, and I would use that for the same thing. So, I really do most of my writing via speaking it on stage, and then I figure out what works, and then I make it tighter over time. Some people sit down and write 12 jokes a day, and that’s not me.”
And although Esposito has been based in LA for the last couple of years, she is currently on a US tour to promote Same Sex Symbol, which presents an entirely different experience to her daily routine at home.
“LA is a wonderful place to move if this is the job that you want to have. It’s like moving to Washington, DC if you want to be in politics,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Everybody is here, I can’t believe how exciting it is, anything can happen at any moment.’ But it’s also a very solitary city, because there’s no public transit, and people have kind of seen it all.”
Then she divulges, in the dulcet tones of reverence: “You know, last night I did a show and Judd Apatow, Zach Galifianakis, Bob Odenkirk, and Bobcat Goldthwait went up before me. So, like, those people could be in the room. When you walk out onstage, everybody is expecting the best performance from the best performers.”
“I just think it’s a little bit different to connect with audiences [in LA], and it’s also just a little bit different when it comes to connecting to another person here, because everyone’s in their cars and there’s lots of foot traffic, there’s the bar culture…” She trails off for a moment. “And so being on tour is … I guess it’s the only way I have of marking if anything has changed in my career, if that makes any sense.”
As for the tour experience, Esposito is just thrilled that people are showing up, and earnestly thankful for the opportunity.
“Now that I’m going out with the album, we’re playing theatre spaces, generally. So, clubs, it’s like people came to see a show, and in a theater, it’s like people came to see your show, and so that has changed. It’s been a marked difference in the past year,” she says. “And the only reason that I know that that would be possible, that some people are starting to, generally, in a very small way, know who I am, is because when I [see the audience], I’m like, ‘Oh, cool, all of these people came to this underground rock club in Portland, Oregon. Awesome! I guess people are listening to this podcast that I just speak into a void about.’”
Esposito also cherishes the opportunity to meet the people whose lives she has affected, many of them young, gay, and struggling with self-confidence.
“A couple of months ago, a mom came up to me and said, ‘My daughter’s coming out, and I’m really proud of her, and she’s really nervous, and I don’t know if she is going to be able to be confident in the person that she is,’” Esposito recalls. “And she was like, ‘Do you have anything I could take for her to listen to?’ And the album hadn’t come out yet, so I was like, ‘Oh, no! I don’t.’ But she came back to my show in Chicago, like last month, bought an album, and brought it to her daughter. So, I have no idea … I mean, obviously this person’s trajectory is whatever it ends up being … but that a mom is buying my material to share with her kid, like, that’s the whole goal. It’s awesome.”
Besides having a sincere charm and friendly rapport with her audience when she is onstage, Esposito is also known for being accessible to her fans via social media, whether it be answering questions through her biweekly column at The A.V. Club, participating in Q&As like “Ask a Grown Woman” for Rookie, or starring in the mega-popular “Ask a Lesbian” videos for Buzzfeed, which in total have over 2 million views.
Turns out, Esposito has received some helpful advice along her journey. And she’s also not afraid to gush about her role models.
“The first person that ever brought me on as a road opener was Maria Bamford, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, Maria, she is exactly where I would want to be! I wonder what it feels like for her. What does it feel like when you hit the finish line?’And in asking her that, she was like, ‘You’re out of your mind, there is no finish line,’” Esposito laughs, and then makes a point to correct the story, “You know, she didn’t say it like that. She was very gentle. But she was like, “No, I feel like I got to the point where I was a professional years ago, but I still have to show up to another job every day.’ And I really feel like that is the thing that I re-learn all the time.”
The passion that Esposito has for standup, and the comics who came before her, is both palpable and contagious.
“One thing that is so wonderful and built into standup that I don’t think gets talked about enough is how much this is a trade,” she enthuses. “You know, it’s like a trade that you learn the same way that…” She starts to laugh out loud at the imagery forming in her head, “I think of it as an iron worker pounding something out on an anvil and they’re teaching a younger person how to do that.”
“There are comics that you work with that remember what it was like to be in your place, and it’s an experiential knowledge that is passed between generations,” she continues. “And I love it. It’s super beautiful. You have to be respectful of the people ahead of you in line, and I love that reverence of hard work.”
And although Esposito won’t say that she’s “made it” (“I think in this field, there’s this idea that you ‘make it’ and then you’re done. And of course that’s true”), seeing Same Sex Symbol hit number one on iTunes still felt like a champagne moment.
“I was so jazzed,” she confesses. “I’ll just be completely frank, I was so jazzed.”
“I’m really proud to be on the label that I’m on, Kill Rock Stars, and what they do for women, specifically,” she adds, with a nod to the 23-year-old indie label’s riot grrrl roots and their leg-ups to bands like Sleater-Kinney and The Gossip.
“Portia Sabin, who runs the label, when we were first talking about doing an album together, she said, ‘I think comedy is like the new punk rock,’” says Esposito, her voice lighting up. “‘It’s where people are discussing things that riot grrrls used to talk about instead of comics.’”
“But who knows if anybody wants to buy your stuff,” she says. “I mean, who knows? There’s no way of knowing ahead of time. I think we just ended up hitting this really nice sweet spot of, they have a big enough underground following. And then, it’s kind of a great time to be the person that I am. It’s like the discussion is welling up under the surface , and if you can just be the first one to be talking about it, then you happen to get a number one standup comedy album.”
What’s next for Cameron Esposito? Not slowing down anytime soon, that’s for sure.
“I’ve been doing more essay writing and I’m trying to write a book right now,” she discloses. “We’re trying to sell it, and I think it will go through … but if the book doesn’t go, you do something else, because right now it’s the wild west in the entertainment industry, and specifically in comedy. There used to be one way of getting to the next place. You land a development deal, you have a sitcom, you work on that sitcom for 10 years, and then what do you do next? But now, Jerry Seinfeld interviews people in cars, ordering coffee.”
At present, Esposito is “making as much content as [she] can,” which means writing specials, pitching shows, and auditioning for various projects, often simultaneously.
“It’s really like a numbers game. You just have to flood the system and keep making content, because that’s what’s happening right now,” she says. “It’s the same thing we do with falling into an Internet wormhole with researching anything. That’s what comedy is right now. It’s all Internet wormholes. When somebody finds out about you, they watch all of your videos, and then they’re like, ‘Hey, do you have anything else?’ And I’m like, ‘That was 10 years’ worth of content!’”
She laughs at this, then adds, sincerely, “But it’s a really exciting time to be working, too.”
In Esposito’s view, the state of comedy in 2014 is basically throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.
“That is something that you don’t see in standup, or what the general public doesn’t see,” she divulges. “I don’t mean it like…” — she makes a playful ‘oooh!’ noise. “But that is what it is to be a comic right now. And you’re just waiting in line, you know? You’re waiting in line behind all of the people that deserve it before you, that have worked longer than you, and you just keep going. It’s a treadmill that’s on a very slow speed with a slight incline.”
In terms of advice for new standups, Esposito passes on the motto that has served her well thus far: Just do the work.
“That never isn’t true,” she insists. “I know that sounds really weird, but it’s not like there’s one thing, like ‘Move here,’ and ‘Become friends with this person,’ and ‘Write this web series.’ It’s just work. Just work as much as you can, and in every way that you can.”
Then, jokingly, “Just exhaust yourself completely, watch a little House Hunters on HGTV, and go to bed.”
A couple of days ago, Esposito took to her Twitter account with the following message:
“Hey pals! Did you know female comics don’t all hate one another? Lemme tell you about some great comics…”
Esposito goes on to describe Kristen Schaal as “wildly creative and so fucking funny”; Amy Schumer as “fearless and important and her delivery is ON POINT”; Maria Bamford as “best watched in a stupor of hushed joy”; and Sarah Silverman as “great, but if you need me to tell you that you are a real bother,” just to name a few. Then she retweeted followers who gave shout-outs to their favorite lady comedians, and later posted a photo of herself with actress Geena Davis, smiling wide (#normaleyes) and rocking a big thumbs up. Like a boss.
It was a giant girl-power Kumbaya. And after the Cosby revelations, the endless misogyny of Gamergate, and countless other problems that might be affecting any person, a young woman especially, sitting at home and feeling lonely on a Monday night, it was much appreciated.
Yes, it’s been a tough year for comedy, as all of us try to make sense of the storm cloud and draw out the light as best we can. But, thankfully, 2014 has also been the year of Cameron Esposito, and her light is shining brightest of all.