Photo by Mandee Johnson
Since making her television debut in September of last year on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, lesbian comedian Cameron Esposito has gone on to score a regular gig on E’s Chelsea Lately, perform on Conan, become a columnist for A.V. Club, and be called “the future of comedy” by Jay Leno. Described as “an incredible burst of loud comic energy” by Exclaim, Chicago Magazine has hailed her as “Comedy's next breakout star,” adding that “She fuses the plucky charm of Amy Poehler with the assured storytelling of Louis C.K.”
Starting her comedy career at the age of 19 after joining Boston College’s improv troupe My Mother’s Fleabag, of which SNL and Parks and Recreation star Amy Poehler was once a member, Esposito focused the wry wit she developed while wearing an eyepatch to correct a lazy eye for eight years growing up into a comic voice all her own. After moving to Chicago and starting a stand-up class for women that is still being taught today, she once again followed in Poehler’s footsteps, relocating to LA and performing weekly at Hollywood’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre, where she records a free podcast for iTunes. With her new album, Same Sex Symbol, being released October 7 by Kill Rock Stars, Out sat down with Esposito to discuss being a woman in comedy, self-discovery, and side mullets.
Out: What draws you to the side mullet?
Cameron Esposito: You know, it’s a hairstyle I’ve had for several years now, and I don’t even remember what drew me to this. I was in Chicago at the time and I went to the L and put my hair like this. I was trying to do something that would be cool and punk rock, and I don’t even think I realized at the time how much it actually fits my gender, because it’s very much in the middle of like the Don Draper with a Joan body, so I just feel like the long on one side and the short on the other is really perfect for me. And now it’s sort of become a brand for me, so I have to keep it this way for a little while longer even though it grows more absurd with each day.
How do you feel about the way the media tends to treat female comics? How would you like to see female comics addressed?
I’ll say this. I think media stuff is getting better all the time. I would say, generally, you don’t have to ask a female comic, like, “What are your favorite female comics?” You don’t have to compare women to other women just because there aren’t that many of us. If somebody makes more sense in terms of style, like, it’s fine with me if you compare me to a male comic. That makes more sense as opposed to [comparing me to] Ellen just because she is another lesbian. So that’s fine, I think, seeing people for what they are as opposed to just being women, or using like “She’s the funniest woman on whatever.”
I think that’s when people get upset, especially female comics. They’re, like: “We’re not the funniest women, we’re the funniest.” But I think another thing is just being...it’s also audience awareness. People are still a little bit uncomfortable laughing at women. We’re just used to seeing dudes, more dudes doing this job that they have done for a longer period of time. When a female comic walks out in front of a brick wall, it looks a little off. It doesn’t look like Jerry Seinfeld or Louie. It looks new, and so I would just say that if you are having a reaction to a woman during stand-up and you don’t like her material, let it be about her material and not about the fact that she’s a woman.
What would you say was your biggest takeaway from creating your women-focused comedy class in Chicago?
I always would teach women that the number one thing that they needed to learn how to do was to take up space. I think, as women, it’s really easy to be in like a support role and a nurturing role and also to be deferential. We’re taught to really cater to the needs of other people around us, make sure everyone else feels comfortable. It’s really that soothing and smoothing things over that women are so great at, you know, that mothering instinct. In some ways, it’s also forced upon us, and so when we’re speaking up, that can be a real moment of discomfort. And a lot of the women that took that class went on and continued to do stand-up, but some of them didn’t, and I think that was always the lesson I wanted them to take to, like, the boardroom or wherever they worked. I had, like, a female priest, I had a corrections officer. Just that idea that standing your ground is a really important thing for women to learn how to do, because I don’t think it’s something that we’re culturally taught. I think it’s actually something that we’re discouraged to do.
Why would you say women aren’t taught to stand their ground, pursue comedy, or portray themselves with the kind of confidence comedians so often utilize?
I think it’s our entire history of gender dynamics, really. We’re the listeners, we’re the audience. We haven’t even been able to vote, let alone be congresspeople, you know? I think it’s just about being out of the home and being the person that really speaks for the family. And obviously, there’s a longer tradition of men being that person. Comedy really is, it’s talking about your emotions and it’s talking about your opinions and then supporting those. And I think women are encouraged to find out which opinions they can support that men have, you know? They can go home and take care of men sexually and then partnership. If you read any Cosmopolitan magazine, you will see that women’s magazines teach how to please men. And also, if you read any Maxim, you will read that men’s magazines teach how to please men, so it really is about learning how to please ourselves.
You’ve written before about following in the footsteps of Amy Poehler. How has she inspired you and who are some of your other inspirations?
Amy Poehler is just an interesting figure because she’s mega-talented and just the best, but she also went to the same college as I did and the same improv group that I was in, but like ten years before. So she’s really the first person I ever saw that I had some tenuous connection to that made a living in comedy or any entertainment at all. So while I was playing improv games, she was on SNL, and I could kind of imagine, even though there was no clear path or connection between those two things, I could kind of imagine that it would be possible to do that, so that was really amazing.
When I relocated to Chicago, there was a really cool thing happening in the stand-up scene in Chicago at the time, which is I just started to enter right when a lot of local comics were starting to break out into the national scene. So people like Kumail Nanjiani, who’s a friend of mine and who is now on the television show Silicon Valley, and T.J. Miller, who’s also on the show, they are pals of mine, and they were still in Chicago kind of working on their stand-up. They moved to L.A. or New York, and it was interesting to see that, because again, it just kind of showed me a little bit about how it might be possible. Every comic's path is different, but just the idea that it could be possible, to see how they did it. Because I didn’t really grow up in an arts focused environment. I went to a college prep high school and I played sports and I dated a football captain. People I knew became accountants or lawyers, nobody was a comic.
You mentioned in your act that growing up, gay people seemed like mythical creatures to you. Why do you think that was and do you think that’s still the case for kids today?
You know, I don’t know. I don’t know that many kids. But I think it has to be different. Maybe not where I’m from. I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s different there. I grew up in a really conservative and lovely suburb of Chicago, we literally had a milkman. Very idyllic and also very homogenous, so everybody is kind of on the same path, and I didn’t know any out gay people, and this was kind of like the era where Ellen was coming out on TV. I wasn’t allowed to watch that show in my household, because of my religious background. My parents didn’t want me to see any gay people. And so really being gay was very difficult, because they didn’t ever understand that that was a real thing. It was like imagining you’d be a leprechaun. If you’d never met one, if you’ve never met a gay person or somebody that openly identifies as being gay, then it feels very separate.
I think one thing that has changed is Internet access. I wonder if, when I was a kid, if I had been able to find some other examples, because television is still moderately...the gay characters on TV are still archetypes of what it means to be gay. The gay men are still a little, like, flipping their wrists, and the gay women are still a little bit a butt of the mule joke. There’s just so much more, I mean, if you look at instagram and just follow #lesbian. And you can follow people on twitter in another state, and Dan Savage has the It Gets Better Project, which really allowed, and the reason he said that he did that is he wanted to speak directly to gay kids so they could access that from their home computers or from the laptop they’re using in a coffee shop or from an iPad. So I just think the connections are a lot easier, because we’re all connected a lot more. There are gay youtube stars that are teenagers, so that didn’t exist. None of that was around.
How is your relationship with your family now? Are they more accepting now?
Oh yeah: It’s completely the opposite. My dad was the first person that called me the moment that DOMA was overturned. He was on his way to a business meeting with an associate and he pulled over the car, because he heard it on the radio, and called my fiance and I to tell us how happy that he was because it was overturned. And then he asked “Aren’t you so glad that you get to have a wedding?” and I said “Aren’t you so excited that you get to be at a wedding in your life?” “Yes, of course, this is amazing.” It was a long road. Honestly because of religious conservatism. I didn’t know many gay people, but they also didn’t know many gay people. But now they have friends whose kids have come out, but at the time, they also didn’t have any friends who were gay and they didn’t know any gay people, so I think they also thought it was the end of a good life for me. There weren’t a lot of examples for how an adult relationship would look and marriage and family and career success. There were just so few people to look to and say “this is a model for how this can turn out.” So I think they were really sad for me and really worried, and that lasted for years actually, but I think meeting the people that I was dating and seeing that they were just people, and also watching me go through life and have a lot more comfort with myself and then some career success and being happy. And I don’t think you can argue with the happiness you see in a child.
How did you discover that you were gay?
I kissed a woman for the first time. There was not any moment before that. But having an experience where I realized how it was supposed to feel to be intimate with somebody was the first time that I realized that it didn’t feel right to be intimate with men. I was also really faith driven in a funny way where I was an outspoken advocate of abstinence in high school, because I just didn’t realize that was supposed to be difficult. I just thought that all people weren’t that into making out, because I thought it was kind of gross. And then having that experience of, “Oh no, I’ve been doing the wrong thing,” that started me on the road, and I discovered it and it just got real. Even then, I still struggled in my head whether that was actually going on. It just felt so wrong to me morally, even though it felt so right to me physically.
How does your sexual orientation influence your comedy?
There’s kind of three points on that. Because there are people who are kind of like, “Why do you talk about your sexual orientation?” And the biggest thing for me with that is that all comics do that. Street comics do. It’s just that it’s invisible because they’re straight, they’re in the mainstream there, they’re in the majority. If a guy’s on stage talking about his girlfriend, he’s talking about being straight. So I don’t edit it out, because it seems dishonest. When I’m talking about it, I’m not talking about my viewpoint. Being gay is both the least and most important thing about me. Everything I look at, I’m looking through gay eyes. That’s the whole way I interact with the rest of the world.
Also, it’s definitely not necessarily about sex. It’s about the person I am. And I also think that it’s really important to talk about my life honestly right now. I don’t know if it’ll always look the same way, like maybe in a couple of years, I won’t feel a need to be as much of a crusader as I think I am right now, but this is such a massive turning point, nationally, for us. We’re right on the brink of something, and still a lot of people need to listen and still a lot of people need to actually hear from somebody that’s gay. There are a number of straight stand-ups that have material about equal marriage. It’s just everybody. It’s what we’re talking about right now. It’s just in the water. And I feel like, if I’m a gay person and I listen to five people talking about equal marriage and I don’t go up there and talk about my own life, then I feel like I’m not allowing the option for a gay person to speak on our own behalf. I don’t want people having this conversation without us, even if they’re advocates. Even if they’re completely excited about gay rights. I just don’t want people shutting us outside of the room.
The other thing is, I know that there are people watching or listening that might be coming out or unsure what their future could look like, because that’s how it was for me, because I wish I had more people I could look to and say that it’s going to be OK. So I’m trying to do the best that I can. I’m not saying that I’m a perfect person or that my life is perfect, but just that I’m ok and functional and I’m funny and lighthearted, and that’s what I want gay teenagers to see, or that’s what I want 40-year-old gay folks who’ve been in the closet their entire life to see. I just want to represent this life that we can lead, this great gay life that we can lead.
One of the biggest themes you touch upon in your stand-up act is that our differences make us better. How do you think they make us better and why do you think they are important?
I think a lot of times, some folks try to wrap their minds around gay people like as if it’s something they can understand. And I don’t mean that like...I can’t understand what it is to be straight. The number of times that I still hear a comic or a person on the street or I watch a joke in a movie, that idea of: I wouldn’t get with a guy for a million dollars. Like, you’ll hear straight dudes say that all the time, and that’s not what being gay is. Number one, I don’t know who they think these gay millionaires are that can’t get their damn sex for free. But also, nobody’s trying to pay you a million dollars, like this isn’t something you have to participate in.
You don’t have to imagine what it would be like to be gay and you don’t have to think about whether or not it grosses you out, just know that whether or not you can wrap your mind around it, we’re just different, and we’re different in a million ways, and that’s never going to change, and it’s good that we’re different, because the alternative is that we would all be attracted to the same thing. That we would all want the same job and all want to live in the same house. And that is like a terrible 1984-type scenario. So running off the fact that if you’re straight and you just want to listen to what it’s like to be gay, that’s like the best thing you can do. You don’t have to talk about what it would take for you to be with a guy, you don’t have to talk about anything else. Just talk about yourself. Talk about what it’s like to be straight. And then ask. Ask what it’s like to be a lesbian, or trans, or bi, and try to be chill with that. It’s a really short life to try to control other people or to try to make us all the same.
Cameron Esposito's new album, Same Sex Symbol, is now available through Kill Rock Stars and iTunes. Watch the "Woman Who Doesn't Sleep With Men" clip below: