Cameron Esposito and the Business of Being Herself

Cameron Esposito is honestly hilarious and hilariously honest. She is vest-obsessed and unbeatably upbeat. These characteristics make for a live comic performance you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, and lucky for us, it translates beautifully to her latest album Same Sex Symbol (out tomorrow). Esposito also runs a biweekly standup show and podcast Put Your Hands Together at UCB LA, writes a regular column for The A.V. Club entitled “Who In The World Is Cameron Esposito?“, and is pretty much constantly performing anywhere from Los Angeles to Montreal. Amidst all of this, I recently got the chance to talk with the woman whom Jay Leno personally dubbed “the future of comedy.”

So you recorded your most recent album, Same Sex Symbol, in Portland. That crowd seemed really receptive! It seemed like an amazing set.

It was awesome! Portland was a great city for me. It’s a great city in general to do comedy because it’s big enough and they have enough arts exposure – they’re really excited about comedy and they know comics specifically by name. They have a nice scene but it’s not so enormous that it’s not still a treat for you to be playing there. There’re a couple cities that have a balance like that, like Denver is like that, where it’s just like “Oh it’s so cool you’re here! Thanks for being here!”

At one point while recording the album, you had an interaction with an audience member named Julep, and you devoted an entire track of the album to her. She was literally in tears of joy just from seeing you perform live. That’s sweet, but is there any story behind that? Did you meet her after the show at all?

That was a thing that happened. It was real. I looked out in the audience and I could only see the first two or three rows because of the lights, but I could see that there was a woman who was just covering her face in a weird way, and I just want to make sure she was okay. My whole thing is that I’m like trying to check in with them and move together through things so I was trying to figure out what was going on and she was crying tears of joy because she got to see me. I found out later when I met her after the show that she had driven down to LA to see me tape Put Your Hands Together and she’d loved the show. Then on her way back to Portland she got in a big car accident and she, like, flipped her car and survived, but it was a really tough time and she was super scared. Then she got to see me in Portland and I think for her it was just this moment of like not only does she like my comedy enough to drive from Portland to LA but also that she made it and she got to see that next show.

That’s beautiful.

It was awesome. I couldn’t believe it.

And that’s the other thing that’s great about this album: you managed to get across how well you interact with your audience. What’s particularly impressive is that a lot of comics seem fairly worn down by negativity, whereas you’re so optimistic and upbeat; how do you stay that upbeat? Is that even something you can explain?

I think in the way that I work as a comic that is very natural. As a person I’m shy a little bit sometimes. I’m a little bit of an introvert. I’m definitely bubbly and outgoing but I also need a lot of time to myself and I really like to be alone.

But that to me is the whole thing: I love talking about my experience, but it’s so easy for me to use comedy as a way to connect with people. I just want to find out what’s important to somebody and if they bring in some negative shit, I love the magic act of turning it into a rad thing that we have in common. It’s like a puzzle and I love it. It’s my favorite thing about my job.

Offstage, I don’t – not that I’m not as good as that but most comics are not the class clown. I’m kind of a serious person and I’m a little quiet. I’m also friendly and stuff and I just think that thing of being in control and having that power but then also using that power to lift everybody else. I just love it. It’s the best.

I also noticed that between this and your last album, Grab Them Aghast, you’ve included a lot more personal material and jokes about your experience as a kid. Do you think you’re becoming more comfortable? Are you focusing on that, or is it just happening?

Oh, it’s just happening. When I was starting I was really just figuring how to be out as a person and how to be in the world and be gay because I came from a really conservative, Catholic background. So when I first starting doing standup, part of it was because I wanted to be onstage talking about the person I am. I couldn’t do that yet, so my jokes were more surreal, they were more superficial in some ways, and now I feel like, through standup, I’ve figured out how to talk about myself in a way that makes me more comfortable. And now I’m just totally chill and it’s a lot easier, and sometimes people are like “Do you always talk about your sexuality onstage?” And I’m like, “No, I just always talk about myself the same way that any comic does.” So the natural evolution of that is that I’m just trying to get closer and closer to what I really am. That’s what people are interested in. The more specific you can be, the more universal it is. If you speak in broad strokes you miss everybody but if you’re like “Are you ever terrified of this thing?” even if they’re not terrified of that thing they still know terror. That’s what makes us people.

From what I gather, you’ve been on the road a lot for the past year or so. Do you plan to keep that up and develop more stuff as you go?

You know, I always want to be traveling and doing shows, but I do have to cut down a little bit because I don’t actually think it’s sustainable for your bod or your personal life to be gone every weekend. And I really have been gone every weekend, so I’m definitely going to try to make it every two weeks or something like that.

I really just feel like I was trying to get great at standup, and obviously that’s like a lifelong trajectory but I just felt like all this time, I’d go out to a million cities and do hours and hours so I’ve been trying to do that. But I also live in this great city, Los Angeles, where there’s a lot of things that you can develop and work on that are a little bit more static.

You have your podcast and show Put Your Hands Together, your sci-fi podcast, your new album, and you’re traveling here there and everywhere; do you have anything else that you’ve been incubating?

Yeah, I’m working on a book and I’m working on a show, so hopefully those things will happen.

What kind of book?

I don’t want to say too much about this because I’m so superstitious, but I’ve been writing columns for the A.V. Club that are about standup, so that’s inspired this feeling in me that maybe people are interested in me as a writer which I never anticipated. The feedback I get from it is very different from the feedback I get from standup, and I like both of them so much. So I’m working on just, like, an autobiographical book, but I’m not going to say too much more. Not because I’m being vague, but just because the minute I put it into the world that it’s happening, then it’s just not gonna happen! [Laughs]

You have a great written voice. I’ve read your stuff for the A.V. Club and obviously I’m also familiar with your comedy. You have a great voice in both contexts; it’s impressive that you’re able to still have such a strong personality in your writing. I feel like it’s rare to have both.

Thank you! I really appreciate that. When I first moved to LA I was struck by – I came up in Chicago and you get a lot of feedback from fellow comics on a nightly basis because live performance is so important there and people really go out to shows all the time. But after moving to LA, live performance just isn’t the same focus. People are working on shows, and they’re traveling and things like that… I was trying to figure out a way to be connected to people, so I just put like one essay up that was about rape jokes. I was just thinking “Nothing will happen with this,” and put it up, and a bunch of people reblogged it and retweeted it. People that I think are cool, like Paul F. Tompkins or Jane Curtin, people whose opinions I really admire. Eventually, because Paul F. Tompkins retweeted it, Neil Gaiman retweeted it.

That’s amazing.

Yeah, I love his stuff and just imaging the fact that this guy who I love to read was reading something that I had written. And Dan Savage is somebody who regularly reads my things and he’ll give me feedback – like I love that guy. That guy helped me come out. So it’s been really wild realizing that you can write a scattered piece and realize it’s shareable in a different way. It’s so cool because it’s so immediate and only lives in the room and I love that about standup but it’s also neat to have another side. One side is about experiencing a thing as a group and one of them is a solitary interaction, and I need to figure out ways to do both of those things.

So, I feel like I can’t interview you without at least mentioning your interaction with Jay Leno and Craig Ferguson. Leno called you “The future of comedy.”

[Laughs] The “now” of comedy as well!

The future is now! But, yeah, one of the things I thought was peculiar about that interaction was that Leno also said “white guys are out, lesbians rule!” I feel like that describes an exclusive comedy scene that isn’t representative of what we’re increasingly seeing; comedy seems to be going in a direction that caters to specialized niche groups, so there’s less competition on a grand, nation-wide scale and it’s more about the specific market you’re catering to.

Well, I think it is both extremely competitive and also that there’s room for everybody. I do think that there are two things going on in equal amounts, but I think what he was kind of talking about was that the catch-all comedy sensibility is expressed in a very male, very straight, very white way. But there is now this kind of desire for “the other” that I think is happening in a really full way. It’s not just Jack from Will and Grace, it’s actually me being a woman, being a gay woman, a woman who speaks for herself, as opposed to being interpreted through a network or through a different actor.

So I think the democratization of comedy that has happened with the internet has made it so valuable. And now that we’ve realized there is a value in that, it’s working the opposite way. As opposed to a network seeking out some comic or a comic seeking out some network, now it’s like Key and Peele making their own YouTube videos and that being so valuable that Comedy Central was like “We better get on board with this.” That’s really cool, and I do think that is happening now in a way it wasn’t necessarily in the past.

Plus, now there are so many more ways of interacting with your potential audience now, so you really can’t afford to be idle.

It really is the job now. I don’t know even when this changed, because I think of somebody like Joan Rivers – she was doing video podcasts right up until the end. I think something about comedy is that if you want to do it with the rest of your life like that means you’re going to have to reinvent yourself constantly, because you can’t just do one thing. There’s not just one television network anymore. There’re so many different things, and this thing might fail but you still have to make money and you still have to have a job, so I just think that’s why people have everything going, so that when one thing pops up and then that goes away that there’s a backup plan.

Have you always been that sort of a person, kind of involved in everything all at once?

Well, I think that I’m very business oriented and that’s where that comes from – thinking of comedy as a business. I think some people start in standup and they loved Johnny Carson and they watched Conan all the time when they were a kid and they have like perfect jokes, and they get on stage and have to figure out like what it is to be a small business person.

I grew up in a household where my dad owned his own small business only makes money when he goes out and finds work. I just grew up with the sensibility that you have to make things for yourself. It’s funny, because my sisters and I all ended up in the arts but we ended up in the arts in like a weird kind of business-y way. Like my sister works in the city of Chicago doing their arts programming and has a law degree and would apply that to the arts. So we ended up having these sensibilities but we come from this family where it’s like… this strong work ethic and this need to be your boss. I’m so serious about this. I’m very serious about the business behind it, because it is like having a small business where the product is yourself. That’s what being a small business is. So you have to make the product and the product has to be great but you also have to figure out how to sell it.

Absolutely, though I think a lot of people get swept up in that and sell a version of themselves that’s more about what their audience wants than what they are.

Oh yeah, of course. I always want to be honest. I never want to be doing dishonest things, but also I have a weird haircut and a non-normative sexuality and I’m a woman, so I’m not necessarily plug-in-able to a network sitcom. Like nobody’s looking for me, and because that’s true, I kind of have to make my own stuff and that’s a huge blessing and it’s frustrating as hell because I wish that somebody would come help me and pluck me out of obscurity, but it’s just not going to happen. So the cool thing is that I get to maintain a little bit of control and I get to decide what I’m going to put out there and I get to have fun with it and that’s rad and that’s also just exhausting.

What is it in the end that would make you happiest in comedy?

I want a late night talk show. [Laughs] Yeah, I think the world is ready for one. I think the world is ready for a gal. Ready for a little tiny lesbian. Get a little tiny tailored vest. I mostly want it so that somebody can pay for my tailored vests. They’re great. I just think, as of right now, women have such a strong role in the daytime space but then at night it’s really still a man’s game in such a huge way and I love talking to people and I would love to do that job.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.

Cameron Esposito and the Business of Being Herself