Talking to Cameron Esposito About Homophobic Audiences and Making Her Late Night Debut in Front of Leno and Ferguson

Few standups have a late night debut like Cameron Esposito’s. When she did her first ever TV standup performance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson last month, her set was funny — the best a comedian can hope for — but then she ended it interacting with Ferguson and guest Jay Leno, who invited her over to the couch after she made a joke at Leno’s expense. In addition to having such an exciting late night debut, Esposito is also the host of Put Your Hands Together, UCB LA’s big Tuesday night standup show that took the timeslot over from the long-running live show Comedy Bang! Bang! last year. I recently had the chance to talk to Esposito about her unique Ferguson performance, getting comics to release their sets for the podcast version of Put Your Hands Together, and a bad experience with a homophobic heckler in Boston.

What have things been like for you after the Ferguson appearance?

That’s a big deal for me right now in my career. Not just that was it my first network spot, but also, it got a lot of press and attention. Late night spots usually don’t. It’s not really a news story. It’s a great way to get people to become familiar with your material. Just because of the specific way that it went and that I got to be myself a little bit and do some audience interaction with an audience that happened to be Jay Leno and Craig Ferguson, it’s been great.

The odds of being on the same night as Leno are pretty slim.

Just having two late night hosts there is pretty rare. But they also both decided to stay and watch because they don’t always stay.

Yeah, Craig Ferguson doesn’t usually stay, right?

I think they used to block tape his sets and drop them in, so he wouldn’t necessarily be there for that reason. And the guest wouldn’t stay. But I had been talking to Jay backstage, and he knew it was my first time and I think he wanted to stay and support. It was very cute and also really intimidating but also great. They were 10 feet from me. You don’t expect that on your first time on network TV. But it’s been really great.

What’s did you do to get ready for your first late night spot?

I found out at 10 o’clock the night before that I was gonna have the spot. I found out on Labor Day, and I had taped the [same] set the Tuesday before. So I only had that set in my mind for six days. Of course, I’ve been working for 10 years in comedy. I started in improv and then I started doing standup for six years before being on TV. It’s not like it was “Overnight, I got a Craig Ferguson spot,” but I did find out overnight. And I didn’t have a chance to run it before being on TV. I know that that does happen to people, that they find out last minute. I know that’s pretty normative.

I was nervous, I was really nervous because I’m also kind of known more for story jokes and longer things and audience interaction. That’s all fine and good, but you have to do four minutes on TV. And you have to do four minutes word for word from a script that you sent them so that they can approve it, so a little bit I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do that short of a time. When you get to a certain point, 20 minutes becomes easy but four minutes becomes hard because you’re trying to convey who you are as a comic, give people a little taste of your persona and personality and joke writing style, all in the shortest possible segment.

You can’t redo it or anything.

Yeah, there’s one take. If you fuck it up, “Way to go, idiot!” It’s not just that there’s one take. There’s no opportunity to recover. You can’t look at the audience and say, like, “Moving on!” You can’t acknowledge anything that’s going on. You have to live or die by that format.

Did you start out doing improv in Chicago?

I did improv in college. Then afterwards, I lived in Boston and I did it professionally at a couple theaters there. One of them, I did it at a theater called Improv Asylum. They put on full shows that are sketch and improv, kind of how The Second City does in Chicago. I was 22 and I was doing six shows a week. I had a day job working in education. I eventually got fired from that job. There was nothing else that would have been higher up than that really in Boston. I was like, “Well, I don’t think I want to retry to get the job I already had,” so I moved to Chicago and went to social work school and then was training in improv and taking classes. Then, I realized that I didn’t want to do improv at all because I hate doing improv. I like watching people do improv that are not me, but I hate doing it. But I started hosting improv shows, and that’s how I figured out that I wanted to do standup.

What about improv did you hate specifically?

I still think for a woman, it’s a pretty hard thing to get started in. I think at a certain level, people get really great at listening and talking to each other in a real way. The whole thing about improv is you have to “yes and” everything. You have to agree. I was doing it with all these young dudes who really wanted me to “yes and” scenes where I was giving them a blowjob. Or because I’m a gay performer, everybody would get that in the back of their head. Whatever scene we were doing, it’d be like, “I’m a penguin.” They’re like, “I believe you mean you’re a gay penguin.” At that level, I felt very much like I couldn’t speak with my own voice because my voice was so underrepresented. People just didn’t know what to do with it. Like, they wanted to include me, but they had no idea how to do that.

The great thing about standup is you’re still underrepresented, but you get to speak for yourself. Once it’s your set, it’s you and the audience, and the audience actually doesn’t get to say anything. You really get to speak for yourself. Nobody can put words in your mouth, and that’s a really wonderful gift to give any performer, but especially a performer who’s in a couple different underrepresented communities.

Who are the other standups who were in Chicago when you were coming up?

It kind of runs in classes. When I started and would have been a freshman in Chicago, there was this senior class that was just about to leave that were all these dudes that I still know but are now doing so well. It was wild to start at a time when I got to see them just… That’s what I was thinking about right before I was on Ferguson. I was thinking about, when I started in Chicago, Hannibal Buress had his first TV appearance, T.J. Miller had his first TV appearance, Kumail Nanjiani had his first TV appearance. I saw all those dudes on open mics, and then I saw them go be on TV and then I saw them leave and take off. Kyle Kinane and Matt Braunger and Pete Holmes had just left Chicago, and then those other dudes were still in Chicago. People really were excited. There’s this whole group of former Chicagoans who are in LA now that I’ve known for years or known of for years.

How’d you come into hosting Put Your Hands Together?

When I came out here [to LA], I knew I wanted to have a weekly show. Because it is such a massive scene that if you’re not — you can go anywhere here. Everybody who a young comic looks at and wants to be, they live here. This is where people live. You can do anything, but you have to do it yourself. You have to be very driven.  [Unlike Chicago], you can’t just go to a show, have people see you, and then get booked on the next show from that. You have to really be creating your own machinery. That’s why I knew I wanted to host a weekly show.

I came up with a whole pitch to Ryan McManemin, who is one-half of A Special Thing Records. He and I decided together to try and podcast a standup show, which hadn’t really been done yet. We went to UCB with the idea, just hoping that they would give us a monthly spot. It just so happened that we were there the same day that they found out Comedy Bang! Bang! was going to end its run. So we were like the first people in the door, and it was serendipity. This happened like three months after I lived here. It was serendipidty, but it was also a lot of planning and hard work. That’s what it feels like about LA — you just do all the work so that when you have the opportunity, you can capitalize on it. Like, you might find out the night before that you’re gonna be on Craig Ferguson, so you have to just be ready for that and you have to just be ready when the UCB says, “Oh, you want a monthly spot? What if we just give you a weekly spot instead?” You have to be like, “Oh, absolutely. That’s what we meant the whole time. Of course we want to take over from this legendary show that’s been running for 10 years. Why wouldn’t we want to do that?”

Is it a challenge to get comedians to agree to have their material podcasted? Standups are usually careful about how and when they release their material.

What’s been great is we don’t tie the booking of the live show to the podcast at all, so nobody has to do the podcast. People are generally okay with it, so we’ve gotten some great names. Also, it’s a whole new world now. Nobody has been podcasting standup yet, but podcasts have created this rabid comedy nerd fanbase. They want material. I just don’t think that one late night set a year or one album a year or one Comedy Central special every couple of years really provides that podcast audience with what standups are great at, which is standup. You can hear chat shows with them or you can hear characters, but standup has really been missing.

And I get it. People are worried about burning their material, but you can do that in a million ways right now. I mean, what is Twitter if not a giant bonfire that you’re throwing material in to burn? I think the timing on when we’re expected to come up with new stuff has changed. If you do a two-minute joke on our show and then you do that two-minute joke on your album, it’s gonna sound different. It’s kind of like the music model. When you love a band, you’re interested in hearing them do a song for the first time, then you’re interested in hearing them play live… I think that comedy is gonna to have to follow that model a little bit.

There are still people who are protective of their stuff because when Aziz Ansari does our show, he doesn’t want to podcast his material because he’s selling out theaters because he has an hour that he has specifically crafted. It’s a 10,000 seat theater, and he doesn’t want them to have heard his jokes before because people have paid a ton of money to be there, and I get that. But there’s also gonna be opportunities for people who are not at his level to do something and then go out and do that joke live and have people be like, “Oh, I love this joke.”

I think we don’t give comedy fans enough credit when we assume that they don’t understand how standup works. It used to be that you pretended like you were speaking extemporaneously every time you got on stage. Like, “Oh, this happened to me on the way to the show.” The fact that that’s how half of standup material starts - “You guys, a crazy thing happened to me on the way over here.” No, it didn’t happen that way. We’re professionals, we work on this for years. I don’t think we have to pretend anymore. I mean, YouTube exists, and therefore we can’t pretend because you never know who’s gonna be recording and who’s gonna put it up. This is a way for comics to pick and choose what they want to put out there and to tell us if they want us to take it down for some reason in the future. It’s just a way for folks to hear what people they love are currently are up to.

Do you have an episode of the podcast that you think is a good one to get started with for people who want to check it out?

Any episode with Ron Funches or Katie Crown, these two comics we’ve had on a couple times. They’re getting a lot of TV work, and I think that they’re gonna have a lot of national exposure coming up. Like, Ron is going to be on Undateable on NBC. He’s gonna be a comedy monster after that. It’s a mainstream sitcom on network television. He’s so good. But right now, we’ve been able to capture him — like, this is what he sounds like in a 100-person venue, before he’s on NBC. It’s a real moment in time. I would look for those two people. I love their performances on our show.

You get to watch a lot of comedians while hosting your show and doing other shows. Are there certain things you do or don’t like that standups do?

Whoah, a bird just almost hit me in the face. That would have been amazing! What if that’s how the interview ended? “And then, just a bird hit her in the face.” [Laughs]

[Laughs] A bird hit Cameron in the face. Follow her on Twitter.

Yeah, that would be a hell of a Twitter promotion. What if that’s how I’d set that up?

That’s how you should have ended that Ferguson set.

I know! Why didn’t I train a dove — like, the beauty of a dove — and it hits me in the face? It’s kind of like a peaceful monster.

All right, here’s what I’ll say: It’s never the audience’s fault. If something is going badly, the joke, a particular show, if people didn’t come out on this particular night, even if the audience are dicks, even if it’s the worst audience in the world, it is not their fault. You can have the worst audience in the world, and you just have to do the best job you can for them. That’s what I try to remember. It is so hard to remember, but I guess if I had any pet peeve, I guess it would be a standup wasting their time on stage blaming the audience. You have to realize you’re not getting any better from that. You’re taking time from your set to say, “There’s nobody here,” “You guys are shitty,” or “I guess you didn’t get that.” Just keep going, plow through. It’s all about training to get better so that you can entertain the biggest idiots on the planet. Most audiences are not terrible, but if they are terrible, they just don’t know it. It’s not their fault. You can’t control it, but you can control yourself. It’s like giving the audience power to be terrible.

Yeah, you’re not gonna get them onboard with you by calling them out.

Yeah, you’re not gonna get them onboard. Even if you do get them onboard, you didn’t get them onboard through your material so it’s not a replicable trick. And this is somebody who just ended a late night set talking to Jay Leno. That’s a little bit of a trick too. I could have just landed the joke and moved on. As we get better, we should always be able to land our own stuff. What’s your pet peeve? You see a lot of stuff.

I don’t like if I see everybody talking about the same topic in a similar way on the same show. If I go to a show, and there’s like five Breaking Bad bits the same night, or whatever the thing is.

I know. I will say that it’s funny to hear, one topic that’s so massively brought up right now is same-sex marriage. It’s really funny to hear that when I know I’m gonna be on the lineup ‘cause I’m engaged. I’m the gay person. It is funny to me if a comic’s like, “Same-sex marriage, I’m okay with that.” I’m like, “You guys, I’m right here. I can just talk about it. You don’t need to bring it up. It’s all right.” There’s always gay people in the room. I think that’s the funny thing. [Comedians are] like, “So as an audience, are we okay with gays?” You know you’re talking to gays in the audience, that are like, “Yes, we’re okay with gays.” It’s funny, but that comes up a lot.

It’s even hard seeing a gay comedian onstage when a few people in the audience are being jerks about them being gay. I know James Adomian had a couple people walk out on him when he just mentioned he was gay on stage. That stuff’s always tough to see or hear about.

Well, it is still a huge, huge issue. I was just in Boston two nights ago, opening for Anthony Jeselnik. Because of who he is as a comic, what his persona is, people just don’t expect me to be the person who’s coming out to open for him because I’m smiley and I’m tiny and I have this haircut. Which is why I’m a great person to open for him because I’m never gonna step on his material. If I do great, then he’s gonna do great. If I bomb, then he’s still gonna do great.

So, [in Boston], I walked out. The theater announced me. I hadn’t even said my name. Huge theater. After the whole audience has died down a little bit, there’s dudes in the front row who are audibly laughing and pointing and talking to each other. When you’re the opener, it’s your job to control the audience and make sure they’re ready to see the headliner. I said to the dude, “What’s going on with you right now?” The dude goes, “I’m just looking at you, and I think you’re the kind of woman who probably doesn’t sleep with men,” which was so weird to me on so many levels.

I don’t know if he thought that I don’t know how I look, or if he’s telling me I look like a lesbian but then he thought I was gonna be a straight woman and therefore he thought he was slamming me, or if he thought I was a lesbian and he was telling me I look like a lesbian as if that’s something that would be insulting. Like, “Yeah, yeah, dude. I know I look like a lesbian because I’m a… lesbian. This is all on-purpose. I know how I look.” It was this crazy moment. He would not shut up. We had a huge back-and-forth. The audience was on my side the whole time, of course, because this person — everything else he said after that just made him look more and more like an idiot. But then, we had to discuss that.

That’s what the whole 20 minutes ended up being because other people started yelling other stuff out. It was like, four really flexed-out dudes that for some reason couldn’t handle the fact that I was not going to sleep with them. Even though, I don’t think they really wanted to sleep with me. Just in that moment, from the stage, they could not handle the idea that they were about to listen to a woman who wouldn’t sleep with them. Yeah, that’s what we had to talk about for 20 minutes. And I do think that I won, and I do think that it was okay. But Jesus, what’s going for you in your life that you can’t even visually look at somebody who might be different from you?

What was great about it was, when Anthony came out, as we shook hands as he was about to take the stage, he was like, “Who was it?” And I was like, “It’s the dudes in front.” I never used the word “homophobic” when I was talking to them. I just talked about my life, and I also talked about how, if he’s the kind of guy who needs to yell aggressive comments at women, I probably actually do better with women than he does so “You need to shut up about that as well.” Anthony walks out and he was like, “Who is the asshole who’s being homophobic towards my opener?” He used that word, and he called that out for me, which is really nice, because that is what was happening. People aren’t gonna say to you, “Fuck off, dyke! Get off stage!” But that’s what they mean. And so I do still feel like it’s battling that sometimes. They don’t even know that’s what they mean. In his mind in that moment, he’s like, “She looks kind of funny.” He doesn’t even realize ‘I need to bring this person because she makes me uncomfortable because she exists.’ So, it was great. I feel like I did a good job with it. It didn’t throw me off.

But that’s always tough. You’re never going to be able to change that person’s mind. Who knows how their brain’s operating or how long they’ve been like this or what made them like this?

Yeah, I mean, I hope he was embarrassed. And Anthony tore into him for the whole show, and the other three or four dudes who had spoken up, Anthony tore into them too. The whole show was very positive and celebratory overall, I guess, but it’s still weird. I don’t know why it’s so threatening to people. If I could say anything to that guy, it’d be, “You have no idea how disgusting you are to me.” Like, “If I gross you out, imagine if I had to think about you having sex, you terrible person who needs to yell at people.” I mean, he’s not even gross. He’s handsome. He’s fit. But not everybody’s into him. That’s what he doesn’t realize because he’s normative. There’s even chicks who aren’t into not that dude, that are into a skinny guy or a chubby guy or hey, a black guy. Not everybody’s into you, flexed-out white dude in the front row. I hate teaching that lesson, but Jesus, do I feel like I have to teach that lesson all the time.

It’s terrible that that still happens in a big city, now.

It still happens. But of course, it still happens. It’s still illegal to be married. Not “looked down on,” “illegal” to be married in many states. We’re all just doing our part, right? To just prove, like, “Hey, I’m just a person who goes to lunch and leads a human life!”

I used to never say the word “gay” or “lesbian” on stage. I would just talk about dating women because I was trying to see if people could just get there with me. We’re all just talking about our lives. But then, eventually, I realized that I needed to loop back and start again. I’ll [do standup like] that again when it’s not weird for me to use the word lesbian on stage. When we get to that point, where people are like, “Oh, you’re a lesbian” and that’s not an insult or a dirty word, when it’s not something that somebody might yell at me — “You look like a lesbian!” — when that’s a really weird thing to yell, as weird as, like, “You look like a white person!”  — then I’m just gonna talk about my wife.

Yeah, ‘cause I know some comedians like to speed past it and trust the audience to catch up and do the math and have it not be a big deal. That the audience won’t just pull the brakes and be like, “Wait, she’s a woman and she talked about dating a woman?”

I don’t always in every set do the same thing or say “gay” or “lesbian.” It’s a tough balance. Can you speed past it, or then, does it feel like you’re avoiding it? So that’s what I’m trying to figure out right now. I think we’re at this moment culturally as a nation. We’re right on the line. I do think it’s still important to use those words for me personally. And then eventually, I don’t know. I’ll see how it plays out. I’ll see how weirded out people are when I use the word “wife.” Just think about that. Ellen DeGeneres uses the word “wife” on daytime television, for 70-year-old retirees, so we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

Talking to Cameron Esposito About Homophobic Audiences […]