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Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher on Take My Wife, ‘The Show Where Lesbians Don’t Die’

Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Seeso

Last week, comedians Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher took their relationship to the next level: They made a TV show. Take My Wife, an autobiographical account of their relationship, debuted its six-episode season on Seeso, NBC’s subscription streaming service. (The first episode is available here on YouTube.) Take My Wife hews close to real life, with the comics playing slightly heightened versions of themselves: Esposito is the mentor, with Butcher as the younger comic making her way. The personal and the professional are invariably intertwined: How do you deal with the fact that one half of the couple is farther along in her career than the other? Can the couple that works together really stay together? Vulture spoke with Esposito and Butcher while they were taking a vacation in Florida, discussing their show, the Olympics, and the time a heckler yelled a homophobic slur during a taped set.

I didn’t realize that I scheduled this during the women’s gymnastics all-around individual competition, which was my bad.

Rhea Butcher: We’ve DVR’d it.

Cameron Esposito: We’re poolside.

I assume that you will avidly watch it.

CE: We’re watching the prime-time replay, not streaming it, because I think the Olympics are one of those things that are really fun to watch with the internet community. I know that sounds really dumb, but, God, I love experiencing women’s sports like that. We so rarely get a chance to all come together and watch, for instance, a tiny teenager crush it in the pool.

RB: This Olympics, more so than any other one that I’ve watched, all of the women’s competitions are so compelling. The women are just kicking ass and it is so awesome and refreshing. I got super into fencing immediately. Within 30 seconds of watching it, I’m like “My God, these women are killing it!” 

CE: These are truly post-Title IX women by maybe multiple generations at this point, where sports technology has been invested in their bodies, so they are competing at this level. We get to watch basketball players who are dudes perform at that level all the time in this country, but the WNBA has such lower salaries that a lot of those women have day jobs. We don’t get to watch women on a regular basis who have that much time, energy, and money invested in making them the best, and it’s really wonderful to watch people whose bodies have been really honed and pushed to that level.

A lot of this requires institutional support, which is gendered.

RB: Also, I would add too that like there’s a really amazing Nike commercial that’s being played during the Olympics in prime time, featuring Chris Mosier, who’s the first transgender man to make it onto the U.S. Men’s National team. Every time I see that commercial I’m crying and tearing, and so stoked, for not just him, but everyone who gets to see that. There’s the locker-room scene, that for me as a butch lesbian seeing that, it’s just rocking my world. I am so stoked for us and for the future.

CE: And let’s not even get started on the diversity of the Olympic-gold-medal-winning gymnastics team. We’re in this moment right now that it feels so scary to be an American, because politically, every day we wake up to read something new that Donald Trump is saying, and I think to be a white person who is silent around what is happening right now in our country is not acceptable. I do not believe that I can wake up and just live my life, because it is not acceptable to just be silent, to admit to complacency. Obviously, these are not new issues, but because they are being spoken of so overtly right now, it feels like there’s a demand for protest and to be outspoken. So it’s wonderful that in that moment, these young women can be as good as they are, as one united team, and actually look like what America looks like.

When you pinpoint why there’s such a hunger to watch female athletes at the Olympics, it’s because you don’t really get to watch that during the regular calendar year. I feel like your show also is doing something similar where it’s filling this hunger.

CE: The Hunger is also the name of a very famous lesbian cult novel, so I love that you said that.

RB: Great job.

CE: When Rhea and I were working on the show, our goal daily was that people would say “Wow, this feels honest and this feels specific and this feels like it’s about women.” And that is why it’s universal, because it’s so specific and because it’s so honest, so it’s really treating women as if we’re universal. As if we have acceptability to everybody, which I believe we do. So often women are treated as if we’re a minority group, and we’re 51 percent of the U.S. population. There are more of us than aren’t, and we’re not something that can’t be understood. We’re not beyond the realm of comprehension, for men, but also for other women. You’re talking to us on a morning where, so far, what people are saying is that that was successful, and I’m really blown away by that.

RB: This is a project that is five years in the making. I started doing stand-up at Cameron’s open mic at a bar called Cole’s in Chicago. She introduced me the first time I ever did three minutes of open-mic comedy. The first time I ever saw Cameron do stand-up I was like wow, she influenced me to do honest, personal stand-up that I don’t know I would have done immediately, if I hadn’t seen her. And after I started doing stand-up at her open mic, we started talking and we both realized that we wanted to work together and something we wanted to make was a podcast called Relatable Lesbians. Basically, that’s what this show is.

It does feel very autobiographical. Is that the case?

CE: Oh yeah, definitely. We were lucky enough to have a great head writer on the show, and her name is Shauna McGarry, and then a great director, Sam Zvibleman, and both of them came and spent time with us in the lives that we actually lead. They came to our show at the UCB on Tuesday nights, called Put Your Hands Together, and they heard stories of our lives, and they went to our apartment. They really tried to live with us a little bit. This is a small-budget, passion project, and everybody that was involved with it, their focus really seemed to be helping us figure out a way to translate the full honesty of our lives into as much as we would be willing to share with the screen. There’s also some things that are obscured a bit and changed, just so that we could still have any friends. We’re trying to be as honest as we can while also protecting ourselves a little bit so that we have some privacy in our relationship.

There is a scarcity complex I think for queer people, for people of color, and so when there’s a show that has those people as the lead or as the center of it, there’s pressure of representation. Were you concerned about representing “the relatable lesbian”?

RB: I was always aware of it in a way that I tried to use for what we were writing, and to always make sure, “Is this realistic to an experience that I’ve had?” In doing that, it sort of took the pressure off of “Is this for everyone?” It’s never going to be for everyone, and it’s not going to be a perfect representation, but it feels real to me.

CE: My thought on that has always been, number one, we’re relatable because we’re real people talking about our lives, and when people are truly honest, that has to be relatable. Because there are only a certain number of human experiences: There’s love, death, jobs, food. That’s kind of it. And then the second part of it is like, Fuck you. All lesbians are relatable. You have to do the work to get it. When we talk about something like the burden of representation, that is something I’ve always really been open to and wanted to take on in my career, and the reason is, we may not get it 100-percent right for all queer people in this show. I know that’s true: All queer people are not one queer person. We’re not like one power ranger made out of tiny [parts].

The entertainment industry is overwhelmingly straight. So, for so long, the people that have been writing queer characters have been straight people, and specifically, straight, white men. It’s the same thing when I used to tell jokes about marriage equality before same-sex marriage was legal nationwide. I would talk about it often at shows, and sometimes people would be like “We get it, you’re gay, why are you talking about this?” And during that time, I’d heard about it on every live show that I did, and it would be a straight comic talking to what they perceived to be a straight audience. People would be allies, or people would be ignorant; it would run the gamut. But I just realized that if I don’t speak on my own behalf, this decision is made for me and this conversation happens without me. And also, because I’m queer, I know there are queer people in the audience. I don’t go onstage and go like, “You and I agree that gay people should get married, right, all the people who are not gay?” That’s not the truth of it.

And so I think about it like, there will be other queer comedy creators and they will create shows that are more honest for them, and I cannot wait to see those shows. But for now we are making the show where the lesbians don’t die, because the writers that are lesbians understand what kinds of experiences lesbians can have besides death.

RB: Something I realized was that the first and second seasons of The L Word were like my first gay friends. I’m from Akron, Ohio, it’s a small town/city that has gay people in it, but the numbers are very small. They were West Hollywood lesbians. That was not what I was at all, but I was able to see myself somewhat reflected in that show. And so I wanted to make a show where somebody could find something and then they will be inspired to make their thing, and then that will reflect someone else. I just want to pay it back.

When you’re doing stand-up, how much do you feel a pressure to explain yourself to an audience in terms of your identity? If the audience is predominantly straight white men, do feel like you need to explain yourself to them, or do you just say “Fuck it”?

RB: I do like to talk about my externalized identity because every time you walk onstage and you’re not perceived as a straight white guy in a hoodie or a T-shirt, which is a neutral position in the stand-up world onstage, there’s always going to be maybe at least one person that’s going, Wait, what? Whether they know it or not. I come out onstage in basically work wear, and I like to talk about that for many reasons, because it invites everybody into that experience of, Wait what? And the people that aren’t having that experience can laugh at that and laugh through that, and then the people that are having that experience can then understand the gender that I’m presenting to the world. I am a gender-queer-butch lesbian who identifies as a woman, so I’m cis-gender-queer: I really enjoy how much that goes together. I like to talk about it because I spent my life having people giving me weird looks or sometimes scary looks. It’s me taking it back, and it’s me being like, “No, this is cool and this is fun.” It’s great to present yourself in the way that you want to be — to wear the things you want to wear and the have the gender that you want to have, because gender is a construct and it’s a construct that you get to construct. And I just happen to look like a construction worker when I’m constructing my gender.

CE: What the fuck, Rhea. That was a great quote.

RB: Thank you, Cameron.

CE: Rhea and I have really different experiences in comedy because we have really different experiences in life as well. I started about ten years before Rhea did, and in the history of gay rights in the country, that decade is like the decade that things changed the most. I also started when I didn’t have this haircut that I have right now. Although I really consider myself as being more masculine than feminine, I think I read really differently than Rhea does. And so when I started doing comedy, when I would walk onstage there was no perception that I was gay. And it was also a time when people wouldn’t really perceive that gay people were as included in culture as they are now. I definitely started in mainstream rooms, and my experience of doing comedy is outing myself, really, when I walk onstage. And then talking about it from there. Very straight audiences would assume I’m straight and then I would say, “No I’m gay, and here’s why that’s important.”

There’s a selfish side of this, too. When you go out onstage and you out yourself, you increase your safety. You’re telling people who you are and you’re laughing with them, and so they like you, and so they are going to not harm you. Not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. These are the conversations that queer people have been having with family members in the last 15 years. It’s why attitudes on same-sex marriage changed so rapidly — because people were talking honestly with their family members and friends. And so we’re doing that as well. We’re taking up space to make, hopefully, lives better for queer people everywhere. But also our own lives better. Rhea and I toured right before marriage equality was legalized, and we toured every state. States where we couldn’t get pizza delivered to our wedding. And the whole time when I would be onstage, I would just be thinking like, These are the people that are going to vote on my rights. I have to convince them that I deserve equality. 

Did you encounter hostile audiences?

CE: I mean, certainly. God, somebody once called my a dyke in the middle of a TV taping. Like screamed it out from the audience. I was taping something for Carson Daly and his current show, Last Call. And they had the nicest, best, kindest producers. We were taping it at a comedy club, so it wasn’t in a studio. But the audience knew it was a TV taping. There were cameras everywhere. What I mean by that is what you’re supposed to do as an audience at a TV taping is not really interact with the comic, because they can’t use you on television. And a dude stood up a called me a dyke in the middle of my set. I was like, “This is for TV.” Basically I just started over and they edited around it and the package looks great. It looks like it went really well. More traditionally, the experience of being a woman is walking out onstage and people don’t expect to see you. Much more often than hostility is just, it’s a charm offensive. You’ve got to get them on your side.

But I also think we’re winning that battle. Not just Rhea and I. Women in general right now, in comedy. We’re having a moment, and it’s beautiful. This is not how it was five years ago. This is not how it was ten years ago. There are so many great shows right now, from Broad City to Lady Dynamite to Crazy Ex-GirlfriendTwo Dope Queens is a podcast that is taking over the airwaves. We are living in this moment where women are being sought out. Kristen Schaal is on Last Man on Earth on Fox, and then also Bob’s Burgers. She is her own lead-in on television. That is the moment that women in comedy are having right now.

Cameron Esposito & Rhea Butcher on Take My Wife