Cameron Esposito on Telling Rape Jokes In the #MeToo Era: 'I'm Trying to Move the Lens Around'

Cameron Epsosito
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Cameron Esposito at Build Studio on May 18, 2018 in New York City.

The comedian also shares her burning thoughts on ‘Drag Race’, Adam Rippon and Julien Baker.

When Cameron Esposito took to the Arena Stage at Boston Calling Music Festival over Memorial Day Weekend, a heckler immediately did her best to derail the set, but she was no match for the comedian. Indeed, the heckler received a major roasting from Esposito, who proceeded to seamlessly deliver the rest of the night’s material, including a taste of her masterful new "Rape Jokes" set, which is built around her own experience with sexual assault.

Esposito spoke to Billboard after the show about this powerful new comedy hour, the important work her podcast and television show are accomplishing, and everything in between.

You just did your set and owned a hockey arena as music was blasting from other stages nearby. Was this a unique situation for you?

Well, I have done a bunch of...a lot of cities have these. What's unusual about this one is that it's very urban. Usually [the comedy area] is further out because there's enough space for parking and tents. I've done Sasquatch and Bonnaroo. This is the only one that has the “comedy tent” as an actual brick and mortar building. It's nice. That being said, it is hard to captivate a hockey arena.

There was one audience member that heckled you...

I know. Somebody got very mad, huh? She was yelling, "Where's the comedy?" It wasn't going badly, so it's like -- I am aware that sometimes people are uncomfortable with me being in front of them. That's just true.

That person maybe should have read the room. We were enjoying it!

I mean, you know, yes. But also, culture doesn't necessarily tell you that. Maybe she could have read the room, but she also might have been reading culture and culture might tell her, well, people don't like women that do comedy or people don't like lesbians or people don't like when women talk about serious things or people don't like when comics talk about serious things. She did it a couple of times throughout the opening, and I wasn't even on stage long enough for it to be going bad. So, that's why I can tell I'm upsetting you just by being here.

Let's talk about your new set Rape Jokes, which you dabbled in tonight.

I'm very excited about it. We recently taped the special [to be released for free on June 11]. It’s really personal and really vulnerable, [and I needed] it to be captured for me to be able to move on from just doing it for an hour. It's taxing since it's my personal story with sexual assault.

It’s incredible, down to the name itself.

I'm doing this big fall tour and I was talking to the folks that help me work things out and we said, "It can't be called 'rape jokes.'" And I'm trying to play a 1200-seat theater on a Friday night. You can't be all, "Rape jokes on a Friday night." So I was attempting to figure out what could be done with it that might serve my feeling about it, my investment in it, but also not put me through a ringer.

Does it feel cathartic for you to be doing this set?

Oh, yeah.

I love that you're owning the narrative -- you're now integrating this thing that happened to you into your work, on your own terms.

That's such a good way of saying it -- owning the narrative -- because I also think that's why I wanted to call it that. I feel nervous about that being the title because I think about survivors. I think about survivors interacting with that, but I am trying to move the lens around. So often when we talk about “rape jokes,” we talk about it as if there are not survivors in the room, as if there are not survivors on the bill. We talk about it as if it's an esoteric topic. And not an experience that actually, statistically, a large portion of your audience has experienced. Then also, the gray areas that include harassment, such as, oh, I don't know -- all people of color, all women, all queer folks have had those experiences. And then every intersection thereof.

I just hadn't seen that thing yet that was being like, we need to talk about it from here. Can we change the vantage point, see if the conversation can be new?

Kudos, because that's got to be painful to work through the material, certainly, and get to that point.

I had a lot of cool support, I have to say. I worked on it in these small rooms and I made sure to be available after the set, so I could interact with the audience. It wasn't, like, "dump information and leave." That was extremely rejuvenating but also very tiring and taxing.

I also booked all these local openers everywhere that I went and it was incredible to work with comics that are maybe being raised on a different type of comedy. There are more women now. There are more queer folks. It feels as though there are some different norms that I'm very happy about.

It's a good indicator, too, that not everything has to have a punchline. You're allowed to tell a real story using jokes, but at the end of the day, I think that people are here to receive those stories.

I do, too. Stand-up made this shift toward the more personal in the early 2000s and late '90s with the boom of alternative comedy; that's what alternative comedy was. It's not topical jokes. It's personal jokes and this is an extension of that, which is the same thing everybody has been doing, but because the narrative has continued to be focused through the lens of being a straight white cis male, the topics haven't been that varied. Or, the takes haven't been that varied even if the topics are different. So I think what's happening right now, the Internet has created this moment where we're hearing more from different voices. I'm not doing anything that's new, but it's also...totally new.

And of course, you're bringing your brand of friendly yelling to this set.

Yeah. [Laughs] That's what I say, too.

The first material anyone showed me from you was the period joke, which is iconic. That is the epitome of your friendly yelling.

Did you ever see what I did at The Meltdown with that? What they let me do was amazing. I'm friends with Emily Gordon and Kumail [Nanjiani] and Jonah [Ray] who created that show, so they were open to whatever. I asked if the 250 people in the audience could have jelly donuts. So right in the set before that, I stopped and passed out jelly donuts to the audience, saying, "You all look very hungry, we have a ton of extra food and I feel like it's gonna go bad and I have a moral obligation to pass it out." So then, people are eating jelly donuts and then I started talking very graphically about periods and it made me really happy.

That sounds delicious and educational.

Yes, exactly. The best.

Switching gears a bit, what have been some of your favorite moments from recording the Queery podcast?

I had this conversation with Evan Rachel Wood about carrying a child and motherhood, and I don't know that anyone has had this specific conversation, like, what clothes do you wear? And does that match your gender? How do you do that while you're pregnant and have to present yourself to the world at the same time? It's a tiny eye of a needle that you're trying to thread. Having Tegan and Sara on separately was important to me. They have very different personalities, so that was very cool. I recently got to talk to Roxane Gay -- I have so much respect for her. To be able to start a conversation and a relationship is so wonderful. Alia Shawkat is another one.

Previously, you said you wanted to get RuPaul on it. Where are we with that?

Not yet. But I did recently record with Trixie Mattel, which was huge.

Who are you rooting for this season on Drag Race?

I love Asia O'Hara's attitude. Who can't love Asia O'Hara's attitude? But I can't believe that Aquaria looks how they look. Are you kidding me? That's how I think I look. But then Miz Cracker is so funny. Kameron Michaels, because of the same's a good field of people.

How have they not asked you to guest judge?

I'm working on it. I'll work on it.

This is so rude.

I'll say it in Billboard. Yes, I want to be a guest judge on that show.

We'll put the word in.

Please. Since the election I have been -- this is what Queery is, too -- reinvesting in the queer community in a way that I don't think I let myself before. Because I felt, as a gay person, you are kind of taught, "Yeah, you can be gay but you probably should still like straight things." Especially with a comic, there's literally a stigma. "You can't love Ellen [DeGeneres]; you have to love straight comics." So I let myself get to a breaking point with that, where I'm going out, supporting queer artists. I saw St. Vincent last night, and Julien Baker right before this. Julien is somebody that I've seen a couple times and we have started up a mutual appreciation society and that's so nice. I'm doing that with queer artists that are touring, like, "Can I come to your show? Can I stand there and take photos of you and post about you?"

You should start a zine.

Exactly, you get it. I am zine-ing out.

Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito: Charts Center Ep. 11

Okay, now, your show Take My Wife has found a home and we got to see the second season. I got really emotional during the finale leading up to the wedding, when you and Rhea [Butcher] were mad at each other and we weren't sure if you were going to make it to the altar...

So, that's real. The day we went to get our marriage license...I'm so intense all the time, and I got really sick, and started having to take all my clothes off. I was in Chicago and we were talking to this person and I went white as a sheet, sweating, chills, I had to go outside. I was in an unbuttoned-button down outside and Rhea had to say, "No, she definitely wants to get married!" I think I just got so nervous. So I had my head between my legs trying not to barf, but it's a public building, and like in the show, a dude stopped and asked us for directions to the train! I was crying and sweating, dry-heaving, half-nude. But we got married. I never really registered my emotions fully, which is probably why I'm a stand-up comic.

Do you feel like you can put material in the show that doesn't make it into your stand-up set?

Oh, yeah. I actually don't talk about Rhea that much [with stand-up]. We talk about it when we're both onstage, like at Put Your Hands Together, but I don't usually talk about my marriage using specifics. I have a joke about Rhea being a sleepwalker, but that's it. It's a little weird, because everyone knows who I'm talking about. So the show was a great way of talking about her.

Will there be a third season?

We don't know anything about a season 3 -- we don't know if there are any plans for it to happen. But here's what's really cool: it's totally fan and audience-driven. That's how we got on Starz and iTunes. I try to support queer artists and their work, and that's what anybody reading -- the power that we all have right now. Folks talk about how "it's cool that you're doing this thing" and it's, like, put your social media presence and disposable income where you mouth is. That's what I'm trying hard to do. And disposable income can be small. Our show costs $10 on iTunes, so everybody that spent that $10 were the reason it was available in other [territories].

I go see movies where I want another movie to be made that's like that. Like Black Panther. I know I want another one, so that's the little thing that I can do. It's about trying to feel empowered right now in any way we can.

Finally, do you have any opinions about Adam Rippon winning Dancing with the Stars?

I have every opinion about that. He's incredible. I got to go see him skate in Anaheim! [Pauses] People like Adam are who I'm looking to right now. He was so ready to take the spotlight, he knew exactly how he wanted to direct it and what his message would be. I'm blown away by not just how much time and effort he worked on his sport, and being a dancer, but how much time he must have done on himself to get to the point where that was his output. What is going to happen next for him? What do you think is his next job? He's crushed it all of these ways. Is he going to be an actor? I think he can be in the Olympics again. I have no idea. But I feel like he could also just be a senator.

Catch Cameron Esposito on tour.