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Cameron Esposito knows that she’s not the only human to hold a microphone and deliver a stand-up set in the #MeToo era that features material about sexual assault, including jokes inspired by one’s own experiences as a survivor. But she is the only comic whose work — the hourlong show titled Rape Jokes, which she perfected over the course of four months at a curated mix of cities to reach a wide range of demographics — has become a downright media sensation, receiving ink from Vanity Fair, Vulture and The Daily Beast, the latter of which called it the “first great stand-up set of the #MeToo era.”
The conversations surrounding rape and sexual assault are what sparked Esposito’s set, but she wasn’t staring at the clock. “I wasn’t waiting for this moment to happen so I could do this hour,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I just didn’t see somebody else doing what I wanted to do.”
Now she hopes to get many more eyeballs on it.
Esposito called in favors to production pals and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, which donated the space for her to do two sets on May 24, both of which were filmed for a special that debuts June 11 on an original URL. Viewers can access Rape Jokes there (and below) and all of the proceeds will benefit RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the country’s largest anti-sexual-violence organization.
It may be the only chance to see Esposito’s set. “As of now,” she warns. “This material will be retired. It’s not like I will never revisit this again, but you don’t want to get stuck on one thing forever. I don’t want to be the sexual assault comic, but I want to be someone who ushers in a new era.”
Speaking of, during a recent telephone interview with THR, Esposito talked about what’s next, how much she respects her wife, fellow comedian Rhea Butcher, and what it felt like to witness a man get up during her set and leave to catch the city bus. Seriously.
How are you, where are you, what are you doing?
I’m in Los Angeles, I was working on a book today that I’m writing and then I had a bunch of interviews and my wife is out of town so I’m trying to be the man of the house. I don’t understand how a tiny dog can be so demanding and cause so much work.
You have one dog?
One 9-pound chihuahua. How is it possible one dog can be so much work?
How long is your wife out of town?
A couple of days for work. We have traveled together on tour, done a TV show together [Take My Wife], and recently have toured separately.
How do you feel about that?
It makes me respect and remember that Rhea is amazing. It also reminds me that I can do it by myself and Rhea can do it by themselves. We have a family business together, and any time you have family business like ours — we make things together — that means that you can invest a ton of time in your business and it will affect and benefit the people you love the most, and everyone can share in that. But the stressful part is that it’s a lot of pressure to put on a relationship. Queerness blurs the boundaries of a marriage and relationship anyway.
It’s not the perfect segue, but let’s talk about the show, Rape Jokes. I’ll just start with this: Can rape jokes be funny?
Absolutely. Rape is so often addressed as — let me just say this: Comics often use it as a topic. This is an event in someone’s life. I know that the statistics are such that there are survivors in every room. It’s about telling a joke that is worthy of the topic. I want folks to tell jokes that take the power away from a horrible part of our human history. I want us to have conversations. I want us to move forward and talk about differences of sex and assault. You can’t come in and sling the word out to an audience and expect a reaction. Comics need to challenge themselves.
You said you woke up in the middle of the night and thought “Rape Jokes.” That’s it. But did you have any dreams that it would be as well received as the special has been?
I’m pretty floored. Ya know, I’m unbelievably lucky that I got to choose to do something that I love and that I make a living doing it. I’m a double minority in my field as a queer person and as a woman. I get up every morning and chip away at what is a mountain of, I don’t know, negative feedback. This job is hard, but everything that is worth doing is hard. I’ve been floored by the media response and advocates like Matt Wilstein [The Daily Beast], Joanna Robinson [Vanity Fair] and Jesse David Fox [Vulture] who came with these unbelievably well-crafted questions and concerns for my well-being. It has given me hope for humanity. It’s truly humbling and I wish there was another word for “humbled” so I wouldn’t sound like an asshole who was trying to express humility.
The night I was there, you filmed it — using volunteers who donated their time, which was very cool — and you will sell it and donate the money to a rape crisis organization. Can you tell me more about that and how you came to that decision?
We wanted to keep the barrier to entry as low as possible, and drive traffic to a specific URL so folks can watch it from anywhere. It shouldn’t have geographic borders, and then after they watch it, folks can donate additional money to RAINN if they want. What I find is that we’re living in this moment right now, and the fire was lit under my ass. I have been doing this show on the road, and it’s exhausting. … Not that I couldn’t stretch it over years and do multiple shows, but I just didn’t want to put so much burden on myself. Still, it’s important because we’re also living in this moment when redemption stories can pop up at any second. Like, here’s the powerful dude we know who has done terrible things, here’s them receding into the background, and now look, here’s them coming back. Nowhere in that loop are the survivor-centered stories. I want folks who’ve done terrible things to be shamed and receive consequences. … I also see a lot men saying, “I don’t know what to do now?” Where’s the, “I’m sorry this happened to you,” conversation. Where’s that? Where is the, “Hey, I want you to be better at this,” conversation, the, “How do I date now?” conversation. I can help with that. I am a woman who has had sex with women, I’m a survivor who has had sex with other survirvors. I can help.
Rape Jokes seems so carefully structured and delivered. What is your writing process like?
I write onstage a lot. That means I came up with an idea, tested it out onstage and spent the duration of the tour, or the season, figuring out how it worked best. But this one I did totally differently. I wrote it long-hand, sort of like an essay. I put that on a sheet of paper in bullet point and brought it out onstage with me. I rented these black box theaters, and performed at small rock clubs in geographically dispersed cities because I wanted to make sure that I had a true mix of demos. Total strangers who had different cultural backgrounds. I often brought a pen out with me, and it was all transparent in a way that it’s not usually for me.
What I was most struck by is that you don’t dive into the sexual assault for the first 45 or so minutes, but it’s all a build-up to it with observations and personal information. And by telling your background and your history, you really allow the audience to get to know you, your history with religion and sex and coming out, before you get to what happened to you. I thought about that for days after.
That’s totally on purpose. There are these stories [of sexual assault] where it happens with somebody who is totally unknown to you, and it’s an event. A moment that starts and a moment that ends, and it’s a hyperviolent type of assault. You’re left behind and you know what happened to you and those are real stories. It is also true that there are stories that fall into a gray area, which is why I wanted to roll out why I think that is. There are parts of my life that are relatable. For me, I never had sex ed, I didn’t know about my own agency. I didn’t know that I could have an orgasm or feel great about being with a partner. I didn’t know gay people were real. I was at a real deficit. I don’t want to say that what happened to me was inevitable, but the conditions were set for me, so I present that as the lens of my story and I want folks to see their stories in that.
Have you changed anything as this has gone along? Anything left out?
The biggest change is that just my comfort taking about what happened. I wasn’t waiting for this moment to happen so I could do this hour. I didn’t see somebody else doing what I wanted to do. I know there are other folks tackling this, and I know I’m not the only comic doing this. But I waited for a minute. Is anyone gonna do this? I didn’t see it. And I thought a lot about what do I need to be able to do as a comic to pull this off? I’m still trying to do this to the best of my ability, and that’s all we should ever shoot for. I know that people have different tastes, but for me, it comes down to, am I challenging myself enough?
Where does Rape Jokes go from here?
That’s such a good question. What I hope is that we raise a shit-ton of money and I hope that for two reasons. One is because I really want to the money to go to organizations supporting this work, and number two, I still have to prove every day as a woman and as a gay woman that I’m marketable in my field. I know that. I don’t look at that as a personal insult. I look at that as Hollywood is a stock market where people are going to want to have positive return on their investment. One thing I’ve been trying to prove is that I’m a good investment. My TV show [Take My Wife] was networkless and without any publicity push or marketing budget, we were number one and number two at iTunes for a time — over these incredible shows — for a couple of weeks. We did that without any support, just from our personal fan base. That’s literally how we did it, and now the show is on Starz. Now this special will be a networkless release. I want the money to go to a worthy cause. I think I can drive eyeballs. But I don’t want to do that forever. If a network trusts me, I am good at finding other creators. I want to prove that we’re not risky.
Where does Cameron Esposito go from here?
As of now this material will be retired. I will begin working on some other stuff. I wil focus my attention there. I don’t say that because this hour can’t evolve. It’s not like I will never revisit this again. You don’t have to get stuck on one thing forever, but I don’t want to be the sexual assault comic. I want to be someone who ushers in a new era.
Back to your show. The night I was there, that handsome gentleman made quite an exit to catch his bus. Has that ever happened to you or anyone you know during your stand-up career?
The number of things that have happened to me as a comic. Bombed in front of 30,000? Done it. Shared a bill with Eminem? Absolutely. You never know what’s going to pop up for you. It’s good and bad. Standing ovation, gay slurs, all of it. But this guy standing up literally in front of the camera, and he walked toward another camera and looked at the lens and gave a thumbs up — it’s incredible. For that 7 p.m. show, everything was going well, and then it was such a large fuck-up. I thought the next show, no matter what happens, it can’t be worse than that. It was kind of a relief. I thought if the whole audience doesn’t leave, then that’s a win.
(Spoiler alert: They didn’t.)
A version of this story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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