Cameron Esposito on High Plains, Garry Marshall and Take My Wife

Cameron Esposito joins over 100 other hilarious comics at this weekend's High Plains Comedy Festival.
Cameron Esposito joins over 100 other hilarious comics at this weekend's High Plains Comedy Festival.
Robyn Von Swank

Cameron Esposito is a zeitgeist-seizing standup comedian who's performed on late-night staples like Conan and The Tonight Show, written regular columns for Vice and The A.V. Club, landed a recurring role on Maron and joined the ensemble cast of the romantic comedy Mother's Day. Esposito also co-hosts the weekly live show Put Your Hands Together, which is available to non-Angelenos in podcast form, and is a taste-making showcase of up-and-coming comedians held together by its hosts' quick riffs and generosity to their guests.

Enjoying widespread acclaim after putting in over a decade of groundwork on the unforgiving stages of Midwestern comedy clubs, Esposito filmed her one-hour special, Marriage Material, days before celebrating her wedding with fellow comic Rhea Butcher, with whom she co-created Take My Wife, a half-hour comedy for NBC Universal's Seeso imprint. While she's a big-enough draw to sell out theaters on her own, she's merely one of over 100 hilarious comics participating in this weekend's High Plains Comedy Festival, where she shares a headlining bill with Garfunkel and Oates, Kyle Kinane and local emcee Nathan Lund. Westword caught up with Esposito to discuss her High Plains Comedy Festival showcase, working with the late director Garry Marshall, and the challenges of working so closely with her wife. 

Westword: How has the reaction to Take My Wife been since its premiere? Is it too early to tell if you’ll continue the series into a second season?

Cameron Esposito: There is not a second-season guarantee yet, but...hopefully there will be one, because it's gone enormously well. Enormously well. The reviews have been unbelievable, really. We got written up positively in the New York Times two times in four days, and Vulture loved it, Indiewire loved it, the A.V. Club loved it. We're so stoked!

It’s cool that Seeso is creating so many opportunities for young comics. It seems like television is moving towards subscription-based models like theirs. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a newer media outlet like Seeso?

Well, the disadvantage is always that you're trying to bring in subscribers and eyeballs. People aren't just going to click past it, because that's not really how television works anymore. We used to have like five channels and then we had 500 channels, but they still required a clicker — I mean like a remote control— to find things. Now everything is much more sought-out. You really need things like positive reviews to get people to even consider watching your show. That's why we were so excited that we got all those wonderful reviews and why the response online has been so wonderful and people are tweeting positive things about it, because that really does affect your audience. There's more of a one-to-one ratio than there used to be. So that's the downside. You have to make some noise. And we're really lucky that we have been making some noise. So hopefully that continues. 

As it stands, you and Rhea are kind of the face of the network because yours is the first show to really break out.

Yeah, our show really has been the first breakout for the platform, which is extremely exciting. I think that's one of the benefits of working with Seeso. There's less money involved in terms of making the show. It's not NBC pushing a TV show that has to support a bunch of advertisers and have broad enough appeal to go up against other shows that are playing in prime time. It's not appointment television. The budgets are lower because there aren't advertisers, and that means that the pressure on any individual project succeeding is also reduced, which is a really great thing for creators. Seeso did give us notes, but they were all nuanced about how to do specific things. Nothing was a roadblock or massive overhaul, and the control we got to have, and the clarity of vision that we got to maintain, is something I don't think we could have gotten anywhere else. We were the show-runners, we made every decision. We hired the director, did all the casting, oversaw the edit — and for two people on their first show, that just wouldn't be something that NBC would be able to do. But NBC Universal could do something like that through their Seeso player. That really benefited Rhea and I, because we got to make the show that we wanted to make and they were able to support it fully. That's awesome, and there really wasn't anything like that a couple years ago. 

Your wife and co-star, Rhea Butcher, is also a very funny standup. Is it true that her first time on stage was at an open mic you were hosting?

Yeah, I brought her on stage the first time she ever did a set. Which is an honor, a real honor. It's so cool that's how it happened.

That's a hell of a way to meet. Usually nothing comes out of open mics other than crippling self-doubt. 

I know!

With your creative and personal lives so intertwined, how do you influence each other’s joke-writing process? Is anything off limits as far as premises go?

Well, I think we influence each other by proximity as much as anything. We've toured together for a couple of years now, we have a show here in Los Angeles called "Put Your Hands Together" that we also release as a podcast, and for that we're on stage at the same time as opposed to one and then the other. There's actually a bit of a problem in that. Because to be truly valuable as a standup, you have to be unique — so too much exposure to each other is actually a bad thing. I appreciate Rhea so much as an artist, and her voice is so strong, and I'm proud that I was kind of a mentor to her when she was starting, because I had been doing it a lot longer. Our greatest task is to not merge our styles and our viewpoints. One of the ways we do that is by not keeping subjects off the table. I mean, there are things about our personal life that we don't talk about because there's a need to keep up some boundary to keep our personal life personal, but in terms of both of us having an experience and deciding who gets to talk about it, we solve that by both getting to talk about it.

Especially if you're co-hosting a show together. 

Yeah. And two comics can have different viewpoints about the same subject — in fact, they should. There's also not really any new subjects under the sun. Sometimes, people online will be like, "Oh, we caught you! You joked about the same thing as some other comic!" And, yeah, there's a finite number of experiences in the universe, and so of course, parallel thinking will happen. 

It's inevitable. 

So we try to allow it to happen as opposed to keeping it out. Because I think keeping it out would be a losing battle. 

You had a supporting role in the ensemble romantic comedy Mothers’ Day, which is a first for the genre's mainstream, as far as I can tell. Do you think the existing paradigm, wherein gay and lesbian characters are always either tragic or sensationalized, is beginning to shift?

I do. It was amazing to me that Garry Marshall specifically sought out a lesbian who was really a lesbian to be in his movie playing a lesbian. Because I know that was a factor in me getting cast in the movie. My wife in the movie is played by Sarah Chalke, and she is not queer, and so I know that they wanted to make sure that they also had representation of actual queer people in the movie, and that is cool. That's actually a pretty new sentiment. Like, it used to be just a couple of years ago that people were getting Oscars because they were straight people who were deigning to play gay characters. 

Well, it was just so brave of them.

Exactly. So brave. So that's a huge step forward. It's an honor to get to be a part of that movie because Garry is so legendary and it was so wonderful to get a chance to work with him before he passed. But beyond that, the next step is the changeover that is happening in television and film, where the people behind the scenes are not straight white men. There's a movement toward female directors and show-runners, toward people of color being involved in some way behind the scenes. For instance, in our show, we had two lesbian women writing a show about lesbian women. Our characters don't die, because we knew that is a trend in television and film. And also, since we are really gay, we know what kinds of things can happen to gay characters. Because I really think that up until this point — and I don't think it's been malice, it's been a lack of experience, right? — so if you're not a queer person, then what could happen to a queer person other than they accidentally sleep with a man and then die, you know? I think it's a limitation on experience. I would say the same thing for women and people of color. Part of the reason our characters have not always been so fleshed out is that people aren't writing their experience, and that's limiting. So including more people behind the scenes will change that; I think it already is changing that. 

How conscious are you of your position at the forefront of that shifting paradigm? Do you ever feel like having to be a trailblazer restricts your expression?

I don't think it restricts my expression, because it gives me fuel. I will say this: being an outlier who is working for change is exhausting. Nothing really comes easy. But this is also a tough business; I don't know if things come easily for anybody. But the thing is, I do have that fuel. I have a purpose to what I'm doing; I get to wake up every morning and feel like I'm fighting a good fight. Not that a straight male comic doesn't get to feel that way, because of course every person is a unique and special flower. But I get to have the feedback from people who see the show and say, "This is the show we've been waiting for" — I get to hear that and take that in. I think if you're in my position, there's more negativity, and the Internet can be cruel sometimes. You can have a longer road. But I also think that you just get to feel awesome! There's a big plus side to it.

Sure. It's hard to be the first person to do something, but at least you were first. 

Yes! That's a thing! That's a real thing. It's awesome. 

I can imagine you have some of the worst heckler horror stories imaginable, but has that changed now that you’re drawing a crowd that's specifically there to see you?

Yes. For the last two years, I've been playing theaters as opposed to clubs. And clubs are so great as a way of working out and becoming a strong comic. Theaters are a very interesting experience, because no one is there accidentally. Nobody just randomly goes, "I wonder what's at this theater tonight," and buys random theater tickets. So you're definitely performing to your people, whatever that means. Your fans. And that's certainly an interesting experience, because that's not where I came from at all. I came up really muscling through some tougher sets and tougher audiences, where I had to change people's minds. I started in very mainstream rooms, and I have opened for comics who have a very different sensibility from mine all over the country and toured a lot in that capacity. Part of it is a total relief, but there's another part of me that loves a challenge. Like, "Oh, man, are you guys gonna make this easy for me? Don't do it!" I like surprising people with different viewpoints, and that goes away a little bit when you're talking to your fans. And that's something I've heard other comics say, too. I think it's a pretty broad experience. 

I've seen that at theater shows, where once people have gotten to a certain level, fans are just so happy to see them that they'll laugh at the way they pick up a water bottle. 

Right? Stop it! Make me work for it!

Your last special, Marriage Material, also premiered somewhat recently. How do you approach the daunting task of writing a new hour at this busy stage of your career? 

That's such a good question. I mean, tomorrow I'm going on tour for the first time since that special came out. Not even since it came out — since I taped it. Because in the interim, I made this show and married my wife. So, whoopsie! Right now I'm pretty much just getting back on stage with nothing. What I mean is that I'm writing down notes and I have concepts that I'm working out, but it's not the hour, where it's tightly packed and I know where everything is going. So it's a rebuilding process, and it's fun. It's a little scary to walk out and be like, "I'm going to figure this out," but there's no other way to do it. You can't, even if you were to stay home and write a perfect hour. It would never play the same on stage. So you really have to just run the gauntlet.

Want to do a quick High Plains shout-out before you go?

I love playing in Denver. Comedy Works is one of my favorite clubs in the country, and Denver audiences are awesome. I'm so excited to be on the particular bill that I'm on at High Plains. Kyle Kinane is someone I've known forever, and Garfunkel & Oates are awesome gals that I love working with and talking to. So yay!

The High Plains Comedy Festival returns to Denver August 25-27, with performances at numerous venues in town. Find the complete schedule at highplainscomedy.com.

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