Five years ago, Jay Leno called Cameron Esposito the “future” of comedy. On Tuesday night in Los Angeles, she proved him right.
Since her late-night debut in 2013, Esposito’s career has taken off. She hosts a podcast titled Queery on which she interviews prominent LGBTQ+ guests, and created and starred in her own scripted series with fellow comedian and real-life spouse Rhea Butcher called Take My Wife, the second season of which is now available on Starz after the untimely demise of Seeso last year.
Through it all, Esposito and Butcher have continued to host their weekly stand-up show “Put Your Hands Together” on Tuesday nights at the UCB Theatre in Hollywood. This Tuesday, Esposito’s fans got an unexpected treat when the comedian performed her new hour in front of a Los Angeles audience for the first time. She’s calling it “Rape Jokes.”
“I started writing this about two months ago,” Esposito told the crowd of less than 100 people at the top of the show, explaining that she was performing the material in such a small room “because I actually don’t want a lot of people to see it.”
It was back in January 2017, just a few days after Donald Trump’s inauguration and the massive Women’s March that followed, that Esposito first tweeted about her experience as a survivor of sexual assault.
“1 out of every 2 women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime,” she wrote. “I have. College. Date rape. He was a friend.” Inspired by the allegations against Trump and long before the #MeToo movement became what it is today, she added, “It feels ridiculous to come out about sexual assault on twitter. But honesty can be a good weapon. And I will use it.”
It was her honest telling of that story that made Tuesday night’s performance so powerful. But it was only part of Esposito’s most self-assured material yet, covering both her life now as out lesbian comic living in L.A. and the journey she took to get there as a devout Catholic growing up in the suburbs of Chicago.
After a strong opening set from Butcher that deftly dealt with their own evolving gender identity, Esposito took the stage once more and began by talking about the political climate in America today.
“Personal opinion, I’m going out on a limb here,” she said. “But I feel that every day of our current administration is a living nightmare.” She spent a few minutes making fun of President Trump for achieving the “impossible” feat of bankrupting casinos—“a vacuum for money”—and living like a supervillain in a tower with his name on it before adding, “Every word out of his mouth is something I would punish a child for saying!”
When the applause from the like-minded crowd died down after that line, Esposito added, “And also, I am a survivor of sexual assault and I don’t like that he jokes around and brags about assaulting people.” It wasn’t a punchline, but rather a simple statement of fact about herself and the president of the United States.
Later, Esposito brought up the controversies that have erupted in the past around male comics telling “rape jokes.” She posited that those comedians are only telling jokes about rape because it’s a “taboo” subject and they know it will get a response. Then, if an audience member calls them out about it, they will cry “censorship.”
“That’s the wrong word,” she said. “Feedback. You have gotten feedback.”
It wasn’t until about the last 10 minutes of the hour, after deeply funny stories about, among other things, the nun who used a Billy Joel song to her teach sex ed and the moment she realized she was a lesbian—“It was like the guy in Memento realizing what his tattoos mean”—that Esposito finally worked her way back to the “friend” who raped her.
She explained that there was a guy at her college who always behaved very “strangely” towards her. “But I didn’t know what good behavior was from men,” Esposito said. She didn’t know what “good attention” felt like yet and said she would get drunk around him in order to feel comfortable. “I wanted to run away, so I tried to slow myself down,” she said.
The room got quieter than it had been all night as Esposito detailed the night she “did not say yes” because she “couldn’t have.” She told the rapt audience she wanted to share her story now to help prevent this type of assault from happening to anybody else. She wants to “get in the way” of rape by talking openly about it on stage and hopes everyone, but especially the men who watch her perform, will do the same.
Esposito ultimately broke the tension by talking about how survivors are generally depicted on screen. “She’s assaulted and then she becomes very good at swords,” she said. “That was not my experience. I stayed the same amount good at swords: expert.”
Just as Tig Notaro was able to turn her breast cancer diagnosis into comedy during an impromptu performance at L.A.’s Largo theater in 2012, Esposito is using humor to make the intimate audience understand her pain.
The irony is that it was Louis C.K. who first championed Notaro’s performance, tweeting, “In 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night.” He made the audio available for download on his website before she released it as a live album the following year.
Since then, C.K. has been just one of many powerful men exposed by revelations of sexual harassment and assault. But just as the downfalls of news anchors like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose have made room for women like Hoda Kotb and Christiane Amanpour, the hope is that as older male comedians like C.K. are pushed aside, there will be new opportunities for fresh voices like Esposito.
With a daring and hilarious set like “Rape Jokes,” which should hopefully appear as a streaming special in the coming months, Esposito has proven that the “future” of comedy is now.