I Asked Cameron Esposito About Being A Female Comedian. Here's Why That's A Problem.

The latest in The A Plus Interview series.

Read more A Plus Interviews here: aplus.com
Read more A Plus Interviews here: aplus.com

The lack of women in positions of power in the entertainment industry is a problem. The lack of women pursuing comedy, whether it's on the stage or in the writers' rooms, is a problem. The lack of women creators employed by Adult Swim (1 in 34, compared to 1 in 5 generally), a leading comedy network, is a problem that happened to get a lot of media attention last week after the publication of a disturbing BuzzFeed report. The explanation Mike Lazzo — Adult Swim's executive vice president and creative director — gave on Reddit attributed this workplace discrimination to a belief that "women don't tend to like conflict, comedy often comes from conflict, so that's probably why we (or others) have so few female projects." This is perhaps the biggest problem of all because it creates the kind of environments in which all these problems don't just exist, but thrive. 

But what may be just as big of a problem is asking Cameron Esposito — a stand-up comic, writer, and executive producer of a new Seeso original sitcom, Take My Wife, who just so happens to be a woman — for a response to Lazzo's hiring policies and public statement. It wasn't a mistake, necessarily. I'm sure worse questions than mine have been, are currently, and will continue to be asked of women in any industry — like, for example, "Is it an exciting time for women in comedy/Hollywood/the cesspool formally known as Earth?" 

As a journalist, I can, should, and will ask whatever question I want to anyone who lets me within earshot. But because of the type of journalist and, more importantly, person I am, I strive to be as conscientious as possible when I interview someone about a recent, potentially controversial event. But in asking anything at all about Esposito's current existence as a female comedian, I inadvertently made us — two women working in their chosen creative occupations — both collateral damage of one man's (erroneous) opinion. 

Because several women don't just tend to like conflict; every single one of us is immersed in some level of it every single day. Sometimes, as Real Housewives the world over have proven, we stir it up just for fun. (So do men. Though according to the folks at Adult Swim — and oh yeah, the rest of the entertainment industry — that's not just a given, but a marketable skill.) 

And if you don't want to take my word for it, take Esposito's honest and, as she put it, even "harsh" ones.

I needed to hear them. So do others.

"To be honest, I find it to be a real drag that I have to take any time out of my job being a professional comedian to address the fact that I should be able to do this job," Esposito tells A Plus. "This comes up every six months, or year at the very max, and women who do this job have to take time out of our workdays ... so I have to spend my workday talking to you, another woman, about whether or not I deserve to do the job I'm already doing. That is how ridiculous that statement is."  

"And because he [Lazzo] said that," she continues. "Not just me, but women throughout my industry, are gonna have to spend the next couple of weeks answering this question. So he's literally slowing us down from doing the job we already do ... At this point, every conversation has been said about this and ... I don't even know what else to say to you. You could read a bunch of other articles where women defend themselves, and I'm just not doing it anymore. I'm not going to defend myself. I'm going to say that's an uneducated point because I already do this job." 

So I didn't ask her about being a female comedian.

I asked her about working with her wife, Rhea Butcher, about a show based on their shared relationship and their individual careers. I asked her about the years she spent with a mic in her hand, her back against a brick wall, and her nose to the grindstone before "making it." I asked her about vulnerability and resilience.

I asked her about all the idiosyncratic parts of her personal and professional life that cannot be summed up in a two-word label that, honestly, should be reduced to one. 

A Plus: You and your spouse, Rhea Butcher, both write for and star on your TV show, Take My Wife, loosely based on your actual marriage and comedy careers. So what's it like living this kind of meta-existence? 

Cameron Esposito: It is challenging (laughs). Yeah, it's challenging. I think the biggest issue is that it's a little isolating to make a show with your wife that's also about your relationship with your wife, and then to write a show about how you're stand-ups while you're also doing stand-up. All of those things are kind of singular activities. Like a relationship is you and another person, and then Rhea and I are also executive producers on the show together. So we're actually not just on camera together, we're off camera together helping to manage the writers' room, helping to manage the editing. It's a lot of time spent together, which is a bonus, but it's a lot of work time spent together. So it ends up feeling like [we] need to catch up in our regular, romantic, real-life relationship, but it's also at that point when we need to catch up, we've already spent so many hours together that it also feels like we need some time apart to be balanced people. So it's a very odd thing, I would say. 

So it seems like the show has changed your relationship a little bit, maybe even a lot. But would you say the value of doing this still outweighs whatever personal cost there may be? You know, you guys are still totally in this together, so whatever sacrifices you make in your personal lives is worth it for the professional recognition and what you get to do for your art? 

CE: Yeah, it's always impossible to tell, just because I mean ... I love doing this job and, at the same time, it really feels more like a full-time sort of a lifestyle, sort of a job. As comics, we work nights and weekends. And then making the show, we work days so that kind of means you work all the time. You know, I've been doing comedy for 15 years, but I'm still early enough in my career working in the entertainment industry that I'm trying to figure out how you carve out personal time to make it all worth it, because I think there are some sacrifices I realized are not worth making, actually. 

I remember, I think it was the first episode when you're on the podcast and the podcast guy basically calls you "an overnight sensation" of a comedian. I think this is a phrase that gets used a lot for comedians who have been putting their nose to the grindstone for years and, once all that hard work finally pays off, people start recognizing them and they get the recognition they've been working so hard for. So what would you like the general public and/or the audiences at comedy clubs to know about what it actually takes to become a successful comedian? 

A good part of being a comic is that … the first 10 years of your career — and this might be different now because I'm pre-"a digital age" — the internet is so new that, when I started, you were not also on Twitter. You were not going out and doing open mics, and then coming home and doing Twitter. So this might be different, I'm not sure, but one great thing about the first 10 years of your career is that … you don't deserve to have any spotlight yet because you don't really know how to do the job because it's a trade you learn by doing. It's just you and the audience, you know? You're in, like, an incubator, and you're growing, but nobody's really aware of you. 

It's actually a positive thing because to have recognition early would mean that people would know you when you're still bad at this (laughs). I know that it can feel very odd because you're toiling in obscurity, sort of wondering, "Well, what are the steps I can do to make this go faster, and what strategies should I use to make sure I 'make it'?" Those are a lot of things I think standard comics ask themselves, but the truth is there really isn't one path. The only recipe for success is doing it every day as much as you can with as much of yourself as you can give.

So your show, technically speaking, is a sitcom, but it's not the kind of show that encourages its viewers to turn off their brain for half an hour and be spoon fed easy laughs. It forces the audience to think and engage with its content, which I think is the way a lot of sitcoms are going today. Master of None is another example of a sitcom that rises above the lowest common denominator of what it takes a sitcom to be funny. What do you think about the ways modern sitcoms are changing and how do you think that's going to affect television and comedy as a whole? 

I think the internet is what did it to us all (laughs) The internet allowed for us to see that there are people that live different lives than what we live. The availability of low-production, and some of these are high production now, but low-production things like YouTube, things that don't have a ton of money ... [made it] so everybody can do it. The access that has been afforded by the internet has really changed our tastes so that we expect diversity. And I mean like true diversity, I don't mean all one type of person on anything, but I mean a lot of different viewpoints. 

So television is trying to catch up with that. Television is catching up with how quickly Twitter allows us to get news, and that's really awesome if you're a creator because you can kind of just tell the story of your life. I don't mean that everything's gonna be autobiographical, but I mean that I think everything is a lot more viewpoint driven than it used to be. It used to be, "This is what we all think about this." And now what is universal about shows like Master of None or our show are, "This is what I think about this. Can you relate to this emotion?" It's not that we all experience life the same way but that we all have the same grouping of emotions ... So it's the relatability of detail that we have moved toward. I think podcasting has affected that as well. 

Something your show does really well is it takes personal vulnerability and makes it universal. You and Rhea do a really good job of that when you're hosting the parts of the show that are in between the comedians, and you're just talking your fictional lives. You're doing stand-up from that with each other, but it's very natural because it's exactly what's going on. So I think stand-up, in general, is all about vulnerability, and so what have you learned about your vulnerabilities through talking about them with an audience? 

Well, the thing about vulnerability ... it also has an aspect of control in it, because if you're the type of person who likes to talk to 300 or 3,000 people at once, some part of that is about expressing yourself to that group of people. And there's another part of you that probably has some sort of affection for controlling how other people are gonna react to you because being on stage separates you from people. You're having a conversation with the audience, but they're not really allowed to speak back to you. 

So the thing I'm working on personally — because stand-up is such a great journey for me in terms of being comfortable with myself as a woman, being comfortable with myself as a queer woman — it's really helped me to create a safe space that I can occupy. But I think at the same time, after this length of time doing it, I noticed that I can get a little bit better at talking to people interpersonally and being vulnerable in small ways. So I think it's taught me a lot about a rallying cry for queer women and saying, "We're OK," but I think I still have a lot to learn about the other side of being a person. 

Can you explain that a little bit more? 

CE: Yeah, it's kind of just what I was saying about [being] on the stage with the microphone. It's your show. People have come to see you. The way we usually socialize as human beings is not in that sort of power dynamic. So while it's awesome to be a leader, I think sometimes it's also really great to be not on stage and instead mixed in with the people that are watching some different leader. I think that's why people like Mark Maron, after years in the industry, found it appealing to do a podcast in his garage because it's very different to talk one on one with a person than it is to talk one on 3,000 on stage. 

Besides Take My Wife, you're also working on a book and another TV show right now. So, what is that about and what do you want people to know about it? 

I am working on a book. I'm also working on a show for FX, which hopefully goes somewhere. They're such a great network to work with. I think they're [each] really about just different times in my life. So Take My Wife is really about my life now and ... Los Angeles, but I feel like I've lived a couple different lives. I lived in Boston during college, and that's the timeframe the book is from. I also lived in Chicago during my 20s, and that really is what the FX show is about, so it's cool I'm working on dissecting a bunch of different cells that I've had over the last couple of years. I'm only, like, 34, so it's weird to actually look back with nostalgia on your life — on the different parts of your life — but there's been a lot of change. 

Because the entertainment industry is so competitive and, like you said, there are dozens of different paths you can go through to get to the place you want to be in your career, along that path, there's probably a lot of highs and lows. So how have you kept yourself resilient throughout your career?

Well, I think part of it is the comic's personality. Not all stand-ups have the exact same personality, but I think a lot of us have similar personality types, and the response to bombing for most comics is wanting to get back on stage and fix it. I think it's a ... personality type where you like puzzles. You like things to be hard. You like [having] to figure out how to get better with this audience as opposed to the last audience. So the answer is that there's something you need to prove that's just inside of you (laughs). You are the kind of person who can't give up because that would be too difficult. ... Most people I know that are comics ... the only way they get over failure is to get back up again. 

In your show, you talk about not thinking you'd be "allowed" to do stand-up or date women. But then you realized that, as you said in the episode, "Nobody allows you to do this stuff. You allow yourself to do it." Can you explain more about that moment of self-discovery and what it's meant for your career? 

I think a big part of being a woman that does almost any job but wants to sort of get to boss level is that we probably didn't see a version of ourselves doing this job when we were growing up — either the television version of this job or the real-life version of this job. And that's changing but, for instance, I would point to something like the presidency. Many people ask why aren't there more women in politics, and I think a huge reason that that's true is because we only do things we can imagine ourselves being capable of as human beings.

We figured out how to make airplanes because birds fly. So for women, a huge stumbling block in getting to the higher level of any field … [is] not having that modeled and then trying to figure out how to get over that. … Given that I didn't see this model, is it OK if I try to do this? And that will always, in my opinion, lead to failure because other people are really just concerned with themselves. That's part of humanity is being really concerned with ourselves and our lives. So if you're looking for somebody to give you permission, I think you're gonna wait a really long time because who would that person even be?