No joke, this queer comedian is at the forefront of the digital revolution
"Chunks." What was once the punchline of a blossoming comedian's set about her own period has taken on new meanings as the performer, Cameron Esposito, has moved into the national spotlight. "Chunks" now refers to her outrageous – but precisely portioned – bits about puke, lesbian marriage, and gun control in her stand-up act: "I prefer to do jokes in a way that feels like rock," she says. Or "chunks" may refer to the sectors of the entertainment industry, like film, television, improv, and podcasting, in which this comedian is nearing household recognition.
Esposito cut her stand-up teeth in Chicago before moving, just three-and-a-half years ago, to Los Angeles. In the short time since, which she acknowledges is "completely nuts in terms of trajectory," she secured roles in several films that had their world premieres at Sundance, toured with legendary comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, and sold her first television show, Take My Wife, to the streaming service Seeso. That show, which she's developing with her creative partner and wife, Rhea Butcher, is due this summer. In the meantime, the service – an NBCUniversal offshoot targeted at comedy nerds – will also distribute Esposito's first stand-up special, Marriage Material, which Goldthwait directed.
The special's first public screening is here in Austin on Sunday, March 13, at the Hideout Theatre – a daring strategy that speaks to both Seeso's investment in Esposito and its own, somewhat unclear corporate message: Is it a streaming service, a comedy network, or a TV archive? When asked about Seeso's release plans, the comedian commented, "I don't know where Marriage Material fits in, but this is an issue all comics go through. There isn't a single comic not trying to figure out where to get their material out there in this new democracy."
The democracy Esposito refers to is our post-Netflix world, in which Seeso – which has upcoming original series from Esposito friends Kulap Vilaysack, Jonah Ray, and Wyatt Cenac, as well as remastered-for-HD versions of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Kids in the Hall, and Saturday Night Live – hopes to carve its digital niche. To support the premiere, Butcher and Esposito will perform stand-up on March 12, too; and Marriage Material will be released March 24. By launching at SXSW in this way, Seeso is counting on Austin to see its service as an underdog competitor with Netflix – and to turn Esposito's burgeoning fame into a bona fide word-of-mouth sensation.
Esposito, for her part, revels in the freedom of Seeso's unproven newness, saying that there, "you can build stuff that is personal to you without [the use of] gatekeepers." She cites Amy Schumer and Hannibal Buress, two "kind of uncategorizable" comics who, until their recent appearances in hit movies, "really did not go the traditional paths to becoming household names." Neither held down a network sitcom or released a new special every year in the Louis C.K. mode. With recent appearances on the groundbreaking podcasts WTF With Marc Maron and Comedy Bang! Bang! – both the results of decidedly nontraditional paths to celebrity – Esposito now sees the "new democracy" as a major boon to her career, rather than something "scary." Nowadays, "[comics] are afforded the opportunity to directly deliver content, but the awesome thing is that you can still work in films or television. You can work within the system."
Digital success is only one element of Esposito's explosive rise. Her onstage charisma is part and parcel of an empowered queer persona that puts her, stylistically, somewhere between Tig Notaro and David Bowie – the latter of whom was apparently an influence: "Whenever I get up in the morning and start thinking about my day, I ask, 'Am I ever going to approach Bowie?'" In live performances, Esposito demonstrates a punk rock flair for absurdism as well as Kevin Hart-level bombast, a combination that feels truly radical given her Catholic upbringing in Illinois. The fact that she veers easily between segments about The Blair Witch Project and menstrual blood in Marriage Material explains why academics and audiences alike gravitate to her.
Yet perhaps the most powerful segments of her stand-up are about her hair. Well, not her hair, exactly, which she compares to George Washington's coonskin cap, but what it represents: her queer sexual identity and her conscious attempts to spin laughs from within it. When Esposito first moved to Los Angeles, she laughs, "I went to my first meeting knowing that people were going to tell me that I had to change my hair." But she soon realized that rather than seeing it as a nuisance, employers in the industry found it defining and original: "I just forgot that when you watch a movie with Scarlett Johansson in it, there are other people in the movie that are not Scarlett Johansson."
She maintained the hair-cap, joking about it on viral appearances on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson – in which, completely unprecedented, the host of the show and his guest, Jay Leno, heckled the comic – and Conan. Guest roles on Maron, Drunk History, and Adventure Time followed; and in 2014, she released her first album, Same Sex Symbol, on Kill Rock Stars. Esposito maintains that while her alt-comedy fame seems abrupt, it is only because it took 15 years of performing for her to get to the nitty-gritty in her stand-up. Audiences can expect an untamed, highly personal performance to be on full display in Austin, she says. "What I realized was that when I share my opinions, and when I keep my haircut, that it comes off as honesty. It's really easy to forget that thing we look to comics for, first and foremost, is their honesty."
Carmen Esposito will host the Seeso premiere of Take My Wife with Rhea Butcher, Sat., March 12, 10pm, at Esther's Follies, 525 E. Sixth.
Esposito will perform Marriage Material Sun., March 13, 7pm, at the Hideout, 617 Congress.