On June 11 there was a big BOOM! It was the sound of “tech”-tonic plates shifting as Google rocketed towards justice. It was the sound of a comedy revolution and evolution, and it’s all courtesy of Chicago’s own Cameron Esposito.
June 11 was the day Cameron redefined the phrase “Rape Jokes,” which in fact is the name of her new comedy special. If you’d googled “rape jokes” on June 10, your search likely would have burbled up a slew of tone-deaf unfunny yuks. Since June 11? Your top result will be Cameron’s new brilliant and funny hour.
That’s not all that’s revolutionary. You can see Rape Jokes for free on her site cameronesposito.com and on Vulture.com which partnered with her on the project. The project is also a fundraiser for RAINN (Rape, Assault & Incest National Network), the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the U.S. While you can see Cameron’s special at no cost, viewers are invited to donate to RAINN if they would like. To date, donations total over $50,000.
Since 2012, when Cameron moved from Chicago to L.A., she has appeared in television shows and movies. She was the showrunner and star with her wife Rhea Butcher on the hit series Take My Wife (now re-airing on Starz), and she slam-dunked multiple late-night TV appearances, including The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson where another guest – Jay Leno! – stated that Cameron was the “future of comedy.”
Jay Leno was prophetic. When Cameron and Rhea created Take My Wife in 2016, they wrote an episode about rape jokes which foreshadowed #MeToo. Now, Cameron’s Rape Jokes examines how in the age of #MeToo, perpetrators of sexual violence became the focus of our discussions while survivors’ stories receded back into the silencesphere.
Rape Jokes reverses that trajectory. In Cameron’s words, Rape Jokes is a “standup special about sexual assault from a survivor’s perspective” and that survivor is Cameron. Give equal weight to the words “standup special” because this is also comedy at its pinnacle. It’s very Cameron Esposito – honest, energizing, warm, relatable, personal, insightful as heck and very, very funny.
Cameron first talks about the terrain; how she went from an unquestioning Catholic kid to discovering that she had the power to define herself. She reveals the attack’s impact and how red flags were rendered invisible. While the attack is sobering, the hour is infused with comedy, including an unexpected medical mishap that happened on tour and an ingenious idea for a ride-sharing app. Cameron’s voice resonates and stays with you in the most uplifting and liberating way whether you’re a survivor, an ally, a comedy fan, or interested in how an entire topic like “rape jokes,” once rife with flaws, becomes flawless.
Cameron kindly spoke with me by phone last week. The Western Springs native was in town visiting family before her next tour takes off. That tour, Cameron Esposito: Person of Consequence (title explained in Rape Jokes) will be all new material and stops at The Vic on September 28. I was especially excited to speak with Cameron. Certainly for her awesome humor and perspective, but also because she was the second comedian I ever interviewed. That was back in 2010 when she was just three years into her stand-up career. It was clear then as it is now that her legacy will be a lasting one.
Teme: How did you decide on the structure of Rape Jokes and to wait forty-seven minutes in to talk about the assault?
Cameron: At first, I wasn’t sure how I was going to talk about the assault. I didn’t want it to be sixty minutes of heartbreak. I knew that I wanted it to be funny and I wanted it to be relatable. Also, I knew that I needed to put up some context because what happened to me was not outside of everything I’d experienced with our culture.
Teme: Was it difficult to write?
Cameron: I knew how to approach the cultural aspects comedically. I didn’t really know what to do with actually talking about the assault. That was the hardest part to figure out.
Teme: How did you decide on the title “Rape Jokes”? I love that now you’ve redefined that phrase completely.
Cameron: That’s the whole goal. Thank you for giving me credit for achieving that goal! I thought of the title first and then was like, oh my God, I can’t believe nobody’s done this. I can’t believe I get to take something that has been one of the more disappointing parts of my field and reframe it because for a very long time that phrase “rape jokes” took over the focus from survivors.
Teme: Why did you want Rape Jokes to be free to view?
Cameron: I wanted it to be free and accessible worldwide so that nobody would be discouraged. There’s no paywall or barrier to entry. I didn’t want any survivor or anyone who wants a fresh perspective to be left out.
Teme: So you worked out the material for Rape Jokes around the country including at the Den Theatre in Chicago! How was that?
Cameron: Working at the Den was just incredible. I rented an apartment around the corner and for three weeks I just lived in Chicago. The last time I spent that much time in the city was around the time of my wedding [in 2015].
It was nice to just feel like a Chicagoan again. I went to Steppenwolf. I went to the open mic at Cole’s Bar that I used to host. I ate all my favorite sandwiches. It took me back to such a good time in my life and to when I was just finding comedy. I was also just beginning to date then and I’d found my first serious girlfriend. I have a lot of really fond memories of figuring out who I was in this city.
Teme: I read that as you were working on the set you would stay afterwards to interact with the audience. Why was it important to do that?
Cameron: I still do meet-and-greets after shows, but because I usually play bigger venues these days it’s hard. You kind of can’t be totally present with people because it’s just too many people. Also, I have to have a security team there because it’s just me and a lot of other folks. This was nice because it was really small, so it was manageable and I could really talk to folks.
Most importantly, with this material I just didn’t feel I could come in and introduce this large topic and then be like, “Bye. See ya.” I felt responsibility to send the audience on their way with care. So for that reason also, it was really good to have a real conversation.
Teme: What were some of the things you heard in those conversations?
Cameron: A lot of survivors outed themselves to me and thanked me and talked about their stories. I also had a lot of folks there who work in this field like rape crisis counselors. I’m just a stand-up comic trying to talk about this, but it just so happened that I had a lot of people in the audience who do the real work. A lot of men came to this show all over the country. It was also interesting to have that moment with them afterwards. I don’t assume that just because they are a man that they’re not a survivor, but I heard from more women, “Thanks for doing this” and my favorite which is, “You’re really funny.” At the end of the day if it’s not funny, then none of it works.
Teme: And it is so funny. I wanted to ask you about that, too. If as a comedian you want to talk about painful topics, what are the elements of doing it well?
Cameron: I think you have to speak from your personal experience. If you don’t have personal experience, it doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about the subject matter, but it means you have to know that you don’t have personal experience. You have to know where you’re positioned to speak about it.
For instance, I’m a white person. I don’t presume to have experience with racism. I know that racism is real, so I can talk about it as a concept, but I have to know that I am not bashed down or crushed by systemic racism.
Really, that’s it for all of it. If you have personal experience, start there. Get as personal as you can, but the personal is irrefutable. If you don’t have personal experience, then know that this is something that other people in the room do have personal experience with.
Teme: I also loved that at the end of Rape Jokes, nobody made a move to leave.
Cameron: Oh my God. We taped it twice. In the first show, I got a standing ovation and I was like, “Yay!” But we wanted to use the footage from the second show because everybody just stayed. Everybody just sat there. It was very funny.
Teme: You created such an environment of care and connection. I can really understand why nobody wanted to get up.
Cameron: Thank you. That’s wonderful.
Teme: What happened after that?
Cameron: I went over to the side and shook everyone’s hand. Then the rest of the evening was being very excited. I knew immediately that the second show was what we would use footage-wise. I was really nervous and excited to see the footage. I hoped that it looked how I thought it looked and it really did. The director, the other producers and I were very specific about the way that we wanted it shot. We all agreed that none of the shots would be lower than my waist because we wanted it to be personal and for folks to be able to see my face, especially if they’re using phones. We wanted it to be really inviting for anybody that was watching. I think it turned out beautifully.
Teme: It felt transformative for me as an audience member at home. How has it impacted you?
Cameron: I think that it is the zenith of who I have always been as a comic until now. Like it’s the most “me” thing that I’ve done. I’m so excited to partner with RAINN and to have been able to offer it for free. It’s in a space where I work all the time and where I feel at home. Also, as a comic, you’re not “growing” so much as you are “chipping away.” You’re kind of chipping away and giving more of you, so in that way, making this definitely has been transformative for me. This project turned out exactly as I wanted it to and I’m very happy about that.
Teme: One of the many, many things I love that you talk about in Rape Jokes is how the concept of “agency” is so critical to our life. Just as you say, I also missed the concept that I had “agency” when I was growing up. Why do you think we miss it?
Cameron: We’re in a culture where sexuality is so shamed, any sexuality, having a sexuality at all, in fact. There’s so much shame put on it, that almost the way to escape that is to have it be something that’s happening to you or something that you can escape with just the right morality. In reality, it’s more of a biological need than an elective, external aspect of our humanity. I think nobody is cultured to have agency, but especially those who are cultured female.
Teme: It’s amazing to me that I lived so much of my life without realizing, “Hey, wait! I have agency!”
Cameron: You’re definitely not alone. I think that is most of us.
Teme: When I hear the truth, especially when it’s beautifully stated in a way I never articulated to myself, it makes me cry. That’s what happened when I heard you talk about agency. It’s like you took the truth on stage and unveiled it.
Cameron: Awesome. I’ve heard a lot of people have cried watching it. I guess that’s good?
Teme: Yes. It was happy. As I was listening to your insights, if felt like I was retrieving a piece of myself, like, “Oh, I was looking for that!”
Cameron: No way. Oh, that’s rad.
Teme: I thank you for that. How do you think that the #MeToo movement will change comedy and how do you think comedy can advance #MeToo?
Cameron: Well, I think it is all yet to be seen, but in the short term I am seeing a lot of people who do this job, women and men, acknowledge that sexism is real. That is huge because five years ago in this field, and ten years ago when I started [stand-up] and fifteen years ago when I was doing improv, that was very much not an accepted or acceptable conversation. If that’s the baseline, then the arc of history is bending towards positive. I would love, obviously, for us to get beyond that, but I can say that’s something I see happening more in my field.
Teme: That’s when the conversation and the change can really start. But it can’t begin if there’s no acknowledging.
Cameron: That’s right. You have to admit and accept and want to change.
Teme: You’ve mentioned that you’ve felt unsafe in the world as a woman and as a gay person, but yet you’re such a beautiful truth-teller. I think it’s hard to be a truth-teller when you feel unsafe, so how have you personally found the strength to bridge that? To feel unsafe yet be a truth-teller?
Cameron: Wow, that’s a good question. Maybe two things. One is bit by bit, you know? I still don’t know a lot of the truth, but you uncover it bit by bit.
In terms of how you find the strength, when I was younger, I didn’t get a ton of feedback about my looks or my gender or the things that I was interested in being positive. I definitely had things that I was shamed for, but I was always given a lot of praise for my intelligence. I would say now to parents, teachers or anybody that works with young people, one way to get folks to believe that they have something to say is to tell them that.
Teme: What do you hope the legacy of Rape Jokes will be?
Cameron: I just hope it’s the number one Google result for “rape jokes.”
[Note to readers: It is.]
Tickets for Cameron Esposito: Person of Consequence at The Vic on September 28 are available here.
How to contact RAINN: RAINN.org
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