This profile originally ran in the Columbia Chronicle in 2015
Standup comedian Cameron Esposito’s life changed forever on the night of Oct. 3, 2013.
After nailing her short set during her first televised standup performance on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” Jay Leno, Ferguson’s guest for the night, called Esposito over to tell her something that would stick with her. The former “Tonight Show” host and standup legend told Esposito and the millions watching that she is “the future of comedy.”
“I didn’t realize that anybody would be watching,” Esposito said. “Then to have people writing about that set the next day, which is something that usually doesn’t happen with a late night set, really changed things overnight.”
Esposito’s career kicked into overdrive thanks to the coverage of her performance. She has been named a “Comic to Watch” by LA Weekly, Time Out Los Angeles and Cosmopolitan Magazine. But for the Chicago-born comedian, the road to comedy was not always easy.
“I grew up in an area where I didn’t know anybody that was in the arts professionally,” Esposito said. “It took me until I was already doing [standup] that I realized I could do it for a living.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Esposito said she had to find ways to deal with the closed-mindedness of her community. Esposito, who wears her lesbian sexuality as a badge of honor (and part of her comedy) said it was not until she started doing standup that she had an outlet to express herself.
“One thing about comedy is that it’s really about raging against hate in the world in a way that makes it palatable,” Esposito said. “For the particular place that I was from and my particular experience that I had, there were a lot of times in my life where I was told that the human being that I was was wrong. So I learned to be angry, and I think that anger is where a lot of great comedy comes from.”
Esposito said she learned how to connect with people and deal with bad experiences through comedy.
“For anyone, humor is a coping mechanism,” Esposito said. “It’s just how we deal with stress and how we take the power out of situations. For some people it becomes more of a way to connect with the world. Some people are really good at crying. I’m not the best at crying, but I’m pretty good at laughing.”
That connection with other people through standup was one of the reasons Esposito began a series of classes called “The Feminine Comique.” There has been a lot of talk about women in comedy, in particular after Christopher Hitchens’ infamous “Why Women Aren’t Funny” essay in Vanity Fair in 2007. In response, Esposito decided to foster a supportive community for women in comedy.
“It became this really divisive debate,” Esposito said. “So I figured instead of this debate going on forever, another option would be to try and incubate more women into the scene and see if by changing the numbers, it would cause the conversation to be different.”
Esposito is known for her business-oriented reputation in the comedy world, an instinct she credits to being a Chicago native. Esposito hosts two podcasts, writes a bi-weekly column “Who in the World is Cameron Esposito?” for the A.V. Club, released her second standup album Same Sex Symbol in October and hosts a weekly “Upright Citizens Brigade” standup show she co-hosts with fiancée Rhea Butcher and co-produces with Ryan McManemin. She said because Chicago does not have the same type of entertainment industry as New York City or Los Angeles, people have to find their own way to make a name for themselves.
“Chicago has a really [do-it-yourself] mentality,” Esposito said. “If you move to a city where there is more of an industry, nobody helps you make something. You still bring the ideas and the content, but they help you distribute it. Starting in Chicago really ingrains the feeling of needing to do it all yourself. That is a skill that I think is invaluable.”
Esposito’s fiancée, Butcher, said she always knew Esposito would make it big, even before her Craig Ferguson performance.
“When Cameron decided to move to LA, she was telling everybody at Cole’s Open Mic in Chicago,” Butcher said. “I leaned over to a friend at that moment, and said ‘she’s going to be on TV in a year.’ The Ferguson experience was almost a year exactly. There was so much that changed over night, but she worked hard to get to that place that it felt like, ‘This seems right.’”
Esposito said it is important for aspiring comedians to do everything in their power to make their names known. She said comedians should get involved in more outlets in addition to performing standup.
“It used to be that your one goal was to get a sitcom based on your standup and then you were done,” Esposito said. “That doesn’t really exist anymore because there’s so much content now. You have to throw everything at the fan and try to make an overall idea that is you, but provide a lot of different ways for people to access it. There’s not going to be just one thing that you can hang your hat on.”
Butcher said Esposito has a clear vision, and knows how to make her goals a reality.
“She is definitely a businesswoman of comedy,” Butcher said. “If it was the ‘80s, she’d definitely have the best shoulder pads.”
As for Esposito’s future goals, she said she is taking her career one day at a time.
“I really think about it like, ‘What am I going to do next?’” Esposito said. “My overarching goal is that I’d love to have my own late-night show. I don’t see that happening for several years because that’s just how the game is. But for now, I’m just touring as much as possible. It’s just about these little moments, Everything’s all about getting your material in people’s view so you can keep growing. It’s step-by-step, not mountain-by-mountain.”