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How Cameron Esposito is using queer comedy to conquer the mainstream


Comedian Cameron Esposito

Englert Theatre — Wednesday, April 1 at 7 p.m.

Cameron Esposito
Cameron Esposito went from being a sexually closeted theology student to being one of the most high-profile LGBT-identifying comediants working today. She performs at the Englert Theatre at 7 p.m. on April 1 as part of the Mission Creek Festival. — illustration by Cheryl Graham

Cameron Esposito might be one of the busiest young comedians working in Los Angeles today.

A driven, fiercely candid writer and stand up, Esposito performs on network late-night shows and in comedy venues around the country, authors a regular column for The A.V. Club about her experience as a queer female comic, and responds directly to fan (and foe) feedback in her web series, Ask A Lesbian. As if that weren’t enough to consume her time, she hosts a weekly stand-up show in L.A. called Put Your Hands Together, runs the sci-fi movie podcast Wham Bam Pow and recently released a comedy album, Same Sex Symbol, which debuted at number one on the iTunes comedy charts.

Though Cameron has more than established her presence in the world of comedy, her entry into it was a bit haphazard. She tried out for Boston College’s improv group at the suggestion of a friend and arrived to the audition wearing rugby cleats, covered in sweat and mud. She made the cut, and before long, improv became her primary passion.

“I don’t think I made the choice that comedy was going to be something I’d pursue career-wise until I was already doing it,” Esposito said. “I sort of backed in.”

The BC improv troupe, which had previously been home to Amy Poehler, served as fertile ground for Esposito’s inspiration. “It was the first time I saw somebody I had felt tangentially connected to who was doing [professional comedy] and had started in a similar place,” she said. “Of course, at the time, I had no idea how many steps there were between college improv and Saturday Night Live, but I thought if Amy can do it, it’s possible.”

Esposito’s comedy takes an unflinching look at the issues that matter to her most: those that affect women and LGBT communities. Her treatment of subjects like coming out, battling stereotypes and contending with male-dominated society have all but defined her career: A Tumblr post on rape culture planted the seed for her A.V. Club column, and in a recent episode of Put Your Hands Together, she claims to have written “the greatest period joke of all time.”

While her engagement with comedy isn’t exclusively political, Esposito does believe that exposing underrepresented voices can serve as a catalyst for social change. Simply to be a woman or gay person and express oneself honestly, she says, can be an act of revolutionary significance. “We’ve been silenced; we’re not the norm in culture, in such a way that just to be real about who you are is making a grand statement,” she said.

As for feminism, Esposito considers it a no-brainer. “I’m a feminist because I’m a woman,” she said. “If you’re a woman and you’re not a feminist, I don’t know what’s up with you. Because feminism really just means sharing.”

Esposito’s work has garnered attention from fans of all genders, LGBT-identified and otherwise. As the title of her series Ask A Lesbian might indicate, she’s become something of a go-to spokesperson for queer issues, a role she approaches rather thoughtfully.

“The alternative to being the accidental lesbian spokesperson is that a straight white guy becomes the accidental spokesperson for, you know, anyone who’s not a straight white guy,” she said. “It’s always nice to have allies, but when you never hear from the people these issues affect, it becomes a problem.”

Esposito became aware of this representational gap when considering whether to write a standup bit about equal marriage. The topic had risen to near-universal popularity among comics of all backgrounds, and Esposito realized that if she neglected to participate in the conversation, she’d be the only one staying silent. She would also, she said, be one of very few comics for whom the issue bore personal relevance. To combat that potentially harmful dissonance, Esposito’s work engages boldly with the personal.

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Despite her focus on LGBT and feminist issues, Esposito estimates that the fans she attracts are mostly straight. What’s great about that, she says, is that it represents real life; queer people live mostly within straight society, so bringing the two groups into dialogue via comedy can serve an invaluable purpose. “Most gay or queer people are minorities in their own families,” Esposito said. “We’re in the mix. And so [my work] is partly instructive, partly just goofing around and allowing people to see something they might not otherwise see.”

 

Esposito’s minority status within her conservative Catholic family has informed both her comedy and her activism. She recently published an interview in The A.V. Club with her father in which the two discuss religion and queerness, specifically in terms of Cameron’s coming out. The interview, as stunningly honest as the rest of Esposito’s work, tenders hope for queer people attempting to come out in reluctant families.

Born to Italian-American Catholic parents in Chicago, Esposito attended a parochial grade school and studied theology at Boston College. The Catholic faith attracted her for its emphasis on community building. “[Religion] was the only way I knew that people got together, talked about what was important to them and tried to be kind to each other,” she said. “It was my basis for how to process the world.”

Those attitudes changed when Esposito began to consider her own place within the religion. She first stepped away from Catholicism when she studied more closely the religion’s teachings on women; her full break with the faith occurred when she came out. “I was at a very conservative school where sexual orientation was not covered in the non-discrimination policy, so technically, I could have been kicked out of school, which was really stressful and isolating.”

As her family and her community eventually shifted away from some of the less tolerant ramifications of Catholicism, Esposito found a new system of faith in stand up. The topics she once addressed through religious study and prayer she now treats through humor. To Esposito, comedy is simply another means for engaging with the exigencies of being human.

“Standup has been a great way to channel all those questions of ‘What are we?,’ ‘How do we connect to each other?’ and ‘What’s important to us?’” explained Esposito. “It’s all just a form of struggling, coming together, seeing what’s real.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 173


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