When a stand-up comedian makes her late-night television debut, she naturally hopes things go well. But Cameron Esposito could never have predicted just how amazing her debut would be.
A year ago this month, she appeared on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Esposito got big laughs from the crowd, and Ferguson stayed behind to watch her set (which he almost never does). He and that night’s guest bantered back and forth with Esposito in the middle of her set (which almost never happens) and Ferguson called her over to the couch for an interview (which also almost never happens).
Before Ferguson signed off, his guest said Esposito was “the future of comedy.” This wouldn’t be any compliment of particular note, except the guest happened to be Jay Leno, who knows a thing or two about making people laugh.
“Let’s just go ahead and say ‘yes,’” Esposito said on whether the outcome of her late-night stand-up debut might have been the best in the history of the planet (the writer’s hyperbole, not hers). “The thing that’s so unusual is people online wrote about it, and people still ask about it.”
Esposito’s journey to stand-up comedy was all about discovery, which is something that very much coincides with other aspects of her life. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, she felt like an oddball, at least partially because she was a closeted lesbian. She had come out to her family and friends before pursuing comedy, dabbling in improv while attending college in Boston and later in Chicago’s tight-knit comic community. After she quickly fell out of love with improv, she and her fellow players would hit up local comedy clubs to try out some stand-up material. It was here that Esposito found her perfect outlet.
“What I love about stand-up is that when it’s my time on stage, it’s my time only,” she said.
As opposed to making her material about something everyone can relate to, Esposito’s comedy is personal, tackling subjects like growing up Catholic and her same-sex relationships in light-hearted, edgy and occasionally zany ways. It’s not subject matter she has always felt comfortable presenting on stage when she first started. After all, there aren’t any out-of-the-closet lesbian comedians whom Esposito could model herself after except Ellen DeGeneres, who, despite becoming a beloved talk show personality, once had her eponymous sitcom cancelled in the ’90s when she first came out. Esposito’s personal touch to her material is unique to her, but it's part of a somewhat larger stand-up trend in which comedians including Louis C.K. and Tig Notaro are earning acclaim by laying bare all aspects of their lives on stage and screen.
“I think that really it’s who I am as a person. It’s the least important thing in my life, but it’s also the most important,” Esposito said. “It’s so personal that I think it becomes universal. It’s the universal nature of feelings, I guess.”
Esposito is riding a wave of momentum that she has built in the past year. She has made TV appearances on Chelsea Lately, Maron and Last Call with Carson Daly. In addition to her stand-up, she contributes biweekly columns to the entertainment website The A.V. Club and hosts Put Your Hands Together, a weekly, live stand-up podcast held at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in L.A.
She is to make her first appearance in Lexington at Comedy Off Broadway for one night only on Thursday, as she hits the road promoting the fall release of her latest stand-up comedy album, Same Sex Symbol. Esposito said her show features bits from that album, plus newer material she’s trying out.
Whether she has meant to or not, Esposito’s sexuality and her expression of it through comedy is a reflection of the progression of gay culture and its continued acceptance in American life. At one point, she didn’t know whether she would have a chance at success as a lesbian comedian. Now, she talks openly about getting engaged to her fiancée (stand-up comic Rhea Butcher, who also is her opening act) and other aspects of her life to the entertainment and occasional enlightenment of comedy crowds.
“I kind of get to be one of the first (comedians) talking about this,” Esposito said. “I find that somebody says something to me about that almost after every show. The number of straight guys that come up to me and say, ‘That was very educational.’ She laughs. "But it’s silly. People are laughing their heads off, and that’s why it’s so effective.”
Cameron EspositoOpener: Rhea ButcherWhen: 7:15 p.m. Sept. 4Admission: $15Where: Comedy Off Broadway, 161 Lexington Green CircleCall: 859-271-5653Online: Comedyoffbroadway.com