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COMEDY ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Cameron Esposito Is Tired of Talking About Rape Jokes

“I’m really happy about it,” the comedian says of her recent stand-up special, Rape Jokes, which she released for free on her website back in June. “And I’m happy we’re having this conversation, and I’m, like, so ready for this to not be my life.”

Esposito is perched on the edge of a high-backed velvet chair in the lobby of the Hyatt hotel in Montreal, the hub of the annual Just for Laughs comedy festival. She’s just given a talk, moderated by IndieWire’s Liz Shannon Miller, in a small conference room for an audience of about fifty men and women (but mostly women), titled “Rape Jokes and Resilience.” It’s been an intense couple of months of interviews and press appearances to promote Rape Jokes, and Esposito is thrilled at the positive response it’s gotten. But she’s ready for it all to end. “I kind of just want to go out to dinner with folks.”

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It’s not a coincidence that Esposito’s special — which masterfully reorients the conversation about rape jokes from the perspective of a survivor — was released in the wake of a near-global reckoning with the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment. As mainstream media outlets continued to report on the #MeToo movement, Esposito noticed a troubling pattern: The stories quickly shifted focus from the victims of assault to its perpetrators, the prominent men who’ve been exposed as abusers and subsequently fired or suspended from their jobs. There seemed to be endless questions about how and when these men should return to public life — the “redemption arc,” as Esposito puts it — and yet very little consideration of life for their victims in the aftermath of rape or assault.  

“It was just that I didn’t see someone else doing it,” Esposito says of her special. “I was like, ‘Surely this title exists.’ I was waiting for someone else to do it, and it didn’t get done, so I did it.”

Like the material itself, the process of filming and releasing Rape Jokes was unique. In preparation for her taping, Esposito first toured the hour around the country, but in much smaller venues — fifty to a hundred seats — than the large theaters she’s graduated to at this point in her career. She did this for the comfort of the audience members, some of whom may have been survivors themselves, and for herself; she wasn’t sure how it would feel to open herself up like this, to come out onstage and talk about herself as a survivor of rape.

The shoot came together in just six days. The UCB Theatre on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles — where Esposito lives with her wife, the comedian Rhea Butcher — donated space, and many others donated their time to film and edit the special. The website that houses Rape Jokes, along with a link to donate to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), was built in nine days; the special was released a little over two weeks after it was taped. The total budget was a paltry $2,800. Although anyone can go to cameronesposito.com and watch the special for free, to date, viewers have donated over $65,000 to RAINN.

“I did this with no network behind me. So I don’t look at this as scalable to literally anything,” Esposito says. “I’m very proud of the engagement that I had with the folks who care about me and the friends I have in the industry who supported this project, because that actually has never been done before.”

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For Esposito, art and activism have always been entwined. Growing up Catholic in suburban Chicago, she dreamed of becoming a priest; later, she went to school to be a social worker. Her career in comedy has always converged with her identity as a queer person, and her desire to create safe spaces for other marginalized people. “When I look back on it, and I wasn’t aware of this at the time — I think I started stand-up to make myself safer,” she says. “Like, come out to everybody in the audience at once in a way where they essentially can’t kill me. There’s witnesses. I don’t think I felt very safe as a queer woman, and I think that this was a path that I used to mitigate risk. I also think I’ve always had the perspective that that bubble of safety shouldn’t end at my body. I wanted to create that for other folks.”

It’s a lot of emotional labor to take on, on top of the grueling routine of nonstop performing and touring that all stand-ups endure. A straight white man doesn’t necessarily have to explain to his audience how the world looks through his eyes, and what it feels like to move through the world in his body. Esposito and Butcher host a weekly stand-up showcase in L.A. called Put Your Hands Together, and Esposito describes a recent show “where this guy got up and was just telling one-liners. He was so good at it. He’s a straight white dude. And they were so funny, and I was just like, ‘Oh man, I’m so jealous of that.’ ”

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But, she adds, “that’s not a life I’ve ever lived.” A straight white comic might be more famous and successful, might be more likely to land a major network deal, but Esposito has something else. “In a way that is uncomfortable but also beautiful, I am important to people in a way that some folks who do my job are not,” she says. Just before we sat down to talk, she was handed an envelope with her name on it and a hand-drawn rainbow — a note from someone in the audience at her talk. She gets that a lot. “People wait a long time to talk to me after shows, they tell me stuff, they bring me things, they burst into tears. It’s a different thing. And I am grateful to have that.”

She’s also no doubt grateful to move on from this chapter — to not have to get up onstage, or sit for interviews in hotel lobbies, and talk about rape. After all, she’s not a crisis counselor; she’s a stand-up comedian. She plans to tour new material in the fall, and to sell vinyl copies of Rape Jokes — the proceeds, of course, will go to RAINN. But even as she moves forward with her career, she’s made what looks to be a lasting mark on the culture of comedy. “My goal,” she says, “was to be the number one Google result when you type in ‘rape jokes.’ ”

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Hannah Gadsby and Cameron Esposito Seize Comedy’s New Normal

Six years ago, at the Largo in L.A., comedian Daniel Tosh declared that jokes about rape were inherently hilarious. When a woman in the audience called out that, actually, rape isn’t funny at all, Tosh reportedly responded, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?”

Comedy fans are used to funny men (and Tosh) taking a combative stance toward their audiences, especially women; we’re used to being the punching bags, and many of us have learned to take it in good stride lest we be labeled frigid, humorless bitches. In her new stand-up special, Nanette, out on Netflix on Tuesday, June 19, Australian comic Hannah Gadsby quips that back in the old days, a lesbian was simply any woman who didn’t laugh at a man’s joke.

But Nanette finds Gadsby, who is gay, adjusting the goalposts — reorienting our view of who gets to be angry and make people uncomfortable, of who gets to dish it and who has to sit there and take it. Nanette, which Gadsby is performing through June 30 at the Soho Playhouse in New York, is very funny, but it seems almost inaccurate to call it a comedy show. It’s more like a humorous yet serious treatise on comedy and how it can, intentionally or not, normalize the status quo. What do all those angry white male comics have to be so upset about, anyway? If they’re having a tough time, Gadsby jokes, the rest of us are screwed.

The relationship between a comedian and her audience, Gadsby posits, is an “abusive” one — making a crowd laugh is simply releasing them from a tension that the comic herself has created. Born in a small town in Tasmania, where homosexuality was a crime until 1997, Gadsby describes her sense of humor as inseparable from her identity. “Do you know why I’m such a funny fucker?” she asks. Because laughter in real life is also all about releasing tension and, as a child, she “was the tension.” So she became a master diffuser, learning to lighten the mood and shift the focus off her difference by cracking a joke.

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There’s sometimes a slightly didactic tenor to sets by LGBTQ comics, or at least those who use their gender identity as fodder for material. These performers aren’t just telling jokes but explaining, to often unforgiving club audiences, how the world looks from behind rainbow-tinted glasses. It’s an extra hurdle on top of the challenge of making people laugh, one that Gadsby leaps over with gusto. So does Cameron Esposito in her own new special, which she has pointedly titled Rape Jokes, and which the comedian released independently on her website last week, along with a request for donations to the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN.

Esposito’s new set continues her public examination of the presumption of comics like Tosh. In one memorable episode of Take My Wife, the 2016 series she created for NBC’s now-defunct Seeso, Esposito and her wife, fellow comic/show co-creator Rhea Butcher, who play versions of themselves, have to follow a more famous male comedian whose set includes a rape joke. Afterward, he apologizes to Butcher, explaining that he didn’t know she was a survivor of sexual assault. “I am, too,” Esposito mentions. “I am, too,” a random woman on the street chimes in. And another, touching up her makeup in the bathroom. And a male comic in the club’s green room. And a woman sitting in bed with headphones plugged into her laptop. The scene is basically a pre-hashtag #MeToo moment.

Which is to say, this is a topic that Esposito has been marinating in for some time. Like Nanette, Rape Jokes is in part a deconstruction of comedy itself, particularly the debates in recent years over what should, or shouldn’t, be acceptable in a stand-up set. “I don’t know how familiar you are with stand-up comedy,” Esposito says early in the new special, launching into a bit about comics who complain about “P.C. culture.” “I’m pretty familiar with it.”

Just as Gadsby questions a white male comic’s onstage anger, Esposito dismisses the right of a comedian to say certain words that audiences — especially women and minorities — will likely find offensive. She doesn’t stop there: She suggests that if such a comic really needs those words to do his job, well, then, “I am a better stand-up comic than you.” And she’s careful to make the distinction between the right to say offensive things and the expectation that it’s somehow un-American to be criticized — or to lose favor, or even your job — for saying offensive things. Comics who cry “censorship” in the case of the latter, Esposito says, are using the wrong word: “Feedback. You’re getting feedback.”

In ways both implicit and explicit, Rape Jokes and Nanette lay bare the extent to which men have written the rules — of stand-up comedy, of sexism, of the behaviors we deem criminal and those we chuckle at as if it’s all in good fun. We talk about sexual assault in such an unsophisticated way, Esposito says, because the conversation has for so long been driven by men who insist that if they, say, can’t comment on their female co-worker’s appearance, “My balls will fall off.”

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Both Gadsby and Esposito want to flip this script — to create a new definition of normal that isn’t just shorthand for straight, white, and male. A man in a dress isn’t weird, Gadsby insists. “You know what’s weird? Pink headbands on bald babies.” Esposito jokes, “We talk about consent like it’s a very slippery boulder that we’re rolling up a very slippery mountain while we’re covered in butter,” recommending straight people treat sex more like gay people do. With gay sex, she says, there is no “standard sex act” and no bases to hit: “You’re just running through an open field.” Now, doesn’t that sound nice?

It does when Esposito says it, anyway, in part because of her patient, mollifying tone. Minorities in America are all too used to having to go high when others go low, and Esposito embodies the frustration and resignation of having to be the bigger person.

For Gadsby, though, that approach has its limits. Both comics end their specials with earnest pleas delivered especially to the men in the audience to get it together — to be, as Esposito puts it, a “person of consequence,” someone who gets in the way to help those who are more vulnerable. While Rape Jokes is a more standard hour of joke-telling, in Nanette, Gadsby strains against the impulse to end every joke with a punchline. To diffuse the tension as such would be a cop-out. She wants the audience to sit with it. Early on, she confesses that she’s been questioning her own commitment to comedy. She’s built her career on self-deprecating humor, but when the person speaking is already on the margins, “It’s not humility; it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore.”

By the end of Nanette, Gadsby follows through on her threat. She’s the one with the microphone, and she wants us to hear what she has to say — even if it most certainly won’t make you laugh. In this stand-up special, there is no salvation in laughter; the early jokes are simply the grease she uses to pry open the door to her confession, and her outrage. And when she does, it’s powerful, uncomfortable, and searingly angry. It is, in other words, the appropriate response to life in America in 2018. There are too many people who are all too happy to treat the pain of marginalized people as a joke. It’s time we stopped laughing it off.

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is available on Netflix on Tuesday, June 19. Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes is available on her website.

 

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