Late in her new standup comedy special Marriage Material, Cameron Esposito stares at her rapt Chicago audience, letting a smirk slowly unfurl on her face to uneasy giggles and a few frantic bursts of applause.
"I love to say the word 'period' onstage," Esposito whispers, almost hushed in reverence. "I love it. I love to listen right after," she continues, to an almost silent room now, "as all the air goes out of the room … as it's sucked into all the dude's buttholes."
Delighted cheers break out, and Esposito is off and running with an elaborate bit about periods, body shame, and how she refuses to back down from a topic that affects 51 percent of the US population. "You could say the sentence, 'Like most Americans, I bleed once a month,' and that would be true!" she booms. "It happens to us, and we don't talk about it! And it's not because we're grossed out by bodily fluids, because semen is a major plot point in There's Something About Mary, and I saw that movie with my parents!"
If you're familiar with Esposito's comedy, this candor is hardly surprising. Her standup is ferocious and unashamed, setting her apart from the many comedians who prefer to use self-deprecation as a way into their more risqué material.
With Marriage Material, now available to watch on NBC's new comedy platform Seeso, Esposito emerges as a comic who's taking herself seriously. She knows she's good, and she wants you to understand why and how she got so awesome. And hey, if she can convince you to feel a little less ashamed of your bodily functions, she's happy to do that too.
I recently talked with Esposito about Marriage Material, how she developed her own standup voice, Hillary Clinton, and, yes, our periods.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Please tell me about the evolution of the period bit.
That is actually something from Put Your Hands Together [Esposito's monthly standup show at LA's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre]. For some reason, I always have my period at Put Your Hands Together … for some reason, it's always the first day of my period. I don't know how my body lines this up. I get really sick. I know some women don't, but it really affects me. So I'm always back there just cursing at the trap of my own body, and one time I just came out [onstage] and decided to talk about it.
It's in the joke, where I talk about how we're taught not to talk about this onstage. But I would say for female comics, it's less because people tell you it's disgusting, although I think as a woman, you have that implanted in your brain from society for, you know, forever. I think it's also because for some reason we get the message that [periods are] a "hack" thing to talk about. Like, "Oh, so many women comics talk about this, you can't talk about it because you're just giving into your baser urges," or whatever.
But then I think about how dude comics really don't have to worry about variation. They should — and I'm not saying that dude comics aren't great — but nobody says that to a guy who's talking about his dick. I have had to watch that for so many hours of my life. Even female comics talk about dicks, because there's so much shame around women's bodies. It's easier to talk about, like, a blowjob. We don't even have a cute word to talk about when someone goes down on a woman! We don't even have that!
Watching the special, when you started talking about your period, I felt my body sort of seize up. Like, "Oh, no, we're going here?" And then by the end, it was more, "Why was I so tense about that?"
Whoever decided women should be completely divorced from our bodies … well, they did it. I also made this series with Amy Poehler's Smart Girls [an organization helping younger girls "cultivate their authentic selves"], where I'm advocating for women to get gynecological care, and the response to that is dudes going, "What is this? I don't want to watch this." And I'm like, "Turn it off! Does everything have to include you to exist?" This is the internet! There are so many other things. Minimize the window, get yourself out of here. I believe in you. You can save yourself.
But there are also women [responding] who are like, "I'm so scared, I don't want to go [to the gynecologist] because I've heard it's so painful." I hear that stuff all the time. I've been to universities — this happened to me multiple times, I was at Yale, and Stanford, and people told me they were teaching those videos in gender studies classes. Which is awesome, but it's also like, "Are you telling me that at Yale and Stanford you can't find better stuff than the things that I make? You can't find more resources that have facts or are made by a doctor, for instance?"
I just think women are taught to shut up. And we don't have very many things to look to to make us feel more comfortable about speaking about ourselves and our bodies.
On that note, no one's really telling male comics to stop talking about masturbation, though they probably could stand to.
Yeah. I mean, the thing is … I was just going to say something that I now realize isn't true. I was going to say, "I guess over time some dudes stop talking about what young men talk about a little bit more," but then I realized that that's not true at all. I mean, the television show Louie exists.
So, yeah, dudes talk about their bodies forever. That's a huge part of standup, is dudes talking about their bodies, working through their body shame, and working through the ways they feel adequate and inadequate having sex. We don't get to have that release, and I think we are people and we deserve that.
The "51 percent of the population has their period, so most people have a period at some point" line was such a lightbulb moment for me, where I was like, "Yeah! That's right!"
Did you stand up in your house? [mimicking] "Yeah, that's right!"
Well, I was in a really comfortable position, so it was more of a raising my arms thing. It was still a triumphant moment.
Oh, good. That counts.
I had actually just been going through your tweets, and I saw one that made me think of your recent tweet about Hillary Clinton's Super Tuesday speech: "Women should get as much credit for shouting as men do for crying."
We had [the speech] on the radio, which was a very cool experience. I got home, and my wife and fellow comic Rhea Butcher was already listening to it. Honestly, we almost busted into tears.
I mean, I never get to hear women sound like that. Maybe in standup a woman gets to yell a little bit. But I hear all the time that I'm very "shouty" onstage, and I wonder if people will say that to men who speak with fervor. It sounds so off to our ears, because we have no baseline for understanding it. Even women are put off by other women speaking that forcefully.
This election has been really wild so far. I've been watching all the things that people say about Hillary Clinton, and I don't know that I thought we were further along than we are in terms of the way we think about women and their desire to be powerful. But I have been surprised. I haven't expected people to be this cruel.
I should've maybe expected it, because I do hear that every day, doing my job. I can hear from people who are so into what I'm doing, and obviously I'm making a living doing this. My career is not going anywhere. But that doesn't mean people stop telling me to be quiet.
I think when we talk about politicians, we should talk about them with a critical eye. They're going to represent us; of course we need to call them on their backgrounds. But I do think the things I hear people say about Hillary Clinton are, like, "I hate Hillary Clinton."
Certainly there will sometimes be substantiated [criticism]. Like, what she said about the Reagans and AIDS. She got called on that, and people were upset about that. And they should've been, because that was a ridiculous thing to say. But then she released a statement on Medium, and it was awesome. That is, I think, the discourse we should be having.
The reason I think this relates to my standup special and everything else is because, like, women can be [called out]. And women can defend themselves. We don't need to be treated with kid gloves. But I think that you have to realize what you're attacking a woman for. Are you attacking her for existing and speaking up? Or do you have a problem with what she's saying? I think we deserve enough credit to be able to be treated as if we are people who can be called on things we're saying, and who can adjust.
What? We're people?!
Yeah! We're people! I know I'm one of the only people saying that, but I believe it.
One thing I love about your standup is that there's not a whole lot of self-deprecation, which is pretty unusual for standup comedy in general.
You know, this is going to sound arrogant, but stay with me: I started doing standup sort of to create my own role model.
I'm from a really Catholic background. The way the Catholic Church speaks about women is really like we are in second place. And then to realize I'm gay, and therefore I may be a sinner and don't have a future … those were all things that were happening internally at the time I was figuring out who I am.
I'm no longer a person of faith at all, really, but I think what happened is that I needed someone to tell me that things were going to be okay. And I just didn't have access to those people. I think those people existed, but I didn't know them. They weren't in my community.
But at the time, I would go onstage and talk about how my life was okay, almost so that I could hear that my life was okay. Over time, that helped me. I'm in a totally different place now, but I know there are still so many people that need that help.
Also, those 10 years that I've been doing standup were the 10 years that marriage equality came to the United States. I had to listen to a lot of jokes about gay people. Some of them were terrible, and some of them were really great jokes from people who advocate for queer people.
But I think either way, if I didn't speak up on my own behalf, I was going to be locked out of the conversation. I would hear people be like, "They deserve the right to get married." The "they" makes it seem like, "We the straight comics, and you the straight audience members, think that those people who are not in the room should get married, right?" So it was just a way of being present.
Also, you're not going to win a fight if you say that you're shit and your life is shit. Real rights were on the line. I know that the standup scene seems like a weird way to fight for political change, but tell that to Jon Stewart.
I was really excited to see a couple of details come out recently about the Seeso series, Take My Wife, that you and Rhea are developing together.
Making a show for @SeesoTV w/ 2 lesbian main characters who aren't:— Cameron Esposito (@cameronesposito) March 15, 2016
- cheating by sleeping w/ men
IT CAN BE DONE.
What's awesome about Seeso is that they're giving a lot of control to the creators that they're working with. I think what has happened up until this point is that either queer people weren't in leadership positions on shows that had queer characters, or queer people were, but there are a lot of network hoops to jump through, or adjustments to be made, or ad space to be sold. And I understand all that; this is a business.
But what is interesting now is that we live in this new niche television boom, where you can actually attract people through quality and also breadth of experience. It actually benefits you to make a show about characters who are not "of the norm." It's a great time to be doing this.
The one thing that is true is that coming-out stories also really dominate the way lesbians are depicted on TV. People are often at the beginning of their lives, and then we don't see them again, or they immediately get pregnant, or they immediately die.
I honestly think it's like, there are people in the writers' room that just don't have the experience of just, what would happen to women if not those things. And I think a lot of that is just not knowing what happens to women. Like, forget lesbians: "What do women do all day? Well, they have kids and die."
Law and Order: SVU is the longest-running scripted, non-animated television show — that show's been on for 15 years — and that show is a show about women, at the baseline. Certainly there are male characters, and things happen to men on that show, but that is what we think happens to women. Women are put in terrible positions, or women are victimized.
And hey, I love that show! I watch it at the gym! But there are things to happen to us that are just like, we go to the store. You know? Broad City does a great job of showing those things, [and] Transparent. There are so many shows right now that are good at showing what women do on a day-to-day basis, so Take My Wife is just an opportunity to have those women go home together at the end of the night. Be people.
Cameron Esposito's Marriage Material is now available to watch on Seeso.