“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.”
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.”
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.’ ”
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.’ ”