When everything you’ve built falls apart, how do you find the confidence to try something new? Ann talks with comic Cameron Esposito about launching her series and how she coped with the fallout after her show was canceled.
CAMERON ESPOSITO: To do this job, you have to have a personality type that wants to get up again and prove somebody wrong. That’s the whole thing. That’s the whole thing is that you fail. And if you’re a comic, the thing you want to do after you bomb is get up on stage again.
ANN FRIEDMAN: Cameron Esposito is a comic who built her career from the ground up. She started in Chicago, where she essentially created an audience for her work by hosting her own comedy night. And she also founded these classes for other female comedians. Then it was pretty much time for her to be like, “okay, big leagues, we’re moving to Los Angeles.” She and her wife, Rhea Butcher, who also happens to be a comic, moved to LA and rebuilt their careers and their lives. They started a weekly comedy night at the Upright Citizens Brigade. And the next step—natural, right?—they landed a TV show.
And then, after Cameron got the biggest break of her career, suddenly it all fell apart. The network shut down, and the future of her show was in question. She suddenly found herself in a place where she needed someone else’s buy-in. Quite literally.
I’m Ann Friedman, and this is Going Through It: a show about how hard it can be to figure out when to quit and when to keep going.
ESPOSITO: Ooh like the first place I ever got told “no,” that I “couldn't be a performer,” is when I was a child and I was trying out for You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I was very young when somebody had a response to my gender identity and the fact that they wanted me—like I want to audition for Snoopy. Which by the way is a dog!
FRIEDMAN: Also, dream role.
ESPOSITO: Yeah, right. [laugh] But they were like, “you can audition for Snoopy, you have to play Peppermint Patty,” or something like that. I'm like “Honestly, I get what you're saying about me playing Peppermint Patty like, whatever, but I do feel like we're a Snoopy in this situation…”
CLIP FROM ESPOSITO’S STAND-UP: That’s how disgusting periods are! I wake up in the night, and I am bleeding out of my body! A crime scene! My body is bleeding out of my body!
ESPOSITO: The response to me was not initially positive.
ESPOSITO: I think that maybe nobody like me had existed in that city.
FRIEDMAN: Wait, the city you’re talking about is Chicago, right? Like when you started?
ESPOSITO: And honestly not even in stand up yet on a national stage either. There really weren’t out gay comics that were running around and not spending a lot of their act talking about how gross it is to be gay. That was also a thing. I didn’t have a lot of shame and I didn’t make fun of myself. So yeah, I couldn’t work anywhere for years.
FRIEDMAN: So how did you start getting work then?
ESPOSITO: I put myself in a position of power. This is how I dealt with this. First thing I did was I started running a room so I could book people. Then when I could book people I could offer them something. So that was something I could use to get into the scene, like I didn’t just have to stay out until 5 a.m., I could give you a thing. And then after that I used producing my own show to get involved as a producer at another room called The Lincoln Lodge. And then I realized I wanted there to be more women in the scene so I started a class.
FRIEDMAN: You’re a comedy entrepreneur.
ESPOSITO: Yeah, that’s actually totally true. I always thought of it like a small business.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah totally. Also I get so mad when that term is only applied to a really specific tech archetype. What I’m hearing you say is there’s a thing that I cared about that the market was not responding to, and I repeatedly built it.
ESPOSITO: That’s right. [laughs] That’s true. I built the stage for them and for then I could perform on literally at the Lincoln Lodge, it was a stage that we actually physically erected in the back of a pancake house like I literally built the stage with my hands and then took it down so people could have pancakes.
FRIEDMAN: So you move to L.A. with your wife Rhea. Were you always planning on translating your stand up to TV?
ESPOSITO: No, that’s a really good question, because I didn't actually know that I could ever be on TV because of who I am and how I look. I moved here and I had like this really distinctive haircut. That was a long on one side and really short on the other.
FRIEDMAN: The side mullet. I was going to say, it’s probably called The Cameron at this point.
FRIEDMAN: So, not part of your plan.
ESPOSITO: It was not part of my plan. I thought I was going to have to change my hair and I thought that the market was looking for a certain type of person to put on television. It turned out that I kind of moved here at a really interesting time where like, my haircut was actually—people wanted that in their show.
Movies and TV wanted to appear more inclusive or be more inclusive. And so there were trying to figure out cheat codes and one of them is like—I'm just like a bartender and a bunch of movies. Or I'm like somebody who's wife and they are somebody who's a little bit more on the femme spectrum, but I'm like in there to be like “Yeah but she's here too!”
FRIEDMAN: That'd be an amazing show title.
ESPOSITO: [laugh] But that was fine with me at the time because I just couldn't believe I was getting out there. I mean I never saw somebody like totally looked like me on TV.
FRIEDMAN: You eventually were approached by Seeso, a streaming network kind of like a smaller Hulu or Netflix. How did that happen?
ESPOSITO: Somebody came and took me out to lunch a bunch and I was just like, “I don’t know… I mean. Your network’s really new and I’m just not sure.” And my wife Rhea and I finally decided to go for it and to give it a shot. And try to develop something with them.
I always figure out a way to pitch out what I think I'm not seeing so, like, Take My Wife, which was the television show that I eventually sold, the concept was “Lucy Loves Lucy.”
FRIEDMAN: So at the time, your life looked a lot like the show you were developing. Why did you want to make a show that was based on your life?
ESPOSITO: The whole campaign was this is the show where lesbians don't die. [laughs] There's a whole trend “Bury Your Gays” which is that queer characters are often killed off. I think part of it is a limitation in who is historically in the writers room. It's like a bunch of straight dudes, and then they know that they want to write in a lesbian character because that's, like, titillating, or it's a ratings push, or because they have a genuine desire to include queer people. It can be cynical and awful, or it can be positive. But either way if there's not somebody in the room to actually serve that character as a writer then, I have found, that people just go like, “Well... I guess... yeah, like, probably she's married to a man. She figures out she wants to be with a woman. It's like super tragic. That's most of the season. At the end of the season, they kiss once. Stray bullets hit both of them through an open window. And then their one child is left alone and has to be raised by the cop that comes to solve the crime.”
FRIEDMAN: Oh my god. [laughs]
ESPOSITO: Like, that's how it's written. Because they can't think of what would happen after that kiss.
FRIEDMAN: So Seeso said yes to you, and you said yes to Seeso. Kind of a miracle. Did that feel huge?
ESPOSITO: You know what's weird is like, it seemed so small at the time and I can't explain why. Maybe it was partially because Seeso was new, but it was also because it was in a couple of years of our being here and we hadn't had huge failures in L.A. yet. So it just kind of felt like, whoa I guess this is the next thing. I guess the next thing is that we're just like making a show. But because it was a small budget show it also didn't fully feel like television yet. Like Game of Thrones is also a TV show. [laughs]
FRIEDMAN: [laughs] I’ve heard that.
ESPOSITO: And they sets in like, Albania. And then also China, or whatever. This was one camera, a three person art department. And Rhea and I literally with our on-set writer/producer scratching out lines of dialogue because the sun is setting and we're like, “We don't think we can say all of these words before the sun sets. So how do we rewrite this so that it's two lines instead of 57?”
It was like camp or it was like college or something. It just felt like everybody had one unified goal. It's like a very dirty version of TV. And I really loved that about it.
FRIEDMAN: And maybe why it also feels so intimate.
ESPOSITO: Yeah. Because it's a group of people all making decisions together that is actually pretty intimate. It did actually feel like a family.
FRIEDMAN: So what happened when the show finally came out?
ESPOSITO: We thought that no one was going to care about the show. So we went on vacation the day that it debuted. Which is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
It got a bunch of really positive reviews right away from places like Vanity Fair, Indiewire. I mean... we were just like, “Number one: what is happening?! And number two, we are on vacation!” We were in a hot tub. In 100 degree weather. [laughs] Going like, “I don't know what to do now!” So yeah, we worked the whole time we were in Palm Springs—which is fine! We couldn't believe it. We really couldn't believe it.
FRIEDMAN: So were you already thinking about a second season, there, in the hot tub in Palm Springs, were you going there right away?
ESPOSITO: I think we're really excited about the idea of continuing and we were really excited about maybe being the first hit that the network had, that Seeso had. But we also didn’t know if we would get a second season.
FRIEDMAN: Wait so even after all that praise for season one? What was it like when you were waiting for the season two greenlight? What happened in that lag time?
ESPOSITO: That was a really tough time. We were like, “Eh, this is nothing.” And then we're like, “This is something!” And like of course suddenly it mattered to us so much. So we were just kind of in this weird holding pattern of just trying to figure out what was going on.
That's another weird thing about L.A. and this industry that I think people don't talk about a lot. Is that a lot of your mental space and your life is filled with things that don't even exist yet. And you have to talk about them as if they're real every day. You have to feel that they're real in your heart every day. But also you have to know that they could go away tomorrow and that that isn't the end of your career. You have to try to hold on to both of those opposing views constantly. And it's very strange. It's a very strange thing because it's not like—you're not going into an office. You're talking to people about like “Yeah, and this is—”and using the names of the show's characters—“And this is what Cameron is going to do next…” and it all has to feel very real and very inevitable. But it also can be like [snaps fingers] absolutely not picked up. So you have to care about it so much, but be able to throw in the trash immediately.
FRIEDMAN: Wow. Incentivized self-delusion.
ESPOSITO: Yes! And for months. That's what we're doing for months, is talking about all these things.
We eventually got the call that they were going to pick up a second season. And then when you get the call it's like, “So we'll start then, tomorrow.” You know what I mean?
FRIEDMAN: Erase the rest of your calendar.
ESPOSITO: Yeah, then it's going. So I would say that if you're somebody who struggles with anxiety, this is a tough place for that. Because you're kind of you're kind of trapped in a moment of like I have to be ready for anything. And also I shouldn't expect anything. That’s the sort of cycle.
FRIEDMAN: Okay so you get the call. It's finally happening. Tell me about how season two feels different from the maybe blissful naivete of season one.
ESPOSITO: For season two we came in with a lot more goals. We got a lot more money, twice our budget for season one. And what we decided to do with that was to try and work on our numbers of our percentages in terms of inclusion. So we wanted to make sure that there were women, queer people, people of color, or any intersectional identity thereof, in all aspects of production. So, our show was more gay than not gay in the second season.
But, trying to do all of that and then also write a show, it was a bigger ship to run. And again, we didn't have experience in season one, but we had this family feeling. For season two, we had more experience, but less of a family feeling.
And it ended up backfiring and a bunch of different ways. I mean everything from like, writing a ton for a particular character that then we offered to an actor who had to bow out at the last minute... to like, betting on certain crew members being able to fulfill certain duties because we thought we were all on the same page, and then not being on the same page. We had a pretty fraught production cycle for season two.
And then what we found out wasn’t that we were canceled, but that the network itself was going to cease to exist.
FRIEDMAN: How did you find out? How did they tell you?
ESPOSITO: Oh it was delivered to us by our executives.
FRIEDMAN: Who showed up in person?
ESPOSITO: Yeah. And who are kind people that we liked. And that meant also that their jobs were going away too. Again, it was a tough moment because also I was trying to figure out who to even be mad at.
When I look back at my career and I look back that think that the things that have sucked, a lot of them are either systemic issues, or things that were beyond anybody's control. And things are beyond anybody's control, what do you do with the anger that you have on that?
FRIEDMAN: So you were obviously still angry about this when you had to go tell the cast and crew and everyone. How did they react?
ESPOSITO: I think everybody was pretty sad for us.
ESPOSITO: It’s almost like, humiliating. I think everybody was like, “Oh the poor sweeties that run”—I mean, you want to be like this Hollywood mogul that doesn't give a shit about anybody. But that's not my personality type. We're like, “We love all of you.” And they’re like, “I hope you’re going to be OK, moms!”
FRIEDMAN: So did you guys all just pack up and go home?
ESPOSITO: We still had to edit the show, which I will say is one of the most painful work experiences I've ever had. We didn’t know if anyone would ever see season two. It was as likely, or statistically probably more likely, that we would finish it and it would go in the trash. It's like making the last cog in a factory that doesn't exist anymore. That's what we were working on and that was just kind of harrowing.
FRIEDMAN: But you didn't you didn't consider just dropping it?
ESPOSITO: [Takes a deep breath] We needed to get paid.
FRIEDMAN: That’s a great reason to keep going.
ESPOSITO: At the end of the day it’s a job.
FRIEDMAN: So their expectation was that you would see it through? They were basically like, “We’re coming to tell you that we’re shutting down and also we expect you to deliver this, regardless of your personal feelings.” That was kind of the expectation on their end?
ESPOSITO: Well, it’s an expectation that’s dictated by a contract. We were contracted to deliver by a certain date, this number of episodes, that are edited and color corrected and...yeah, so you just have to do it.
The number of people that have folks banging down their door to give them a job in any industry—it's pretty rare.
I know Hollywood can seem very, oh, you're called into this circle of parties and it's about like, image and it's about money, in a way that's really extravagant. But for me, it's a job. And I just I want to continue to work. So you can't fuck over your network. Who's going to hire you after that? Truly. You’re like, Seeso folded so I moved to the desert. By the way, this is my haircut—do you have any work for me?
ESPOSITO: I’m gay and I’m loud and I’m really feminist and I never shut up and I only say exactly what I think, and also I don’t complete my projects. Is that fine? Are you good with that?
Who is banging down my door to give a shit about me? Nobody. I have to continue to create a market for myself.
FRIEDMAN: So you said that thing earlier about Hollywood being a place where you pitch something that doesn’t exist yet, as if it exists. But then you went out and pitched this thing that did exist.
ESPOSITO: Yeah, that’s right. [laughs]
FRIEDMAN: Did that feel better or worse?
ESPOSITO: Much worse. Much worse.
ESPOSITO: If you're a person from a marginalized community, the same things are true in this field as anywhere, which is that people look at you like you are either a charity case, or like you are not universal because the specificity of your life isn't the invisible straight white maleness that, for some reason, we've all decided is the default of culture. So yeah, it is harder to sell a show. It's what made the show a success. It's why anybody wrote about the show. That's true for me as a comic. I know that when I get up on stage and say something, maybe the audience has never heard that before. That’s incredible. I also have never had a stand up special on a major network and I'm a very successful stand up comic who's been working at this for over ten years.
FRIEDMAN: Chin stroke, wonder why that is.
ESPOSITO: I wonder why that is.
ESPOSITO: It’s almost like one lesbian gets to get through every year. 2019 might be my year.
Your project might be really personal to you and to someone else, it is part of a balance sheet. And I knew that going in, mentally, but I hadn’t experienced it. And it’s ok. Because that’s what this is. It’s a business. You’re literally feeding people ideas and if those ideas are good—if it’s like “Gay people are real” or “It’s ok to love someone”—if those are the ideas, and when you’re doing that, when you’re putting things you actually believe in into a capitalist system, you just have to know that you can believe in that stuff, but once it leaves your hands… sorry. That’s not for you to control.
You just have to let go of it. You just have to let go of it because it’s just not your choice.
FRIEDMAN: But you didn’t let it go… You kept pushing for the show.
ESPOSITO: To do this job you have to have a personality type that wants to get up again and prove somebody wrong. Like that's the whole thing. Like that's the whole thing is that you fail and if you're a comic, the thing you want to do after you bomb is get up on stage again.
People often say to us like, “The characters reflect my life.” Cameron and Rhea get married and they're both wearing suits and that's a thing. I haven't seen that elsewhere, and it matters. They're not wearing suits because it's a joke, because it's like a stern lesbian in a white suit yelling at you. They're wearing suits because that's what they want to wear.
FRIEDMAN: That’s what they look good in!
ESPOSITO: There’s a whole episode about it. They're choosing to get married. We hear from people all the time that that really matters them. I mean I literally was in Nashville and somebody came up to me and asked me to like, look through their wedding look with them and give them tips. Where should they get tailoring done. That makes it all worth it. Of course it fucking makes it worth it. The whole goal is I want to talk to every lesbian about suits. So if this is the vehicle for that—great.
CLIP FROM TAKE MY WIFE: Rhea: I’m not sure. I haven’t worn a suit since I was Clark Kent for Halloween in 1989 and my teacher said I look better as Supergirl. Do I look weird? Cameron: No, you look so good! You look amazing!
FRIEDMAN: Cameron and Rhea did find a distributor for seasons one and two of Take My Wife. They made a deal with STARZ and iTunes where it went to #1 with no marketing budget.
Cameron is still building her own stage. You can catch her doing stand-up across the country, listen to her podcast Queery, and watch her independently-produced stand-up special Rape Jokes at CameronEsposito dot com.
FRIEDMAN: Going Through It is an original series from MailChimp, and I’m your host, Ann Friedman. This stage is built by my producers Eleanor Kagan, Megan Tan, Gabrielle Lewis, and Claire Tighe. This episode was edited by Joel Lovell. It was scored and mixed by Hannis Brown. Thanks to my core podcast bro Max Linsky, and everyone at Pineapple Street Media.
FRIEDMAN: On the next episode: What happens when you believe in the system but the system just doesn’t see you?
AMANDA NGUYEN: I tried really hard to work on the facts, tell them the legal precedents, tell them why the law I was proposing makes a lot of sense for them. But it wasn’t until I told them I was a rape survivor that they actually looked up from their phones.
FRIEDMAN: Amanda Nguyen walked up to Capitol Hill to pass a law that would change the lives of sexual assault survivors across America. She tells me how going through it herself would mean that other people wouldn’t have to.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is out now.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is out now.
Antje Danielson was fired by her best friend.
Ellen Pao lost her lawsuit—and her job.
Charlotte Cho never thought her skincare hobby could be her career.
Soledad O’Brien’s dream job wasn't a dream at all.
Jessamyn Stanley couldn't stop saying "I'm sorry."
Samin Nosrat wanted to be a writer, not a chef.
Glennon Doyle fell in love with someone who wasn't her husband.
Claressa Shields was told to put her Olympic dreams on hold.
Hillary Clinton almost dropped out...of college.
Cameron Esposito got her big break...and then it fell apart.
Amanda Nguyen took Congress to task for survivors’ rights.
Rebecca Traister went freelance and almost went broke.
Audri Scott Williams ran an unlikely political race.
Kathleen Hanna hated being the face of Riot Grrrl.