Faith in comedy: Cameron Esposito finds her true identity on stage

Cameron Esposito performs her self-referential stand-up comedy at The Southern Café and Music Hall on Thursday. Photo: Mandee Johnson Cameron Esposito performs her self-referential stand-up comedy at The Southern Café and Music Hall on Thursday. Photo: Mandee Johnson

Last year was a good year for stand-up comedian Cameron Esposito. Not only did multiple opportunities in the comedy and film worlds present themselves, but she also married the woman of her dreams.

Esposito, 34, tied the knot with longtime partner and fellow comedian, Rhea Butcher, in December, and the two are currently on the road together. You can see them in action when they perform at L.Y.A.O. Comedy Showcase at The Southern Café and Music Hall on January 28.

It’s been 15 years since Esposito dipped her toe in the comedy pool with Chicago’s iconic troupe, The Second City. Then 19, she discovered her sexual preference, in addition to realizing she preferred stand-up.

“I was in this very male-dominated scene. I had moved from Boston to Chicago and I was taking improv classes and improv is all about agreement and what people are saying about you or your character or the world. I was really feeling like I didn’t want to agree with people,” says Esposito. “I wanted to speak from my own perspective, and so stand-up gave me that opportunity.”

These discoveries, which were critical to her identity and to her honesty as a comedian, have been a source of inspiration to fans, many of who consider her a kind of ambassador of LGBTQ rights.

In 2013, when she appeared on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” where Jay Leno was also a guest, she was praised for her quick-witted comments. Having gone off-script with some banter with Leno, Esposito felt a surge of panic, thinking she’d botched it.

“You turn in a script to the network and they approve it, and so we had gone off script. So afterwards I was like, ‘I’m so sorry,’ because I thought I was going to be banned,” says Esposito. “The producers were like ‘What are you talking about? That was television gold,’ so that was wonderful.” Leno went on to declare that “lesbians rule” and described her as “the future of comedy.”

Last year, Esposito was invited to star in (Second City alum) Amy Poehler’s “She Said: The Female Bod!,” along with Butcher, who was her fiancée at the time. “She Said” is an offshoot of the “Smart Girls” series (which provides teens with advice on how to discover themselves), and serves as a platform for discussions exclusively for women. Esposito and Butcher also perform regularly at Poehler’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles.

For Esposito, working with Poehler felt like coming full circle.

“It’s funny all these years later to end up connected to her,” says Esposito. “Amy and I are not close, but I can’t wait for the future when that is different. She is one of those famous people working right now in the world, so she’s very busy and has a lot of stuff going on. I’m also a lot newer to L.A. than she is, but right now we get to work together and that’s wonderful.”

Esposito also stars on NBC’s “Take My Wife,” a new series about two comics who are wives, which is inspired by Esposito and Butcher’s real-life union. The first season consists of six episodes to be released later this year on the station’s SeeSo, a streaming service that includes other shows such as “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.”

For Esposito, being a role model for the LGBTQ community was not something she consciously tried to achieve.

“A lot of things I talk about are things where it’s almost like I’m addressing a younger me with the knowledge that I have now,” she says. “That feels important because I know there are other people that will walk the same path as me and I just kind of want to make it easier on them.”

In addition to stand-up, Esposito is in three films slated for release this year, including director Garry Marshall’s Mother’s Day, starring Britt Robertson, Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson, set for release in April. The other two films, First Girl I Loved and Sleight, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

It seems strange to think of Esposito doing anything other than comedy, but she admits that in college she considered becoming a pastor. A theology major-turned-atheist, Esposito sees parallels in the divergent paths.

“I wanted to be someone who stands up in front of a group of people and talks about what is important in the world, and it turns out that that’s also a description for being a stand-up comic. I just didn’t know [it] at the time, and I think this works a lot better for me,” she says. “I’m interested in why we’re here and how we can be better, and it turns out that’s something we talk about in faith and that’s something that we talk about in comedy.”

–Anita Overcash

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