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Cameron Esposito on ‘Rape Jokes,’ Her New Comedy Special Tackling Sexual Assault and Consent

Cameron Esposito is a standup comedian and a survivor of sexual assault. This January, she decided to put those two truths about her life together by workshopping an entirely new hour-long special that lays bare her own college sexual assault, digs into the general failure that passes for sex education in this country, and how people learn (or don’t) about consent.

And in a pointed move — aimed at least in part at the comedy community that has rarely done well on the subject — Esposito went ahead and named the special “Rape Jokes.” In fact, as she told Variety, “it was really the title that I thought of first.” Shen then embarked on a quiet seven city tour to work through the material before the final taping at Los Angeles’s original Upright Citizens Brigade theater. From there, she says, the special “was planned, shot, edited, and released within three weeks.”

The hour dropped June 11 on Esposito’s website with a twist: fans can stream it for free, or download it after donating to the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN. The next morning, she tweeted that the special had already raised over $10,000.

Variety caught up with Esposito shortly before to talk about how she put “Rape Jokes” together, why it was important to her, and the immediate reaction to her most honest special yet.

You bring a lot of different areas of your life together in this special, like coming out, growing up super Catholic, and learning about consent. And while you mention your assault fairly early on, you don’t come back to it until later, once you’ve talked about all those other things in your life. What felt right to you about that approach?

That full picture is what I found missing from the conversation elsewhere. I think that when we talk about assault, we often reduce it to a single event. I think it has more causes than just true evil. It also has to do with a lack of education and experience, and the patriarchy. It’s not just a single event between the folks who are there when it happens.

That being said, as I mention in the special, there are certainly types of assault that do kind of fall into that category. But just statistically, they aren’t mostSo often, it’s a person that you know who’s doing something terrible to you. So when I looked at what was happening with this conversation, it did feel like perhaps in this moment, we could move totally through it without ever expanding past the “that’s a bad person” story.

By “this conversation,” are you talking more specifically about the #MeToo movement and everything that’s been happening since the Harvey Weinstein allegations dropped? 

I mean, I don’t even want to talk about anyone specifically, or use any lynchpins. But I will say, of course I am in the zeitgeist; I’m a standup comic, that’s where you always are, responding to the world around you. And I would say there’s no doubt in my mind [it’s not coincidental] that we’re living through this moment during this presidency and after everything we had heard prior to this person being elected.

So just on a purely basic, human level, how did you prepare yourself to practice this material night after night? And how do you prepare to talk about it now that the special is done and out there?

That’s such a kind question. It actually has been way worse than I thought.

Ah, I’m sorry.

No, that’s okay! When I say that, I think it’s because so much of being a standup comic is about control. You work on this mastery that is about enlisting a specific response from your audience and making people happy the way you want to. It is a way of interacting with the world in a pretty safe space. It’s no surprise to me, now that I’ve processed my history as someone who has felt out of control at times in my life, that standup feels so great to me. Standup is about, “I’ll show you who I am, and maybe you’ll like me, and if not, I’m in this safe situation where I’m the boss.” And I think that this has shown me just how fundamentally unsafe I feel in the world, as a person just walking around.

The very positive part is that I absolutely know that I am not alone. I also think we’re being sold this package right now, or [rather] this lie, that men feel one way about the conversation that’s happening, and women feel one way. That is not my experience. Just doing this material, and hearing from people who have now watched it, I’m hearing from a ton of men! And a lot of men that I know in my own life are not like, “f–k you, I can’t believe I have to think about this.” I don’t see that reflected in my life. I know it’s out there; I believe it, like when I see those clickbait articles all, “men don’t know if they can hire women anymore!”

Or “can we not even hug each other anymore?!”

[Laughing] Exactly. I know that’s real, I’m just saying that I think we are really talking about an area in which men are underserved. It’s not like dudes have a great [sexual] education and women don’t. And it’s not like everyone’s straight and everyone’s cisgendered. There’s such a variety of experiences, and I keep seeing them simplified.

Have you been hearing about other people’s experiences with sex-ed since you started working this material?

Statistically, I just know it’s true we don’t have great sex-ed. Also, this country is shifting us towards abstinence-only, which is actually what I’ve got, and let me just tell you: that s—t is terrible.

But I’ve also been interested in this stuff for a long time. I was a theology major in college and I wanted to study Catholic sexual teachings, so I made a survey that I distributed to my peers, specifically women. I just asked them what kind of sex-ed they got — when they got it, what they were taught — and worked that into a paper that is about actual Catholic doctrine. It was like, “here’s what the Pope says, and here’s what my friends learned!” That’s what I was doing at 20! 

So yeah, I’m constantly hearing from people, but I would be shocked to hear of someone who got good sex-ed. That is the story I haven’t heard yet: “I got good information, I knew what was happening with my body, I knew that I had agency.” And then if you add queerness in there? Not once have I heard that. I mean, the most sophisticated thing we do is the condom on the banana. That’s it. It’s all working down from condoms on a banana!

Something you said in the special that really stuck with me is that your assault made you a little afraid of a lot of men now, and it’s just a fact. It’s not something I’m used to hearing on a standup stage, let alone because that stage is traditionally reserved for cisgendered, hetereosexual men.

I’m trying to reboot our brains a little. Cis straight men are actually not necessarily who I’m seeing doing standup, [though] they are my peers and my friends. Of course they are. This is not a men versus women, male comics versus female comics thing. But I do think straight white dudes are being overrepresented in media for who’s actually doing standup right now.

I do hope that there’s some stuff in this special you haven’t heard on a standup stage before. I guess that’s the goal, is to just provide another option.

What has the reaction to the special been like?

I’ve been hearing from a lot of dudes! I retweeted something [yesterday] from a guy who said: “Just finished your special, laughed a lot and was moved. I downloaded it so I can show it so my son someday as part of ‘the talk.’ We’re raising him to get in the way [of assault].” That’s actually something I’ve been hearing a lot.

And I will also say that it’s also the folks that helped me with this…a lot of times I try to work with a lot of women, people of color, and queer folks, because that’s who I’m trying to give money to. But in this case, everyone was donating their time, and I also felt that with this particular cause and this particular topic it might be really rad to have a lot of dudes involved. My friend Jonah Ray is an executive producer on it, it was directed by a dude, Paul Bonanno, and I had a male photographer taking pictures that became marquee art. There were definitely men even specifically involved in this who gave me a lot of their time with just my asking…and being on the road, there were a number of folks who were supportive across every demographic.

What was it like to workshop this across the country?

It was cool, actually. On a bigger tour, sometimes you’re trying to work with venue schedules or play the biggest venue you can play in that city and sell it out. But on this tour, I got to choose the theaters and the audiences were smaller than I’m used to playing. With this material, I wanted to do it, and I wanted folks to see it, but I kind of wanted to get it to this place where you could opt in. I play bigger theaters now, and I didn’t feel like I could say to 1200 or two thousand people that they could come and I could guarantee that it would feel good. I’m aware that there are survivors in the audience who might not want to hear this. So I wanted to work it out and make it good, but I didn’t want to do that at the expense of an audience.

You’re also speaking to a specific experience — one that speaks to people, but is still your experience.

Yeah, that’s fair. But I think that’s also how you have to do it. You try to be super personal — and I don’t just mean content wise. I mean specific with your words. Because we’re living in this moment when a lot of comics feel trapped by social media, by evolving terminology, by “PC culture,” for lack of a better term. But I think that one way to do it is to make sure you’re talking about yourself and not speaking universally about things that aren’t universal, like sexuality, or gender — or the concept that you are not a survivor, which is how I think the topic is usually dealt with. Like, “ugh, what if rape was real?!”

That’s how a lot of this is approached, even from people who are trying to say something and move culture. I saw it a lot with marriage equality right before it was passed. It felt like every straight comic had sort of a dog marriage joke that would be like, “people are saying, ‘what if they want to marry their dog?!’” And they’d say “and that’s stupid, of course they don’t want to marry their dogs.” But there would be that word: they.

There’s levels of being included. One is knowing that someone is on your side, and another is knowing that they know your experience, and that you are right next to them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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