Culture & Conversation LGBTQ

‘I’ve Always Queered That Normative Space’: A Q&A With Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito

Kat Jercich

It’s easy for people to respond to others' coming out with “I don’t care who you love.” But how about moving toward “Great! I’m so glad!” as opposed to “I don’t care”?

The first episode of Take My Wife, the 2016 comedy series created and executive produced by comedians Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito loosely based on the pair’s life, opens with a montage: Butcher and Esposito mugging for the camera in photos stuck to a refrigerator; two toothbrushes; two pairs of almost identical lived-in work boots; two unwashed cereal bowls in the sink. Then Esposito, gingerly carrying two mugs of coffee from “Rubber City” and “Sausage City,” eases belly-down on the bed, snuggling up to a sleepy Butcher, who’s in her flannel PJs.

They mumble at each other in that half-awake, pre-caffeinated funk unique to people who haven’t brushed their teeth yet—”Why isn’t there a ‘Pussy City?'” “It’s Vegas. ‘Pussy City’ is Vegas.” “Is that because of the slots? Get it. It’s a joke.”—before kissing, any lingering morning breath be damned.

That kind of intimacy is often hard to create on-camera, but Esposito and Butcher make it look achingly easy. This is perhaps in part because they’ve been married since December 2015, making their chemistry authentic both on and off screen. But Take My Wife—the second season is still searching for a home after streaming service Seeso announced that it plans to shutter by the end of this year—went beyond their relationship to their individual careers, including a burgeoning baseball podcast for Butcher and Esposito’s struggles with life on the road.

And despite the fact that marriage equality has been legal since 2015, it still feels shockingly validating to see two queer people who love each other existing both within and apart from their queerness. Watching Esposito and Butcher—whether on a laptop or on stage–tends to spark a frisson of recognition that seems all the more urgent when facing down an administration that will almost certainly carry with it increased danger to LGBTQ rights and people.

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Plus, of course, they’re both funny as hell. (Please see Esposito’s New Ken Doll outfit-match Twitter thread, for example.) Before Butcher and Esposito’s “Back to Back” fall tour kicks off this week, they answered a few questions about “safe spaces,” exploring identity through comedy, and Bob Seger:

Rewire: How has your comedy changed, if at all, in the Trump era?

Rhea Butcher: My comedy (and standup) has always been about relating to the broadest number of people and experiences as possible, and so just continuing to try and relate to people with everything going on.

Cameron Esposito: I feel like my Twitter feed is just basically like, “Donate to the ACLU and Trans Lifeline.” That’s the main thing that’s changed for me—my feed is just all political news all the time.

Rewire: And how has audience reception changed for that, if it has? Cameron, I saw some trans-exclusionary radical feminists on Twitter giving you a rough time, for example.

CE: It’s tough to say, since we haven’t toured for two and a half years, because we’ve been in Los Angeles making Take My Wife. We do run a weekly show here in LA, but that’s more of a destination—people coming to see us in what they know is … well … a safe space. As much as that term has been taken by people trying to make it a shameful thing for “snowflakes” or whatever, anyway.

RB: And, sidebar on the use of the word “safe space” in comedy—there’s nothing bad about “safety” and there’s nothing bad about “space.” Comedians don’t like to be heckled when they’re onstage, which is correct, you’re not supposed to heckle people when they’re performing. So why would it be bad to provide a space for vulnerable people who might not be willing to go to other comedy shows where they have to listen to jokes about their own identities?

Rewire: Cameron, you have a new podcast about queer identity too—have you gotten the sense that queer folks and other vulnerable groups have been reaching out to find more queer media, as a kind of lifeline?

CE: I feel like we’re the perfect age for this kind of thing.

RB: Also, sidenote, we’re in a magical time between August 12 and October 17 when my wife and I are the exact same age—

CE: Oh, God. And when I had just graduated school, in Massachusetts, where I was living at the time, marriage equality in that state had just been legalized. In comedy years, Rhea’s younger than me, but I’ve always played mainstream spaces, I’ve been in mainstream rooms, and I’ve always queered that normative space. And what I’m finding personally right now is that I need a little bit of support from other people who also feel vulnerable. Our crowds are very mixed in terms of age, sexuality, race, gender identity, and I feel like we’re speaking to those people.

Plus I go to a queer gym.

Rewire: You say you’re the perfect age—what if you had started later? How do you think that would affect your reception?

CE: I’m not sure that person exists yet. You know, you have Tig Notaro, but I’m not sure who the next younger person might be. Maybe it’s Sam Jay, maybe it’s Brittani Nichols. Maybe it’s Lena Waithe, who just skipped everything and went right to an Emmy, which was very well deserved.

Rewire: So switching gears a little bit here: Rhea, I loved your Bustle essay about being nonbinary and your experience being harassed in a bathroom as a child. Do you think that you’re going to continue exploring your gender identity professionally and personally?

RB: Well, that’s a great question. When I wrote that essay, it wasn’t an attempt to draw attention away from my trans siblings—it was in response to the environment that was happening around bathroom bills, to demonstrate that I knew how this felt. I was trying to represent the effect that being harassed in a bathroom would have on a child’s psyche—a psyche that I still find myself reverting back to.

As to whether it will appear in my comedy … I took a pause, for a while, from my gender identity. Maybe that’s a weird thing to say, but I’m a human, and humans get energy for different things at different times. And most of my comedy isn’t pointing at something, it’s being something. I don’t want to engage with that until I really understand it. And I don’t like doing comedy about things that aren’t about me, because how do I know what I’m talking about?

Rewire: What’s been the difference for you between coming out in terms of your gender identity versus your sexual identity?

RB: It’s just slightly different. But it’s all related, because we’re all just trying to be ourselves. That’s how it’s the same, is that you’re really just saying like, “Hey, this is who I am.” But for me, the coming-out process as anything is incredibly important. And the “I don’t care who you love” response, I understand wanting to be accepting, but I would encourage allies as to think of it more as “Great! I’m so glad!” as opposed to “I don’t care.”

I know what people want to say with that, but let’s shift it to “Oh my god, I’m so happy for you, that’s so great.”

Rewire: So I like to end interviews by asking: What’s bringing you joy? What’s making you hopeful?

CE: I recently discovered a podcast that is not a recent thing—it’s new to me, it’s called Call Your Girlfriend. I don’t mean to break the news to somebody who already knows that it’s great. But I just wanted to say—I really like the way those two women talk to each other—the dynamic between the co-hosts, and it’s a pleasure to hear them having a conversation with each other right now, coming from a place of understanding and friendship. So it’s just been helping me change my mood a little bit. I’d highly recommend it.

RB: I have two things. One, I’m really enjoying what Amanda Seales is doing. She plays Tiffany on Insecure, and she’s a very funny comic. And I love that she’s just out there, she’s not taking any shit from anybody, and she’s calling people on their shit, and I’m really inspired by that. There are a lot of women out there doing that, but Amanda in particular is kicking ass, and it’s great. And I hope I can be just a fraction of how great she is.

The other thing that’s bringing me joy—and this is gonna be a real curveball—but I’ve been listening to Bob Seger a lot. I grew up in northeastern Ohio, which is just constant classic rock. I do miss it a lot, but the message of classic rock is—I can’t deal with what the lyrics are about. So I’ve been listening to Bob Seger a lot, and his lyrics, even when he’s singing about women, are actually respectful! Even if you read the lyrics to “Her Strut,” you’re still respecting this woman, even if you love to watch her strut!

So I love what he is doing and was doing. And specifically the song “Turn the Page,” as a nonbinary person who has been out on the road, I didn’t realize how much I related to that song.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. It has been updated to clarify a misattribution due to a transcription error. 

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