Comedian Cameron Esposito has never shied away from talking about her personal life onstage. In her reflective new memoir Save Yourself (Grand Central Publishing) she dives even deeper, looking back on her childhood in suburban Western Springs and the personal self-discovery that came with recognizing her own sexuality, coming out to her parents, and finding a home in the comedy world. The live stand-up performances at the Den that were set to coincide with the release of the book on March 24 have been cancelled, but lockdown is a good time to indulge in a read that’s both heart-breaking and heart-warming, with a heavy dose of laugh out loud humor.
It seems like your work over the last several years has been getting more and more personal, from Marriage Material to Back to Back to Rape Jokes as well as your show Take My Wife, and now this book. What’s led you down this path of public self-examination and openness?
I think that is a path that actually many comics walk. I started out doing stand-up and I wanted to comment on the stuff around me, and I think over time it just feels less and less helpful to talk about other people and other things and more helpful to talk about yourself. Because the thing that’s universal in stand-up are the feelings, not the experiences. Speaking honestly about your feelings is kind of really what everyone is showing up for, it’s just that sometimes that’s so couched in sarcasm or distance that you don’t even recognize it as that. But that’s really what stand-up is. It’s a bunch of people standing around being like, “I feel this way about this.”
What was the process of writing a book like for you?
Demoralizing in every way. [Laughs.] It’s isolating. It’s incredibly frustrating, because there is no feedback to get. I’m used to a live medium. It feels self-important. It was sometimes extremely harsh to live through some traumas that happened in my life that are included in the book. But also it was pretty amazing to revisit my younger self and find a lot of affection for myself. I don’t know if you liked yourself as a kid but I found myself humiliating, so to go back and meet that kid and realize that I was actually pretty awesome? I knew who I was. I had stuff I was into. I was really doing my own thing with gender nonconforming interests and presentation. And I kind of love that kid actually.
What do you hope people take away from the book?
I think for some straight people marriage equality happened and folks think everything is sorted out and so then they can’t understand when queer folks are talking about ourselves as still a marginalized community. So I hope there are some straight folks who read this and get a better handle on what is happening right now for the queer community. And I also hope that there are queer folks who read this and feel seen in that experience. I also hope people laugh their heads off: I think there’s some really funny stuff in here.
What was the difference in crafting the language for a book versus crafting language for your stand-up?
I think I was, without realizing it, sort of performing the book in my head as I was writing it. And then essentially kind of transcribing. I wasn’t looking for it to be a setup/punchline situation but more so I think I have a particular way of speaking and I wanted the book to sound like it was written by me. So I did sort of talk my way through it. Which might not be how other writers are doing their work, but it was like translating it; doing it first in the performative language and then translating it to the page.
You talk about internalized homophobia in the book—do you have a message for people who are working through that themselves?
I do not know a queer person who isn’t struggling with that. I think we deal with it for the rest of our lives. When you’re inside of a system that marginalizes you on a daily basis across all vectors it’s impossible to not be a part of that system. That’s really where Pride comes from is expression, trying to do whatever small thing we can to balance that system just a little bit and remember that we can love ourselves. But for queer people I would say if you are not sure if you look okay, if you don’t know what to wear to a fancy event, if you don’t know how to deal with the fact that your parents aren’t responding exactly the way you want them to, or you don’t feel like you fit in the queer community because there’s a certain expectation about how your hair should look or how your body should look, that’s all of us. There’s nothing wrong with having those feelings of self-hatred. You’re meant to. We are all bred to. And realizing that can help you put them away, even just in the moment. It doesn’t mean you’re overcoming them, it means identifying them as they happen. So if I walk down the street and a dude says a shitty thing to me and I feel shame, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Like that’s the system at work and so it’s just about identifying, “Oh, I feel shame because I was taught to feel shame.” And I don’t have to feel bad about that.
You talk about your relationship with your parents in the book—both past and present—and how coming out affected your relationship with them. What can parents do to let their kids know that they’re supported?
I think the biggest thing that friends or family can do is not center themselves in somebody else’s queer or coming out experience. So if you’re a parent: asking questions, listening. It’s not necessarily about what’s the thing that you say that’s the perfect thing. I think it’s about taking your feelings—if you have them—about somebody’s finding themselves and dealing with that elsewhere. Not making your kid or your family member be the one who helps you process your feelings. Because they’re doing enough work finding themselves.
In the book you talk about the world of comedy being more accepting than the world of religion in your experience. Do you think that stand-up comedy—where everyone gathers to hear someone speak—kind of offers a secular version of the kind of community that organized religion offers people?
One hundred percent. When I talk about the fact that I used to want to be a priest and now I became a comic, to me that seems like such a direct through line. It literally feels like, “Oh, I ended up doing the same job!” because it really is about a group of people trying to figure out what is the most important thing. Like what are important things on the planet? The thing about religion is that most religions are corporations. That’s what the Catholic church is and so it creates corruption, self-interest and all the other things that happen when ideas are delivered by humans who are trying to preserve wealth and power.
What does the Chicago comedy scene mean to you in terms of your career and your style of comedy and how it evolved?
I do think that there’s a specific sort of talk-joking that is a part of my generation of comics and also some of the generation of comics ahead of me—like Kyle Kinane or Pete Holmes or Kumail Nanjiani—the way that those folks operated as stand-ups. That’s who I watched and I think influenced my style a bunch. A sort of super dry but powerfully delivered screaming your cultural criticism from a position of being shat on because you are from Chicago. That feels like it’s still very much a part of my style as a comic. v