People like to say that the first year of marriage is the hardest. Comedians Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher are putting that pithy nugget of boomer wisdom to the test.
Six months ago, less than a month after they got hitched, the couple began work on their six-episode Seeso web series (which premieres today). What they’d initially pitched to the subscription-based online comedy network was a stand-up/sketch show based on their weekly UCB Franklin showcase “Put Your Hands Together.” But once they sat down in the writers room, the show evolved into Take My Wife, a full-fledged scripted sitcom about their lives as coupled-up comedians. Juggling comedy careers and a romantic relationship while working on a show about juggling their comedy careers and a romantic relationship is a daring move for a pair of newlyweds.
At a Los Feliz coffee shop on a recent weekday morning, Esposito admits as much: “It’s so much stress and pressure on a relationship. It’s also the best because she’s the coolest and I trust her more than anyone but, good god, it’s terrible. And the best. It’s also the best.”
With her signature “side-mullet,” a hairdo that’s served as a trusty setup for jokes about the obviousness of her sexual orientation, Esposito is easy to spot in the small cafe. She’s also, as always, wearing a leather motorcycle jacket even though it’s July.
She continues talking about the dynamic she and Butcher have as creative partners: “The thing that saves us is that I think we both want the same things put out there about our relationship and our careers. We both want to work for social change and also live good lives. We both want to have specific haircuts that make us look good on camera, then also make jokes that are political. I think we have a really shared vision on that.”
Take My Wife is “thematically autobiographical,” Esposito says, meaning that while the details have been tweaked, the story they’re telling is basically true. In episode one, an adoring if codependent Cameron is fed up with spending her days eating pho alone in her car and successfully convinces Rhea to quit her day job — as a graphic designer tasked with making fish sticks packaging look more appealing — to pursue comedy full-time. Minus, perhaps, the fish sticks stuff, that’s what really happened.
“A lot of the events on the show are from four years ago, when we moved [to L.A. from Chicago],” Esposito says. “I started to have enough career success where I could support us. I asked Rhea to basically join for us to make a family business together. Time is money and she was working more than 40 hours a week as a graphic designer. I was like, ‘What if we took that time to put back into our business?’” In conversation, Esposito frequently refers to her and Butcher’s mutual careers in comedy as a “family business.” It’s equal parts pragmatic and romantic, which makes sense coming from a born-and-bred Midwesterner.
Esposito, who grew up in the suburbs just west of Chicago, is a stand-up comedian because she’s funny, of course, but also because it just kind of never occurred to her that she couldn’t be one. She got interested in improv in the early ’00s as an undergrad at Boston College, where Amy Poehler had cut her teeth. “When I was there, she was just emerging as a focal point on SNL,” Esposito recalls. “So it was this idea that like, oh, you just act like a banana for a while and then you’ll for sure be the star of SNL. I mean, I lived in the suburbs of Chicago, I was a big jock. I had no real understanding of the arts or the entertainment industry. That blindness was actually pretty helpful.”
After graduation, and without any real improv training, Esposito auditioned to perform with a professional troupe in Boston and was cast; a few months later, she moved on to the city’s biggest improv theater. She quickly interjects, “I mean, but I got fired because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
When she moved to Chicago in 2006, Esposito broke into the stand-up scene in a similarly scrappy fashion. “I rented a theater called the Gorilla Tango on Milwaukee [Avenue]. … I was like, ‘I’m a stand-up comic, so I would like to put on a show here.’ They were like, ‘Yeah, you seem like a stand-up comic because you said you are,’” she says, poking fun at their indifference. Once she had the venue, she got on MySpace and started inviting local comedians to perform. To her surprise, they all said yes.
Esposito was hosting a weekly open mic at a dive bar called Cole’s when she met Butcher, an Ohio native who was getting a late-ish start in comedy. Where Esposito exudes a sort of manic energy onstage, Butcher is cucumber cool, almost deadpan. Esposito liked her style and invited her on tour; eventually, they started dating.
If Esposito’s career has had a guiding ethos thus far, it’s been to create opportunities for other women in comedy. When she was coming up in Chicago, the stand-up scene was dominated by men, as it is in most cities. She recalls: “There was this huge disparity between the number of dudes that were in stand-up and the number of chicks. For like the first year that I was doing stand-up, [comedian Beth Stelling] and I would be at open mics and then there would be 150 guys — those are real numbers.” (Stelling has also since relocated to L.A.)
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In 2008, Esposito founded Feminine Comique — Fem Com, for short — a six-week comedy course for women, which culminates in a graduation showcase. (Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of the course, though not under Esposito’s tutelage.) There’s instruction in joke writing and how to build a “tight five,” but even for women who don’t want to pursue comedy in any serious way, it’s a crash course in standing up, being heard and getting the chance to be vulnerable in front of a roomful of strangers. To date, more than 400 women have graduated from the Fem Com program.
In the first episode of Take My Wife, a male podcast host (played with smug aplomb by Jonah Ray of The Nerdist Podcast), asks the timeworn question: “What’s it like being a woman in comedy?” “Oh, this is my favorite question,” she replies sarcastically. “I think it’s a lot like being a woman in any profession — except maybe less dick jokes actually?”
Over the course of our coffee shop conversation, Esposito answers the question in earnest: "Being a female comic is constantly exposing yourself to people judging you on your body, and your face, on the way that you stand, on the tone of your voice. All of these things and outlasting it, running that gauntlet and knowing that you still have something to say, I think, is why women are so strong."
Now that their show about being married people has wrapped, Esposito and Butcher can go back to just being married people — and building their stand-up empire.