Cameron Esposito's New Special Is Called Rape Jokes — & She's A Little Nervous About It

Photographed by Robyn Van Swank.
Cameron Esposito is the comedic personification of "tread lightly and carry a big stick." The topics she wields are big and heavy. For example, her special, which you can watch over at Vulture or below, is titled Rape Jokes. But, indeed, she treads lightly.
"I'm just trying to kind of use the gifts I was given. I'm kinda funny, I'm a little bit charming," she recently told Refinery29 over the phone. "I'm just trying to use those gifts so that you can meet me and understand the way in which culture creates situations that lead to sexual assault."
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In other words, she's going to use her charisma to lure you into entering her lair — there's empathy to be found inside.
Esposito has always been at the front lines of comedy-as-war. She often works as a sort of comedic bomb squad. She takes something potentially explosive, then whittles it down to something purely and universally funny. In 2015, a clip of Esposito performing a joke about menstruation went viral. The clip, which is listed as "The Greatest Period Joke of All Time" on YouTube, has over one million views.
"If you're a guy out there and you think periods are disgusting, I don't believe you've ever had an honest conversation with a woman," she tells the crowd. "Because if you think periods are disgusting, then you have no idea how disgusting periods actually are." She goes on to the describe the visceral, literal joys (speaking ironically) of having a period. Like, say, finding a strawberry-sized glob of your uterine lining in the toilet.
Rape Jokes operates on a similar premise: Esposito uses her own experience as a sexual assault survivor to dissect rape culture. And it's funny. The hour has gotten a lot of attention for its content — The Daily Beast called it the "first great stand-up set of the #MeToo era." She's also blown through this topic before. Her Seeso-cum-Starz show Take My Wife, which she created with her wife Rhea Butcher, did similar work in a 2016 episode titled "Punchline." In other words, Rape Jokes might be the first time we're hearing of a special with such a hot-button title, but Esposito has the home field advantage.
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Refinery29 spoke with the L.A.-based comedian about rape jokes, the controversy surrounding Samantha Bee, and the Colorado wedding cake verdict.
Refinery29: I want to talk about interpretation a little. Your special is called Rape Jokes, which people tend to interpret one way. Say it in conversation, and most people will have a strong reaction.
Cameron Esposito: "Yeah. I mean, it is deliberately provocative. Maybe more so — it has more weight in terms of controversy. It's a more controversial title than actually the content of the special is. Because the special is very personal, and I think safe for a lot of survivors, although obviously, people can make their own choices. I don't deliberately describe anything to shock people or to throw folks into a mood. I just want them to relate to me. The reason to call it [Rape Jokes], it's really like a take back the mic, sort of. Not to riff totally on Take Back the Night. Rape jokes connote one certain thing. And that thing erases survivors. It also acts as if men are the only people who do standup comedy. And as if all men feel a certain way about sexual assault. I know those things are not true. The image you have in your mind — I'm trying to reorganize that image."

Rape jokes connote one certain thing. And that thing erases survivors.

Your comedy — as I know it — works in reverse. You take a loaded topic and dissect it until it's innocuous, whereas, historically, comedy tends to take something banal, like airline peanuts, and make it into something flammable.
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"That's a great way of saying it! I think that's totally right. Again, the assumed identity of the standup comic, which is this straight white cisgendered dude who's between 20 and 40 – those things are not true. When folks say something like, 'Why aren't there more women in comedy?' I'm always thrown by that because there are a shit ton of women in comedy. 'Why is one type of voice centered?' — that's actually the question that you mean to ask. Well, why is one type of voice centered everywhere? Because of the patriarchy. Because of power norms. Because of what folks think sells. Some of the things that stand-up treats as if they are a topic — like gay marriage or rape — for me, those are personal experiences, not topics, that I'm reaching for."
You went viral in 2015 with a joke about periods. That's also a so-called taboo topic. Why do you think you gravitate towards these sort of "no go zones"?
"Number one, I just live my life. And then sometimes, I guess I just talk about what matters to me. And I think maybe — am I just inherently off? I don't know why there are the topics I'm drawn to! For me, it's like, I got into this work with a little bit a of different focus. Which, honestly, to improve understanding and create safety. I'm trying to allow for greater understanding of things that might be taboo. I'm trying to create safety for myself and increase the circle of safety around me so that I'm not the only person who's safe. I think maybe some comics come in with a different personal mission."
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I'm trying to create safety for myself and increase the circle of safety around me so that I'm not the only person who's safe.

Do you think comedy requires a safe space to operate effectively?
"No, I don't think so. I'm talking about my own self and the way my human experience has shaped the way that I do comedy. I don't think that all comedy has to be any one thing. I'm just trying to be a thing. An option for you. With my personal history, when I came out, it was a very big deal, and I was not very safe. I was at school, when you couldn't really come out. You'd get kicked out of school for being gay. And it was at that college that I was sexually assaulted. So, my personal history literally has a feeling of being unsafe. I'm not talking about a safe space in [that] every word I'm gonna ever use is the right word. I feel fundamentally unsafe in the world. As a gay person. As a person with a queer haircut. As a foodie who holds the hand of another queer person and walks down the street. And as somebody who has been mistreated by my faith and by the school that I went to. And by our government. And by the dude who assaulted me. So, I'm just coming into the world with that. I can't divorce that from my experience. When I first started there were just not that many out, queer voices. And if they were, they were like Ellen [DeGeneres] level. Ellen is a very different access point for folks than, say, I was when I started doing this job 10 or 15 years ago. I would be the person in the room that you could meet. Like, 'Why don't you meet me? I'm a queer person. I'm nice. I'm kinda smiley. Would you like to give me rights?' I just felt like a personal ambassador. And so that's the way that I was trying to create safety."
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"I categorically have a rule where I don't talk about other comics' work in interviews.
But I can speak vaguely about what I think comedy does well. I think comedy is a perfect tool for taking down systems of power. Because it's about humanizing the person speaking to you. So, we live in a moment where when comedy is being used to combat the current administration. That is very different than somebody who aligns with the current administration shitting on groups of people who have long been underserved and marginalized in our country."

I think comedy is a perfect tool for taking down systems of power.

Cameron Esposito
Do you ever think about the comedy you'd be doing if Donald Trump weren't president? Do you think it would be different?
"I mean, we also know who would be president. It would be Hillary Clinton. I guess it depends on how far back you go in the timeline. Like, when does time fork? And when are we living in a different reality? Because, if we're going back to, say, the James Comey letter and Hillary wins, what would we be talking about? I'm not sure. I can tell you something that I think would be true. We would be dealing with fallout for women."
I guess a lot of what's happened in the past two years was inevitable.
"He doesn't have to inevitably be president! That's the thing that doesn't feel inevitable to me. I don't know how it feels to you. But I guess it's an inevitable extension of our quest for celebrity and social media, and I don't know, the cash grab that started this entire country? But, like, Jesus fucking Christ."
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Do you think Trump being president has shaped your comedy at all?
"No. I do not think that man helped me in any way. I think he is a waste of space."
I saw that you posted a photo of your wedding cake as a response to the cake verdict in Colorado.
"Oh my God, I'm furious."
I keep seeing people on my timeline say that it was a "narrow" verdict, and it won't affect future outcomes.
"That's my interpretation without being a legal scholar. It's specifically about the way it was treated by that agency in Colorado. I'm forgetting the name. The Colorado coalition blah blah blah.
"But, you know, I was raised really, really religiously. I studied all this stuff. And I just know how much these kinds of signals affect people in real life. So, whether or not this sets precedent for businesses across the country, it sets precedent for preachers. It sets precedent for fake organizations to speak about this. To their parishioners and to the families that are the members of the church. And I know how much direct harm that causes queer folks. There's a reason that LGBT[Q+] youth are more likely to be homeless than any other person, than any other youth demographic. And there's a reason that we are harassed and killed. And a lot of it is what I believe is misinterpretation of some texts that really do have a lot of human wisdom in them. I think that faith can really guide folks through tough times in their life, but being very serious about your strict interpretation of something that might not even be a good translation around one specific issue when — like, the passage about Sodom and Gomorrah is actually about sexual assault. Ugh! I could go into this for a really long time."
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And during pride month, too? Sigh.
"Yeah! I mean, we all know it's not about cake. But I also posted that photo because the thing that we always say is, 'It's not about cake.' Absolutely. It's not about cake. But also, look at two people enjoying a wedding cake! I mean, good Lord."
A lot of people would consider you brave for the comedy you do. Do you consider yourself brave?
"I will say this. This new hour makes me nervous. It makes me nervous because at the end of the day I want to be taken seriously as a comic. I want to be recognized for what I think is a very tireless work ethic that I know a lot of other folks in comedy share. I know how hard it is to do this job, and I know that I am from a marginalized community in two ways. I know there are other folks who do this job who also are from marginalized communities. I know that it is extra work for us just because we're not even assumed to have anything to say that is of value.
"Nobody writes articles about whether or not white men are funny. So, I think the fact that it makes me nervous to say something a little different from what other comics are saying. That leads me to believe that maybe it is brave. Also, it's not easy just to get on stage and tell a story that has a couple of moments that shouldn't get laughs. Like, 55:00 into the set, I talk about what actually happened to me using some specifics. And it lasts for maybe a minute or two, when I'm talking about it like that. And then folks are laughing again. But as a comic, it's very hard to be on stage [with] folks not laughing. I also think they shouldn't be laughing. But it feels weird. Of course, I'm a human being at the end of the day. So, like, I totally have shame about what happened to me. I totally question whether my story is valid. Whether it was enough. Was it bad enough what happened to me, that I can claim this? We don't have to put negative experiences on some scale, where it's like only the person who has the worst possible experience can talk about something. I would like to hear other survivors speaking. I'm not trying to be the voice, I'm trying to be a voice.
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"But yeah. I guess I'm brave. I feel like I'm scared all the time to do the stuff that I do."
Below, listen to Esposito's full special.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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