On this episode
For many women, “joking around” is something we do when we’re uncomfortable. Humor is a way to deflect an unwanted sexual advance, brush off a sexist comment, or cope with anything else that makes us cringe. But when we wield humor intentionally and unapologetically, it can be much more than a defense mechanism—it can be a tool to take back power. In this episode of Tilted, we asked two outstanding women in comedy—Lauren Lapkus and Cameron Esposito—to tell us all about how they’re doing that, and how we can do it, too.
More about our guests:
- Lauren Lapkus is an actress and comedian best known for her role as corrections officer Susan Fischer on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which won her a SAG award. She recurred on season 3 of NBC’s Good Girls, on all three seasons of HBO’s Crashing, and on the final two seasons of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory. She currently stars opposite David Spade in the Netflix original movie The Wrong Missy.
- Cameron Esposito is a Los Angeles-based standup comic, actor, and writer. She has appeared on NBC, CBS, Comedy Central, TBS, IFC, E!,Cartoon Network, and HBO Canada; in indie films featured at the Sundance and SXSW film festivals; in big-budget features for nationwide release; and at comedy and music festivals worldwide. Her most recent special, Rape Jokes, raised almost $100,000 for RAINN. Her first book, Save Yourself, was published in March 2020.
Whether you’re listening to this episode with friends or your Circle, these questions are designed to help you dig deeper into the topic by sharing personal stories, connecting over common challenges, and workshopping solutions together.
- As Cameron said, “we tend to joke around about things that we are serious about when we’re scared.” Can you recall a time when you’ve used humor to gloss over a scary or uncomfortable situation? Do you wish you’d handled it differently? Why or why not?
- Both Lauren and Cameron talk about the experience of being the only or one of the only women in a group of men. Have you had that experience? How did it feel, and how was it different from experiences you’ve had with more gender-balanced groups?
Rachel Thomas (00:00):
What’s your favorite voice?
Lauren Lapkus (00:01):
Oh, sure. I could do one for you. I’ll do Big Sue. You can talk to Big Sue. Ask me anything you want.
Rachel Thomas (00:06):
So Big Sue, what are you doing the rest of today?
Lauren Lapkus (00:09):
I’m actually going out... I have a big flat tire on my car. I ran over a nail, so I’ve got to go rip that out with my teeth. I’m going to get out there right now. Your teeth are the strongest bone in your body.
Rachel Thomas (00:20):
I run a women’s empowerment organization.
Lauren Lapkus (00:22):
Rachel Thomas (00:22):
So it’s all about lifting up women. What do you think of that?
Lauren Lapkus (00:26):
You’ve got to use your knees. Don’t use your back. It really hurts to lift a woman with your back. You will break it. Yeah, don’t use your back. Best advice I have.
Rachel Thomas (00:38):
Welcome to Tilted, a Lean In podcast. Tilted brings you conversations at the intersection of gender and culture. We dig into topics we’re curious about, highlight people and stories that inspire us and we hope inspire you, too, and share expert advice to help you make the playing field a little less tilted. I’m your host, Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Lean In.
Rachel Thomas (01:04):
With everything 2020 has thrown at us, we could all use a good laugh. So today on Tilted, we’re talking to two women who are experts at using humor to highlight issues that matter, challenge stereotypes, and just make it through crappy days, and these ladies have a lot to say. First off, I spoke to actor, voice artist, and improv comedian Lauren Lapkus. She’s the host of the popular podcast With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus and currently stars in the Netflix comedy The Wrong Missy. You probably know her from Orange is the New Black and HBO’s Crashing, too. As you’ll hear, her passion for comedy started really early, and she uses it in every area of her life and has lots of advice for how you can use comedy, too.
Rachel Thomas (01:51):
I guess my first question is, there aren’t that many women who work in comedy. How’d you get bit by the bug?
Lauren Lapkus (01:57):
Oh my god, I feel like that was just what I was meant to do for my whole life. In elementary school, I was really obsessed with Saturday Night Live, and that was how I really started to feel like, "Oh, I really want to be a comedian." But it is interesting that you say that, because I feel like so many of my influences were men. I just loved Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, David Spade, and all those guys. That was what I looked to. I was like, "Oh, I want to be like them." As I got older, I found women that I was emulating myself after.
Lauren Lapkus (02:28):
The first thing I did was children’s theater. That was the way that I got started, and there was a local children’s theater that we had in my town where everyone could audition. I really just got small bit parts where sometimes I got to improvise as the character. I was in Beauty and the Beast as Mother Wolf, which is not a character in Beauty and the Beast, but I got to do improv in my little moments in the play. I just loved getting laughs and it really was that thing of being on stage and having people laugh—it just felt so good. I was always kind of a class clown, too, so it just formed that way. I started doing improv in high school after not getting into any plays at school. I would audition for every single play, and my school just had a lot of very talented actors and I think I was not one of them. So, my teacher suggested that I take classes at ImprovOlympic in Chicago, and that’s how I really got into where I am now.
Rachel Thomas (03:20):
There’s a concept in research, the lonely only.
Lauren Lapkus (03:24):
Tell me more.
Rachel Thomas (03:25):
It’s [when] you’re the only woman in the room, the only woman on the set; you get the gist. Has that been a big part of your experience?
Lauren Lapkus (03:33):
On some level, yeah. In improv, especially when I was starting, there were way fewer women involved, so almost every team that I would be on, I would be the only girl or one of two. And for a long time, I didn’t mind that, I have to say. I think part of it is because comedy, I felt growing up like it was a boys’ club. I wanted to be a part of the boys’ club, [get] to be in that and be like, "I’m the funny girl." So, there was something that felt kind of cool about it.
Rachel Thomas (03:58):
Yeah, nothing wrong with that. That’s cool.
Lauren Lapkus (03:58):
Yeah. But I have to say, as that has changed and now the landscape of improv is so different, there are so many more women doing it now and I have an all-female team. I value that and love it so much, and I don’t think about it anymore. I think being younger, there was some element of, "Ooh, I got into the cool thing." I’m grateful now that there are so many women involved, because it just feels more like a space for us. We share vulnerable stuff, we share secrets, [and] we embarrass ourselves. It’s the kind of stuff that I feel like can only happen in a safe group of women. It just feels so secure and like we’re holding each other. It feels like something that wouldn’t be able to happen with an old group of a bunch of guys and one girl. There’s just that difference of seeing each other on a certain level.
Rachel Thomas (04:42):
You were on Orange is the New Black, so anyone listening who knows you will want to hear about that experience, what it was like.
Lauren Lapkus (04:49):
Oh, it was so cool. It was mostly women, so that was kind of amazing and also intimidating. Coming into a set where there’s 50 strong, cool women standing around... You just don’t get that experience very often in life. I was definitely nervous about it. I think I’ve grown a lot in the time since that show started. That was one of my first big jobs, so there’s already the element of, "I don’t really know what I’m doing on a set in general." But then, working with all these women… I’m like, "Oh my God, I’m so inspired and intimidated by them." They’re just strong, cool people who know who they are, and I don’t know if I necessarily felt that completely for myself at that time. So, it was kind of crazy to be around these people and taking them in. It was a lot. It was empowering, but kind of like, "Whoa."
Rachel Thomas (05:34):
For people who’ve never done it, what are one or two of the core principles of improv where you’re like, "Everybody should know this"?
Lauren Lapkus (05:40):
The main things are, "Yes, and," which means if you say something in the scene, I’m going to support it and add something... It’s not just saying yes to what you’re saying. It’s saying yes to the reality of what you’ve established. So, if you’re like, "This bar is really great," and I’m like, "We’re in a library," I’m negating it and not helping. But if you say, "This bar is really great," and I’m like, "No it’s not. It’s actually too loud," I’m still agreeing with you because I’m establishing that same reality, but I’m having a different opinion. It doesn’t have to literally mean you’re just agreeing with people. But I think it works in real life. I can agree with the reality that you’re talking about and have a different opinion than you, and we can still have a nice conversation and keep it going.
Lauren Lapkus (06:20):
The other one I think that’s really important is, "Don’t think," which really is, just don’t filter yourself, don’t judge yourself. Don’t be outside of yourself, looking at yourself, going, "You’re dumb," which I think is so easy to do in life. Like, "Why did you say that thing?" Or, "Why are you doing that?" If you do that in the scene, you lose track of what the person just said and now you have no idea of what’s going on. You really can’t add to it if you’re thinking, "Oh, I’m such an idiot. I shouldn’t have said that thing."
Rachel Thomas (06:45):
One of the things I was so struck by when I was looking at a lot of your work is [that] you make up so many characters on the fly, all the time. Do you have a favorite or anyone you really have an attachment to?
Lauren Lapkus (06:57):
I do. I have a few that I’ve done. I do characters on my own podcast, but also on Comedy Bang! Bang! and some podcasts where Scott Aukerman interviews comedians in character, so we’re all on as different characters and sometimes they recur, so people start to get attached to certain characters that come on the show... A lot of the characters that I care about, it comes from that feeling of the audience caring about them and wanting to hear them again. I have a middle schooler named Todd who’s one of my characters, and he’s someone that I love to play because so many of my characters are really just fully my id coming through. I can say the nastiest, worst, or craziest thing, or the most offensive thing or just whatever I want, and there’s no repercussions, so it’s really fun.
Rachel Thomas (07:41):
Do you think about stereotypes about women or how we see women when you’re constructing these characters?
Lauren Lapkus (07:46):
So many of my characters are inspired by people that I see on either reality TV or around town that I’m kind of repulsed by, but also attracted to. It’s this sort of push and pull, I like to look for the worst thing in people, but also have fun with that. Man or woman, it doesn’t necessarily matter. But I think a lot of my characters have bad personalities, so I don’t want to say that it’s a commentary on how I view women, but...
Rachel Thomas (08:14):
Right. Yes, of course.
Lauren Lapkus (08:14):
... to how I view a lot of society... There are a lot of dark creatures coming through all the time that we’re just kind of pretending aren’t there or we accept as who they are and just go, "Oh, okay." So, you can be like that. I would never want to be that person, but that person walks around all day and the world revolves around them. What’s that like for them?
Rachel Thomas (08:31):
That’s super interesting. What’s funny is you said earlier that it was a little bit of your id. Is it cathartic for you to play these over-the-top, sometimes awful characters?
Lauren Lapkus (08:41):
Yes. It’s so fun. Learning improv, one of the main things is that you learn. [At] Upright Citizens Brigade, one of the theaters that I perform at, the motto is, "Don’t think." You spend all of your time learning how to check out of your brain and [you] use a different part of your brain so that you’re not judging yourself during the scene, stopping yourself, filtering, or trying to think about too many things at once. You want to just be in the moment, and what I love about doing these characters is that I’m really not thinking about anything. I’m just tapping into something else and letting that flow. So, it feels great. After shows, I feel really tired and I have no idea what I said, for the most part.
Rachel Thomas (09:18):
A lot of your characters are a bit over the top.
Lauren Lapkus (09:22):
Rachel Thomas (09:22):
Some are a little less likable, a little stereotyped. Can you kind of talk through that?
Lauren Lapkus (09:25):
Yeah. I truly love playing people that you hate. It’s very fun. There’s just something so fun about being the worst person in the room. I watch so much reality TV. I love that stuff. And a lot of those people are really unlikable, at least in how they’re portrayed on the show and how it’s edited; we love to hate them. Real Housewives... I’ve gotten to meet a few of them and I’m bowing down. I love them, but on the show they’re often portrayed as villains and crazy people—they’re screaming at each other and they’re as drunk as they’ve ever been.
Lauren Lapkus (09:56):
That’s something I’ve never done in my life. I’ve never gotten wasted and screamed at my friend. I would never. But it sounds kind of liberating. I don’t want to hate anyone in my life enough to scream at them that much, but I’ve thought about how fun it would be to create a show with a few of my close friends where that’s how we act to each other. We just talk to each other like we’re Real Housewives; "Your shirt is hideous and your hair is ugly. You look awful." You would never say that to your friend, but being a character who can say that, it’s very free. You can go anywhere. So, I really enjoy playing the gross people.
Rachel Thomas (10:27):
Is there any social commentary in that for you?
Lauren Lapkus (10:29):
I think there is, just inherently because I’m pulling from so much stuff that I’ve witnessed and just my point of view of the world. There’s a lot built in there that I don’t consciously think of. But I’m disturbed by everything, so watching TV... and not to get political, because I don’t want to, but watching that stuff, like everyone in the background of the State of the Union, everyone there, I’m fascinated by these people, what’s going on in their minds, and who they are. I like to pull the worst part of someone and make that the focus. I think a lot of my characters are really just the worst part amplified.
Rachel Thomas (11:07):
One of the other things that you’ve talked about a little bit that I was struck by is this idea of punching up versus punching down.
Lauren Lapkus (11:14):
Oh, yeah. It’s much more fun to punch up than it is to punch down. [Punching down] feels bad. I think the times when I feel I’ve made the mistake of punching down, I really regret it. Any time I’ve made fun of somebody who is in a lesser position, or it’s about something that they can’t control, I feel guilty about it. I’m thinking of things now that I’ve said that I’m like, "Why did I say that? That wasn’t cool. That’s just not worth it." But punching up is the most fun because those people deserve it.
Rachel Thomas (11:41):
First of all, can you explain to people just what punching up and punching down is?
Lauren Lapkus (11:44):
Yeah. Punching up would be like making a joke about someone in power where I have less control than they do or I have less power than they do. It’s my attempt to bring them down a little bit, just humble them. Punching down would be like making fun of a sick kid or something, where it’s like, "Well, they don’t deserve that." They didn’t do anything to deserve being made fun of or to deserve a joke against them.
Rachel Thomas (12:04):
One of the things you’ve talked about a little bit... I’ve read some of your interviews... is how powerful you feel when you’re being funny. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Lauren Lapkus (12:12):
I didn’t know I said that, so that’s cool. But yeah, I do feel that way. It gives you this feeling of, "Oh, I can do anything."… Doing Comedy Bang! Bang!, we’ll go on tour and perform for thousands of people in a night, and I’m sitting there backstage, thinking, "I have no idea what I’m going to say or what I’m about to do." It’s a little scary, but it’s also really exciting, because when you come out and there’s the feeling of, "Oh, I figured it out. It worked. Whatever we said made sense and people enjoyed it and they were laughing," it gives you a rush. It does feel amazing.
Rachel Thomas (12:46):
Do you use your improv skills in your everyday life? Are you so glad you can do this?
Lauren Lapkus (12:50):
Oh my god, it’s so great. Honestly, I feel like people should try it just as a one-level thing, as a way to get out of your head. It’s not for everyone, I’m not saying everyone should be an improviser, but it’s a great tool, because it helped me so much with staying in the moment, listening to people, reacting to what they said and not just what I want to say next, trying to stay on task in the moment, and just following things through. It’s also great to stop judging yourself and try to get out of your own way. I think it’s helped me so much with that.
Rachel Thomas (13:19):
Do you employ humor in the moment to get out of situations you don’t want to be in?
Lauren Lapkus (13:23):
Oh yes, all the time. Oh my god.
Rachel Thomas (13:23):
Like to tell people, "Screw you," but with a smile on your face?
Lauren Lapkus (13:27):
Oh yeah, it’s the best. That’s how I’ve gotten through my whole life.
Rachel Thomas (13:31):
All right, tell me more.
Lauren Lapkus (13:32):
I mean, I have relied on this tool. This is my best muscle and I use it all the time. There are so many situations as a woman where you’re talking to some weird driver in your Uber who’s making you uncomfortable or whatever, and you can kind of shut it down pretty quickly, without being rude. I think we have all these moments in our lives. Just speaking as a woman... I can’t speak for all women, but that feeling of, "Okay, this is uncomfortable. I’m in this situation that I would rather not be in. I don’t really know how to get out of it. I don’t know if it’s going to turn on me or something bad might happen here if I say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing, so how can I soften this moment and make myself more comfortable?"
Rachel Thomas (14:06):
You probably know this, but there’s a fair amount of research that shows humor can be a really good tool in the workplace or in difficult situations, but it can be a little bit of a double-edged sword for women. If you do it right, it’s cool and it hits. If you do it wrong, people kind of don’t like you or they roll their eyes.
Lauren Lapkus (14:20):
Rachel Thomas (14:21):
Any advice for people listening—given this is what you do—in how to use humor?
Lauren Lapkus (14:25):
I think it’s really helpful, definitely in situations that are uncomfortable, or if you have an awkward moment with somebody, you can lighten that moment and that’s really nice. I’ve had moments where it just doesn’t work, or you don’t know the person and they don’t get that you’re joking. So, I’ve had moments in work environments where you make a joke and then someone’s... like, "Oh, what?" But then you miss the moment to explain that you were kidding and then you’re like, "Oh, I think they might think that I’m mean or something," or, "They just didn’t get what I was doing there and there’s no way to fix it."
So, there are moments where it can sort of bite you, but ultimately it’s my favorite thing, because socially... I still feel like I have social anxiety, but I definitely have had it worse in past years. Using [humor] as a way to cut through that really helps me. I don’t know. But it’s not something you can teach, so it’s not for everybody. It’s not great advice to just say, "Well, just be funny and work through it." Some people are just like...
Rachel Thomas (15:18):
That’s so fair. Some people are not funny.
Lauren Lapkus (15:20):
No, and that’s okay. Maybe that person’s super sweet and that’s how they get through everything. That’s great, too. There are so many ways that we all armor ourselves to get through things. Maybe just something to keep in mind is not to take everything so seriously. If you’re in a work environment where your natural reaction is to get pissed at someone, maybe just stop for a second and be like, "What’s another way I could react?" The more you do that, the more natural it becomes. I have a few people in my life who are really quick to anger, and it’s like, "Wait for one second. Take that millisecond to make a different choice," because that’s something that improv teaches you. While it’s, "Don’t think," at the same time, it’s also, "What’s the best choice right now?" Your brain quickly filters through five things and you’re like, "What’s the most effective thing that’ll amplify this moment and make it better?" And that works in life.
Rachel Thomas (16:07):
That is a jewel, because I do think if you can give yourself the moment to do that, even if it’s not funny, whatever you say next will be better. And if it’s not the expected response, that’s probably pretty disarming in a good way to the person who just said it. One of the things you said when you were talking about Orange is the New Black is, "I didn’t have the confidence then"—I’m paraphrasing you—which means you’re feeling a lot more confident now.
Lauren Lapkus (16:29):
Yes, I do feel like I’ve grown so much in that time. So much of it, I think, comes from experience, getting to be on more sets and have the life experience to get through stuff. But I’ve also had big life moments. I got divorced, I got remarried, [and] I’ve had big things happen in my life that hadn’t happened at that time, and that kind of thing makes you take stock of who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. Having to make the decision to get a divorce is such a big decision.
Rachel Thomas (16:56):
Wow. Yeah, a huge decision.
Lauren Lapkus (16:57):
You’re thinking, "Okay, my whole life can change if I decide to change it," and that’s so empowering. It feels kind of amazing to make that choice for yourself. Doing that, while it was very difficult and emotional and everything that comes with that, also propelled me to follow my gut more. That’s given me so much confidence in my life.
Rachel Thomas (17:18):
I love that. You talked about wanting to do this since you were little, or wanting to be funny. Would your younger self ever imagine where you’ve gotten?
Lauren Lapkus (17:28):
Honestly, I want to say no, but then the answer is yes, because I always thought that’s what would happen.
Rachel Thomas (17:33):
I love that.
Lauren Lapkus (17:34):
I saw myself on TV. I was like, "That’s what I want." I think the humble part of me wants to be like, "God, I’ve never dreamed," or whatever, but I’m actually like, "Yeah, this is exactly what I dreamed. It was what I hoped for." I was sitting in my high school, going, "I can’t wait to get out of here and move to New York and be on TV." Then, I got to do that. Yeah. I guess the answer is yes.
Rachel Thomas (17:52):
You mentioned not getting into a lot of the school plays and stuff. Was there a moment in there where you were like, "This is never going to happen"?
Lauren Lapkus (17:58):
No, I always thought that I would be good at this. I just thought that somehow it wasn’t working in this situation.
Rachel Thomas (18:05):
Oh my god, I love that.
Lauren Lapkus (18:07):
I’ve actually never even thought of it... I guess I’ve never had the honest answer to that question. That’s the most honest answer, because I was there going, "I’m not getting any of these plays. What is wrong with these people? Why aren’t they putting me in the play? I should be in the play. Are you kidding? I’d be great in the play." Then, I’d just be crying about it and be like, "Well, I guess I’ll audition for the next play." And then I didn’t get in the next play, and I’m like, "I should really be in the play." So, it just was that feeling... Once I had one teacher who really saw that in me—I think that was the game-changing moment. His name’s Aaron Carney. I always feel like I have to say his name, because he really did give me the exact push I needed. He put me in the right place. He was like, "Go do this improv thing. That’s what you should do." … I shouldn’t have been in Midsummer Night’s Dream. I probably wasn’t doing a good job at that. But it was what was presented to me as an option, so once I was given another option of, like, "This is probably a more specific field for you where you’ll actually do well," that was everything, because I still had the confidence, but I was putting it into the right category.
Rachel Thomas (19:02):
I think it’s amazing you had the confidence through all that, though.
Lauren Lapkus (19:06):
I don’t know why. My parents or something? I don’t know.
Rachel Thomas (19:07):
I love it.
Rachel Thomas (19:13):
Next up, I sat down with stand-up comic Cameron Esposito. Cameron’s known for using comedy for social commentary, including Rape Jokes, her special about sexual assault from a survivor’s perspective. She’s currently the host of the podcast Queery and recently released a memoir titled Save Yourself.
Rachel Thomas (19:36):
I’ve been talking to a lot of people who’ve written books recently, which has really gotten me to think about how important titles are. You obviously put a ton of thought into the book, and it’s called Save Yourself. What does that mean to you?
Cameron Esposito (19:46):
Yeah, so it has a lovely double entendre. I was literally saving myself for marriage as a young devout Catholic, and also the way that stand up factors into my life... Is this a sentence?
Rachel Thomas (19:59):
Yes, I feel like that’s a perfect sentence.
Cameron Esposito (20:00):
The way that stand up works in my life and the decisions that I made outside of the church really were to save myself. I was raised very Catholic, didn’t know gay people were real, went to Catholic school my whole life through college, and also attended a Catholic school for college where you could be kicked out for being gay. Even though...
Rachel Thomas (20:20):
Cameron Esposito (20:20):
...I never saw that happen to anybody, it was part of their official policy, and so that’s where I was realizing I was gay.
Rachel Thomas (20:27):
That is... I’m jaw-dropped.
Cameron Esposito (20:27):
Also, the week I graduated from college is the week Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. So, I went from a situation where I really thought I was going to hell or I thought I had to stay closeted forever, to standing with my then-girlfriend, watching the first couples emerge with their hands held above their heads as they were married and walking out of City Hall.
Cameron Esposito (20:51):
I wrote the book because I think that we talk about religious conservatism as if it is something in the very distant past, or as if it is something that people who are on the fringes of society grow up in. I think we still don’t talk about how it affects the queer community, and we also don’t talk specifically about how Catholicism affects the queer community. Some folks maybe would think of Catholicism as sort of a mainstream religion because there are Catholic colleges that have good football teams, but for me, it was a pretty damaging way to grow up.
Cameron Esposito (21:24):
I had crossed eyes when I was a little kid. I was queer, growing up in the suburbs. Nobody that I knew was openly gay. I had no idea what was going on with me. I just knew that I had a bowl cut and I wanted to be Robin Hood for most Halloweens, and so I just was sort of an oddball. I think that to survive, to thrive and have friends, I overdeveloped humor, which is a coping mechanism that we all use. For me, that was just a great way of getting ahead of somebody else making the jokes about me. I’m like, "You think I don’t know that I have an eye patch? I definitely know, and in fact, here’s another observation."
Rachel Thomas (22:03):
My son is very short, and there are lots of worse things than being very short. He prides himself on being very funny. I think he is, but I might be incredibly biased. But when he was in the third or fourth grade, to your point, he came home and [said], "Mom and Dad, I get made fun of for being short so often, so I’ve come up with better short jokes."
Cameron Esposito (22:21):
Rachel Thomas (22:23):
He was like, "That’s all you got?" I’ve read a bunch of your interviews, and one of the things you say, which makes a lot of sense to me, is that a lot of the people that you think are the funniest comedians clearly grew up the oddball, using your language, or being discriminated against, and so they just kind of had to keep sharpening that humor. Is there a point on your journey where it probably moved from defense a little bit... to offense?
Cameron Esposito (22:44):
Yeah. There were a lot of times growing up that I felt powerless, and I think [humor] is a place where I feel powerful, and I think that’s important for human development, to find places where we feel powerful, feel strong. The reason that it’s true in comedy is because in order to be funny, you really have to indicate to the audience, "I’ve got this." Because we don’t actually want to laugh at somebody. We want to laugh with somebody. So it really is about...
Rachel Thomas (23:08):
That’s such a good distinction.
Cameron Esposito (23:08):
...making an audience relax and calm down, and I love that. I also love the challenge of that. It changes your body chemistry. You’re literally on drugs when you’re on stage, because you’re being flooded with so much adrenalin and there’s a really beautiful and exciting part of that that really works for me.
Rachel Thomas (23:26):
There aren’t a lot of women who do what you do. It looks like it’s getting better, but how has that journey been, especially in kind of lonely onlys? Is that an experience that you’ve had?
Cameron Esposito (23:36):
Absolutely. I started doing improv in Boston right after I graduated from college. I got my first job. I was one of very few women doing it professionally at that time there. There were some others, but still a minority group. Then I moved to Chicago and I went from, "I’m part of a minority group," to there [being] two other women in my class doing stand up at the time... Maybe there were 50 to 100 men. Then, in other classes, there were a couple more women. So, maybe overall, it’s a scene of 200 men and 20 or 15 women. I was also the only gay person. There was one other gay dude, but I was the only lesbian and the gay guy was several years older than me. I would never be booked on a show with the other gay guy or with another woman, because the booker’s idea was to spread us out. I’m sure a woman that works in many jobs in male-dominated fields knows this experience.
Cameron Esposito (24:39):
What I specifically did during that time is I started a stand-up class for women. It still runs in Chicago. It’s called the Feminine Comique and you can take it.
Rachel Thomas (24:47):
That is amazing.
Cameron Esposito (24:47):
I trained 200 women to do stand up, and hundreds more have taken the class since that time. It really was because what I felt was happening was that women didn’t feel comfortable getting to an open mic. When you think about why there is this difference, it’s not at the stage of who’s funny, or who should be booked, or who should get a million-dollar contract. It really seemed to me to be at the stage of getting started, and women are not cultured to be funny, as we’ve been talking about earlier. Women are not cultured to literally stand and be looked at. We’re not cultured to be beheld, except if we’re sexualized. We’re not cultured to think that we should say a sentence full stop. I had only one rule in this class, which is that if you apologized for the joke that you were about to say, you just had to go sit down and then come back up and start again.
Rachel Thomas (25:38):
Was that hard for the women going through it?
Cameron Esposito (25:39):
Rachel Thomas (25:40):
I can see that.
Cameron Esposito (25:40):
But you weren’t punished. You didn’t lose your time.
Rachel Thomas (25:42):
Right, I get it. It made you self aware...
Cameron Esposito (25:43):
You just had to deal with a muscle-memory thing.
Rachel Thomas (25:44):
...that you would just apologize for yourself.
Cameron Esposito (25:46):
Yes. Anyway, I tell this whole story because I think it applies to a lot of different places—that we’re not at the higher levels often because we’re not at the lower levels. And when we are at the lower levels, we’re not given the training to get to the middle levels. So, it really is about shoring up the skill set that men come in with. Men are taught when they’re children, "If you have something to say, say it." We oftentimes are not.
Rachel Thomas (26:11):
Yeah. Or, "Say it, but not too loud."
Cameron Esposito (26:13):
Yeah, exactly. Specifically as a queer person, I felt pretty unsafe coming out in the situation that I described earlier, and I think it was a way to try to increase my safety, by coming out to the biggest number of people [in] the most public way possible. Because you don’t just come out one time. You kind of come out over and over again, to every member of your family, the bagel salesman, in small ways. People are like, "Oh, you bring that home to your boyfriend?" And you have to decide, "Am I going to lie to this random stranger or am I going to come out?" I’m on the plane, [and] the random person next to me wants to talk to me; they’re asking about who I’m going to see. I just think for me, the easiest hurdle early on was to just be kind of famously gay, because it took the pressure off.
Rachel Thomas (27:03):
That’s really interesting. Is it fair to say you are consciously working to tackle tough issues at times? Or at least issues that resonate with you with humor? Is that something you’re actively doing?
Cameron Esposito (27:14):
I think it’s just what I’m interested in. I know some people are doing a different thing. Sometimes I look at a comic who’s just fucking around and telling jokes about spaghetti or something, and I’m like, "Amazing." Sometimes I wish I could be that. When we watch TV, most television shows are written from that perspective, based on who’s in the writers’ room, who created that show. When we watch a comic, most comics fall into that demographic. So, if they’re talking about sex, they are talking about it from the perspective of a straight, heterosexual, white, cisgender dude. That perspective is all over that, and I think if you fall anywhere outside of that, we are told that our perspectives are niche. You’re talking about being gay all the time, and it’s like, "Well, because that’s the only thing I know."
Rachel Thomas (27:58):
Yeah, it’s your experience.
Cameron Esposito (27:59):
I actually can’t talk about being straight. And, by the way, that straight guy is talking about being straight all the time; you just don’t see it. Or somebody’s a person of color, similar thing, or if they’re a trans person, similar thing. So I got a lot of feedback throughout my career that I talk about being gay a lot. I’m like, "No shit. I’m gay all the time, in every experience." So it’s a lens.
Rachel Thomas (28:19):
It’s a lens. And you’re right, the pervasive lens is the white, straight, cisgender dude’s lens, and so we don’t even realize that. We’re so steeped in it.
Cameron Esposito (28:29):
Yes. For instance, a stereotype is that women have jokes about their periods. Yeah, we do, because that is a thing that happens to us. And men talk about things that happen to them. Also, I’ll say here, not all women have periods and not all men don’t have periods. But anyway, I think that that was something when I was teaching the class that I was very much aware of—that not only are women not cultured to get up on stage, but we also don’t think our topics are funny. Because men are not taught that they should try to view something from another person’s perspective, and we are.
Rachel Thomas (29:03):
Right. Such a good point.
Cameron Esposito (29:05):
We grow up watching men’s stuff and thinking that that’s universal. Men don’t have that same challenge. And by the way, I will say the same thing for white people. We are very much taught...
Rachel Thomas (29:14):
Totally agree. Strong agree.
Cameron Esposito (29:15):
...that our experience is universal, and it is not.
Rachel Thomas (29:18):
How do you go about tackling tough stuff with humor? Do you have a process? Do you have a goal? How do you think about it? I’m endlessly fascinated by how you do this.
Cameron Esposito (29:28):
Well, it sort of goes by the topic of the hour that you’re building. Stand up works in—you work on an hour, and then you’re trying to record that and distribute it either as a special or as an album. For me, that’s really what it has been recently. First, I wanted to talk about being sexy and dating, and that became a stand-up album that’s called Same Sex Symbol. Then, I wanted to talk about getting married, and that was called Marriage Material. Then, I wanted to talk about sexual assault, and that was called Rape Jokes. And now I’m working on an hour about getting divorced, which is called Separately. For me, it’s just, what are all my thoughts and what’s the biggest thing going on in my life right now?
Rachel Thomas (30:08):
You did a special in the wake of the Me Too movement called Rape Jokes, which is another name you thought about a lot, and one that really hit me because, I mean, sexual assault, rape—it’s not funny. But you’re using jokes, and you’re juxtaposing rape and jokes in the title of the performance. Talk me through that.
Cameron Esposito (30:28):
Yeah. First of all, anything is funny. Sexual assault can be funny. I think that anything is funny, but what so often happens is that comics get a lot of ... shit when the subject matter is not dealt with appropriately to how taboo it is, or how much it actually affects real people. So, you can talk about any topic, you just have to know that there are people in the audience that that affects, and you have to treat it with respect. Something like sexual assault, I feel like... rape jokes, that’s like a phrase that people use to talk about usually low-hanging fruit jokes, like jokes that are just obvious, crappy, like the survivor of assault is the punchline, or the concept of rape is the punchline.
Cameron Esposito (31:10):
I think if you move assault, anything that’s that taboo, into the premise... Like, I’m not the punchline in that hour, but the premise is that I was assaulted in college and here is what I think about that. And it is very hard to have the president that we have in the White House and wake up every morning and hear from him or see his face, knowing about his history. That’s really why I thought to make this special to begin with, because I wanted it to be the number one Google search result when you put in "rape jokes." I didn’t want it to be some crappy defense of a joke that didn’t need to be told to begin with, but really something that is powerful, honest, and from the perspective of a survivor.
Rachel Thomas (31:54):
Yeah, you had me really laughing, and about some tough stuff. You had me laughing while talking about some fearfulness you have of men, and the way you did that was really funny. Then, you tell your personal story, which isn’t funny, and it’s very heartbreaking and very beautifully told. And then you just hit us with a joke, like a punch.
Cameron Esposito (32:12):
I knew that I wanted there to be a part of the hour of material where it was quiet, where there was some sitting with the actual story. That was really tough for me, actually. I will say, I think it could have even been longer, but that was kind of the amount that I could deal with, just as a human. Because it is really vulnerable to say this truth and then just stand in it, especially as a comic. The way that we relate to an audience is through laughs. I’m more okay with a little bit of a pause than maybe even some comics are, but a pause and then people are really seeing you and registering what’s going on. That was tough and deliberately placed, also. It happens about 45 or 50 minutes in.
Rachel Thomas (33:03):
Yeah, it’s deep in.
Cameron Esposito (33:04):
I also wanted people to be laughing and to be lighthearted, and then to know that, yeah, it’s okay to take things seriously, too. I’m actually really proud of where that fell, and that also then we got out of it together with the audience. As a person, that was important to me, because I knew there would be other survivors in the audience. I didn’t want to leave everybody feeling maybe chewed up and spit out. But then also, as a comic, it was a wonderful challenge to bring people back from a full stop.
Rachel Thomas (33:35):
Have a lot of women, or people more broadly, reached out to you since [you told] your story? Has it been validating for them?
Cameron Esposito (33:43):
Yeah. I was so lucky because... I had just a very specific vision for this project, and I don’t always. Sometimes I’m just bumbling around in the dark. But this one, I knew how I wanted to do it. I wanted to go to eight cities. I did 10 shows in each city. They were at 100-person venues, so after the show was over, I would go out and talk to the audience, because at the time, I hadn’t really announced the title. People didn’t 100% know what was going on or what was going to happen in the show, and I felt like I had to be available for people after. More often than not, what happened was that multiple people in the audience outed themselves to me as survivors and I got to say, "I’m so sorry that happened to you," which is the right thing to say.
Cameron Esposito (34:13):
We’re always trying to figure out, "What is the right thing to say?" And the right thing to say is just, "I’m so sorry that happened to you." You don’t have to fix it, because you can’t, and you also don’t have to pretend you didn’t hear it. "I’m so sorry that happened to you." I got to say that to a bunch of people and have a bunch of people say [that] to me, and it was really healing and amazing. That was actually my favorite part of the process—getting to interact with so many people that way.
Cameron Esposito (34:45):
I also used the special to donate a bunch of money to RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization. I got to go to their call center and see the people that take the calls, that field the calls, and talk people through how to get services and give support. Those were my two favorite parts: going to the call center and talking to people afterwards.
Rachel Thomas (35:04):
One of the things I noticed was that you have a joke about being fearful of men.
Cameron Esposito (35:08):
[Clip from Carmeron’s special:] “Honestly, the biggest effect is that I’m just sort of afraid of men. I notice there’s a bunch of dudes here tonight, and I want to say I really appreciate your open body posture and your welcoming faces. Do you know how much that matters when somebody’s up here telling this story? Do you know how much that matters to me? It really matters a whole fucking ton. It does. Because sometimes if you say, ‘Oh, I’m sort of afraid of men,’ then one guy will go, ‘Wait a minute! and then, ‘Whoops, catch-22, I’m scared of you because you’ve been very scary.’"
Rachel Thomas (35:37):
It was very funny the way you played it out, and you did it in the way where most of the men in the room—at least the decent men in the room—would have been back on their heels. You made them part of the joke.
Cameron Esposito (35:48):
I do think that’s a lot of what comedy is—pointing at systems of power in a critical way. Otherwise, it’s propaganda. There’s a difference between criticism and propaganda, and comedy is on the criticism side. What we’re doing, all comics, is trying to be light about something we feel very passionately about. I think that that’s true for the audience, too. There are so many things in life that feel scary and big, and we want to be able to see a path through that. It just isn’t always as easy to win hearts and minds, and also just to say to people’s faces how you really feel. Sometimes you need a little bit of levity in there.
Rachel Thomas (36:33):
That’s a good segue to a lot of the people listening. I’m going to go out on a limb and say I think a lot of them are women.
Cameron Esposito (36:39):
Rachel Thomas (36:40):
There is not a lot of research, but there’s some research on women using humor in our everyday lives when we’re navigating something that feels yucky, when someone says something to us [and] we just wish we could reach out and give them a little punch, when you’re on the receiving end of all the ugly messages that we sometimes get as women. First of all, have you done that in your own life, where you’re using your humor for you in the moment? And then, the second thing, do you have any advice for how women would go about that, given this is what you do for a living and you do it really well?
Cameron Esposito (37:08):
That’s a really good question. First of all, I will say there is a dominance and submission thing going on. I wish I could cite this study or this information, but I will say that the people who laugh the most are women, and the people who do the most creating of laughter are men. Not just on stage, and I’m not talking about who has a special on whatever platform.
Rachel Thomas (37:29):
I totally understand. Yeah, every day.
Cameron Esposito (37:31):
I’m talking about, there is actually statistical information. That is because, even in primates, baring your teeth and showing a smile can be an act of submission, and then the other person gets to talk; they get to control the situation. You’re just responding. Of course, it makes sense in our larger world that women are less comfortable using humor. Also, humor tends to require that you have one specific opinion about an event and that you’re going to stand by that, which is also something that women are not taught. So yes, we are not in comedy for a reason. We are underrepresented there statistically because we’re underrepresented in this skill set.
Cameron Esposito (38:10):
In terms of how to use [humor] in your day-to-day life... This is actually a really interesting question because I’m going to say something that might surprise you, which is even though I think we use it less effectively professionally, or less frequently professionally... I don’t mean effectively like women aren’t as funny; I mean [that] we have a much larger barrier to overcome. It is harder for us to get there because of how we’re cultured.
Cameron Esposito (38:35):
In the workplace, we tend to joke around about things that we are serious about when we are scared, and I would love to encourage women to say how they really feel... especially in a situation where you’re being put in an uncomfortable position or where you... [are being harassed], something like that, a lot of times, our safety is really on the line, and sometimes it isn’t. Whoever’s listening, you would know that better than me, which of those situations you’re in, and I want you to protect your safety above all else. But if this is a situation where you could just say it, but it feels really hard, that might be worth working on.
Rachel Thomas (39:14):
That’s such good, thoughtful advice. I do think a lot of times when we do use humor, like in the workplace or in a difficult or awkward situation, there is actually something else we want to say.
Cameron Esposito (39:27):
It makes sense, too, because literally we are afraid of being physically hurt. That is the root of that thing. We don’t want to be assaulted in some way. Also, we don’t want to be pushed out of our jobs. So, sometimes edging into our feelings is the best we can do. I just want to acknowledge that. That’s what I’m saying about safety. But even acknowledging that, I think we could move closer. I think we could all lean in the direction of saying what we really mean.
Rachel Thomas (39:58):
Lauren Lapkus and Cameron definitely made me laugh, but they also gave me a lot to think about. I was struck by just how complicated humor can be for women. It’s not something we’re taught to use the same way that men are. But when we own it correctly and confidently, it can be a powerful tool, and Lauren and Cameron are great examples of what that can look like.
Rachel Thomas (40:20):
You can subscribe to Tilted on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts. Our executive producer is Sandy Smallens. And special thanks to Ali Bohrer, Chelsea Paul, Kate Urban, Madison Long, and Nicole Roman from the Lean In team. And Caitlin Thompson, Ireland Meechum, Jacob Kramer Duffield, and Matt Noble at Audiation. I’m your host, Rachel Thomas, and I’ll join you next time on Tilted.