In comedy, as in life, Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher complement each other. Onstage, Esposito is a gesticulating imp, her astonishingly asymmetrical haircut fluffed into a towering upsweep; Butcher, sporting her own, more proportional pompadour, exudes self-deprecating cool. Each is fond of sending up her own obvious queerness. (“They don’t even make maternity motorcycle jackets,” Esposito quips in a bit about having babies.) On the logo for their podcast, “Put Your Hands Together,” the duo’s distinctive (and unabashedly gay) hairdos are rendered in silhouette, each woman distilled to her essence.
Now based in Los Angeles, the pair met in Chicago at an open mic hosted by Esposito. They soon started collaborating, then dating, and in 2015 they were married. Over time their careers have become increasingly intertwined. At the moment they are co-headlining a national tour, which comes to Boston’s Wilbur Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 4.
But the pinnacle of Esposito and Butcher’s collaborative life has to be their sitcom, “Take My Wife,” which debuted in 2016 on NBC’s now-defunct streaming service Seeso. (When Seeso announced in August that it would shut down operations by the end of the year, Season 2 of “Take My Wife” was already in the can; its creators are currently shopping around for another platform on which to air it.) Esposito and Butcher play lightly exaggerated versions of themselves on the show, itself a lightly fictionalized depiction of the couple’s first years in LA. In the first season, Esposito, already a seasoned comic, is struggling to find her feet in the harsh and lonely new environment, while Butcher, newer to showbiz, frets over her student loan debt and fears taking the plunge into comedy. Together they bumble through the mean streets of Hollywood, sometimes butting heads but mostly cheering each other on.
“Take My Wife” is sweet and a little zany, but it can be barbed, too. One of its most affecting moments comes in Episode 2, “Punchline,” which takes place over the course of an evening at the duo’s fictional stand-up open mic. As we listen to a male comic land the kicker in a rape joke, the camera zeroes in on the two hosts, who are standing in the wings; they suddenly seem very far away. Later, back onstage, they start riffing. “Why is it that the only dudes that will talk about rape are dude comics, and then it’s just, like, all the time?” Esposito asks, before answering her own question: “I think it’s because rape is entertainment.” Butcher nods. “Yeah, I mean, what would female characters be doing if they weren’t getting raped?” At the end of the episode, in a stunning sequence, we learn that both characters are survivors of sexual assault.
As Esposito and Butcher like to point out, the episode functions as an answer to the trite, if unavoidable, question: “What is it like to be a woman in comedy?” They addressed that question, and more, in a recent telephone interview. The following excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity.
How and when did you know you wanted to be a stand-up comic?
Cameron Esposito: It was definitely gradual, because I didn't realize that that was an actual job. You know, I started doing comedy in college sort of as a hobby or after-school activity sort of thing, and so I didn't realize it was an actual career path.
What about you, Rhea?
Rhea Butcher: I didn't grow up in a city that had tons of like theater and stuff like that going on, so I didn't know it was like a thing you could do. I thought just other people did it. I was always kind of funny and stuff, but I didn't do theater in school or anything. So fast forward to being 28 and in Chicago, I started taking some improv classes on a whim, because I had an office job and I had a steady paycheck for the first time, like ever. And taking those classes gave me some confidence just performing in front of people. ... And then I saw Cameron do standup at her open mic that she started in Chicago, and that was the first time that I was like, “Oh, somebody like me is doing this, and doing it in a really powerful and amazing way.”
People talk a lot about about why representation is important, and you literally are an example of why.
Esposito: A hundred percent.
Butcher: Cameron does very personal stand-up, which is a majority of stand-up, and it was the first time I had seen somebody talking about a life that was similar to mine, but also making it universal at the same time. That was really powerful, too.
Why did you decide your own lives were the most fruitful thing you could explore in a scripted TV show?
Esposito: I think it's really just you write what you know, across the board. Especially when you live a life you haven't really seen portrayed on screen — why would you do anything else? I mean, everybody's writing from their own perspective, it's just that most creators happen to be from a certain demographic. Cis straight white dudes have sort of run the space forever, and that power and those opportunities are being redistributed a little bit.
The episode I really want to ask you about is Episode 2 in Season 1, where you tackle misogyny in comedy, and rape culture and sexual assault. What was your thinking around that episode?
Butcher: So often the conversation about rape jokes or misogyny in comedy is pitting a male comedian against a woman, who is not necessarily in comedy. And so we just wanted to illustrate that other side of the conversation and what it is to be a woman in comedy. It’s essentially your workplace, and you're hearing these things in your workplace, and processing them, and that's what I wanted to portray.
Esposito: For me, who has had personal experience with assault, it was just really important to write about it. Because you have a chance to make a show, and have some money behind you. I feel like, “Oh s---, I actually get to talk about the things that I've thought about for years.”
This episode was getting in on a debate that is often portrayed as having two sides: There's the comedians who are fighting for their right to cross lines and talk about taboo subjects, and then the so-called PC culture, who are like, "Don't, you're belittling this, and it's harmful." And this episode was cool because it took a clear stance in the debate, but it didn't seem to be drawing a line in the sand.
Esposito: A lot of times when we talk about the taboo subjects that have been passed around in articles the last couple of years, things like rape jokes, it's very often written as if this has actually affected nobody in the room at that particular show, and then also nobody on the bill — like there's no actual survivor that's being considered. It's like, "Can we tell rape jokes in a vacuum?" And so I think that's what we were trying to reorganize.
I mean, my personal philosophy is, talk about whatever you want, but it better be good, you know? And especially if it's something that challenges folks. You don't want to be on the side of power to demean a group that is at risk. Because that’s propaganda. Whenever you're on the side of power, you're not making art. Art upends power. And so I think that's really what our perspective was: “OK, you can tell whatever joke you want, but is it art? Is it a good joke if it supports a power structure that harms?”
Butcher: We wanted to speak to something from a first person perspective — as comedians, as women, as assault survivors. And showing [that] within a context, as opposed to, “Hey, look at that thing over there, let's talk about it now.”
I really liked that episode, and it was funny, too.
Esposito: Just because you're fighting a power structure doesn't mean that suddenly everything becomes so serious and deflating and you can't survive anymore. That's, I think, the other way these topics are approached — if somebody has a problem with an awful joke or just a painful joke, I feel like we often talk about that person as being whiny or silly. And I think if there's anything that we’re learning right now — just putting it in the context of today and the #metoo hashtag and all of these people stepping forward and talking about their experiences with harassment or assault — it's that like, no, these are things that we have weathered, and lived with. And that doesn't mean it's not so serious. It just means: Understand my strength.
"Cameron Esposito & Rhea Butcher: Back to Back" comes to Boston’s Wilbur Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 4.