As her star rises, Cameron Esposito makes it ‘a priority’ to return to Chicago, where it all started
The comedian, now appearing on ABC’s “A Million Little Pieces,” feels connected to the places that used to showcase her unique voice.
When Western Springs native and stand-up comic Cameron Esposito learned that her sister would be visiting her folks from Argentina this Christmas, the current Los Angeles resident booked a trip to join in the family fun.
Of course, no reunion in her old town would be complete without visiting old friends, and Esposito made sure to set some time aside for her longtime pal Chicago comedy. She’ll be performing at the Den Theatre Dec. 30 and 31 — long before midnight, because Esposito didn’t want to disrupt New Year’s Eve plans or, even worse, become them.
“I don’t actually think that stand-up and heavy drinking mix in the way that some people may [pretend] that they do,” Esposito says. “As a comic — trial by fire — you get really good at keeping people’s attention as much as you can; at this point, I’m not necessarily choosing to do that anymore.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 30, 8:30 p.m. Dec. 31
Where: The Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Tickets: $23 to $56 plus two-drink minimum
Understandable, especially because Esposito’s time for stand-up shows is even more rare as of late. Her trip home occurs during a break in shooting the ABC drama “A Million Little Things,” on which she plays the love interest of main character Katherine (Grace Park). She can also be found in the ABC crime procedural “The Rookie: Feds,” the forthcoming second season of the Prime Video romantic comedy “With Love” and on hundreds of episodes of her superlative LGBTQ-centered podcast, “QUEERY.”
Esposito, who uses she/her and they/them pronouns interchangeably, says she could not have imagined her identity driving so much of her career, largely because, when she was grinding the Chicago comedy scene in the mid-2000s, there was a lack of LGBTQ representation both on television and in live comedy.
Performing in Chicago at local showcases like the Lincoln Lodge, Chicago Underground Comedy and Comedians You Should Know — and later starting the popular Cole’s Wednesday night open mic — meant accepting that she likely would be the only queer-identifying comic and the only (or, rarely, one of the only) female comics on the bill.
Though she faced abuse and harassment from other comics, Esposito says the deck was actually stacked in her favor. “I have always felt that I had more faith in my comedy than some other comics because I was going to be one of the first people talking about that life experience [onstage],” she says.
That self-confidence propelled her to Los Angeles in 2012, where Esposito cultivated a fanbase that felt more authentic to the kinds of experiences she wanted to talk about onstage. At the time, social media was democratizing the ability for comics to carve their own niches, and while this ability was only in its nascent stages, Esposito says she noticed developing trends that carry through to recent Chicago transplants.
“Thinking about Ziwe Fumudoh [of Showtime’s ‘Ziwe’] and Sarah Squirm [aka Sarah Sherman on ‘Saturday Night Live’] or, really, anybody who is emerging now, it’s truly an era of [doing] what works for you,” Esposito says. “It’s a massive difference from [the mid-2000s] of, ‘Plug yourself into the machine.’ Now it’s, ‘How can the machine plug into you?’ ”
Through her renewed commitment to leaning into personal experiences onstage, Esposito found herself at the forefront of this shift when it reached the LGBTQ comedy community. On her 2014 album “Same Sex Symbol,” Esposito finds humor in coming out as a lesbian and how that understanding of her sexuality could have come in handy as a child.
“How many days a week do you guys think a suburban girl should wear a coonskin cap?” she asks on “Same Sex Symbol.” “Because if you said zero, I went with seven … and I wish somebody had been like, ‘Listen Davy Crockett, there’s a reason for all this.’ ”
(Since then, Esposito has shared that she identifies as gender-fluid.)
After collaborating with her then-spouse, stand-up comic River Butcher, on the 2016 Seeso television show “Take My Wife,” Esposito made the 2018 special “Rape Jokes,” earning accolades for its blunt honesty and deft use of humor in sharing her personal experience with sexual assault. A writer for Daily Beast was in the audience for the recording, and hailed the special as “the first great stand-up set of the #MeToo era.”
When Esposito wanted to bring “Rape Jokes” to Chicago, the Den Theatre was eager to run the shows and gave her a spot in its smaller theater. Due to the success of that run, she says, the Den decided to fully enter the stand-up space.
“In Chicago, I still feel a connection to the scene because there is a lasting legacy there for me that I feel proud of,” Esposito says. “In a lot of [its stand-up venues and showcases], my being a woman and my being a queer person contributed to what made the show so good. I feel jazzed that they continue to have success, and I make it a priority to come back and play those places.”