From stand-up shows to podcasts to web series, critically acclaimed comedian Cameron Esposito has spent years dazzling audiences with her queer-centric comedy. Much of Esposito’s career has focused on celebrating and uplifting the LGBTQ+ community, but she wasn’t always so sure of herself.
In her coming-of-age memoir, Save Yourself, Esposito blends her signature humor with more serious stories of a childhood and young adulthood filled with shame and confusion. Raised strictly Catholic, Esposito writes that she once believed gay people were as mythical as leprechauns. Save Yourself is her story of growing up queer and confused in this deeply religious community.
Through heart-wrenching stories, Esposito guides readers through the mindset of her younger self and shows how she grew from the closeted child who dreamed of becoming a priest to the outspoken, celebrated, and very out comedian she is today. Save Yourself also documents Esposito’s years-long grind to build a career in comedy, working her way from performing in tiny clubs where no one knew her name to headlining jam-packed theaters across the country.
Save Yourself launched just as states across the country were beginning to issue stay-at-home orders. With her book tour canceled, Esposito lit up the internet with virtual book parties, promotions for struggling indie booksellers, and panels that celebrated not only her own book, but the work of other queer memoir authors, too.
Recently, I spoke with Esposito about Save Yourself, the differences between writing books and writing comedy, and the process of rediscovering faith after being betrayed by organized religion.
The Rumpus: Did the book end up being what you thought it would be when you began writing? Did you always know it would focus on your childhood and young adulthood?
Cameron Esposito: It was originally supposed to be one of those books that you buy as you leave Urban Outfitters. It was supposed to be a little pithier and it turns out that’s actually not my personality. Maybe I would have been able to pull off that tone, but as I started writing it, it really did morph into something that I think is very funny but also much more serious and weighty.
But that’s sort of who I am. I constantly find myself too earnest for Twitter. So, I’m not surprised that, no matter how I start a project, it always sort of ends up being the same thing, not the same content but the same perspective.
Rumpus: Early on in the book, you write, “Each time I step on stage, I leave my small worried self behind and become a version of me that is power and projection.” Did that feeling translate to writing as well? Was it as hard or as easy to feel confident telling your personal stories in book form?
Esposito: I don’t know the answer to that question because for me writing a book was so inner vacuum. Even in television and film, there’s a built-in audience of either a studio audience or the crew and other actors. This was the most solitary thing I’ve ever worked on, and then it has been released also in this very solitary time.
So, I don’t really know how I feel about the process of writing or whether or not I feel like it’s taxing. It sort of feels fake. Like, I have the book at my house. I know that it physically exists because I have it. Thank God that a couple bookstores posted pictures of it on their shelves, even if the bookstore was closed. I’m like, oh sure, it does exist, but I don’t really know how I feel about that.
But also, it’s not that one part of me is confident and one part of me is not confident. It’s more so that humor is a coping mechanism, and for anybody that has an overdeveloped sense of humor, I tend to think that something happened early in their life that they really needed help coping with.
It’s an asset. I really appreciate this about myself because I think it saved my life and saved my mind, but I also think it’s not the full picture. Nobody is their stage presence. Nobody is. Or if they are, something is wrong. Because we’re more complicated than that, as people.
Rumpus: You’ve joked on Twitter that the title, Save Yourself, has a much deeper meaning now that we’re all going through this pandemic together. Where did that title come from originally, and what does it mean to you?
Esposito: Well, first of all, it is a genius double entendre, because as a super Catholic kid I really was planning to save myself for marriage, but also, it really is in the epilogue. The sentiment of the epilogue is: I don’t know if I will ever again return to organized religion because I feel so betrayed in that area, but I have been building out my own way of being a spiritual person. Of connecting with other people on this planet, of sharing love, of talking about what’s important with other people. That’s what my whole job is, talking about what’s important to me and my emotions, and sharing that with my audience.
My current understanding of the title is that when a faith that is so solidly rooted in a particular religion goes away, it is required that you step up and take your own salvation in hand. It’s not about somebody else’s external set of rules. It’s really about me, me taking control of that.
Rumpus: What has the experience of launching the book from isolation been like? I know you’ve managed to hold a fair share of virtual events.
Esposito: Oh, you know, it’s obviously ideal, seeing as I am amazing with technology. I have learned things I never thought I would have to care about. The process has been a lot of self-reliance. I have an excellent team of people I work with, but when everybody’s offices are closed, including my publisher, and also including bookstores and venues, it means that it really has just been a lot of trying to figure out how to launch stuff myself and then include the appropriate people.
That has been both really great, because it has been pretty successful, but also, it’s disappointing, too. I had so many things that I would have had a lot of help with. I think it’s also just partially what a lot of folks are feeling right now, this sort of transitioning back to some sort of homesteading situation, and being my own tech support.
I’ve been trying really hard to keep up with which indie bookstores are shipping so I can drive purchases there. I’ve been having Zoom events. I had a Zoom stand-up show where I did an hour. I didn’t know how many people would show up, but the one-thousand-person capacity was filled prior to the show even starting, so it’s just trying to figure out how to relearn to do this skill that in some ways I’ve been prepping for fifteen or twenty years.
Rumpus: Why was now the right time to write this book?
Esposito: I was approached to write this book by my publisher based on a series of videos I did a few years ago with BuzzFeed. The video series was called Ask a Lesbian, and at the time that I was making those videos—and it was in like early BuzzFeed days—they were getting millions of views when that was still kind of wild. The series got a lot of attention.
I was also writing a column for The A.V. Club about my life as a stand-up comic, so the publisher reached out being like, clearly you have a voice and a perspective and a point of view, but you also are writing things. Are you looking to write something that is a longer format? And I said, sure.
Rumpus: Do you think reading this book might surprise some of your fans who have only seen you on stage? Will they see a different side of you than they are used to?
Esposito: Yeah, definitely. I mean I also have a podcast that’s called Queery that can get pretty sweet and emotional, and I think people know from the podcast that I am a sweet and emotional person, but I think sometimes on stage maybe I seem a little bit more bombastic than just emotive.
Rumpus: In addition to a serious side, this book has a lot of humor, too. Is there a different type of humor you have to employ when trying to make people laugh in a book versus live or on television?
Esposito: For sure. Just looking at the breakdown, stand-up is an hour usually. That’s how I most often work right now. That hour has an arc and you build the laughs in to sort of make sure people are fulfilled and not exhausted by it. I think it’s important to give people a chance to breathe and really hear what you’re saying, but also you want to pack a full punch.
The audiobook for this is a seven-hour read, so thinking about the sort of exhaustion it would be if things were as joke-filled, I don’t know how you’d maintain attention. It’s the same arc, but it’s six or seven times as long. On TV it’s a four minute and twenty second set, so you better get some laughs in there. But if you were trying to write a book that was at the pacing of a television set, I imagine it would feel alienating to a reader.
Rumpus: The dedication in the beginning of the book reads: “To every queer kid, be you little bitty or all grown-up.” What do you most hope queer kids, bitty or grown-up, get from the memoir?
Esposito: A sense of solidarity and comfort. That’s always what I’m going for. I feel like a pretty unsafe person out in the world, being a part of a marginalized community, but also, having had some real trauma. I was rejected by friends and family, pretty much every institution, and also every person in my life when I came out. Not all of those relationships have stayed the same. I think when that happens, when that happened to me, the world doesn’t feel like a safe place ever again.
So, I am always trying to increase my own personal safety by sharing my story and connecting with others. I think that that’s why I do stand-up, for myself, for my younger self, and also for myself now. The person who has heard me speak in solidarity with queer experience the most is me. I have heard myself do stand-up more than anyone else, but I also have a genuine concern and care for my audience, many of whom I would imagine have had some version of that experience of feeling really unsafe.
When you take people that don’t feel fundamentally safe and you take them to a comedy show, there’s sort of this perception that you’re going to be picked on or singled out or you’re going to hear some content that really doesn’t work for you. Not that all my jokes work for everybody, but I think I’m just approaching it from a place of wanting to provide comfort.
Rumpus: Are you hoping that the book reaches audiences beyond the queer community, too? If so, what do you hope non-queer people might get from the book?
Esposito: I love the idea of non-queer people as opposed to straight people. I am always working for whatever audience shows up. As a queer person, I’m constantly required to understand the world from someone else’s perspective. Almost all media is created from an implicitly straight viewpoint. Even media that’s about queer folks, there’s often an omniscient straight force that is the lungs. So, the door is always open.
I also don’t think it’s my job to go get people anymore as much as I used to. When I first started, nobody was just coming to see me, because that’s not how stand-up works. In the beginning, you’re just this nameless comic that’s on next. That’s what I’m used to; that’s how I came up. I love that my audience is full of so many queer folks now, and I just think I did the thing of going on the road and playing every possible type of venue.
At this point I really hope a straight person wants to read this book. Number one because it’s funny and because they think I’m cool or they like my comedy, but number two, potentially it’s interesting to understand that experiences outside of your own are happening on this planet.
I read books and consume media by folks who don’t share all of my demographics or all of my identities and I really think that for some reason, not for some reason, it’s because of privilege, I just don’t think we expect that of straight people. Besides like a weird hetero-gazey, male-gazey thing that is exploitative, we just don’t expect straight people to show up for us.
Rumpus: In the book’s narrative, we see that as you were becoming more confident in who you were in your queer identity, you were also becoming more successful in your career. Do you see the two as linked?
Esposito: Some of that might just be time, because I think I was doing the work to understand myself both onstage and off. That really is the evolution of any comic. You first start by telling jokes that are meaningless to you and over time you develop a voice and a perspective and hopefully you stick to topics that really resonate with you.
That sort of sounds like the process of maturation anyway, finding the things that really resonate with you, finding out what you really think about the things around you. I think they did parallel and also, they’re in conversation with each other.
Rumpus: I’m sure it depends on the state of the world as we move forward, but what’s next for you?
Esposito: It definitely does. Right now, the stuff I’m doing from my home includes making episodes of my podcast. I just did my first hour of stand-up on Zoom and I will likely be doing that again. I’ve been doing a lot of shorter spots, but for the longer spots, doing that without an audience that you can hear or be present with is challenging. I actually always like a challenge, so I’m into it. I think I’m into figuring out how to crack that code and provide entertainment for folks.
Outside of that, I’m definitely hoping to write another book. I’m definitely hoping to continue to make television shows. I’m also definitely hoping to just leave my house. That’s a long-term goal. In a safe way.
I think stand-up is going to be affected by this for a really long time, so I might not get to do my job the way I know my job for a really long time, but I may get to have other ways of being connected to the world and finding companionship. I am willing and ready to accept those things.
Rumpus: Is there anything new you learned about yourself, your own beliefs and perspectives, from writing this book?
Esposito: Definitely. I have a very different understanding of my little-kid self now. I felt so full of shame as a kid that I don’t think I saw myself very accurately. When I’ve looked at photos of myself as a kid for my whole adulthood, it always felt very remote. Then, in writing this, because I had to look at those photos and try to imagine how to tell a story from that kid’s perspective, I felt like I was sort of inhabiting my younger self in a different way. And I was like, oh my God, I was kind of awesome.
Then I thought about meeting me as a kid, and I would like myself. I was spunky, you know? And effervescent, and I was trying, and I was smart, and very strange. I think I would have appreciated what an oddball I looked like. I think if I met myself, I would be like, you are my favorite kid.
You know, there’s the really cute kid that gets a ton of reward for how beautiful they are, and then there’s the kid that you’re like, you are a thrilling weirdo, let’s hang out and have conversations. I think I would have found myself to be that kid.
Photograph of Cameron Esposito by Robyn Von Swan.