Being a comic and a punchline
Photo by Callie Biggerstaff
Photo by Callie Biggerstaff

Being a comic and a punchline

If you were awake last night/morning at 1:35 am Eastern/12:35 a.m. Central, you should have tried allowing soft-spoken podcasters to earbuddingly lull you to sleep (because you look a bit tired). Or popped on the TV and caught me on Last Call With Carson Daly. If you watch that show. I have no idea what you do with your time, but I was on it. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m told bits of stand-up and bits of interview will be cut together to create a short segment called “Here, For Example, Is An Example Of A Stand-up Comic” that, in my case, will be mostly about jean jackets. The show’s producers say the finished clip will be honest but flattering, which means some of what happened in the room during the stand-up set I filmed for the show might be cut.

I went up sixth that night. We were at a traditional brick-walled comedy club in a suburb of Los Angeles. The audience happened to be mostly groups of guys and heterosexual couples out for separate, respective dates. Some of the comics going up ahead of me were also being taped for Last Call. Some were just catching a set. All of them had a least one gay joke.

Some of the jokes stated a thesis outright, something like: “You might think I look like a lesbian, but I’m not a lesbian and that’s gross.” I’m paraphrasing, but, generally, that one was told by the only other woman on the lineup, a very straight-looking gal, by my eyeballs’ estimation. Some of the jokes simply implied gayness, posing questions like, “What if my dad wanted to suck a dick?” so the audience could laugh at the very thought that a man might want to do that, which, of course, would be insane.

I hear those jokes all the time. Whether they start with “I’m for gay marriage but...” or end with “And I mean nothing by that,” I find ’em silly across the board. I always wonder why that comic seems to think there are no gay people in the room—like they’re just a straight talking to some straights about gays. We’re everywhere, people. For instance, I’m in your computer or cell phone right now. Plus it’s rather arrogant to assume that what you think is gross is what everyone thinks is gross, and I spend zero minutes per day hoping strangers will say the phrase “I’m for gay marriage but…”  

When I hear comics tell those jokes, I wonder what other, more personal experiences they might have to talk about. You say you worry that people think you look like a lesbian and you aren’t one? Okay, sure. How large a part of your life is that fear? The audience you are in front of tonight might never see you again, so is it a crucial enough aspect of your life that you’d want to it be the only topic an audience ever hears you discuss? If not, talk about something that is. If so, why is that? What are you so afraid of?

One of the first things I do onstage is acknowledge that I look gay and I am gay. I’m not bummed about either of these things. I mention it so that the audience knows I don’t consider my look to be negative. I don’t throw myself under the bus. I don’t make fun of myself. I emphasize that my vest and my jean jacket and my big ol’ side mullet all make me feel attractive. Attractive to women especially, which of course is what I want. And I mention all of this in a very delightful and hilarious way. You should really see it. What a delight.

This very point—that I am okay and happy just the way I am—is a crucial aspect of my life. It was hard won. It came after years of worry, having grown up in the Catholic Church, that I’d never be happy or mentally healthy as a gay adult. I came out while attending a Catholic college that refused to put sexual orientation into its non-discrimination policy; meaning, I could have been kicked out for being gay. I worried I would go to hell. Then I realized hell does not exist outside of the thought that your personhood is wrong. After coming out, I went through many tough years in my relationship with my parents. Five years of tears. I lost friends. And I was called names and made to feel unsafe in certain places and with certain people. And sometimes I still am.

I am so proud to have made it to this point in my life. I am so proud to be proud of who I am and to realize nothing will matter less and nothing will matter more in my life than my sexual orientation. It’s one of the most basic things about me. There’s no divorcing it from the rest of my experience—I’ve always been gay and I’ve always experienced the world through my little gay eyeballs, my gayeyeballs. And I’m also just a regular person, because straightness works the same way. We’re all looking out of our little faces at the world. We do see it differently, and that’s not a problem.

I walked out onstage to tape for Last Call feeling strong. I’m happy with where my act is right now, and the Last Call producers emphasized that they’d only need a few jokes from my set. The whole thing was very low key. I felt calm, and, for a moment, I forgot what I was following. I forgot that the audience had been laughing at the idea of gay for about an hour. Of course, as a comic, you can’t believe that what happened before your set will matter. You have to be the only factor in your success or failure onstage. A comic can’t expect a perfect room, or a perfect show, or a perfect audience. But I had eight minutes to get tape, and I didn’t try to spend that time resetting the room. I didn’t mention anything that had happened up until my set. Someday in the future, I will be able to turn a room immediately in my favor without mentioning what has come before my set. Or maybe someday in the future I won’t be in the position I was in that night.

As it was, I did my very best. Yes, I look gay, and I am gay, I said, but, as a joke with a punchline and stuff. An audience member corrected me. “No,” he said, “you look like a dyke.” I mentioned that I am engaged. “Yeah, pussy!” another fine gentleman chimed in. If you are wondering if an audience member offered me his dick, that certainly happened. And I definitely got booed when I told that audience member he could use his own dick to go fuck himself, which I’m still laughing about. I went over my time—did 10 or 12 minutes—and I found a few jokes that worked. Mostly though, I stood in front of a hostile crowd wishing I could just chat to them or yell at them or laugh with them and work the hostility out but wanting to provide the Last Call editors with actual jokes to work with. I do hope they leave that dick line in there though, because it’s genius.

This wasn’t a fluke night—the very next night I was in Vegas and had an audience member shout “You’re the devil!” after I mentioned my engagement, a first for me. I laughed at him. And then graciously destroyed him. I had fun doing it. Maybe I changed his mind about my Satanity, or maybe it just gave the rest of the audience a moment of realization. Sometimes people ask why I talk about my sexuality onstage, and the answer is threefold:

1. From what other vantage point would I speak?

2. Gay folks who might be in the audience should know they are not alone.

3. Some dudes in Vegas still think I’m the devil, and I’d like to address that.

None of this should be taken as a complaint. I’m okay. This is my job, a job I love and a job I chose. I believe my field is better off having a diversity of voices, and nothing gives me greater satisfaction than working at being a better comic. I have a strange personality type that works well with my career: Obstacles push me forward. I’m like an engine that runs on fucking things up: I fail, I get mad, I push harder, I get better. It’s like in The Fifth Element when the government shoots the talking sphere of burning evil and then it grows in circumference except I’m not evil; I’m Bruce Willis.

My fiancée came with to watch the taping. She’s also a comic and wise as hell. Wild show nonsense happens to all comics, but being called a dyke while trying to tape some jokes was a bit of a surprise. I spent the drive home mumbling “How did that happen?” into the ether. She paused. “You are gay and you are a woman and you went onstage in a pretty straight, pretty male room that had been laughing at the existence of gay people,” she said. “I think they wanted to laugh at you, not with you. You had to be funnier than the fact that you exist.”

Yes, I think that’s it. I have to be funnier than the fact that I exist. That’s not unusual. That’s true for all comics. We feel off from the norm in some way—we feel like a punchline—and we get out in front of it. We tell the joke before we can be the joke. I supposed I’ve just hit a point in my life where my sexuality doesn’t feel like a punchline anymore. I’m not ashamed of it and I don’t feel like I have to get out in front of it. I’m gay. I look like a gay person. And then there are funny things. Maybe some of those funny things are in the Last Call spot. Like that excellent dick joke. I really do hope that made it in.


Cameron Esposito is a Chicago-bred, L.A.-based stand-up comic and the host of the Put Your Hands Together podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @cameronesposito.

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