Kayla Upadhyaya: In new golden age of stand-up, Cameron Esposito shines

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily TV/New Media Editor
Published September 23, 2013

This summer, I spent my nights in Los Angeles at the NerdMelt Showroom, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, Largo, the Comedy Store. I saw Tig Notaro do an hour-and-a-half-long set, Zach Galifianakis break on the same joke three nights in a row, Aziz Ansari work on fresh material, Sarah Silverman talk about her active dream world, Bob Odenkirk emphasize the importance of honesty in comedy and Natasha Leggero smoke an electronic cigarette on stage. I was living in the epicenter of live comedy and loving every second of it.

New York and Chicago still have their comedy strongholds, but L.A. became the real place to be for up-and-coming and established comics alike when Johnny Carson moved the “The Tonight Show” from New York out West in the mid-1970s. It was the golden era of standup, and the iconic late-night talk show had become a crucial career stepping stone for comics. While some acts remained in New York, most comedians followed Carson, establishing a tight-knit comedy community that included Jay Leno, David Letterman, Robin Williams and, later, Jerry Seinfeld.

Take a look at those guys and you’ll notice something that unites them: They’re guys. Despite all the changes going on in the comedy world, it’s still a boy’s club. But that’s starting to change, albeit slowly. Leno and Letterman are still kicking, but the old guard is on its way out, and they know it. Earlier this month, on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” Leno told comedian Cameron Esposito she was the future. It was Esposito’s network television debut, and a few jokes into her set, she was called over to the couch to sit with Ferguson and Leno. Comedians don’t always get called to the couch after their sets, but there she was, wedged between two late-night host behemoths, rocking her signature jean jacket and stylish haircut she affectionately calls a side mullet. And there was a first golden-ager himself, saying “you’re the future,” passing along the torch.

I agree with Leno. In fact, I’ve been telling anyone who will listen for the past few months that I’m certain Esposito is the Next Big Thing. A decade back — even just a few years ago — I don’t think this would be nearly as possible as it is now. But we’re living in a new golden age of stand-up comedy, one in which Esposito truly can be the not-too-distant future.

Leno didn’t just call Esposito the future on the “Late Late Show.” He also declared, “White men are on their way out!” Joke or not, there’s a hint of truth in his words. Audiences in the new golden age crave more than just your typical dude-centric comedy. Esposito’s brand of standup doesn’t conform to typical conventions. She doesn’t downplay her identity as a woman, lesbian and feminist: She openly acknowledges it in her work, and her sexuality and gender inform her comedy in provocative and honest ways. There’s a tendency for people to put gay comics in a box of “queer comedy” that can have a niche appeal, but that old-guard mindset is changing, too, especially as Esposito continues to climb the comedy ladder and doesn’t hesitate to call out sexism and dudes who heckle her.

I first encountered Esposito this summer at the NerdMelt Showroom, the day after the DOMA ruling. When she was called to the stage, she read an essay she posted on her tumblr before the show. The essay captures her initial reactions to the news, as an American, as a lesbian, as a human woman in a loving relationship with another human woman.

Most NerdMelt shows follow a more traditional stand-up format, but this was a storytelling show, a still-new subgenre of comedy that has comedians ditch their sets in favor of a more narrative-based performance — one which allows for both humor and emotion. In that respect, Esposito nailed it. She had people laughing, crying, sometimes both at the same time. This alternative approach to live comedy is a staple of the new golden age. Alt comedy arose as a rejection of the observational comedy and punchline-driven jokes that dominated mainstream, club comedy, but now it’s practically the new mainstream (though big-club standup still has a place in the new golden age, thanks mostly to comedy giant Louis C.K. and his self-directed-produced-written-and-starring show “Louie”).

After falling for her at the storytelling show, my friends and I went to the Esposito-hosted “Put Your Hands Together” — UCB’s only weekly stand-up show — almost every Tuesday this summer. The lineup was always incredible, but Esposito stands out among just about every comic I saw. Just like at the storytelling show, her sets at the top of PYHT took relevant topics pulled from current events and pop culture and infused them with smart, honest comedy. As Esposito said herself, “... as a comic, you have to be able to speak for yourself, to eloquently and honestly convey your opinions, viewpoint — your whole self, really, to the audience during your time onstage.” That’s the new direction standup is going, and Esposito executes it masterfully.

We’re starting to see more diverse viewpoints like Esposito’s in standup, because comedy is becoming more democratized every day. Standup is more accessible than ever before. Comedy albums and late-night programs used to be the only way you could consume standup without going to an actual live show. Now, we have tools like YouTube, where comedians often release parts of their material for free to gauge interest. I can hop on Netflix to watch “Moshe Kasher: Live in Oakland,” “Aziz Ansari: Dangerously Delicious” and “Aisha Tyler is Lit: Live at the Fillmore.” These days, comedians get their starts as “Twitter sensations” and vloggers and bloggers. Comics can use Twitter to workshop material and self-promote. This summer, Spotify launched a new app called “Official Comedy” that curates stand-up performances and jokes from a whole range of both mainstream and more alt comics.

Not only is the Internet helping comedians reach wider audiences and get their material out there, but comics themselves are becoming more accessible as people, thanks to the rise in popularity of podcasts. Chris Hardwick and his Nerdist empire revolutionized the comedy podcast movement, and now almost every comedian in the biz has their own little personal platform, where they can connect with their audience, tell stories and invite their friends to join in on meta-conversations about the comedy world. It adds a personal, emotional edge to their work and allows comedy nerds like myself to glimpse behind the curtain of personas and process. On podcasts, comedians can express their opinions and viewpoints with more freedom than is often allowed in a five-minute set.

These Internet-sparked changes to the industry make it even more possible for Esposito to be the Next Big Thing in stand-up comedy. Because of this new golden age she’s coming up in, you don’t have to be in L.A. or go to UCB every week to know what I’m talking about. Social media? She’s all over it: Her tumblr is home to hilarious, thoughtful mini-essays that often go on to be featured in publications like Vice, Advocate and Laughspin. Podcast? Double check: She hosts “Wham Bam Pow,” a podcast about action and sci-fi flicks, and “Put Your Hands Together” also airs as a podcast.

It’s thanks to social media that I had a chance to meet Esposito myself this summer. After a quick tweet-convo with her about Laura Prepon, she read my “Orange is the New Black” review and invited me to say “hey” the next time I came to see her at UCB. After PYHT that week, I met her, we talked about “Orange” and “The L Word” and she introduced me to her fiancé, another comedian and the producer of PYHT, Rhea Butcher. We hugged and went our separate ways. It was a brief encounter, but it made me realize that the simultaneous charming and perceptive intensity Esposito has onstage isn’t just persona: It’s who she is.

While podcasts and social media have helped to democratize standup, a glass ceiling undoubtedly remains. We’re seeing more women on “Comedy Central Presents” and late-night lineups, but Forbes’s 2013 list of top-earning comedians features no female comics. Standup isn’t yet free from the sexism that pervades the entire entertainment industry. But when you have an iconic white, heterosexual, male comic sit in front of 1.3 million viewers and say white males are on their way out and “Lesbians rule!” (the last words declared in the segment), it’s kind of fucking awesome and definitely indicative of changing times. So let’s make Leno’s prophecy come true. Here’s to the future, Cameron.