That’s part of why she went with the short but descriptive title for her new hour of stand-up, which Esposito developed over the course of months of live shows before deciding to release it for free online via her website, cameronesposito.com (powered by VHX).
In “Rape Jokes,” Esposito digs in hard on the topic of sexual harassment and sexual assault, as well as the culture of comedy, which continues to debate the question of what is and isn’t permissible on stage. One of the show’s slam-dunk lines, in response to comics who resist being told that certain words aren’t “politically correct”: “If there’s any particular word you need to do this job, I am a better stand-up comic than you.”
The special also includes including some deeply personal stories about her own history with the topic, leading to a deeply emotional experience. “I’m trying to describe this experience that is, you know, traumatic and dramatic, and trying to make it funny because I think I have a lens that’s a little different. I think I have some ideas about education and prevention that I’m just not seeing elsewhere,” she said.
Esposito started honing the hour last January, performing it in front of small crowds of fifty to a hundred people. “Sometimes there were two shows a night back to back, in front of a small audience, which is actually more challenging sometimes than a bigger audience, because bigger audiences tend to laugh a little more. They’ll do a little bit more of the heavy lifting.”
But the nature of the material made her want to keep things intimate: “I didn’t really want to take it into a bigger space,” she said, “I usually tour in bigger rooms than that, but then I was just like, I don’t know that I want to stand in front of 2,000 people and tell this story every night for a bunch of months.”
This led her to film the special relatively quickly — “I just wanted to capture it before I got too exhausted to put my full heart into it” — and then find a way to distribute it in a unique way. “I guess I was trying to figure out what is a way that this can be out in the world that really removes any barriers for folks who might need to see it or folks who might want it,” she said.
Viewers can click and watch “Rape Jokes” right now via her website (or the below embed). Many comedians have experimented with digital distribution for their stand-up, but Esposito’s approach offers no financial commitment whatsoever: The entire special can be streamed free, and then if audiences want, they can make a donation of $10 or more to download it for keeps.
Esposito told IndieWire that the first goal is to recoup the production costs of filming the special, which came to about $2,000 — extremely low for a project of this nature, which she said was possible thanks to the generosity of those who worked on it.
“I don’t know if readers will know how low that is, but I will just say that that’s like a really wild number, and it’s not something that I would’ve been able to achieve if creatives hadn’t wanted to donate their time.” Any money collected beyond that amount will be donated to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). “They’re really excited about it,” she said.
“This is a brand new model in stand-up,” Esposito added. “You can watch the content first and then decide to donate to both support me and the other artists who made this. But then also to supporting an organization I really believe in. So I’m really curious to see how successful this is.”
Esposito noted that while “I usually have been trying, the last couple of years, to hire women and queer folks and people of color in all the projects that I work on,” because of the timing she asked a friend, fellow comedian Jonah Ray, to help her produce the special. Ray is, her words, “a straight white cisgender dude,” and many of the other people who worked on it were also men.
“In this particular case that actually feels really rad. It’s directed by an awesome dude [Paul Bonanno] and DP’ed by an awesome dude [Micah Slay],” she said. “There are a lot of situations where I would be trying to reach into communities that need this credit, need a hand up. But this is one case where I feel great about having a lot of men involved.”
This actually fits with how “Rape Jokes” calls upon men as allies when it comes to the assault and harassment that perpetuates our culture. “There is a part of me that’s trying to speak to a group of people that I think are undereducated and also overrepresented as bad actors. Right? Like we know who is most likely to be a perpetrator of assault and I also think that no one in this country gets accurate or adequate sex ed,” she said. “So I think that there are a lot of ways which we actually fail men and then we are surprised that men fail us.
As she added, “the other thing is also like, who else would I talk to? I know that there are also women who are bad actors in this situation. I know there are women who have committed assault. I know that’s a real thing. I’m not denying that at all… But how can I impact culture the most? It would be talking to men.”
Ultimately, releasing “Rape Jokes” now felt essential to Esposito because of where things currently stand in the conversation born out of the #MeToo movement. “I look at what’s happening right now, in the way that we’re shifting on this conversation — I think that I think that sexual assault and harassment has actually held attention from the public, from media, from our culture longer than I thought it would,” she said. “I’m happy about that, that we’ve focused on this so much for the last year. But then I also look at these murmurs of folks coming back and career rehabilitation. Like I see that we’re also maybe there in the movement. So I wondered if I wondered what the shelf life would be on putting this perspective into the conversation.”
From Esposito’s perspective, the talk of redemption for men accused of sexual misconduct has her concerned — because of how it moves the discussion away from the women who have stepped forward. “We heard about their misdeeds and then they faced some justice and now it looks like maybe the cycle is just going to go back around to focusing on comeback stories for those dudes,” she said. “And I felt like in that whole cycle, where was the moment where we shifted the focus from survivors? …I just felt like there was a chance that maybe the entire thing was going to happen without us ever talking about survivors.”
Esposito declined to comment on how she felt about any specific comedians receiving some sort of redemption. “All of those people, what happens to them in their future is a low, low priority,” she said. “For me, the priority is what happened to all those folks that came out and told their stories.”
Looking forward, Esposito has another stand-up tour planned for this fall, and is also working on a book and an in-development TV show. She also hopes to take some time off soon. “This has just been like really creatively draining and not in a bad way, but I feel like I’ve been like putting my body in the way of a huge and harmful thing in my life, in so many people’s lives,” she said. “So I just need to rest, so I can get back to doing that.”
“Rape Jokes” is streaming now on cameronesposito.com.