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Interview: Cameron Esposito

The Chicago native talks about her new album Same Sex Symbol, moving to L.A. and meeting Jay Leno

Chicago native Cameron Esposito has had a hell of a few years. Since moving to Los Angeles in the Summer of 2012, she's been featured multiple times on late night TV, opened for Anthony Jeselnik on a national theater tour, and did voice work for the cultishly adored animated show Adventure Time. She's also created and hosts a pair of hugely popular comedy podcasts: Put Your Hands Together, which shares audio of performances from the live standup show of the same name with bonus backstage interviews with some of the show's biggest guests, and Wham Bam Pow, a sci-fi- and action-movie-themed chat show.

Earlier this week, legendary indie rock label Kill Rock Stars released her new standup album, Same Sex Symbol, which collects some of her best-known material from her days performing in Chicago, as well as more recent material developed since her move. The album quickly hit No. 1 on iTunes and has been well reviewed by folks like Entertainment Weekly and NPR. In anticipation of her two shows tonight at Lincoln Hall, one of which is totally sold out, we talked with Esposito about her experiences since her move, as well as how Chicago prepared her for the big time, and what Jay Leno's like offstage.

Same Sex Symbol is your second standup album, besides the obvious (TV appearances, performing in massive theaters), what has changed since the release of your first album four years ago?
"Hours and hours and hours of stage time has made me a completely different comic. The first album captured the moment when I began to take standup seriously—it's loose and experimental and the material is more surreal. This album really works as a whole and that is reflective of the way my life has changed as well, I've grown-up a lot, moved to a new city, toured extensively and committed to a partner [my fiancée, Rhea Butcher]."

"It was an enormous amount of work to get here, and I'm really proud of the album. That said, I'm sure in two years I will think Same Sex Symbol is utter shit. That's part of what I love about standup, the constant need for improvement and evolution."

In what ways did your experiences working and performing in the Chicago area before moving to L.A. prepare you for these massive experiences you've had since the move?
"Chicago is the perfect place to learn to be a self-sufficient artist. There's so much room to grow and so much support for creating your own thing. That has served me well in LA. Chicago taught me that no one is going to do the work for you. I've seen some folks arrive in LA without that knowledge and really struggle to get connected to the city around them."

"I don't know that I realized earlier in my career that there is no "making it," or, rather, that you don't make it once, you make it forever. Everyone at every level is hauling ass to land their next job. All comics have won and lost and re-won jobs. It's equal parts reassuring and terrifying."

Your debut late night performance on Craig Ferguson was so unusual and exciting. He's been criticized before for pre-taping the show's musical and standup comedy segments, so it was a pretty unexpected moment when he and Jay Leno called you over to the couch to chat before your set was even over. Can you take me through that moment, what was running through your head once you took the stage?
"I walked out knowing Jay Leno was the other guest on the show but not realizing he would stay to watch, that they both would, actually. It was an amazing experience just to be able to perform for those comics."

"Whatever your feelings about Craig and Jay, their success and longevity are massively impressive. And they were completely lovely to me, onstage and off. They talked to me like any other comic would and challenged me like any other comic would. I took it as an enormous compliment, but was pretty worried I had messed up the segment by talking with them. As I was exiting stage, I saw the booker and apologized for going off script. He was like, 'What are you talking about? That was amazing!'"

You've worked with some hugely talented performers both on the Put Your Hands Together podcast and elsewhere (Chelsea Lately, Adventure Time, Maron, etc.), who's a dream collaborator for you?
"If Tegan and Sara would just let me open for them, we could get all the lesbians!"

Since the early '90s, Kill Rock Stars, the label that released Same Sex Symbol, has been an icon of progressivism and activism in the underground music world. They've recently started working with standups on releasing comedy records. How did you come to work with them?
"Sleater-Kinney? Gossip? You can't argue with that catalogue. But I knew I wanted to work with them when I saw how they managed my friend Kurt Braunohler's album release. It was done with such focus and class—I just loved the way they treated it as a polished album, not just a one-off recording. And they have done the same for me."

"Because of their music background, they are really focused on curating a particular aesthetic and attempt to really get a specific set of eyes/ears exposed to the work. I can't say enough about the label."

What's coming down the pipeline that you're most excited about?
"I'm pitching a book idea and really hoping to move forward with that. And I'll keep jamming out columns for The AV Club on my life as a standup, so check those out and leave extremely complimentary comments ASAP."

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