In August 2016, Take My Wife, the brainchild of Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, appeared on Seeso, a streaming service that shut down in November 2017. The first season of the show received critical acclaim and when it was announced that Seeso would shut down before season two appeared, fans and critics alike rallied behind the show. In March of this year, both seasons dropped on iTunes and immediately soared to the top.
I caught up with Cameron to ask her how they pulled off this miracle, why the show is so special, and if we can expect another season.
S.E. Fleenor: You often tweet about and are vocal about politics, social justice, and equality and I’m wondering where do you see the intersection between being a comic and being an activist—if there is one?
Cameron Esposito: Being a standup comic is always about speaking from your own perspective. Often that perspective isn’t visible because when someone is speaking from the most represented perspective, like the cisgender straight white male perspective, that’s so commonplace. It’s the mainstream perspective in our country, so we don’t even notice it. Stand up is an industry that’s dominated by straight white dudes. They are getting on stage and speaking from their perspective and it just so happens that when you are a lesbian, your perspective is inherently political because people in positions of power have been marginalizing myself and folks like me for…oh I don’t know…since the dawn of time.
I don’t know that you can separate them because my existence cannot be separated. The personal is political.
SEF: I just finished binge watching Take My Wife and it is such an incredible and special show. Why do you think audiences are drawn to it?
CE: I only know what I hear because I’m obviously so close to it—it’s hard to look at with an objective eye. I only see the mistakes and the things we could have improved on, but that’s the Cammy Esposito special, always wanting to challenge myself. (Laughs) I think what it is, and I would be very curious to hear your thought on this…this is going to sound too simplistic, but just that it’s real. It really is real. We are really queer. The folks that are playing queer roles on the show, especially in season two, all of those are really queer actors or folks from the LGBT community. There’s a one to one relationship between what folks are speaking about, who wrote the lines that they’re saying, and then the actor that’s portraying that role.
There’s a scene in our second season where Brittani Nichols, who was a writer on our second season, is going to the gynecologist and has a binder on her chest. The doctor is talking to Brittani about what that means. That is something that Brittani wrote, she participated in the writing of that, along with Rhea who wrote the episode. Rhea also directed that episode.
So often when we talk about representation on screen, I think it has been reduced to a buzzword, when what it really means is: art that is true always resonates. The way you’re going to get at truth is by having folks involved who really have those experiences.
SEF: That’s what I would have said. So frequently when I watch TV, if there’s a queer character, I get my phone out and Google the person. Is the actor queer, who’s writing this, what does it mean? And, the entirety of your show, I knew I didn’t have to Google these people and be hyper vigilant. I could trust that the effort set forth is trying to do this.
CE: We talk about it almost from a negative perspective, like I don’t want straight actors playing these roles. But, that’s not it. It’s more like, if you want to make a really good show, whatever the subject matter is, you should be trying to include folks that actually experience that subject matter—at every level, as a director, as a writer, as a cast member, everywhere, in your wardrobe department. It doesn’t have to be that that’s the only person on set, but for a lot of our history in the entertainment industry, there has been no one on set that actually lives that life. That’s what’s so exciting about what’s happening right now, the change that’s happening.
SEF: The talkbacks after each episode in season one provide a lot of insight into what’s behind the episode or what inspired the episode, and it also seemed to blur the line between what is real and what is fictional in fascinating ways. What made you decide to include those talkbacks? How did you separate the real from the fictional on set and in your everyday life?
CE: We had a lot of support from the executives who helped Take My Wife into the world and from our production company. That really came about from the former head of our network, Seeso, Evan Shapiro. He encouraged us to spend a day building out our conversation about the show. That’s why those are in there.
That’s also shot in the real place where we actually host the stand up show that there’s a fictional version of in Take My Wife. So, in terms of layers of meta-commentary (Laughs), the fact that the characters have our names and are stand ups comics and that they host a show together, we just kind of kept breaking the line between how real can we get this. Let’s add another element where we, the people not the characters, are standing in the actual place that we host a show.
SEF: There are so many powerful statements throughout the show, from the season one #MeToo moment, before we were broadly using the language of #MeToo, to the season two standup show where you and Rhea were threatened by a male audience member to the episode we spend with three gender variant comics you and Rhea featured in your show in season two. In that episode, your character says, “Sometimes I forget how lonely stand up used to be before we had this show.” In some ways, that line seems to summarize the theme of season two, which I took to be lifting others up, even as you lift yourselves. What does it mean to you to have been able to do that on a whole new scale, in this meta way, with Take My Wife, particularly looking at season two?
CE: I started doing stand up so that I could create a safer place for myself. That’s just 100 percent true. It’s a lot less emotional labor to come out to 200 people at once than it is to come out to 200 people individually. So, I just started becoming famously gay as a way of not always walking through the world scared. Like, “When am I going to tell this person what’s going on with me? How am I going to tell them?” I find that the constant coming out that comes with queerness is pretty exhausting. I think it’s the thing that’s exhausting—the constant coming out and not knowing how somebody is going to react. Certainly, I have had people treat me very badly, but that’s not necessarily as daily as the stress of wondering if they know what’s up.
The percentage of people in the world who have treated me badly is probably less than the number of times that I think it could happen. I think that’s true for a lot of queer folks, that there is a real sense of walking through the world and being unsafe. I wanted myself to be safer and I wanted folks like me to be safer, but I’m also a white person and I’m also a cisgender person. The more that I leaned into finding that for myself, the more I realized that gaining any sense of a platform or any ability to hire people meant that I had to increase that circle of safety. To try to redistribute money in the small ways that I’m able to, so that it’s not just going to the same types of folks who have been working in the industry, to try to get folks credits so they can continue to work past Take My Wife.
A lot of folks were able to enter their respective guilds because of credits that were given on Take My Wife. I know some comics that were able to enter SAG and some folks who were able to enter guilds in writing and as crewmembers and that really means a lot. If you enter your guild, that means you have a chance of getting health insurance. It sounds so silly to be using stand up comedy to be providing people with health insurance, but I’m at the point where I can do that. And, allyship means the world to me because it’s what makes me feel like my life matters.
SEF: You’ve been vocal about the remarkable amount of diversity among cast and crew that you and Rhea were able to create for Take My Wife. What effect do you hope these stats will have on the world of television and comedy?
CE: Realistically, who knows? Probably no effect. (Laughs)
But, my dream, what would I want to happen?
Our budget for this show was very small, even for the second season where our budget was doubled. We were working more with an indie film budget than the types of budgets for premium cable or regular cable or network shows or Netflix, all of those. We probably had the smallest budget of anything available anywhere else for a scripted show, so what I wanted to do with our stats is be able to say, “See here’s what we were able to do with just intention.”
We just set an intention, communicated clearly with everybody who worked for us and with us about what we were trying to do, and set out to communicate that before the hiring process for season two because we knew we would have a little more money, so we could make take an extra week to prep before going into the writers room.
Again, this is still way less time than most shows get. We chose to take that time to focus on trying to increase our diversity. And, again, there’s a real value to it. Not just the value of, “I feel good about it,” but if folks are saying “this seems like a real show,” if a very small budget show is being written up in Vanity Fair and Variety and the New York Times and the Hollywood Reporter, that means that there’s an actual return on your investment. Hollywood like anywhere else is about getting your investment back. So, one way of getting your investment back is to create buzz around your show, to make a show that people care about, that they want to talk about with other folks.
We were number one on iTunes with no PR, with no advanced PR. It was just dropped on iTunes and went immediately to number one. If you want to talk about actually making dollars back, investing in making your show good by including the types of people that are represented on screen does that and we want to show folks that have even more money to spend, this is how you get your money back.
SEF: If I understand correctly, between filming season two and its premiere, SeeSo, the streaming service Take My Wife appeared on, shut down operations. For a while, it sounded like season two might not see the light of day. What happened between then and now and how did you pull off the miracle of season two finding new life on iTunes and starting May 1, Starz?
CE: We had enormous fan engagement. There was this huge push and we were like a trending topic for a minute. That was all really rad. From there, it was out of our hands for a very long time. I have to say, it goes back to folks who engaged with the show and reached out on social media and who bought it on iTunes. For instance, when it was first being released on iTunes, which we have no control over the date, and we have no control over the territories. It was released only in the U.S. and Canada. It did so well that we were able to point out to the people who make these decisions, “Hey, what if we expanded it beyond that?” So, for that reason it’s going to be in the UK and Australia on April 30th.
If you’re somebody who is interested in queer media and you’re wondering, “How do I get more of this made?” tweet about what you like to watch and make sure you’re getting other folks to watch it and spend some money on it. When I say spend some money, the good news is I’m not talking about a hundred dollars or a thousand dollars. The barrier to entry for a lot of entertainment and media is between ten bucks and five bucks or free on YouTube or you’re buying a book in store and it costs thirty bucks and that’s what you’re spending money on for entertainment that month. I don’t mean to say that we all have disposable income to spend, but I do mean to say you can be directed with the way you spend your disposable income.
It really does matter.
Starz is seeing the value and that’s why they snapped it up. They’re seeing the value in this engagement and seeing the value in getting eyeballs to their streaming service.
I do this. I wouldn’t ask anybody to do anything I wouldn’t do myself, whether it’s buying audiobooks or books or movie tickets or tickets to see live shows, I’m very interested in investing in queer folks who are out running around trying to make their living. That’s how I spend my time and money.
SEF: What’s next for Take My Wife? Any chance of a season three? Or are you moving on to other projects?
CE: We have a bunch of stuff going on right now, but again, if that’s something that folks want, it’s sort of more in your hands than our hands right now. So, go to Starz and watch the show or buy it on iTunes and make it a huge hit and make it so that people can’t not make another season.
SEF: What do you think the fictional Cameron is doing right now?
CE: (Laughs) Oh my gosh. She’s kind of a stress case, so she’s probably bossing Rhea around. Don’t you think?
That sounds right.
*Feature image via Facebook