Married comics Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito. (Photo courtesy Robyn Van Swank)

Comic couple Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, laughing through love

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  |  Executive Editor

We live in an age where lesbian power couples are more prevalent than their straight counterparts — from Ellen and Portia, to Lily and Jane to Jodie and Alexandra and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Add to that lineup two of the youngest and cutest: Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, who are also two of the hottest standup comics today. Their 2016 Seeso series Take My Wife did a Seinfeld-esque twist on being comedians playing versions of themselves, but it also took them off the tour circuit for more than two years.

That drought ends with their new national Back to Back Tour, which comes to South Side Music Hall on Thursday. We chatted with the couple from their home in Los Angeles about working together, trust and how their comedy has changed during the Trump Era.                                               

Dallas Voice: Your tour is called Back to Back, so do you work as a team or separately?

Cameron Esposito: We have a show here in L.A. where we perform every Tuesday night as a duo, but we’ve never taken that on the road. So the structure of the night [when we perform in Dallas] will be Rhea and I doing standup together at the same time, but also doing sets separately.

Usually standup is either a solo comic or comedy team which includes a straightman. Since you have neither a “straight” nor a “man” in your show, how does that work?

CE: Funny! I guess you could say Rhea is the air-quote straightman when we are onstage together. But the dynamic that we have when we are together just developed naturally, where I will say a full paragraph in a strong, yelly voice, and Rhea will follow it with one perfect sentence.

Is it hard sharing the stage during a set, even with your wife?  CE: Usually the worst thing that can happen to a standup comic is someone else onstage drawing focus from you. But I really trust Rhea, which is why I married her.

How did your duo act come about?

Rhea Butcher: We both did improv in different capacities, and I knew when we first did [a scene] together that this was the person I was looking or the whole time. I always know what’s she’s about to say, and yet she still surprises me.

Like the lyric in Frozen where the prince, whatever his name is, and Elsa sing, “We’re always finishing each others’ … sandwiches.”  CE: Yes… and I have to give you props for not knowing the name of the prince in Frozen.

Ha! What is his name?

CE: Who cares?

How do you manage to work together and perform together? Does that put pressure on the relationship?  CE: No, because, we hate each other. [Laughs] I think there’s a balance that you figure out. And luckily we’re on the same page. I think that any of your readers who have worked with a partner or have a family business together will say, the best part of it is, your achieve something together and carve out a niche and speak the same language and share the same amount of risk. It’s a family business, but instead of making tires, the brand is us. But it’s also too much pressure to put on a [normal] relationship. It’s bonkers. I would never recommend it … except I fell in love with Rhea. I am an intense person, so maybe I need that kind of intense relationship.

There’s a podcast about movies called How Did This Get Made that you’ve both appeared on. Two of the co-hosts — Paul Scheer and June Diane Raphael — are married in real life, but they always get razzed because they don’t behave like they are married on the show… CE: Rhea and I have been on that podcast and they are the nicest, best people. But you have to make a decision — that you’re having a front-page relationship [for the listeners] and keeping part that’s for you. They can filter out the part of their dynamic — they are showing you what they want to show you.

RB: And Paul introducing June Diane that way allows her to be on the same level as [third co-host Jason Mantzoukis] instead of higher or lower. We had to navigate that early on, too. It was a purposeful decision.

Your streaming series, Take My Wife, was a fictionalized version of your relationship — you were both married lesbian standups named Cameron and Rhea. Was doing the show a way to work out issues in your real life? 

CE: No, because Rhea and I are actually good at talking things out. That show was wild 

because though it was obviously based on
our real relationship, it’s filtered through a ton of folks commenting of what they imagine
that our relationship is. But did I have dreams that there was a camera in our bedroom filming us while we slept? Absolutely.

How has your comedy changed since, oh, let’s just say … Nov. 9, 2016?  RB: I took some time to myself [after the election] to process a lot of it. That allowed me to reshape my thinking about what I was talking about onstage. [When I first started doing standup], what I was doing was being honest and open because [early on] I wasn’t fully closeted but I wasn’t fully out — I never denied being gay, but I was never out in front of it. Now it’s more like we are collecting our thoughts and our own evolutions. It’s the next step of coming out. [My comedy] depends on the day. I was on a podcast when Trump said he was gonna rescind DACA and I don’t even know
what I was talking about because I was so shocked. But last night I had a great set.

CE: My Twitter feed is not funny anymore. I think that’s true of every comic I know. It’s just donation links and commenting on lawsuits. … Trauma is real and it affects all of us in ways that are conscious and unconscious. I’m 35 and I had only seen progress go one way in my life — for people my age or younger this is a really weird time. I’m unfamiliar with the backslide.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 22, 2017.