On the third season of The Wire—an HBO show nobody can seem to recommend un-annoyingly—Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin conducts a bold social experiment: He designates three zones within his Baltimore district as a legally consequence-free Altered State Of Drugachusetts. The experiment is a mixed success, with crime statistics plummeting at the expense of a significant toll on the city’s humanity. On the opposite side of the spectrum, and in the real world, comedian Cameron Esposito also turned her city into a laboratory of sorts. Her hypothesis was like a gender-specific funhouse mirror inversion of Major Colvin’s: She wanted to juke the numbers of female comedians in Chicago by giving them a place to hone their craft while being left the fuck alone. It worked.
Cameron Esposito is a comedian you should already know. If not, you will soon enough. Her new hour special, Marriage Material, just debuted on Seeso and iTunes; she appears next month in Garry Marshall’s latest, Mother’s Day; the show she created with her wife, the appropriately titled Take My Wife, is coming this summer to Seeso; and further along on the horizon, she’s developing a semiautobiographical TV show with FX and penning a book. The path to her current level of demand and opportunity, though, was once littered with toxicity. It’s something she’s since sought to change for any number of local women attempting to follow in her footsteps.
The Chicago stand-up scene was popping off when Esposito entered into it, in the middle of the last decade. Future stars like T.J. Miller, Hannibal Buress, Kumail Nanjiani, and Pete Holmes were coming into their own, and crowds were coming out in droves. On any given night, comedy junkies in the area were guaranteed to catch a killer show. The only problem was that as much as the scene was booming at the time, there was a major drought in terms of women. The options were limited to Beth Stelling, Jena Friedman, variety act The Puterbaugh Sisters, and very few others. Much of Cameron’s early stand-up career was spent being the only woman on the bill, night after night.
“We couldn’t get booked together on the same shows because there was this feeling that if you’re going to book Cameron now, you can’t book Beth, or if you’re gonna book Beth, you can’t book Cameron. So I would never even be on a show with another woman because there were so few of us,” Esposito says. “Also, there was the idea that, like, ‘We’ve filled our diversity quota if there’s one woman. Why would we have two women? It would be redundant.’”
Making her experience even more isolating, early 2007 was when Christopher Hitchens wrote his magnum opus of contrarian misogyny, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” The draconian article came out in Vanity Fair and left a long viral tail of speculative thinkpieces in its wake. The issue of whether women could be funny, long thought by many to be as moot as the issue of whether chairs could be made from wood, was debated in just about every pop cultural periodical.
Even though Cameron had only been doing comedy for two years at that point, she was suddenly fielding phone calls from The Chicago Tribune and other large publications asking what it was like to be a Woman In Comedy. She did not sugarcoat her responses. In describing how lonely and discouraging it felt to be the only woman booked on so many shows, she managed to incur the ire of several male comedians who felt that she was merely describing the universal experience of any comic starting out.
Doing her job was suddenly even more uncomfortable, now that her position was out in the open. There was no obvious solution to the problem that faced Cameron and the untold other comedians who hadn’t been called for comment on the matter. So she invented one.
“I just decided that the best way to deal with this would be to see if we could change the numbers,” Esposito says. “It’s very hard to explain to somebody who’s in the majority that it feels weird to be in the minority. It’s easier, honestly, to try and change the numbers than it is to get someone to see things from your point of view.”
The way she set out to create change was by opening a stand-up comedy class strictly for women. Esposito recruited Mark Geary, a comedy producer in Chicago, to help implement her plan, and Feminine Comique was born. The classes quickly sold out. Students thrived in this new environment. In order to give them a safe space to practice, the ascendant comedian also started an open mic night at another local club, Cole’s, which she co-hosted with her friend, Adam Burke. Esposito’s two initiatives began to feed off of and fuel each other.
“Stand up isn’t really something you can learn in a class, so I would encourage the women from the class to go to our open mic,” she says. “And before long, during the second session that the class existed, almost every woman in it started coming to the open mic. And then women who weren’t taking the class would come to the mic and realize there were other women signed up for it and they would sign up too.”
Within a year, Esposito and Burke’s weekly event started attracting wider attention. Chicago Magazine voted the Cole’s open mic as the best of the city. It wasn’t just beneficial to women either—the night soon attracted a 50/50 gender representation. Around 60 comics would go up, and a real audience actually turned out—as opposed to most open mics, which often tend to attract only other aspiring comics. It would be difficult-to-impossible to argue that the mixed representation had not directly influenced the open mic’s success.
“If you are a straight, white, 22-year-old dude and you do stand up comedy, there are a lot of you. So if you put a woman who is black and 35 in between two straight, white, 22-year-old dudes, those dudes look more interesting. They get to be a counter point, and that’s something that straight, white men rarely get to experience,” Esposito says. “Not only were the people that had historically less representation benefitting from being around more diversity but the people who were in the majority were too.”
The social experiment bore out. Although Cameron Esposito left Chicago for LA in 2012, she trained 100 women to be comics–or, at least, to speak their mind convincingly in a crowded room–before she left. The comedian who took over the reins at Feminine Comique, Kelsie Huff, has since trained two hundred more. Not all of these students have gone on to become professional, working comedians but some of them do indeed populate the more inclusive bills comedy fans in Chicago are likely to find any night of the week in 2016.
“Women are limited in our imagination by the things that we have seen women do. So if you just go to a room and you watch other women tell jokes, there is something that switches in your mind where then you realize that you can tell jokes,” Esposito says. “We also don’t see ourselves as presidents because we never have female presidents.”