In a time where the world seems like it’s perpetually on fire, Cameron Esposito has some advice: save yourself.
That’s the title of the comedian’s new memoir — literally, Save Yourself. Maybe that sounds a bit harsh, but after her title pulls you in, her story reveals just exactly what she means. Cameron didn’t grow up knowing she’d be a comedian, an actor, a writer or that she’s gay. Instead, she recalls being cross-eyed and awkward, wearing an eyepatch over her glasses, and growing up very, very Catholic. Like, went to Boston College and studied theology Catholic. More than just a book that will give you laughs, this story is one of learning to find yourself and take control over what you can — something we’re all probably looking for these days.
While on a virtual book tour, Cameron talked to BUST over the phone about how her first book came to be and what it taught her about connection.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you realize you wanted to write a book?
I had sort of an unusual process. I was writing a column for the AV Club about my life as a stand-up, and I also was making a webseries for early BuzzFeed — like, Buzzfeed before they had employees — and those things were happening at the same time. And I was approached by my publisher, Grand Central Publishing, about writing a book, which I think is not usually how — I have learned since is not usually how it happens. They don't usually ask me. So I think at first they were sort of anticipating that I would do something that felt a little bit like “Ask a Lesbian,” which was this light in a very funny series of shorts. And then the story that I wanted to tell, which they also were great partners on, it ended up being a lot more complicated than that.
So how did your story evolve from “oh, I’ll do an ‘Ask a Lesbian’ type of book to “I’m going to give you this deeper memoir about my life”?
I mean, it took years. I think honestly, even between when I signed to this deal, I like sold this book and when it actually was released, I released three or four stand-up albums and multiple specials. I made a TV show, I had another TV show that was in development that didn't end up going forward. And I think it was just that all of that work that I was doing felt like a great avenue for maybe the lighter, more bite-size version. And it's not that this is a heavy book, I just think it's an honest book. Or maybe the word is intimate or something, you know? I think it just made sense as a natural evolution because I was doing so much other work that felt maybe tonally a little different, although I am perpetually too earnest. So there's always that.
I want to talk about that transition from writing stand-up to writing a book, because a lot of comedy is pulling from your life experiences. So what was it like writing a memoir that’s not just about a couple of experiences, but has a more overarching look into your life?
That’s a great question. I think it gave me a little more compassion for myself. In some ways, stand-up provides some processing for individual events. But you know, very few comics are like, “Hello, welcome to the show. First I was born.” That’s not how it works. It's generally around a specific topic that you explore for an hour. And for this, really looking at the situation into which I was born, the ways that that shaped my life, the experiences that I've had — and by the way, when you read an audiobook, 'cause I read my own audiobook, you do that in four or five days. So talk about some whiplash and looking at your own history. You're kind of speed-reading my worst traumas. I just think that the long view is a very different experience. And I think that where stand-up has made me feel like I can be entertaining or perhaps sometimes even lovable to other people, this process made me like myself a lot more.
So because you had the space in the book, you were able to go into an amount of detail that stand-up doesn’t allow for. Like you were just saying, some of it was traumatic, but some of it was really amazing. How did you pick which events you would go into detail about?
Does your life feel like a board game? I feel like my life feels like a board game. Like it just is. There are these irrefutable moments that are, like, the moments I pull to from a specific time. Like here’s the first kiss story, and here’s the first time having sex, and here’s when I first moved in with somebody. It just feels so clear to me. I think they felt close to me even before writing this.
Another thing I was really curious about with your writing process was all the jokes in your book. You’re obviously a very funny person, but with a book, you don’t have a live audience giving you laughs. What was that like writing the jokes, knowing that you wouldn’t hear a reaction once you presented the material?
Yeah, I was sort of performing it in my head as I was writing it. One thing that then was challenging was transitioning from that to then reading the audiobook because sometimes, there are these really big shifts in tone. Like there’s a really serious thing, and there’s a joke right after that, or in the same sentence. And that was interesting to try to do vocally or whatever, but I think on the page that actually works well for me. I have long read books [by writers] like David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Miranda July who are just sort of doing multiple things at the same time.
Speaking more on tonal shifts, there was one story you included in your book I thought was really powerful, which was the experience of realizing retroactively you’d been sexually assaulted. I know this is something you did a full hour of stand-up on, but I also know it’s something extraordinarily difficult to talk about. So I was wondering if you had any hesitation about reliving the experience by including it in your book?
I’ve had variable emotional relationships with telling that story. Obviously there's having that story and living that story, but then there’s telling that story. When I was performing it as a comic, that actually usually was really helpful and beautiful, because so many people would come to me afterward and tell me their stories or just tell me their truth. It just was a really wild experience of throwing the shame off and talking about something publicly. Then doing press for that special was like a living nightmare because I just didn't think about the idea that multiple people every day would like use the word "rape" when talking to me about it.
Then putting it in the book, it was one of the last things that I wrote. It was the most difficult passage to read when I read it as an audiobook. I had to, like, call it a day after reading that. So I just say all of that because today, I actually feel fine talking with you about it. And then maybe tomorrow, a different interview interviewer can ask me the same question, and I would feel differently. But I think that's something that we also maybe don't talk about a bunch, is that it had to go in the book from my perspective because it's integral to my life, to who I am and how I relate to other people and then also some days that feels like really sad and awful. Sometimes it feels unreal. Sometimes I can't connect to it at all emotionally, and it feels like maybe it didn't happen or happened to a different person and it's a really wide range. And talking about it, approaching it from a work perspective means that I more often know where other people are coming from because people still frequently out themselves to me. So that's really the biggest change is that a lot of times, I'm operating from a position of speaking with somebody who might know what I mean, or that I could assume might know what I mean because they have had some similar experiences.
As you said, when you were writing and reading the book, some of it is traumatic. Was there anything you were doing to make sure you were taking care of yourself during that time?
I think what I’ve been doing overall in the last several years is making sure that I’m having conversations with people that I actually know about things that are happening in my life. It is a sort of trap where, for instance, many people in my life watched Rape Jokes and I hadn’t had a conversation with them about that experience. And as an artist who has an option for speaking about themselves in the first person, it's a trap to feeling like, “Oh, that's me being heard.” I would also say, if you're not an artist who does this, social media also is this same trap. We talk about our lives in the first person, and so therefore it feels like we've been heard. Like, I tweeted it out — wasn’t that a conversation? I didn't know that I wasn't having a conversation until a few years ago. Now, I'm so much more aware of that and I try to make sure I'm doing that. But I think that's true for so many people, for most of us now living in a digital age.
One of the central themes of the book, taken from the title, is salvation by connecting with yourself and other people, which is especially timely right now. Did you know when you set out to write the book that this would be a central theme, or did it start to take form as you wrote?
It emerged as I was writing it. I really do think that my best gifts are as a connector. I think some people are doing stand-up and it probably feels different to them, like they're telling jokes and the audience is at a distance. For me, it always feels like we’re — this is going to sound so fucking weird — but like we read each other’s mouths, like it just feels like a really interconnected organism, and that's how I feel about. And that’s why I’m doing these panels through Zoom as opposed to Instagram Live, because Instagram — which I've also been doing — even when you're split screen, you just see that other person. When you're on Zoom, you can scroll and see just hundreds and hundreds of people in their own homes and the connection of that, it’s what I've always been interested in. It's baked into who I am as a person and I think it makes sense that it emerged when I was writing the book.
I was thinking about the idea of saving yourself being tied to connection, and how a book is a way for an author to connect with themselves and also with other people. Would you say that saving yourself is on ongoing process and that this book is a part of that process for you?
Wow, yeah. I mean, it certainly is an ongoing process. There is no finish line in sight, I would even say. I mean, I love that. There are things in life we cannot control. I am powerless over how my friends and family are directly affected by what’s going on now. The things that I can do are really just about staying in self-love as much as possible, staying in hope as much as possible, staying in the present as much as possible, not, like, catastrophizing what may happen, but trying to deal with what’s in front of me today. And in some ways, that’s the exercise that we’re all doing right now.
Do you think the experience of writing this book will influence your approach to comedy?
I think I will try to write another book. I have just noticed in my own life when I started doing comedy and I was doing improv, and that felt amazing to just go out and be together with folks. Then after a while, I was actually like, straight up, I just want to do this by myself. My ideal was that I would eventually be able to travel by myself all over the world and, like, I actually have gotten there. I do get to do that and now I've sort of gone back the other way where I'm looking for ways to balance out my job and my income so that sometimes I can stay home. I will never stop doing stand-up, but I'm excited to see if there if there are some ways that my job can expand. So in terms of will it change how I write comedy, it might actually change how often I do stand-up.
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