The Labor Politics of Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butchers 'Put Your Hands Together' Podcast

Curator's Note

I have cut together audio from the first episode and the final two episodes of Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher's podcast Put Your Hands Together (2013-2019), the first live stand-up show produced from its inception to be released in podcast form. As Esposito told LA Weekly in 2012, "There are a billion podcasts out there, but they are interview or chat shows, sketch shows, game shows...there has yet to be a consistently produced stand-up podcast where the comics actually tell jokes.”  Esposito pitched the show to the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater as a way to give up-and-coming comics a platform to reach a national audience and to give “comedy nerds in Omaha” a chance to experience LA's exciting alternative comedy scene. 

While the first episode featured an entirely male line-up, as the podcast gained noteriety and Esposito gained clout in the comedy world, she used the platform to bring more attention to women, people-of-color, and queer folx, featuring increasingly diverse up-and-coming comics in addition to the more famous guests. Eventually she added (her then-partner, and now ex-spouse) Rhea Butcher as a second host. As hosts and producers, the two fostered a rare space for live stand-up comedy that wasn’t just tolerant of marginalized voices, but created as an explicit arena in which they could find work. You can hear Butcher and Esposito addressing this legacy in the show’s final two episodes.  

I see Cameron Esposito as emblematic of a cohort of queer feminist comedians that don’t just seek to upend socal hierarchies and identity binaries through jokes and laughter, but also materially through their labor as agents within the comedic industries. From her early comedy days in Chicago, Esposito has used whatever clout she has to elevate the voices of other marginalized comics. From starting PYHT, to penning an A.V. Club column about women in comedy, to starting a stand-up class for women (that's still going strong), Esposito's career illustrates the importance of marginalized comics not just succeeding, but also pulling up other comics behind them. 

Some questions I hope this raises for discussion include: how do comics advocate for social justice within the comedic industries beyond just telling jokes? What historical precedents for this exist, and how can we study it as comedy scholars? What methods can we use to critically analyze the labor of comics both on and offstage throughout their careers?

 

Comments

Thank you, Stephanie, for starting off the week with this inspiring post about Esposito’s efforts to support fellow queer feminist comics. It makes me wonder about the history of labor organizing within comedy communities apart from/in addition to that of the screen guilds. I’m also curious to know your (and/or others’) thoughts about what effect “Peak Podcast” will have on the medium’s potential as a platform for social justice activism. As my post (for Wednesday) discusses, “Peak TV” has had an intriguing effect on the phenomenon of the coming out-as-media event, and I wonder how the “billion podcasts out there” (as Esposito was already noting back in 2012) are influencing the work that she and others are doing to bring queer/feminist/of color comix (to coin a term!) and causes to the attention of audiences whose eardrums, like their eyeballs, are being bombarded by a glut of content...

These are great questions that I've also been thinking about ---- the most famous instance of comedy labor organizing was the strike in the late 70s over comedy clubs not paying their comics. There has also been a more recent ongoing debate around Upright Citizens Brigade in particular and theaters more broadly that insist that they can't afford to pay their performers. And then, more specifically surrounding sexual harassment, there have been a growing number of Facebook and related closed groups that serve to warn, call out, and organize around theaters, clubs, and individuals who create hostile work environments. I think comics have found it hard, though, to figure out any centralized, comedy-specific organization since comedy is so blurry as far as a work space goes. 

As far as "peak podcast," I have been very interested in that perspective as well - especially as podcasting is starting to shift away from the experimental phase to a more mature commercial phase in which the big players are starting to dominate, networks are starting to form and cement themselves, and advertising is taking off. It seems inevitable that podcasting will go the way of every other medium as it matures -- the voices on the margins get drowned out or financially ruined by mainstream voices. 

I'm teaching a comedy class this semester, and even with all of the outlets available -- my students haven't heard of any of my favorite comics. They just know the major, mainstream (very often misogynistic!) -- comics getting the major TV and streaming specials and comics like Joe Rogan and Bill Burr who have hugely popular podcasts. Or, they know Amy Schumer, Ellen, and other celebrity stand-ups. So - the comedy nerds, like me, know the PYHT comics -- but as far as crossover appeal to the masses -- it will require those with industrial power in networks to give them jobs. But at least efforst like PYHT might help get more margianlized comics in front of those gatekeeprs. 

Thank you so much Stephanie for introducing me to efforts being made by comics like Esposito. I've been trying to theorise a similar idea through my own dissertation on female comics in India. I love the idea of thinking about feminist labour in the context of comedy.

Something similar happens in the Indian context as well with comedians, particularly (cis) female  comedians producing live stand-up shows with all-female lineups including open mics. The economy of comedy here plays a huge role in the kind of comedy the women perform and whether or not they choose to produce their own shows. Most women comics have other full-time jobs through which they are able to support their comedy career which is an expensive and non-paying one especially in the first few years. Here stand-up is still confined to elite spaces: clubs, cafes, pubs that only few can afford. A lot of popular comics perform in English (while most "mass" audiences are comfortable in Hindi and other regional languages) and in places that require paid registrations which are quite expensive. So in terms of diversity and representation of marginal voices, there's still a long way to go. Within these constraints some comics are still trying to bring in diversity of narratives through individual organising, "using their clout", as you mentioned.

What I am thinking of most in my context though is the exclusivity of these comedy shows and the content of the comics' routines as well. What I'm getting at perhaps is that even though there may be comics performing comedy in keeping with their social justice ideologies, the exclusivity of the space somehow negates the reach the comedy could otherwise have had. 

I see much diversity in terms of race, gender and sexuality identities among comics in the US (I speak from the apparent perspective of an international audience that consumes comedy of the other countries primarily through OTT platforms, and I may be wrong) however that is not the case here. Most comics who are popular here are privileged, upper-caste cismen. There's hardly Muslim/Christian representation or even of Dalit-Bajujan women in India. Queer representation too is almost next to nothing (there are only two comics right now openly identifying as gay or bisexual). There is no trans* representation at all. 

To respond to your question about how to think about methods to analyse this labour, we may have to consider these efforts at inclusivity within the contradictions and constraints of living in a patriarchal world. As I mention in my own post, scheduled for Thursday, maybe we need to think in terms of kyriarchy. That it is possible for comics to speak of social justice while not completely being free of discriminatory biases themselves. 

Apologies for the long post :) thanks again for introducing this important point. 

I love the connections you've made between our work! I'd love to talk more about it sometime (and a sidenote--I've seen a lot of amazing work by grad students over the past few years on India's comedy scene -- I've learned a lot). 

Your quote: "the exclusivity of the space somehow negates the reach the comedy could otherwise have had" especially stuck out to me. This is something I've been trying to articulate in my work about alt-comedy scenes that tend to cater more to marginalized comedic voices. I absolutely think this is true. Just anecdotally -- most people I talk to about comedy who consider themselves "fans" have never heard of my favorite comics -- and certinaly don't listen to Put Your Hands Together. I think that's why I'm interested in labor. I can celebrate progressive and marginalized comedic voices all I want - but their reach is so blunted by industrial norms (and kyriarchy, as you mention). So, I'm interested in the work of not only the jokes themselves, but the industry that thwarts these jokes actually finding an audience or being taken seriously by comedy gatekeepers. 

I'd love to chat and hear more about the work you're doing as well as the grad students who are working on Indian comics. There are few I've found here who I can share academic insights about the Indian stand-up scene. 

Rebecca Krefting's All Joking Aside (2014)  which I am sure you must be familiar with, conceptualises "charged humour" (that which necessarily intends to change mindsets and call out discrimination in addition to also providing solutions to social injustice) speaks of how such humour already has very limited audiences and money for comics. Whoever has ventured into doing it, performing poltiically sensitive, charged humour, does so mindful of the limited returns they get. Most comedy producers here, as I told you, have to make sure they have other full-time jobs so that they can make their own stage time buying mics and selling tickets to audiences for even open mics. And most of the comedians who've made this effort have been people who admittedly "love" comedy for its own sake. While it's great to love your job, it shouldn't also make you jump through hoops. And it seems unfair to expect all comics to have the same level of "I'll do whatever it takes to be successful because I love my job" attitude as a requirement for success.

Most audiences only watch comedy online and don't spend too much time patronising upcoming comics. So those who do "make it big" invariably owe it to themselves to put out stand-up content online or sketch or advertisements, or collab with the "well-known" comics so that they can be taken seriously as professional comics by those who come to watch them. 

I hope things change. The Metoo movement that broke in the comedy industry in 2018 here has also now fizzled out with no one who was accused being professionally harmed at all. 

Thanks Stephanie, this is such important labor that is being done here. I do hope that these marginalized comedians are able to find a path to mainstream media. You mentioned that the first podcast was an all-male lineup. Building off of an existing audience is an interesting strategy to me. Do you think this has an impact on who is attracted to the program initially, and who it can reach?

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