It’s not unusual for a comedian to have some kind of background in improvisational comedy. What is surprising, however, is that Cameron Esposito, performing Friday night at The Pinhook in Durham, was almost too successful at it to ever begin her stand-up career.
“I started doing improv when I was attending Boston College, around 2001 or so,” Esposito says. “There was a company that Amy Poehler had started in when she was attending school there as well. At the time that I started, she was just starting to break out on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ so there was this feeling that it was possible to do this as a job. That was the first exposure I had ever had to that thought. I didn’t grow up in an area where someone would become a comic for a living.”
Esposito’s career as an improv artist was successful right off the bat. While Boston is considered one of the epicenters of the stand-up comedy world, the young entertainer’s calendar was so packed that there wasn’t any free time to explore new avenues of telling jokes.
“The day after I graduated college I got my first job doing professional improv at a theater in Boston, then I worked at another theater in Boston, and then pretty much I found myself doing improv professionally six nights a week,” she recalls. “I didn’t really have time to think about doing stand-up until I moved back home to Chicago, at which point I made the switch.”
Beginning her stand-up career in 2007, Esposito freely admits that the new generation of comedians has several technological advantages over those who came before her. Whereas many struggling comics of the past had to slag through crummy second-rate comedy clubs in an attempt to make ends meet, today’s comics can almost dictate their own terms for performing – particularly if they make good use of social media.
“Comics kind of generate their own audience more now than at any point in the past,” she explains. “With the Internet, we are all just more accessible, and people are more aware on all types of levels, whether they follow you on Twitter, or heard you on some podcast, or something along those lines. All of this leads to comedians being able to draw their audience specifically, with the difference being that comedy clubs have always just brought in folks that are there to see comedians in general, not necessarily to see the actual comedian performing that night. Certainly I still do comedy clubs, but I am also doing more theater and rock-club shows, because it’s great when I’m playing an area that has enough of my fans to fill a place that are just there to see me.”
Esposito reaped the benefits online exposure can bring after a 2014 appearance on CBS’ “The Late Show with Craig Ferguson” went viral. Stand-up segments don’t captivate the modern audience like in the past, but something about the easy comedic interplay among Esposito, Ferguson and fellow guest Jay Leno caused comedy fans to pay attention, and many agreed with Leno’s assessment that Esposito was indeed “the future of comedy.”
To hear Esposito tell it, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain traction with an audience that tends to doze off during the comedy portions of late night talk shows.
“It was my first time doing anything on network television,” she says. “I had been on TV before that, but it was only on cable. Then for it to be my first opportunity on network television performing stand-up, and then that wild thing happened with Jay and Craig that gained traction, it helped get my name out there tremendously. Stand-up sets on late night talk shows are just an opportunity to showcase yourself as a comedian, but they’re not usually a news item. But because of the particular specifics of what happened, it went viral, and it really took me to the next level as far as exposure. I’ve been trying to continue to build on that ever since. I mean, I was doing OK before that, but it was really the first tipping point of folks going back through my catalog of material and follow me online.”
The young comedian has taken every opportunity to build on that exposure. Esposito says that even though the audience at The Pinhook will be hearing her best material, to make it in today’s comedy world, one must also constantly promote.
“Nothing is important to a comedian’s career anymore, because everything is important to a comedian’s career,” she says. “By that I mean that there is not one big thing that really helps you anymore, there are a million little things that push you along. We’re in this new era where folks watch everything on their phones, and you can become a YouTube star, or you can be really popular on Vine, or you can start a comedy podcast, and that will bring people to your shows. I think there are so many avenues to reach people now that it has taken the pressure off of really hitting it big off of that one thing.
“As a comic you really should be working every day in a million small ways, and it is just a plodding march. It just is about getting to that next step in your career, whatever that may be.”
Who: Cameron Esposito, with Rhea Butcher
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Pinhook, 117 W. Main St., Durham