It takes less than a minute on the phone with Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher before their first minor quibble arises. Cameron swears she came up with the unimprovable title of the show they created, Take My Wife; Rhea remembers it differently. Either that or she's just messing with her wife. In any case, the two quickly laugh about it and move on, with the kind of chill aplomb expected of a couple who made a TV show together within a year of getting married. If their relationship can survive that process, it can probably survive anything.
Take My Wife is a series that manages a lot of things at once. It's a backstage, inside-baseball look at the lives of standup comics on the rise. It's perhaps the definitive treatise on the farm-grade bullshit festival women still have to put up with in the 2016 comedy workforce. It's also a radically normalized depiction of a lesbian relationship. The lead characters' homosexuality is so matter-of-fact in the world of the show, hardly anyone bothers acknowledge it. Another thing the show does, though, is effectively put its creators and stars into the position of running a small family business together. With Take My Wife, Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher's livelihoods are now further entwined than ever.
"It was an office romance," Rhea says of the initial courtship.
The two met back when Cameron was hosting a weekly open mic in Chicago, 10 years into her comedy career, and Rhea was completely green. Despite the disparity in experience, they started plotting collaboration possibilities almost immediately. The not-yet-a-couple's first idea was a podcast, tentatively titled Relatable Lesbians. (The joke of the title being that all lesbians are relatable.) This show would have catalogued the many indignities and victories of two standups at very different points in their careers. It was an optimistic amount of buy-in for two people just getting to know one another, but it would prove prescient. Minus the romantic element, the hypothetical podcast was a basic precursor of what would eventually become Take My Wife.
Not long after moving to Los Angeles a few years ago, Cameron started hosting a weekly standup show at Upright Citizens Brigade called Put Your Hands Together. NBC-Universal was in the early stages of developing their all-comedy digital network, Seeso, and reached out to Cameron about turning PYHT into a show. She passed. By the time NBC made a last-ditch follow-up some months later, though, circumstances had changed. Rhea was still remotely working a graphic design job by day, but the fledgling comic had begun co-hosting PYHT each week and rapidly gaining experience and exposure. The openly dating couple was turning into a formidable comedy force—the fortified team they'd envisioned from the beginning.
"It's still actually maybe my favorite part of work right now," Cameron says, trailing off a little, as if realizing what she's saying as she says it. "I love being onstage with Rhea."
When NBC came knocking that second time, it was with an offer for Cameron and Rhea to create a show together. They said maybe. When they eventually did storm into a pitch meeting, though, it was with a fully flipped script.
Originally, the plan was to make The Untitled Butchposito Project a standup showcase, with interstitial sketches featuring the weekly guest comics in between sets. As the couple got deeper into writing, though, they realized they had it backwards. They instead wanted to build out from the sketches a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style roman à clef of their lives, with stand up bits in between. Cameron and Rhea pitched NBC this vastly more complicated beast of an idea, asking for a writers room, longer shoot days, and more money. The network shocked them both by approving it all.
The next thing they knew, they were tasked with the high-wire act of turning their actual lives into #content. Figuring out how real this portrayal of their reality would be was one huge conversation. (Answer: Very, but with boundaries.) Another more pressing one, though, was about how to present the LGBT relationship they had always wanted to see on TV.
"We didn't want to include a coming out scene," Cameron says, citing one of the more common tropes of TV lesbians. "We didn't want to include breakups or being tantalized by men, or one of us cheating on the other with a dude. We didn’t want a high drama pregnancy storyline early in the show. So many lesbian characters, their storylines are very sad, overwrought, and often tragic, involving death—and also pining. It was important to us that this not be a show about pining."
In place of pining, there are tender, funny, naturalistic scenes of the couple in bed together, being intimate goofballs. The show is so free of pining, in fact, that the opening scene is a flashforward to Cameron and Rhea on their wedding night, swiftly eliminating any will-they-or-won't-they suspense. Instead of an origin story about the relationship, Take My Wife is a sweet, funny origin story about how this relationship turned into a small family business—the two going on tour together and collaborating on projects (like the show itself.) The main reason it works so well as a show is because of how improbable it was, not too long ago, that a small business like this one would exist.
"The specificity of our relationship sometimes surprises people, because we're both gay, female comics," Cameron says. "It used to be there would never be two women on the same bill unless it was, like, Standup In Stilettos night or whatever. A woman would never open for another woman at a club. And now there can be two gay women. What? How? They're gonna burn each other's material and have nothing to talk about!"
When the pair went on tour together, they obviously had enough material to sustain a 20-minute set from Rhea and an hour from Cameron. However, the experience itself also created invaluable new material for the eventual TV show. As it turns out, one comic playing opener to her headliner wife, as both careers independently build steam at different rates, is just as fraught a situation as it sounds.
"It was, at the time, very difficult for me," Rhea says. "Because although I realized it was amazing experience I was getting, being very fresh into standup and opening in multiple cities in large venues and getting more and more time; at the same time, it felt like a movie where people just push you aside because The Beatles are on. It was difficult to be in a relationship and have that happen, and also to be a comic and feel like, 'Well, wasn't I funny at all?'"
At this point, Rhea has less fretting to do over whether people think she's funny. Her debut album, Butcher, premiered at #1 on iTunes comedy chart this month, and held that spot for a week. Meanwhile, she's also landed a recurring gig on TruTV's Adam Ruins Everything. Although Rhea had to swallow a lot of pride at first by opening up for her future-wife; Cameron now has to deal with the fact that Rhea has gotten further along in her career faster than she did. Because of this dynamic, there's more than a little whiff of competition in the TV show that reflects their lives.
"People ask all the time: Is there any competition?" Cameron says. Of course there is. No comic would do this unless they thought that they were the best comic. I want Rhea to succeed and I also want to kick her out of the way. I think we feel that way on both sides and it's ridiculous to pretend it's not true."
It was an element the two worked with the writers room to include. They'd established a nice, open rapport with head writer Shauna McGarry, in which they told stories about their lives and careers, and McGarry translated them into plot lines. Together, they uncovered the rhythm and balance of the characters "Cameron" and "Rhea" as opposed to their true selves. Along the way, though, there was the surreal experience of hearing writers guess at shitty remarks the two might fling toward each other. Those writers may have even uncovered some blindspots in the relationship.
"I will say watching the dramatized version of your flaws, and seeing a dramatized version of the results of those flaws, has given me pause," Cameron says. "The things in the show didn't really happen that way—everything is thematically true but not actually true. Still, the cause and effect is true."
Not only did the show unearth tensions in the couple's relationship, it created new ones. Although the two had talked about collaborating on a major project almost preposterously early into knowing one another, the reality of writing together professionally was different than either expected.
"It was a living nightmare," Rhea says, getting a huge laugh of recognition from Cameron. "It was one of the worst things I've ever experienced in my life. But also the best! It was extremely hard."
"Having a small business that is how your family is going to survive is a ton of pressure," Cameron says. "When you thrive, you get to cherish that together and when there's risk, that's super stressful because then you're like, 'I can't believe I'm putting not just myself through this, but my wife through this and our future through this.' And then if you add the additional element that our product is ourselves, that's just so much pressure to put on a relationship."
Indeed, imagine working a stressful day with your partner on a project about your relationship, and then going home to unwind by living that relationship. Who complains to whom? And about what, exactly? For a newly married couple, and newly merged business partners, it proved to be a radical exercise in conflict resolution. Now they know beyond all doubt that they have what it takes to be together and create together. It's what's gotten them through tours together, through Cameron's and Rhea's not-always-in-tandem individual successes, through the first season of the show, and hopefully through subsequent seasons and future projects.
"Most times, if we had a disagreement, we'd step out of the writers rooms and go for a walk and look into each other's eyes at some point and remember that we're in a relationship with each other and not just working together."