Interview with comedian Rhea Butcher

By Rachel Lee
Photo-illustration by Nyomi Warren

To say Rhea Butcher has their hands full might be an understatement. The comic is hot off the heels of a national stand up solo tour, a fresh season of their sitcom, a new podcast, and guest appearances for comedy specials (like 2 Dope Queens’ live shows on HBO) – all a far cry from the short stand-up sets and Buzzfeed videos they were doing only a few years ago.

Rhea is best known for their stand-up (they co-host Put Your Hands Together, a weekly comedy showcase), with their material covering topics like being misgendered in a Target bathroom, lifelong vegetarianism, and their shining 5-star Lyft rating. Rhea shares the private, mundane details from their life in stand-up sets, and share the humor they’ve extracted from each experience with the audience. Their sitcom, Take My Wife, feels like a televised extension of that – the show is co-written with wife and fellow comic, Cameron Esposito, and is loosely based off their real experiences starting out in comedy and being in a relationship. The show is funny (written by a team of comedians, it’s to be expected), but filled with a nuance most popular sitcoms lack. There are plenty of light moments, but Rhea and Cameron infuse their writing with candid conversations about queerness and femininity, a disappointing father, relationship issues, coworkers who make shitty jokes: all in all, weight that feels realistic, personal, and resonant with their audience.

Aside from TMW, they recently started hosting Three Swings, a baseball-focused podcast for “the nonchalant baseball fan, the heavy-duty baseball fan, and basically anybody who likes to hear me talk about my thoughts,” as Rhea said. They managed to squeeze recording time in during Rhea’s stand up national tour, Close to Home, which ended last week with a number of sold-out shows; it was their first time headlining a tour after co-headlining last year with Cameron. I caught Rhea for an interview to pick their brain and talk about their newest projects before their tour started.

Tell me about some of your new projects! You’re about to start touring – how long has that been in the works?

I love to travel for work and meet people and just make them laugh. It’s great to give [the audience] 45 minutes to an hour where they can chill out, stop thinking about things, laugh. We need that more than ever now, and I’ve been going to a lot more live performance myself – it’s been really great to just be in a room full of people. It’s so easy to get locked into the internet and think that’s how everyone thinks and acts and breathes. It’s just good to get out in the world and experience things together, especially joyful things.

I’ve been getting the word out on Take My Wife. We’ve been getting really great feedback, and I’m so glad so many people enjoy it. I’m going on auditions for acting roles, and it’s very fun to walk into a waiting room of other short haircuts. [laughs] I feel like a very lucky person.

Tell me about Three Swings. Why did you start working on it? The audience that the podcast appeals to seems pretty different than the audience your stand up attracts; was that an intentional choice?

Three Swings is for the nonchalant baseball fan, the heavy-duty baseball fan, and basically anybody who likes to hear me talk about my thoughts [laughs]. I like to talk about baseball – I love the sport, the history of the sport and learning about it, and I’m interested in women’s baseball specifically. I talked about it a lot, and people kept telling me, “you should have a baseball podcast.” I’m always trying to cast as wide a net as possible, and I’m trying to work on creating spaces that are accessible to everybody. [Making a podcast] always felt very out of reach, even in thinking about who’s going to listen to it, but then I realized not everyone who’s into baseball listens to the big, mainstream, white dude-dominated stuff. There are other people like me who are into the sport and maybe don’t have a podcast to listen to. I could make a podcast for those people, and I’m sure there are a lot of people that do listen to [mainstream media focused on baseball] who would also listen to something else.

Have you been approaching Three Swings with more of a comedic lens or an informative view?

I think I’m trying to go somewhere in between those two. I want it to be funny, I don’t want it to be super dry, and I want it to be more than just baseball on paper. I play fantasy baseball, so I can get really into stats and sabermetrics, but I also love the more human side of those stats and the context behind them. When you get into context and the human side of things, you start getting into comedy.

On the first episode, I went into a deep dive of the history of the Cleveland baseball logo that the team is getting rid of next season. As a person who grew up in Ohio, and with [the Cleveland Indians] being my team, I tried to tell my story and how my understanding of the logo evolved. So often we have conversations that feels like someone from the outside saying, “you’re wrong!” I’m from the “inside”: I grew up with this, and it was part of the things I looked at in my life. It’s taken me a long time to understand [the controversy around the logo], and now I can say as an insider that we should get rid of it.

I’m trying to talk about baseball from an atypical fan standpoint. Most people probably think a typical baseball fan is a man, so just to represent different facets of the game and that different types of people like baseball is important to me. Lots of different people like lots of different things – it’s not just one monolith of people who like NASCAR, or Blue Apron, or whatever it is. So many people have so many different, overlapping interests, and we should start to have conversations about understanding interests as people.

There was a campaign to save Take My Wife after Seeso, the original platform the show aired on, shuttered. What was the process of releasing season two of TMW? Did you and Cameron enter the creative process with diverse representation in mind?

For getting it out there, we had a social media push and a lot of interest. Cameron and I didn’t, and don’t, have the rights to the show, so we couldn’t make any decisions. It was a little out of our hands in where it could go – we wanted to save the show, then went drumming up some interest, and then just hoped it came out! And it did. [laughs]

In terms of diversity, for season one we had a very short timeline and a small budget, so we tried to be as inclusive as possible. It was our first time making a TV show, so we did the best with what we had. For season two, we recognized the places we could do better, and we pushed for as much diversity as possible that makes sense.

What’s behind the camera as representative of what my life looks like. I’m not randomly grabbing people off the street and trying to force a rainbow of people – we were finding the right person for the job and having a range of people that represents the life that I live. What Cameron and I had was effectively the “inclusion rider” that everyone’s talking about. We made a promise to each other to try to have as much diversity as we can on every level for every single thing we can do. In terms of crew, it took a little longer to hire people. You just need to cast a wider net to find more people, and we really wanted to put the time in. Especially for hiring women and non-binary people, a lot of them just haven’t had enough career opportunities. A lot of people we hired, writers or even a boom op, she got the hours to finally level up and get into her union. Doing these things is the most rewarding thing you can do, giving somebody that little step up and more experience on a set.

In TMW, you play a fictionalized version of yourself that you’ve written. As an actor and writer, where do you draw a line between your on-stage persona and real self? I’m guessing a lot of your viewers unconsciously will conflate the real Rhea and TV Rhea, so where do you find differences between the two? I noticed that in season two, your character is kind of a hoarder – would you identify with that?

Oh, absolutely. That’s definitely from my life. The bit where I keep saying I can’t get rid of my stuff, [Cameron and I] have had that conversation before. In my mind, it’s not a materialistic thing – materialism to me is just buying things to have them, going through stuff and not caring about it – but I’ve gotten better. I don’t have stacks and boxes throughout my life, but I love things I’ve collected over time that reminds me of times from my life. I like to look at that thing, and remember the friend who gave it to me, and that moment. I wanted to portray something people could relate to and make it kind of silly.

In the first season, something I immediately knew was that I didn’t want any nudity. Cameron and I really had to negotiate about that, because screenshots live forever. We ended up writing a scene about that actual conversation in the show, and I think that’s so much more effective than actually being naked in the show. In season two, there’s a storyline about my dad not coming to my wedding, which is fictional, but it was an interesting experience getting to a similar point in real life. I thought perhaps some people could relate to that experience, of having someone in your life who couldn’t do something for you, so I took an experience and changed it to be a little more open-ended. Also, we didn’t have the budget to hire someone to be my dad [laugh].

Being in a historically straight and male industry, I’m assuming you’ve been pigeonholed into being “the female comic” or the “gay comic.” How do you reconcile that and try to make content that feels right to you without being boxed in?

I absolutely have been. There’s a great piece by Jenny Yang in Elle about being an Asian American female comic about this. The unfortunate thing is, you can’t get everyone to call you what you want to be called all the time. What I’ve realized is that I’m going to do the comedy that makes sense to me, and say things that I want to say and feel comfortable with. I’ll talk about [being labeled] if it becomes a gigantic problem, but I’m clocking it always.

There’s a difference between a label and an identity, and I have a bit on that on my album. What I’ve noticed is that people have started to called me a “comedian and activist,” which is interesting. I’m not personally offended by the label “activist,” but I am concerned that I’m being called an activist, but my male comedian counterparts, who are just as vocal and active about politics, are not being labeled “activists.” Why am I, a queer comedian, being labeled that? All of those labels – “female,” “queer,” “gay” – starts to pull me away from comedy. It implies that if I’m an activist, I couldn’t possibly be a comedian. This is the same stuff that my eyes were opened to in a gender studies class in college 15 years ago: who gets to be neutral, and who gets to be called something? Who’s being called a “comedian” and who’s being called a “something-something comedian”? As long as I’m speaking my truth and people are paying attention to everything, I believe it’ll always come out in the wash.

 

Speaking of your stand-up, you talk about some personal issues in your sets, like your experiences being misgendered and facing homophobia and sexism. How do you spin some really hateful and difficult stuff into something that is accessible to an audience, particularly an audience that might not identify with those experiences?

My album [Butcher, released in 2016] and the jokes in it were more for people who don’t identity that way. The material from my album was written almost two years ago, so when I’m telling jokes now, it feels like I’m getting at a different thing than jokes from that album. I always tried to be the person I’ve always wanted to be when I’m on stage, and that’s what I enjoy about doing standup: all my baggage goes away, all the specificities of everything that’s happened is distilled down into a simple thought, and I get to talk about just that thought.

I talk about what it means to be a person who is judged and clocked a lot by strangers. It’s a unique perspective where sometimes I’m receding into the background, sometimes people are paying a lot of attention to me, and I’ve gotten to experience the world on a lot of different levels for that reason. I’m always a little on my toes and pay a lot of attention to the space I’m in, and a lot of people can relate to that for many different reasons. It’s not always for having a short haircut or presenting a certain way, but a lot of people spend their lives being uncertain of the space they’re in. It’s a very basic, universal feeling that I’ve always been trying to get at – why are we doing that to each other? How can we stop doing that to each other and just enjoy the world we’re in?

How do you handle hecklers or shitty people who are laughing at you instead of with you?

The great thing is, that doesn’t happen too often. I’m glad that I’m not heckled that often. If it does happen, I try to talk to that person and figure out what’s going on for them. If someone’s in that situation and has to blurt something out, something is making them so uncomfortable, they have to interrupt a performance that they’ve paid to go to.

I will say, positive heckling is also difficult. A lot of people don’t realize that even when you’re happy and yelling things out, I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to shame them, but when you yell out when a comedian is talking, they can hear you, and it’s hard to continue talking and process what’s happening. It really messes with your internal timing.

With the negative heckling, you said you try to figure out what’s going on for that person, but it must wear on you. It’s a lot of emotional labor you’re expending during a show. Do you find it valuable to do it anyway?

I think so. It’s not emotional labor I’m spending for that person, but it’s emotional labor I’m spending for everyone else in the audience that doesn’t want that person to talk. People who heckle don’t think about anyone else around them. In that moment, the heckler thinks everyone agrees with them. You have to ask them why they’re doing this and put them in their place a little bit. You have to do labor for the people who like you, not the ones who don’t like you, and that’s how I think about emotional labor all the time. I’ve been given a platform, however how small that is, and I’m trying to put some positivity and goodness back into the world. I’m happy to do the work and help people, convince people to change their minds.                                                                                                                      

What would you say the most memorable positive, or value-neutral, heckle is?

It’s happened multiple times, but sometimes I’ll say a joke and people are thinking about it before they laugh. In that moment of quiet, someone yells, “YOU’RE RIGHT!” or something like that. It’s just a funny moment because that person felt compelled to tell me that, so I’ll respond, “you’re right that I’m right!”

You started using “they” pronouns and recently discussed your gender identity on Twitter. Has it been a difficult transition when you’ve already established yourself in the comedy community?

I don’t know if “difficult” is the word, but it’s very hard to get a bunch of different people on the same page without putting out a press release. I’ve been using they pronouns, but I’m trying to practice kindness and understanding that if somebody uses she/her. I had a bit on gender identity on the Two Dope Queens HBO special that if we all use they/them as a default as opposed to choosing between he/him and she/her, it would be a lot easier. I’m trying to use that bit as a way to talk about it and as an introduction to saying that’s what I do now. Everyone’s journey is their own journey, so I don’t mean to imply this is what everyone should be doing. I’m in a place right now where all pronouns are acceptable to me because that’s what people have been doing anyway through my entire life, so I’m not really changing anything by saying I’m okay with this. I’m taking the power of saying they’re kind of meaningless for me, so whatever you want to call me is fine. After saying that, people are still continuing to use she/her exclusively, so it’s not necessarily working yet. It’s a long process. I’m in the “not sure” space, so right now, I’m enjoying where I am and who I want to be, and soon, I’ll get back into correcting people and getting a firmer stance on it. For now, I’m happy to have found a new part of myself.