interview by Brittany Nader
Rhea Butcher is a rising star based in Los Angeles and she seems poised for household status one day, but she’s an Akron original — #Kenmore — and proud of it. That love of Akron is apparent in the first episode of “Take My Wife,” the well-reviewed half-hour sitcom she created with her wife, Cameron Esposito, for streaming service Seeso. About a week after her show hit TVs all over the country, Kill Rock Stars released her debut comedy album, “BUTCHER,” which has been the #1 Comedy Album on iTunes for the last few days, ahead of heavyweights like Jim Gaffigan, Daniel Tosh, Hari Kondabolu, George Carlin and Weird Al Yankovic. Wednesday, August 24, she’ll take the stage at Hilarities in Cleveland, spend a couple days making people laugh in Columbus at the Arch City Comedy Festival and come back to Northeast Ohio where she’ll do an in-store appearance at Square Records on September 1 then toss out the first pitch before the Cleveland Indians game on September 5. Learn more about Butcher and her many projects at rheabutcher.com.
Brittany Nader: Your show, “Take My Wife,” has received a ton of high praise. One review even compared it to “Seinfeld,” in that it is a comedy about comedies that is also exceptionally written and executed — it shines a light on some “insider” stuff about the world of comedy that audiences may not know about. How do you feel about the way comedians are generally depicted on screen? How do you think “Take My Wife” showcases the industry in a way that’s different than what we’ve seen before?
Rhea Butcher: I think we both just wanted to make something that felt real. Not that previous shows didn’t feel real, but just something that felt lived from our experience. Most of the shows about standups doing standup have been about men. We wanted to make something distinctly different. What “Take My Wife” shows about the industry that we maybe haven’t seen before is just that: different. It’s not about comics who go up at the local club, or tour theaters, or have huge movies or whatever. It’s about two women doing comedy as a job that allows them to get by, and they talk about their lives onstage. We also wanted it to be more of a “workplace comedy” than a “standup comedy comedy.” I hope that shines through.
BN: You and your wife, Cameron, have collaborated on several projects, including the “Put Your Hands Together” podcast, touring together and co-hosting episodes of the web series “She Said” on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls Network. Was it your and your wife’s plan all along to ultimately work on a TV show together?
RB: It totally was. We met at her open mic in Chicago (Cole’s Open Mic). It was the first place I ever did standup; she brought me up the first time. Pretty much right after that we wanted to work together. This show is what we’ve been pitching back and forth to each other for five years.
BN: The “Take My Wife” pilot focuses on your shift from working as a seemingly frustrated, email-addicted graphic designer to a burgeoning stand up comic. How much of that storyline was modeled after your real-life move from designer to comedian?
RB: With the exception of actually quitting on stage, it’s 100 percent accurate. I moved to Los Angeles with my day job and worked from home for the first two years. I was pretty much chained to my desk and working from, like, 7 am to 8 pm. Then I’d go out and try to do shows.
BN: You attended the University of Akron’s Myers School of Art, correct? How much, if at all, did your experience at U of A influence your creative sensibilities, either in terms of your visual artistic endeavors or your comedic writing (or both)?
RB: I did. There’s a print in the opening shot of me in episode one of “Take My Wife” where there’s a beautiful screenprint behind me — it’s for Myers. This awesome couple who go by Little Friends of Printmaking made it when they were doing a residency there. I was so stoked when they said I could put it in the show. I think it absolutely influenced me. I spent every day in Folk Hall on Exchange Street from August 2001 to December of 2005. We were the little art school that could. Did you know that building used to be a car dealership? They’ve updated almost every building but that one. That school is so resourceful and it taught me to be. I got my BFA in printmaking, and in Folk Hall it is situated in the center of the building; almost everyone takes a printmaking class at some point. I always saw it as the hub of the wheel. And when I went there no one had gotten a printmaking degree in like, 10 years. So I was like, “Oh no one does that? I’m totally doing that.” I must’ve been so annoying in college. Printmaking is screenprinting and lithography and intaglio. But the basic process is to come up with an idea, make that idea and then make it a bunch of times until it’s perfect. That’s how I see standup too.
BN: Your debut comedy album came out Aug. 19 on Kill Rock Stars, a record label known for its collection of riot grrrl, underground punk rock and feminist spoken word artists. The label also put out Sleater-Kinney’s classic “Dig Me Out” album. (I saw your throwback Instagram pic with you wearing a Sleater-Kinney T-shirt!) What was it like signing with such a progressive, pro-woman label? Can you give us a hint as to what listeners expect to hear on your album?
RB: I was/am super stoked. They are such an awesome label, and I grew up listening to Sleater-Kinney (I listened to them while I mowed my lawn in college) and Bikini Kill and all their bands. They got into comedy a few years ago and it was/is a perfect fit. I’m so proud to be on that label. They’ve done and continue to do such great things.
BN: I’m sure you’re asked this often, but who (or what) has influenced you most as a comedian?
RB: When I was a kid I used to watch this show “Standup Spotlight” on VH1 hosted by Rosie O’Donnell, and my mom and I rented a standup special called “Women of the Night” (the title was totally lost on me) from Roadrunner. I really loved Rosie and Ellen and Brett Butler and all the women on those shows. I also think being from Akron, we all just have an odd sense of humor; there’s a lot of sarcasm and self-deprecation. When I moved to Chicago I got to see standup live for the first time and the first show I ever saw was Paul F. Tompkins at The Lakeshore Theater, and I was hooked. I loved what he was doing: telling really funny and intricate stories that were wild but also totally relatable. Then when I later went to Cameron’s open mic to check it out, I was very very inspired by her standup. She spoke so honestly about who she was that it legitimately changed my life. I came out to the members of my family that I hadn’t yet come out to after getting into the standup scene there. Also, “Back To The Future.”
BN: You grew up skateboarding around Akron and still give the Rubber City and its inhabitants shout-outs on the regular. What do you miss most about your hometown?