Spinning Platters Interview: Rhea Butcher

by Dakin Hardwick on January 12, 2018

Rhea Butler is an amazing, outspoken comic. She released not one, but TWO records last year on Kill Rock Stars: Butcher and her collaborative record with her wife, Cameron Esposito, called Back To Back. Butler has three shows this weekend at SF Sketchfest presented by Audible, and we had the chance to talk to her ahead of those shows.

Spinning Platters: So I’m going to start with the only question I’m going to ask you about Cameron, before moving in to just talking about you-

Rhea Butcher: (laughs)

SP: It’s a very important question. Will she take me clothes shopping, because she might be the best dressed human being alive.

RB: Whoa. First of all, I thought I was the best-dressed human being alive, so… Crazy. I don’t know, she’ll have to check her schedule, right now she’s down for the count with a sinus infection, so her shopping plate is very clean.

SP: Oh okay, well then good, maybe you are the person I need to talk to.

RB: Totally.

SP: Alright well now that that’s out of the way, I guess this is kind of a Cameron question too, but what’s going on with Take My Wife at this point? (NOTE: this was Rhea & Cameron’s TV series that aired one season on the Seeso network before that network went off the air)

RB: I don’t have any info.

SP: So season two is still kind of in purgatory, I guess?

RB: Correct, yeah. It’s all ready to be watched.

SP: So you filmed the whole thing, it just needs a distributor, correct?

RB: Yeah, I guess. It needs some place to be seen. That’s it.

SP: This may be a very vague question, but what’s it like having something you worked so hard on, that’s ready to go, and you just… How’s it feel to be in that place?

RB: I mean, I kind of feel like your question, and the tone you’re asking it in, is the feeling. Like the way you just asked me that- it’s hard to put it into words, it’s something that we took a risk with, putting something so highly personal out there, and I think that’s what people connected with, when they watched it. The people that knew us, knew the turns to the story, and obviously the fiction that we popped in there so it wasn’t a one-to-one ratio, but when you do that, and it’s essentially you- it’s like I didn’t get picked up. It’s kind of, you know, it’s difficult, but at the same time, this stuff happens all the time. And it’s not that we didn’t get picked up, like this has literally I don’t think ever happened before, where a show comes out on a network, and then the net work disappears, you know? The show didn’t get cancelled, the network did. So it doesn’t reflect on me, necessarily. It’s just difficult, because people ask you about it a lot, so then you’re thinking about it a lot, but then I think also it would be worse to not be asked about it, because then people wouldn’t care anymore, you know? Sort of a catch-22, but it’s sad, and kind of hopeful I guess? Melancholy. Many things at once.

SP: Yeah. I get it. It feels like it’s gonna happen, but yeah. I’ve done a lot of reading about it, in preparation. It definitely seems like there’s the right people determined to get it on the air, it feels like.

RB: Yeah, I hope so. It’s sad because you can’t watch what was already on, because the network went away, and the platform went away. Season one, which did have great critical reception, you can’t watch. You can watch the pilot, which I know people have watched a thousand times, because it’s the only thing you can watch. Yeah that’s also pretty unique too, I just don’t want it to be erased from existence, to quote from Doc Brown. I just don’t want these gays to be buried, you know what I mean?

SP: So do you guys own the rights to it, or does someone need to buy it?

RB: We do not. We do not own the rights to it-

SP: Wow.

Rb: Which is why it is where it is.

SP: Yeah, it’s a story that exists, like a lot of the Lookout Records bands, when Lookout disappeared, or folded, their records are now in this black hole. Yeah- you’re not the only person to have to deal with this kind of thing, but.

RB: Yeah, absolutely not the only person who had to deal with this kind of situation, but I just thing that the specificity of a network being cancelled, not just a show being cancelled, you know what I mean?

SP: Yeah. No it’s definitely unprecedented.

RB: (laughs) Yup. We’re nothing if not original, I will say that.

SP: Well I’m glad you guys took a whole unique take on the television sitcom.

RB: Well thank you. We were just trying to make something different, you know? There’s a quote going around by Lena Waithe, about her show The Chi that’s coming out. She’s saying there’s such a big shift in TV that even white people are sick of watching shows about white people, and despite the fact that I’m a white person, and my show is technically about white people, I couldn’t agree with her more. I think, and of course I’m trying to be careful here because I don’t want to take a woman of color’s words away from her, but I think what she’s talking about is how I was trying to think, you know? I Just don’t want to see the same thing over and over, so we wanted to take this traditional format- you know, the format can be old, the format can be the same, but what’s in it was different, and unique. We’re just trying to change what people are used to seeing, you know?

SP: Well it’s a good thing, I read somewhere about how we’re still in the golden age of TV right now, like people are still willing to experiment because folks don’t want to watch the same old, dumb and angry dad, and a pretty mom, dealing with raising a family thing.

RB: Yeah, totally. I mean I think as long as television exists, we’ll always be in a golden age of it, as long as it doesn’t become a state media type of thing, but also different kinds of people are starting to gain the means of production for these kinds of things. So, people are rising through the ranks, like Lena Waithe. Her first job was on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, so that’s how long she’s been in the business, and she also worked on other shows when Lena Waithe was coming up. I just bring that up because you have to go through this hierarchy, and a lot of people are kept out. But right now, starting to come through, you know, Cameron, and myself, and all kinds of other TV creators, TV makers, it is starting to break open, and the more people that are involved, and the more people in positions of power who traditionally weren’t, are going to change it no matter what. Just seeing someone who looks like you, or acts like you, or thinks like you, in those positions of power, whether it’s in entertainment or politics or anything. It does change things. It might be small, but it does change everything, with a long enough timeline. I am running for President, by the way.

SP: Oh good. That was my next question. Your prospects in 2020 look pretty good, I think.

RB: (Laughs) Thank you. I just convince myself that if I say it jokingly, that it won’t become a thing, at least I’ll make some good shirts or hats or something.

SP: As long as you do it before Kid Rock does, I think we’re good.

RB: Ha yeah, absolutely. Well he’s just running for senate, I’m shooting a little higher than that guy.

SP: That’s true, he already gave up.

RB: Oh did he? Well that’s good news. He’ll just have to go hang out on his poor man’s mansion, on his family’s intergenerational apple farm.

SP: I had no idea. You know a lot more about Kid Rock than I do.

RB: Yeah, unfortunately.

SP: Alright, to move it away from TV and politics, I guess, you seem to not play many traditional comedy rooms. Every time I’ve seen you do stand-up it’s at a music festival, or at a rock club. Is this on purpose, or is this just kind of the way it is? How does that happen?

RB: Well, you know- I kind of followed a method. I know we’re moving away from Cameron, but she was, and is, my mentor for comedy, and I did clubs in Chicago, I’ve done clubs here. Clubs in Los Angeles are slightly different than other places, and I’ve done clubs across the country too. I’ve found- you know, I grew up going to shows, like Indie shows, and I definitely feel a little bit more comfortable there. You’re just trying to do art the same kind of way. I do clubs, and I think that they’re very valuable. There’s a lot of amazing clubs across the country, like Acme in Minneapolis is one of them. It’s just kind of what I’ve gravitated towards, whether I’ve thought about it or not. It’s like that one show that’s kind of big, and everybody hangs out and talks about it, rather than show show show show show, I just kind of like that method. When we went on tour this fall, it just kind of felt like touring like a rock band, which to be totally honest, is just cool. But it was also really fun, like I said just kind of, to bring up TV again. You get one show, you get one shot, full of people, big theater. It just feels good.

SP: Yeah, you’re also signed to Kill Rock Stars, which, for me, that is the record label of my childhood.

RB: Oh yeah, same.

SP: I’ve noticed that Kill Rock Stars is signing a ton of great comics, on some level it feels like it could be a metaphor for the name of the label, but what do you think had brought them to move into the comedy field so heavily?

RB: Well, I mean, Portia, the CEO if you will, of Kill Rock Stars, would probably have a better answer for you, but I know they’ve just always sort of understood what they do. Like what Kill Rock Stars does- to use the word Indie doesn’t feel right, because I think we’ve moved beyond what Indie even is at this point, so there’s like a new word for it. To borrow a business phrase, getting in on the ground floor, the comedy scene was and is big in Portland, I think she noticed what was happening and thought that there weren’t really multiple record labels putting out comedians. I think she was noticing, and they were noticing, that comedians were starting to tour like bands, so if comedians are starting to tour like bands, and perform like bands, they should be recording like bands. So that’s what they did, and I think it gave a lot of people the opportunity to put records out that maybe wouldn’t have been able to, or maybe not as early as they have, or as often. So that’s pretty cool.

SP: Do you have a favorite Kill Rock Stars band or record? You mentioned growing up with Indie rock.

RB: I would have to say that the most influential band that was on Kill Rock Stars at one point- it’s a tie, but i’m gonna go with the one I don’t talk about as much, which is Gossip. I still remember seeing them in Cleveland the first time, and this was after, I think her name was Kathy, the drummer, she left. They had Hannah Billie as their drummer,  and I didn’t know, because the internet wasn’t what it was, people didn’t talk about that stuff as often as they do now. I mean I was in Akron, Ohio, so I didn’t know what was going on all the time, and I just remember standing and watching the opening band, and they were walking around and I was like, who is this, just so shocked at who they were, their presence, you know, then Gossip played, and this is probably 2003, and I was just blown away. Blown away by what they’re saying and what they’re talking about. I saw them opening for Le Tigre, on election night, in 2004. (laughs) I’m aging myself pretty well here. That band- I mean, Sleater Kinney as well, but I think Gossip really changed me as a human being, in a lot of ways. So that band I definitely have to mark down as the most influential band from Kill Rock Stars.

SP: Yeah, god. Hannah Billie, as a drummer. Every time I see her, she’s a machine- there’s nobody like her.

RB: Yeah but like, a machine with style.You so rarely see someone play the drums so efficiently who also looks like they’re dancing, which is just hypnotic. I was trying to show Cameron what they look like when they play drums and I can’t find any video of it, so I guess it’s just for me! It’s just for us. We have the memory.

SP: That’s right, Live in Liverpool didn’t have a DVD with it, did it? Sorry (laughs) going through all of the, uh-

RB: No, that’s all right. I thank you for reminding me about Live in Liverpool; I remember when that came out.

SP: Yeah. I put on Live in Liverpool often lately, only because I don’t have any recordings of Aaliyah, so it’s the only recording of “Are You That Somebody,” and all of Aaliyah isn’t streamable anywhere.

RB: Oh my god, yeah. That’s nuts. I remember them playing that for the first time at the Metro in Chicago, and Erase Errata was opening for them and it was their farewell tour.

SP: Ah. I went to that show. I saw them together on 9/13/2001.

RB: Wow.

SP: Yes. It was an intense show.

RB: I’m sure that it was. I’m sure that it was. Right after up there with my election night Le Tigre show, for sure.

SP: Yeah. Although 2004 was Obama’s first one, right?

RB: (Laughs) No. That was John Kerry.

SP: Oh. Never mind. That was Kerry/Bush, okay. Yeah I have no concept of time anymore.

RB: Yeah, I’m trying to remember- I think that was the year that Obama showed up; I think he gave the DNC speech that year.

SP: Yes. That was- because that was the thing where people were like, all right. He’s gonna be our president in four years.

RB: Precisely. This guy.

SP: Wow. It feels like you and I were listening to the exact same music, at the exact same shows, in different parts of the country, which is awesome. But I just want to ask a question that you probably get asked all the time. You’re definitely politically very progressive, which I appreciate. I have been looking through conversations on Twitter that you have with people, and I appreciate your frankness, and your openness, and your ability to listen to people. What’s it like when you end up playing red states? What kind of chats have you had with people?

RB: Well, number one, thanks. I appreciate you saying that, because sometimes it feels like you’re in a vacuum talking to people that may or may not exist, so thank you for telling me that. And you know, playing red states is actually one of my favorite things to do. I’m from a red state, you know. Like the concept of a red state is so malleable these days, we often forget about the fact that a lot of people, with a lot of views that we all share on the coasts or whatever, are also in red states, still living their lives, still needing to talk with people, still needing to hear themselves reflected back at them from whomever, entertainment, whatever you want to call it. So I find that the shows in red states are kind of the most fun ones, the most needed. It’s not like I’m preaching to some choir or something; I mean you could say that, but I think we need to preach to a lot of choirs these days. You know, we’re talking about how we’re all stuck in a bubble- like, okay. I’m stuck in a bubble that needs to hear that the person that they are or the way they look at the world is okay when every single day they’re told that it’s not. That’s a bubble I don’t have a problem being in; I want to make the bubble bigger, you know? I think red states, it’s easy to think it’s just flyover country, and worthless or something, but I don’t think that, and I’m always working to make it more worthwhile, and shine a light, and hear people talk about their experiences.

SP: I really love that. That makes me feel very giddy.

RB: Awesome.

SP: Well I’ve got to wrap it up. It’s been awesome to talk to you; you’re even cooler than I expected you to be.

RB: Yeah thanks, thanks for talking to me. It’s been a pleasure.

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