“The pandemic was so long I transitioned,” River Butcher jokes near the top of his impressive new half-hour special A Different Kind of Dude. It’s the comedian’s way of reintroducing himself to the comedy world and addressing the reality of his personal evolution since breaking into the stand-up scene nearly a decade ago.
In this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Butcher discusses the unique challenges of being a trans comic in a moment of widespread anti-trans comedy and breaks down how he uses humor to combat hate. Butcher also opens up about his public divorce from longtime comedy partner Cameron Esposito and what it was like to be one of the only comedians to ever perform stand-up on Ellen.
“If you’re gender non-conforming, it’s just new to a lot of people,” Butcher, who uses both they/them and he/him pronouns, tells me when I ask about that joke from the new special. “So I always feel some impulse or desire to address that. Because in my experience of my own life, it couldn’t not be addressed at me. And so now when I’m on stage, I get to do it when I want to do it. And I get to do it the way that I want to do it.”
Butcher wanted to talk about his transition on stage, he adds, “because I both don’t look that different and completely look different.”
“Sometimes I look at myself and I’m like, ‘I’ve always looked like this,’” he continues. “And then sometimes I’m like, ‘Wow, I look very different!” So I just wanted to make it funny.”
When the cheers from the crowd die down after that first line, Butcher tells the audience, “That’s right, all those gas station attendants calling me ‘sir’ my whole life were right! They knew me and they loved me before I could love myself.”
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to the whole thing—including stories about Butcher’s early days in the Chicago comedy scene, performing stand-up directly at Ellen DeGeneres and more—right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.
You have some really funny material in the special about using they/them pronouns, which is something that other comedians have made jokes about in a very different way.
And it’s something that you’ve actually talked about on stage, even before this special. Have your feelings or perspective on that evolved over time, in terms of what it means to use those pronouns and how you feel about it?
So I did that [special] and then I literally started going by a new name after that.
Yeah, I was going to say, the name in the back of the stage is not the name that you are currently using, right?
Yeah, and I hope I don’t sound like I’m taking myself too seriously. But there’s part of me sometimes that wishes I could go through this social transition in my house behind closed doors and then just come out and be like, “Hey, this is me now, here we go.” But that’s just not my path. I get to do it super-publicly. And I also get to give myself the space to do it super-imperfectly. And hopefully somebody sees that and goes, I don’t have to have all my ducks in a row before I go exist out in the world. I needed to go by RB before I could go by River. I just needed that time. And there’s something about seeing that in the background that I’m still like, yeah, that’s cool. Because my old name still exists out in the world and I don’t have control over that. I just have to trust that people will be respectful enough to not use it. And people, for the most part, are. But it’s a big learning curve and I get it. People had a really hard time with Elliot Page. When you live in a public way, you get an opportunity to share that experience. And so all that is to say, [they/them] aren’t the primary pronouns that I use anymore. I’m he/him and they/them, either one of those is great. There’s just a third one, which shall not be named, and that’s the one you don’t use. But I needed to do that to get to where I am now. That has just been my personal path.
And so, to get back to jokes, it’s just funny that you bring that up. And this stand-up special was recorded almost a year ago at this point, in July. And I’m working on more material, going into some of those things a little more in-depth, because when I recorded it, that stuff was all really new to me. Obviously not the pronoun stuff, but the transitioning and changing and all that stuff was very new. So I still want to expand those ideas and those thoughts and jokes. But it’s funny because there are comics where the tone is very detached and the tone is very ironic and they are shitting on people that use they/them pronouns or pronouns period, as though they don’t also use pronouns. It’s a thing that everybody uses. So sorry we’re making you think about it for an extra second.
It does feel like ultimately it’s a generational thing in that I think there’s hope in the fact that it’s changing as people sort of age up and age out.
Oh, a hundred percent.
I have someone in my family who’s sort of the generation below me who identifies as non-binary. So I’ve seen the struggle of people to understand it and sometimes just feel like they can’t deal with it. Why do you think it’s so hard for people and do you see that changing?
It’s a hundred percent changing because, it’s the famous comedians, it’s the most affluent comedians—I wouldn’t even use the word “successful” because success is subjective—but it’s the people who have the most to lose that are the most upset about other people gaining any amount of anything. So when I look out and I see my friends who are making things, like Alex Edelman or Naomi Ekperigin or Janelle James, all these people, people who are working comics who are thinking, creative people, these are not people who are shitting on minority people or marginalized people or oppressed people. They actually are beginning to, or are already working toward, the opposite of that. There are more people who are not doing that than people who are doing it.
Even if the people who are doing it have a larger platform or get more attention.
They have a larger platform and their entire cottage industry is creating outrage. That’s their business model. And so of course they’re going to do that. You’re making money off of it. That makes sense. But once money does not become the one driving factor of what you’re doing—obviously people need to get paid and survive and all those things, so I’m not going to act like I’m not trying to make money. But I’m trying to put something into the world. And I think that is true for a lot of the people that I’m doing stand-up with.
But you asked, why is it hard for people? I would also just take the opportunity, because you said you have somebody in your family that “identifies” as non-binary, I would offer a change in your own thinking and language of this person is non-binary. I don’t “identify” as this, I am. Because “identifies as” implies a choice that creates some distance for people. Which is not to say that it isn’t a choice. I’m not saying it isn’t, but especially on the right with the stuff happening in Texas and North Dakota and Mississippi and Arkansas and all these states that are making it to all sorts of degrees criminal to be trans—a lot of people, and even well-intentioned people who disagree with these things, are like, “Well, why can’t you just wait until you’re 18?” And why should you, is my question? Why should a person have to wait until they’re 18 to be who they are? And you said nothing wrong, by the way, I just wanted to offer that.
“If you want to try to create some parity, you’re going to have to give the marginalized people a little extra leg up over the people who are making millions of dollars off of hate because they know people like it.”
No, I know, and I appreciate getting your perspective on it.
It’s like, we used to say “preferred” pronouns and that’s not a thing anymore. It’s, “What are your pronouns?” So it’s a similar vibe to that. Ultimately, I think cisgender people have a hard time accepting these things or thinking about them because it’s making you think about something you literally haven’t thought about since you were a kid. And that is the gap. I want to hear people talk about their experience of their gender as a cisgender person. There are comics that are like, “Women be shopping.” And it’s like, you’re doing the same material that I’m doing. You just think mine is weird because it’s got extra words in it or whatever. And what I’m trying to do is bring those two things together. There’s not cisgender people over here and trans people over here, it’s all just kind of a mix. We’re all in this thing together on this little rock floating around. Even the idea of being cisgender, most people don’t even think about that. They just think there’s men and women and trans people. Actually, there’s men and women and within that there’s cisgender and trans versions of each thing. And then people get upset because they’re thinking about something new and it’s scary. And they’re like, “Fuck this, I don’t want to think about this, I just want to watch golf.” And it’s like, I get it, man, so leave me alone. If you don’t want to think about it, then don’t think about it. But you can’t make it illegal. You can’t make thinking about it illegal.
I feel like all this whole conversation kind of relates to a tweet that you posted that really caught my eye a few weeks ago. You wrote, “kinda wild how outlets wanted to talk to me about other comics’ transphobic specials but aren’t interested in talking to me, a trans, about my own special.”
[Laughs] Yeah, I remember that one.
I want to make sure that we talk about your comedy, but want to also admit that I do want to talk to you about that stuff, because I feel like you’re uniquely qualified to talk about it. I know it’s also very frustrating for you. So I would love to hear more about why you posted that and why is it so frustrating that you feel like people only reach out to you to talk about this stuff… that we are talking about right now.
Well, we talked about my special first, which I appreciate. I understand. I am specifically qualified to talk about it, I guess. But it creates this binary where there are comics and trans people. I think it’s changing because people are asking me as a trans comic to talk about it. But I think what’s frustrating is that there are trans comics and the support just isn’t there because we’re not firing at the same level as somebody who’s making millions of dollars for a special. People don’t want to talk to me about the thing until they’ve got another reason to talk to me. Like, “Well, what do you think about what this guy said?” I try my best to not comment on the specials online either, because it feels as though it deteriorates your comedy. Because now I’m just a person who’s commenting on comedy. I’m not a comic.
You turn into a comedy critic.
Because I’m not those guys. I’m not in the boys’ club. I also don’t want to be in that club. But I don’t want to put myself at odds with it either. I don’t want to constantly be put in the crosshairs of it, because it puts you there hardcore.
Yeah, and if you do say anything about it, I’m sure there are certain people who are responding to you on social media in not a nice way.
There’s a whole world of things that I don’t see.
Yeah, because I don’t seek them out, you know? But there’s all this stuff that people are beginning to see online. Proud Boys and white nationalists and Nazis and the hardcore transphobic fake doctors that go on podcasts. We’ve known about this. And when I say “we,” I mean there’s a whole contingent of comedians who are marginalized, people who have been aware of this stuff because we can’t not be. It is always coming at us, whether we look for it or not. I know not to jump in front of that bus anymore. That’s ultimately what was behind that tweet. I’m making stuff, people are making stuff. If, as a journalist, you really want to make some equity—which is not what it’s all about necessarily—but if you, as a person, want to try to create some parity, you’re going to have to give the marginalized people a little extra leg up over the people who are making millions of dollars off of hate because they know people like it. I don’t even know if these people believe what they’re saying. It doesn’t matter to me. But it’s the path that they’ve chosen to create on.
Yeah, the feeling that I get from someone like Dave Chappelle, whose name we haven’t mentioned yet, is that it’s not that he has strong feelings about this stuff. It’s that he knows it will get a rise out of people.
You know, I haven’t watched that special because I’ve just heard enough about it that I’m just like, hey, it’s not for me. And I think that person is someone who considers a lot of things. And I think he’s struggling with some stuff. I actually give him a little bit more space than some other folks. But I don’t condone it. That’s not me condoning it, because there’s a world where you work out your feelings not on stage. There’s been plenty of things I’ve gone through in my life that I realize, “Oh, this is not something to be talked about publicly.” And not everybody feels that way. But I do think that that special was placed into the public sphere to generate exactly what it generated. I do think that was purposeful and that’s probably all I’ll say about that.
Listen to the episode now and subscribe to ‘The Last Laugh’ on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.