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Cole Escola, from Craigslist to the Park West
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2018-10-31

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The home page of Cole Escola's website features an irreverent commercial parody. Decked out in a brunette wig, pink lipstick and a sensible pastel plaid button-down, Escola plays a stay-at-home mom who breezily describes her devotion to her children before outlining a dark path of ruin involving cocaine, guns and hiding out in Phoenix—all while pulling cookies out of the oven. The product the commercial is advertising? Orange juice with less sugar, much healthier for the kids she abandoned for two weeks.

This is trademark Escola: darkly oddball situational humor, available at the click of a mouse.

The college dropout turned YouTube star, whose TV credits include Mozart in the Jungle and At Home With Amy Sedaris, will bring his touring solo sketch show Help! I'm Stuck! to Chicago's Park West on Sunday, Nov. 4.

"The [show's] title has nothing to do with anything. I just thought it was funny," Escola, 31, said via phone from his home in New York. "I play multiple characters, but there's [someone] offstage reading all the other parts. I do all the costumes and wig changes onstage, so I'm in my underwear a lot. Take your seasick medication before you get there."

Known for his original comedy shorts on YouTube and A.V. Club and in Paste Magazine, Escola has also earned acclaim from The New York Times. His live shows sell out throughout the country.

Not bad for someone who once ate body butter.

After dropping out of Marymount Manhattan for financial reasons ( "they wouldn't let me take out any more loans, which looking back is a godsend because I don't have any debt!" ), Escola opted not to return to his hometown of Clatskanie, Oregon, population 1,500. However, playing Clifford the Big Red Dog at the Scholastic Bookstore couldn't pay the rent, so Escola eventually went back, noshing cosmetics en route.

"I was on a bus to Oregon for three days," Escola said, "and I had no money and no food. I had some body butter from The Body Shop and I was like, 'it says Vitamin E! The ingredients look natural!' It was a dark time."

After living on his mother's couch for three months "with an application for community college on the coffee table that I never filled out," Escola heard from a friend in New York who had a room to rent. He set a new goal. "If I [went] back, I needed to have time for myself to do something creative, and I also needed money to get by."

With that, Escola returned to New York and turned to sex work.

"I called myself 'the laziest prostitute,'" he said, laughing. "At that point, I was 22 and very inexperienced with gay sex in my personal life, so I had a long list of things that I wouldn't do." Despite his inexperience, and with the help of a Craigslist-savvy friend, Escola slowly built up a client list while working part-time at a vegan bakery. "That covered my rent," he said, "but food or going out money or whatever, that was all through sex work."

His former job, Escola said, "has been on my mind lately because of Stormy Daniels. We're so happy to have her when she has something we want, but [we're] not very respectful of sex workers in general, especially trans sex workers and sex workers of color that have been murdered. I was lucky, and maybe I was also stupid, because I never felt endangered."

Sex work's flexible schedule and extra income enabled Escola to write and star in low-budget comedy videos with friend Jeffery Seif. The videos gained a following, which led to live shows in New York. In 2009, the Logo television network gave the duo their own sketch show, Jeffery & Cole Casserole.

"We shot on a Mac through the fish-eye lens [and] edited it on iMovie, and the sound was awful," Escola said. "Nobody watched it, but we got to say we had a show on TV."

Meanwhile, Escola built up a name in the local and national comedy scenes, which led to his role as flamboyantly gay waiter and aspiring actor Matthew on the Hulu original series Difficult People.

"I happened to be in LA when they were doing a table read," said Escola, who also wrote for the show in its second and third seasons. "I knew Julie [Klausner] through the alt-comedy, downtown cabaret scene here in New York, and I was a fan of hers for years before that," he said of the series creator and star. Though Klausner could only guarantee him exposure to producers, Escola was cast as Matthew immediately after reading.

Escola described his time on the snarky buddy comedy as "a dream," especially playing off of "incredibly sweet and supportive" costar Billy Eichner, who also made a name through online videos and low-budget TV series, and Gabourey Sidibe, who played Matthew's boss and best friend. "I was so nervous because like, Oscar nominee! But it just felt like summer camp."

Since Difficult People's cancellation in 2017, Escola has shot more episodes of Mozart and Sedaris—in the latter, he plays Amy's nosy female neighbor Chassie—as well as a guest spot on the TBS comedy-noir series Search Party. He's also producing a pilot directed by fashion designer Todd Oldham called ( wait for it ) Pee Pee Manor.

"It's about a woman trying to start her life over as a real estate agent…and in order to get the job, she has to sell this dilapidated haunted mansion," Escola said. "There are flashbacks to people who have died in Pee Pee Manor, all played by me, and I play the woman as well."

Although Escola has carved out a niche for himself—"old show queen" flair crossed with dark millennial sensibility—and accrued an impressive resumé, one of his proudest accomplishments is a mention on his hometown's Wikipedia page.

"Raymond Carver and I are both listed as notable people of Clatskanie," Escola said with pride. "And I did not add myself!"

"Cole Escola: Help! I'm Stuck!" will play at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave., on Sunday, Nov. 4, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20; visit ParkWestChicago.com .

For more about Escola, visit ColeEscola.com .


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