WHITNEY CUMMINGS: NOT THE ONLY CRAZY ONE
Theres no place like home. And for Whitney Cummings, home is stand-up comedy.
The comic/actress/writer created and starred in her own NBC sitcom, Whitney, and co-created the hit CBS comedy 2 Broke Girls. Her focus has returned to stand-up.
Theres nothing better than stand-up, Cummings told us, on the eve of her headlining gig at Redwood City, Californias Silicon Valley Ball (www.siliconvalleyball.com). Its walking a tightrope. Its boxing. You never do the same show twice. The great thing about watching stand-up, participating in it, coming to see a show, youre going to have an experience that no one else has. The audience decides what the shows going to be like, the pace, the material. So theres nothing, to me, that makes you feel more awake and alive than having this sort of dialogue with an audience and having to be so in the moment.
As for her network sitcom, Cummings sighs and says, I dont really feel like talking about that anymore. I feel like Ive talked about that so much.
To me, its always interesting, because I just want to do stand-up now. People have a hard time understanding, like, Why arent you doing TV and movies? Its like, for me, stand-up is the most pure shot of what I do. I started in stand-up and thats my number one job and priority. So Im working on a new hour special and touring and, for me, thats the number thing right now. A lot of people dont understand that thats like more than a full-time job, with traveling and honing a new special. I shoot the special in February and thats my main goal right now, is to make a great special for Comedy Central.
Cummings, 31, was born and raised in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. to a PR executive mother and a venture capitalist father. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania. For her, stand-up was a case of destiny, not a decision.
When you are born with the constitution of being a stand-up, it just kind of chooses you. I dont think anyone in their right mind is like, I think Im going to be a stand-up. Its not really a choice, like, Am I going to be a lawyer or a stand-up? Its like the only thing that puts the fire out in your brain. And its the only thing that satiates your obsession with justice and your need to be heard and make people laugh. It just checked off all the various boxes of my psychological needs and emotional damage.
Cummings early comedic inspiration came from sitcoms, more so than stand-up. I grew up watching Roseanne, Ellen, Friends, Cosby and Mad About You. Threes Company, I watched constantly. So thats why I understood, Oh, you can do things to make people laugh. And my favorite feeling in the world is laughing. I feel like I was raised by sitcoms. Comedians were like my parents. So I kind of had that in my fabric, but I didnt put it together, like Im going to talk into a microphone.
When Cummings did pick up a microphone and try to make people laugh, it caught her family off guard.
It was so left-field. Its just so ballsy and odd. Like my Mom never thought I was funny. A lot of stand-ups were class clowns. But most stand-ups I know are serious people and not particularly funny when theyre not on stage, because they get that out of their system. I was an incredibly serious kid, so my Mom was like, Youre not funny. Why are you being a stand-up? It doesnt make any sense. I was so obsessed with justice as a kid, and problems. I was so stressed out over the smallest things, which is kind of what being a stand-up is. So for my family, it was just like too weird.
When you start doing stand-up, comedians inspire you, but similarly intimidate you. So when you see the great comedians doing stand-up, its more like, Oh, shit, Ill never be able to do that. Its more like discouraging, because its so hard, what they do is so hard. When I started watching Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Chris Rock and Louis C.K., I just kind of was like, Oh, no, I should find another line of work. So I kind of tried not to watch stand-up, because it was just too intimidating. But then Ellen, I would watch her specials. She makes it look so easy. But she always made me laugh and just inspired me so much.
Gradually, Cummings found her own voice. You have no idea who you are at the beginning. Youre just kind of telling jokes in the beginning. And then you slowly start to chip away at who you are.
Cummings began doing stand-up in 2004. She has been seen on many TV shows, including Punkd, Chelsea Lately, and the Comedy Central Roasts of Joan Rivers, David Hasslehoff and Donald Trump.
Theres no one thing thats the breakthrough. People say, Was it Howard Stern? Was it Punkd? Was it Chelsea Lately? I dont know. I think, for me, it was probably when I did an hour special. Thats, for me, when I felt like I was legitimate. Thats when you can really start touring and start making money as a stand-up, when you have an hour special. That, to me, is like, Youre a comedian when youre able to do an hour of stand-up and make people laugh for an hour. So that to me was definitely the thing that mattered most, when I was able to not feel like a phony or like, Oh, its because Im a girl. Because thats kind of what people do - Its because youre a girl. Its because youre attractive. And you, in your head, start to sometimes believe that shit. So that was the point where I felt like, unequivocally, Im good at this.
Cummings is working on a new special for Comedy Central. This is actually a super exciting time for me, because, with the TV shows, the last couple of years have been so crazy and I havent had the chance to tour and do stand-up as much as I wanted to. I feel like my life has changed so much and Ive changed and grown so much since the last special, but I havent really had a chance to perform it on stage. And this new hour is like super different than people are going to expect from me.
I think people know me as a stand-up from the roasts, which can be really edgy and tough. In my last hour special, I came out guns blazing, like really tough, badass. And this new special reflects whats happened in my life that last two years. I went through a lot of stuff emotionally. Tough breakups. My Mom got sick. So this is a much more vulnerable, raw hour. Im sort of talking more about, instead of, Look how tough I am, its like I cant stop crying. Cummings laughs. Its me digging into getting my heart broken, hitting the pavement pretty hard and putting the pieces back together. So its been really cool to be able to do all this honest, more delicate material. And everyone seems to be really into it. Im really excited for people to see this different, more grown-up side of me.
Her attitude towards relationships has changed. My last special, I was like the tough, single chick who was never going to get married. My whole sitcom was predicated on the idea that I didnt want to get married, because I come from so much divorce. Now Im kind of into the idea of marriage. Now that Im older, I totally get it, whether its my Cinderella programming from when I was a kid or what, the idea, even if its a false sense of security, the idea of having some kind of security and having a teammate and having sex with the same person, is now like so appealing to me.
In your 20s, you want to have sex with as many people as possible. Then you get older and your body starts changing and youre like, You know, itd be nice to just have one person, who sort of has no choice but to be into you, Cummings says, laughing. The idea of trapping someone becomes a better and better idea. As I get older, Id just like to be in my pajamas and not have to wear makeup. Im tired. My back hurts. I just want like a best friend, whereas, before, I wanted a boyfriend. Now I want someone who will just accept me, no matter what, whos giving up in the same way I am, she says, laughing.
Stand-up gives Cummings an opportunity to vent her anger and frustrations. A lot of the theme of the special is like, its not that woman are too weak. Its that were too strong. And theres a lot of pain involved in this life that we dont even admit, because were just too tough. At this point, all the pain that we suffer, for me, I just got to my breaking point, where Im like, This is hard. Like I cant put eyeliner on anymore. It hurts me. Its painful. I cant wear at thong anymore. Im in too much physical and emotional pain all of the time. And Im finally ready to admit it. Women are like so tough now and weve become so accustomed, so assimilated to all of this self-abuse. Were just used to it now. And Im just like, No! These heels hurt! I cant do this anymore! I think thats it - its me hitting my limit, physically and emotionally, with trying so hard to be the perfect woman.
People say its hard for women in comedy. Its hard for everyone in comedy. Its hard for guys, too. Comedys hard. Its hard for everyone. And its hard for women in comedy - yeah, its hard for women, period. Its hard for everybody. Part of the thing that does make it challenging for women in comedy is feeling like you have to be somebody youre not. When I first started doing stand-up, I felt like I had to be tough and neuter myself, like I had to dress down and I had to keep my hair back and not wear makeup. To me, it stops being as hard, when I just start being honest and authentic. So, oddly, for me, when I started admitting that it was hard to be a woman, it became easier to be a stand-up, because I was just able to start telling the truth.
Cummings proves that sexy and funny do not have to be mutually exclusive. I think Joan Rivers was really sexy in her day. She was attractive. And Mae West was very sexy. I think we just kind of like have gotten obsessed with the idea that women cant be hot and funny. Lucille Ball was sexy.
Baring your soul on stage isnt easy. Its always frightening to say the truth. Its my job to show the crowd the ugliest shadows of my mind. I say things on stage that I wouldnt tell my best girlfriend, in terms of my proclivities, thoughts and secrets. I have to basically talk to the audience as I would a therapist or a priest, when youre telling them your sins. My job is to announce publicly really embarrassing things. So its always hard to get up there and ask people to accept you... and make people laugh. But Ive learned that my winning formula is to just be as honest as possible. It gets scarier for me as I get older, because I know, as a stand-up, I have to tell the truth, but a guys never going to want to date me, if he knows these things. So thats really where the dilemma comes in. But I know I just have to be as fearless as possible. I owe it to everybody to go there.
Ultimately, that can be healing. You know instantly, with the amount of laughter, that youre doing something right, obviously. But when people come up after the show and are like, Oh, my God, I do the same thing. I thought I was the only person that thought that. I thought I was the only person that did that, thats the biggest compliment I can get. Thats when you feel like youve tapped into something relevant and honest. So its incredibly cathartic for them and for me, too, because Im going, Oh, good. I thought I was the only crazy one.
For the latest Whitney Cummings tour dates and news, visit whitneycummings.com.