In Bed with…Whitney Cummings
Los Angeles-based comedian Whitney Cummings would live in New York City, if only she could find the right home. “I’m a crazy animal lady,” she explains, “so until I can find a way to put a horse in a New York apartment, which I’m pretty sure is illegal, I just come back and forth, about once a month.”
She’s made a name for herself doing stand-up since graduating from Penn in 2004, becoming wildly popular thanks to her sharp humor. On top of stand-up, Cummings has acted (you’ve seen her in Made of Honor), produced (the Emmy-winning 2 Broke Girls on CBS), and written (2 Broke Girls, along with her own show, Whitney). In 2017, she directed her first feature-length film, The Female Brain, and starred in it alongside Cecily Strong, Sofía Vergara and James Marsden. She also published a memoir, I’m Fine…And Other Lies, and served as an executive producer for the Roseanne reboot.
Now, Cummings is back to stand-up, going on a nine-city national tour. We caught up with her during her time in New York, where she stayed with Refinery and performed three nights at legendary comedy club Carolines on Broadway.
Here, we get In Bed With…Whitney Cummings
You grew up in D.C. and then went to school in Philadelphia. Now you’re out in LA most of the year. Do you miss living out East?
I definitely make excuses to come to New York in the fall more. My birthday is in September, and I start really craving seasons. It is the most exhilarating, refreshing, vibrant time, and there’s just something so hypnotic about the leaves changing, this nostalgia that comes with it.
I have this closet full of sweaters in LA that I never wear, and in the back of my head I’m thinking, “One day when I have my New York apartment, I’m going to wear these around and get an espresso and go to The Armory.” I have this dream that I’m going to be this New York savvy sweater lady with five dachshunds.
You have a degree in communications, and started doing stand-up right after graduating. Was comedy always on your radar?
You know what? No, not as a career. That never occurred to me.
Now that I am a comedian for a living, I understand that I had the perfect childhood to breed being a comic. But at the time, I wasn’t funny. I watched a lot of comedy—movies and television, like Three’s Company. But I didn’t understand what stand-up was until I was 18 or 19, when I was watching Seinfeld and realized, “Oh, he was a comedian first.”
And then I started to put it together. I was always trying to make people laugh, always trying to get attention—plus my last name is Cummings, which isn’t super helpful. I was constantly being made fun of, so you either crack or develop the armor to make fun of yourself before somebody else does.
In college, too, I used to do lots of protests. I was protesting advertising cigarettes in your schools, which at the time felt really important to me. [Comedian] Neal Brennan always says that comedians have an obsession with justice—that it’s not always about being funny. And that’s what stand-up is about. It’s like, “This is wrong. This is unjust. We need to talk about it and break down how ridiculous it is.” So I was doing it, it just wasn’t funny yet.
And since starting with stand-up, you’ve been both in front of the camera and behind it. With The Female Brain, you tried your hand at directing. How was that different for you?
There are a lot of easy differences. When you’re just on camera, you have to be there way earlier to get make up. When I was directing a movie and I wasn’t on camera, I could show up at 8am looking like garbage.
But in general, I would say there’s a big emotional difference.
One of the hardest things for me, is that you become a comedian because you want everyone to like you. When you start becoming a boss, that won’t happen. You’re going to be the bad guy no matter how nice you are, no matter how fair you are. If people are there till 11pm, they’re going to be annoyed at you, and you have to tolerate that discomfort. I remember hearing the crew was going out for drinks and I was like, “I can’t believe they didn’t invite me.” It was like, “Why would they invite you, idiot? First of all, you don’t have time to go anyway, and second of all, they need to talk shit about you.”
And this was different too because I was also directing myself.
Can you talk a little more about that? Do you think stand-up—where you’re already trying to make your performances flawless—prepared you for directing yourself?
Yeah, but when you’re a comic, you have so much help from the audience. Whereas, when you’re on a movie, you’re like, “Was that good? Where’s the audience? Where’s the totally unbiased audience laughing along merrily?”
So how do you do it?
You just wing it. Really good advice someone gave me was, there’s the movie you write, there’s the movie you shoot, then there’s the movie you make. Once you wrap shooting, you’re only 20 percent done with the movie. So much of it is pasting it all together in the end. In stand-up it’s, “I gotta get this, I got one take. And this has gotta go perfectly right now.” Whereas movies are like, “Well, that was 20 days of a disaster, now, let’s go make it good for six months,”—which is just such a different muscle.
How does making people laugh across different media—stand-up, TV, film, etc.—come with its own challenges?
It’s interesting because as you were saying that I was thinking how so much has changed in our business. The most challenging part is figuring out where and how people are watching things, and how to be the most authentic version of yourself in whatever that format is.
Social media to me, is the hardest. On a TV show, we write these lines and we say them. And in a talk show, I’m going to ask someone questions and they’ll answer. But on social media, I’m just talking to this piece of plastic.
There are always going to be people that make you feel bad about what you’ve done or shame you. I think the common denominator of all of it is you have to make sure that you’re alright and you’re proud of what you did.
Which gets a little into your book. You describe I’m Fine…and Other Lies as this counterargument to the boring self-help books that are super common. At what point did you realize that you wanted to tell your story, and that you wanted it told differently than these dry self help books.
I was 28 or 29—and probably in New York—when I had this epiphany that it’s not cute to be crazy in your thirties. I realized, I had eight more months that I could get away with things and people would think “Oh, crazy Whitney,” in a funny way. In the 30s it’s like, “Oh honey”…like, “She’s not invited.” I was really determined to keep my friends in my 30s, and to not still be dating the same type of person.
When you’re in your 20s and things go wrong, it’s easy to say it’s everybody else’s fault. But then you realize, “The common denominator in all of that is me.” And I had some things in my personal life conspire to help me get to this conclusion of, “Okay, I wanna get my shit together.”
And you didn’t find the books already out there very helpful?
Maybe it’s because I have such a short attention span and we’re all used to getting our information in memes, but the idea of sitting down with this big, thick book that’s got 80s font…it’s not sexy. And I thought there’s got to be a way to talk about mental health struggles in a funny way with some levity. You’re dealing with depression or addiction or co-dependence—your life is already hard.
So, even though I am absolutely not in the slightest bit qualified for writing a self-help book, I’ve gone to a lot of people who are incredibly qualified. Why couldn’t I be the Robin Hood of Self Help? I’d already spent all my savings on these people, why don’t I bring it to you, so you don’t have to pay for them?
The way that we spend our days
is the way we spend our lives.
So how did you go about writing?
I wanted to write the book that I wish had been available to me when I was 25, because I’d thought admitting your mistakes was a weakness. I thought you had to tell everyone you were fine when you weren’t. I thought you had to tell everyone that things were going great, when they weren’t.
I had no idea how to ask for help. That’s just not what I was taught in my family, and I know a lot of people that weren’t taught it either. I was hitting a lot of rock bottoms in my life, and, this sounds like such a champagne problem right now, but I couldn’t stop overcommitting. The way that we spend our days is the way we spend our lives. I feel like there’s an epidemic of us all being so over committed, that we’re missing out on the things that matter, whether we have that extra hour a day to call our senator or tell people to vote or whatever.
And we don’t have time to even evaluate our priorities, much less get them straight. I found that I was slammed all the time, and I was hearing my friends say they were crazy busy and exhausted, too.
For me, the root of this all was something called co-dependence. It’s a simple concept that I feel should be taught in schools, because everybody I know has some form of it.
It manifests in simple things, like not being able to say no, not being able to cancel, being in friendships with people you don’t really like that much. Being in bad romantic relationships.
And what’s more important than our time? So it’s something that I also felt really passionate about sharing.
So there’s definitely a societal side, of “Yes, society is telling me I have to do more.” Do you think there’s a personal aspect, of you saying “I’m telling myself I have to do more,” too? I’m thinking of your New York Times article about visiting the wolf sanctuary and realizing that overcompensation is a “people thing.”
Oh God yeah, totally. There’s this very real adrenalin addiction that we have. Adrenalin turns into dopamine, and it becomes a drug. So stress is a drug, and it’s something that I think that feels really good for a while.
I thought I was getting a handle on it all and then Instagram happened. Every day we’re just comparing ourselves to other people’s highlight reel, and I didn’t coin that phrase, but there’s this drive to be seen and to achieve.
My self esteem had a very linear relationship with productivity. If I took the day and relaxed, I felt ashamed. I thought to myself, “I’m ambitious,” because that’s so rewarded in our culture. But then I realized, “Oh no, your self esteem is abysmal. You don’t think you deserve a day off, and you think the only value you have for the world is a product. I’m not enough and I need to do all these things and make all these things in order to be valuable.” I think that’s a pretty prevalent belief system in our culture.
And you said in one interview, that now that you’re a better, healthier person, you feel less funny without crazy date stories. And yet now you’re back on tour! How was writing for this tour different?
I think the key is getting more specific. When you’re in your 20s, you think the world revolves around you and that your problems are so important. At this point I’m sick of myself. To be able to contribute to a bigger conversation and share stories about things that can help other people with their trajectory is more rewarding right now.
So there may not be a lot of drama in my life anymore, but there’s a lot of drama going on in the world. There’s plenty to talk about.
I don’t talk about politics, it’s not my forte. It’s too upsetting to me, and it’s not fun for anybody. But there are some other thing that are happening, like the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up. I’m excited to break that down with some levity, because it is such a heartbreaking, horrific, yet amazingly triumphant moment in time.
How’s it feel to be on stage again?
It’s been really exciting, especially after writing the book. People who’ve read it know me so well now. A lot of things are funnier if you know me better.
Is it ever weird to have strangers know so much about you?
The book is basically my diary, so yeah. I now have people after shows who feel comfortable sharing their secrets with me, too. And and they’re not always secrets I want to know.
When I was promoting the book, in New York actually, somebody just yelled across the street, “Hey Whitney, I can’t stop stealing.” And another woman in a book-signing line whispered to me, “Sometimes I buy things from stores, just so other people can’t have them.” What have I done?
And do you feel more vulnerable going on stage now, knowing that half the audience might know all these things about you?
Believe it or not, it’s the opposite. Before, I had all these secrets, and I was presenting the toughest version of myself. I felt I couldn’t improvise too much—what if I let out the truth? But now, there’s nothing to hide, so there’s nothing I can’t joke about, you know what I mean? There will never be an “Oops, I said that thing that I’ve been hiding” moment, because it’s all out there.
So it’s actually super liberating, and I feel way less guarded. It’s been incredibly affirming, too, because people that have read the book are still showing up to shows after I’ve told them all these horrible things about myself. That’s the greatest, safest feeling in the world.
Are there any straight white guys?
Where do we find them?
Are they at Abercrombie?
Yeah, that’s awesome. And can you talk about the changing landscape for women in entertainment, and particularly in comedy? What are you noticing now?
There really is a huge appetite for female creators and content, which is super exciting and amazing. I see lots of women—women that deserve it. (We’re not just all of a sudden saying, “Here’s a million dollars just for being a woman.” That’s not what’s happening. It’s people who have been talented this whole time, that were being overlooked, that now just get to have a shot.)
We might be getting to this place where finally it’s just about being good. In television and movies, you can get things you don’t deserve, it happens all the time. But in comedy, that’s hard. Someone who’s not funny can’t make a room of people laugh for an hour—it’s incredibly challenging. So if someone can make a room laugh for an hour, give them a shot. No matter what they look like. There’s a strong chance that they’re funny.
I hope this isn’t just LA or just a trend, but every time I walk into a club, it’s somebody I haven’t seen, and it isn’t a straight white guy. I’m actually putting together a writer’s room for something now, and I’m like “Are there any straight white guys? Where do we find them? Are they at Abercrombie?” And that’s really cool.
I was at The Improv Club a few weeks ago and there was a straight white man doing stand-up. And I was with another comic and we were both like, “This is refreshing.” It was almost a novelty act, because for the past year, the straight white guy has just become another voice. Not the only voice. And that’s just awesome and exciting and fucking refreshing to hear so many different voices.
And is there any pushback?
It’s change, and change is always going to be uncomfortable. There is some push back, but it’s fine. I’ll just write jokes about it.
Do you think comedy’s place in society is changing?
We’re at this place where you have to be more responsible about the things you joke about. Comedy is changing so much, and our climate is changing so much because of who’s in charge. Things that were really funny five years ago are scary now and triggering to people. And the last thing I would ever want is to upset anybody coming to a show.
Comedy is more important than ever. I think it used to be like an indulgence, but now it’s like, “We have to find an hour where we can actually just laugh.” We can all just release some tension around it because it’s just been such an intense year.
Talk to us about how you’re having to rethink the way you decide what’s okay to joke about.
Just because something’s funny, does that mean we should talk about it? A lot of comedy is based in generalizing: Men do this, women do that. So I definitely find myself checking myself on that, and on anything that’s just glorifying being a mess.
I’m not curing cancer, I’m not going to change the world. Comedy is comedy, and it’s there to make people laugh. But now I think that there’s just this mirror up to it, and the things we do matter. You have to stop and just think, “Alright, let me make sure I’ll feel good about this in 10 years.” Before it was like, “If it’s funny, let’s go …”