Our interview was scheduled to last 30 minutes in the calm yet vast marble bar of London’s Edition Hotel. But by the end, we have hit the 1 hour and 30 minute mark and our conversation has taken the atmosphere from calm to wild as we pin ball from serious cultural topics like, “I can remember all the words to Lizzo’s songs but I can’t remember my fiancée’s birthday,” to the most stunning London landmarks, “10 years ago I decided that Wagamama was like the epicentre of the city. Then when somebody told me there was like 40 of them and my brain exploded because that was the basis from which I know where everything was!”
“The waiter totally thinks we are on a weird date,” Whitney Cummings observes, within ten minutes of us meeting. As the comedian pops her gum into a napkin, “I am like white trash and chewing gum like an animal,” I can’t help but think it’s a real shame I am gay because this would be the dream date. Someone so funny I cry with laughter and when they even get the bill – as Whitney does – you can even overlook the gum.
In case, like me, this is your first date with Whitney Cummings, here is what would appear on her dating profile, or rather her LinkedIn, as we all know you stalk anyone you’re dating to CIA levels in 2019 and you have to cover all bases – safety first! The 36 year old first hit the comedy circuit as a stand-up in 2004 before landing a semi-fictionalised show about her life, aptly titled Whitney, which ran for two seasons. It wasn’t long before Whitney flexed her writing muscles, creating the hit sitcom 2 Broke Girls before she turned her attention to a number of stand-up specials for Comedy Central and Netflix. One thing has remained constant in this career: Whitney says it as it is, no matter how awkward it may be at times.
But if you have watched Whitney – quite literally – OWN stand-up comedy before, you will know that. For instance, within the first minute of her new Netflix special, Can I Touch This? Whitney proclaims, “a lot has happened since I made a stand up special… I am not sure whether you have noticed but people started caring about sexual harassment. That came out of fucking nowhere!”
Many may read this – or indeed have watched said show – and think: A) oh no she didn’t or B) ekkk can we joke about me-too? Is it actually (pardon the pun) too soon? But that is the thing about comedy, it numbs the pain of our reality and Whitney is quite the nurse for pain. The special plays on the changes in gender dynamics in the post me-too age whilst Whitney bravely uses her own experiences – namely at 19-year-old extra being invited into a director’s trailer – to force us to question ourselves and our society as we move into unchartered territory.
But why is now the time to approach Me-Too in a comedic way? Ever frank, Whitney goes in: “Honestly I didn’t feel like comfortable tweeting that much about Me Too. There is a lot of clickbait performative activism, too. There were hundreds of Hollywood stories and I thought what if I don’t get a lot of likes that will be weird, right? What if I do get a lot of likes? It felt like coming out with my story of being harassed by a director and having that being re-tweeted or not re-tweeted, felt odd to me”
She continues: “By the time I got to the special I was seeing a lot of hypocrisy within Me Too. One thing I was scared to say was: does anyone have any friends that think they’re feminists but they’re actually just assholes? Who are the women with the microphones? Is this our spokesperson? What are her credentials? I just remember a lot of my girlfriends saying, ‘who is scripting all these speeches?’ We were just getting in line and marching and not really sure who the leader was in a lot of ways and we found ourselves being bullied by a lot of women who were like, why aren’t you sharing your story? I was thinking, I am a survivor, can’t I do that whenever I want? I’m confused, why do I have to do that today?”
“We have had thousands of years of really deep rooted very violent patriarchy and all of a sudden we are going to try and change it in 6 months? There is just so much anger and I was trying to find a way to bring levity to it because that’s the only way that I can process pain,” Whitney matter of factly concludes.
I wonder if comedy has helped her work through her personal trauma though, “Yes,” Whitney replies instantly before questioning her own role in gender power play. “There is no blame assigned anywhere in the special. I used to have a guy grab my ass at work and I thought it was funny. But we also have an internalised low self-esteem and we have internalised objectification. I objectified myself before and didn’t see anything wrong with it. Whether it’s learnt, whether its nature, whether it’s nurture, who gives a sh*t! I think it’s important to show that side as well because not everything always has to be malicious you know.”
Navigating the new playing field is equally difficult when Whitney confesses that much of her comedy has been rooted in sweeping generalisations around gender, “I just spend so much time in my stand up and comedy talking about generalisations,” she says. “It’s funny and it was really funny until about 2 years ago until sh*t got really real. So, I just started to get really granular and specific. I wanted to say that everyone has their own experience and let’s stop with saying ‘all men,’ or ‘all women,’ it’s not helpful.”
Whitney is clearly unafraid of vocalising the unsaid. That includes suggesting that many women are slightly averse to entering into – or even entertaining the conversation around Me Too, “I was doing material about harassment in Houston” Whitney shares. “I was saying something like, ‘guys don’t touch women’s asses at work,’ and this woman just yelled, ‘take the compliment and move on!’ There are some generations of women, but some are just like, ‘shut up, what are you complaining about? You will miss it when it stops!’ I know a lot of trans women who love getting cat called, too!”
Does this new era panic Whitney in any way? Is she more cautious about putting the ‘unsaid’ onto a stage? Whitney instantly replies, again before pushing the envelope further, “No! Also, there are a lot of women who are perfectly thrilled to find a rich guy that is more powerful. A lot of women are attracted to power and we have to make space for those women. Some people say The Real Housewives are not feminists but who the f**k are you to say they’re not feminists? Even if they’re not, fine! We’re In this bully culture, too.”
Whitney continues by picking up on some double standards between fierce feminists and individuals who are just making a choice that is right for them. “The uncomfortable part of all this is that power is sexy -it just is! I’m sorry! We are starting to say, ‘only equals can date.’ I just think people are saying, ‘you can be free and do whatever you want but just don’t date an older man or a man who’s more powerful than you!’ We are creating this whole new set of rules and that’s just shaming women in a different way. I get into that place sometimes when I am like, ‘well that guy is older than her,’ and I am implying that she is not capable of making her own decisions!”
One clear benefit from the monumental cultural shifts that have occurred, especially in Hollywood, is that we discuss and put empowerment on a peddle stool. In light of this does Whitney feel more empowered than ever before, especially as a female comedian in a male dominated world? “Oh wow, really good question,” Whitney replies, taking a rare breath. “I think that you’re as empowered as you think you are. I am constantly surprised at how empowered people think I am. People think I am such a powerful woman and I’m like, ‘Really?’ But it’s a state of mind – you have to believe it – accomplishments aren’t empowerment. You can be empowered but still be a people pleaser and still ashamed of your power.”
“I think the next stage of empowerment would be being unashamed about it. There is still this narrative of, ‘she is so ambitious, ambition is so nasty on a woman, being loud is nasty, being in charge is bitchy.’ We need to become ok with being empowered and acknowledge that some people aren’t going to like you because you’re the boss, you don’t get to be empowered and have everyone like you. I think nobody told me the package deal of what empowerment meant. No one told me the people that work with you aren’t going to like you, it’s going to be lonely sometimes, people are going to lie to you and steal. Not all your problems are solved from being empowered.”
“It’s not a wrap, you are not done. Sometimes you are empowered, and you aren’t invited to things, and you’re like, ‘wait I am empowered how come I’m not on this list? Why aren’t I on the Forbes list?’ You still get insecure. Once you’re empowered it’s not over,” Whitney continues.
Whitney really has a knack for revving up the intensity as and when she choices, switching from comedic to serious in a single breath. Shortly after joking, “the real oppressor in Hollywood is high def television. Can we go back to film please? Can women of a certain age actually be on camera,” Whitney almost appears vulnerable.
“I think for me there’s a pressure from being a microscope too, to behave a certain way,” Whitney discloses. “I have to wear my hair up, I can’t wear too much makeup, I can’t go to the gym. There feels like there’s a responsibility that comes with this title. I mean with men they grew up seeing powerful affluent men but for women its new to us. It is like we are still growing our sea legs. We are still clumsy, and we learned what power looks like from men.”
Whitney equally takes issue with the designated uniform that dresses empowerment up, namely the Hilary Clinton power suit. “I stopped doing these women empowerment panels because I just froze. Like am I supposed to wear heels? Am I supposed to wear makeup? I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. Now that we are empowered, how am I going to be f**king fabulous? Can I still buy that purse?” Queue me, in absolute stitches.
One internal personal conflict lingers for Whitney over the new sisterhood that has emerged as someone who is used to being the only woman in the room. “Can they be more than one powerful woman in one room?” Whitney seems to be questioning herself as much as society at large. “I would love the answer to be yes. But because there has been only one slot for so long on a stand-up line up or one female movie writer in the room. We, as women, are sort of trained to be competitive for that slot. It used to be between them and you and now it’s like no there’s room for both of us.”
With a platform (namely having 904K Instagram followers and counting) and fierce opinions comes a certain danger however, as Whitney knows all too well. After she tweeted about the sexual assault allegations made against Trump’s nominee for Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh by Doctor Christine Blasey Ford, Whitney’s personal safety was invaded. “Someone showed up at my house three days later,” she shares. “So, it’s not a game, it’s truly not a game, that is physical danger. In my special I tried to focus on physical danger because a lot of the time guys are like, ‘who cares, I gave her a hug, I slapped her butt, who gives a sh*t.’ But they might seem little to you but its physical danger!”
In light of the intense, self-questioning and public shaming world we live – and work in, Whitney has a very refreshing and honest take on self-care,,“I mean sometimes I just have days where I’ll just cry from 4:30 to 5:30 and then on Saturday I will cry for a couple of hours,” she says. “I like to schedule being sad that’s how important it is I think/ I think that I train myself to get out of my feelings. I take grief very seriously, there is so much to be sad about and we are just constantly being bombarded by tragic information, the world is on fire, we are melting. We are just not designed for this much horror and so I think it’s important to just grieve. That’s a really important part of me for staying healthy and a part of me that no one really talks about.”
Taking tactical breaks from social media and it’s compare and despair atmosphere also helps Whitney, simply because, “Instagram has set that back a little bit because comparatively everyone seems to be so f**king happy. We all do yoga on rocks and jumping off of yachts, I thought I was happy, then you compare and comparatively I think I am clinically depressed!”
Deploying the block button is another tactic. “Not reading comments is a big self-care for me. I also autoblock comments with certain trigger words like, “c**t, bitch, you look older than you are, whore, unf**kable,” just anything that was in that area really! But sometimes I think people need consequences, so I put some comments on my Instagram stories. Like with public shaming, body shaming, women shaming – shaming is also part of why our species have proliferated – you need to let people know that that’s not okay. You cannot treat people like that. I think I’ve done too much work sometimes that might be over-therapised when someone is mean to me, I feel sad for them, too.”
People talk a lot – and somewhat stereotypically – about journeys in interviews but spending time with Whitney Cummings is one rollercoaster journey hurtling into belly laughs at one sharp turn and then plummeting into darker tunnels. As we depart the ‘date’ and Whitney skips off to continue wading through our new cultural landscape in her OWN way, she turns to me and says, “this has been the most fun. Best time ever. I’m not even joking.” Wow, if only all dates were this filled with content. What. A. Human.