Whitney Cummings: ‘The scariest place to perform standup is America’

The outspoken comic talks about directing a science comedy on the female brain, overcoming her battle with co-dependency and the cult of celebrity grief

At only 34, Whitney Cummings has packed an enormous amount of success and a few notable failures into her career. Named one of Varietys Comics to Watch a decade ago, she went on to become a regular at Chelsea Lately and at the Comedy Central roasts. In 2011, she exploded her sitcom Whitney premiered on NBC to withering reviews, only lasting two seasons; a short-lived talkshow would follow. At the same time, she was creating and executive-producing CBSs 2 Broke Girls, a bona fide hit now in its sixth season.

Shes set to appear at Literary Death Match during LAs Riot Comedy festival and took time out of a busy schedule to talk writing, suffering from co-dependency and comedy in Trumps America.

You seem like youve got a lot going on these days. What did you work on when you woke up this morning?

Im writing a book at the moment. Its a nightmare! Its hard and its embarrassing. Ive been doing standup long enough, but it felt like there was a lot of stuff that I had to say that wasnt funny enough or just didnt work on stage. Ive been hoarding these stories; its really sort of all the most intimate stuff that Im frankly too embarrassed to say on stage. Stuff that, if I admit it and then someones looking at me, Ill just probably cry or run away. So if I just write it in a book, you can read it on a beach, and I dont have to make eye contact with you.

Maybe I just want to be single forever, I dont know why I feel the need to reveal all this stuff. I have a condition called co-dependence, which I developed from growing up in an alcoholic, dysfunctional home. The idea is to put other peoples needs before your own, basically, and its been debilitating for me. I went into recovery for it, into a 12-step program, and started doing EMDR [eye movement desensitization and reprocessing] and all this trauma therapy to try to rewire my brain.

And Lena Dunham asked me to write about something that Ive overcome for her website Lenny Letter. And [after], people would come up to me on the street crying like, Thank you for writing that. I knew I had something wrong, but I didnt have a word for it. Its such a nefarious condition because its basically disguised as being nice, but it can be a pretty debilitating preoccupation with the needs of others. A lot of co-dependents dont go to doctors and they dont take care of themselves, and it manifests in some really scary ways sometimes. So I wrote about it and people really responded, so it encouraged me to start the book, because its a lot about that.

So yeah, Im in this weird place where Im doing all these things Ive never done before writing a book and directing a movie. Im really very outside of my comfort zone.

Tell me about the movie.

Its based on the book The Female Brain, its a neurology book. I came to a point where neurology started to kind of become my religion, it was the only way I could kind of make sense of a lot of the conflicts in my life. I just couldnt believe it wasnt taught in schools. I was trying to figure out the root of these stereotypes that women are crazy, women are too sensitive and men are stupid and violent. I was like, is there a biological basis for this? Is this nature, is this nurture? For whatever reason, that was a question that kept me up at night. And I think I was also at a point in my life where I was like, am I crazy? Maybe I am crazy. Which part of this is by choice, and which part of this is my primordial neurology? That kind of became my obsession.

I ended up writing the script with a brilliant comedian named Neal Brennan, who made The Chappelle Show with Dave Chappelle. I wanted to make sure it wasnt just a female voice, because its about the male brain also. I wanted to make a movie for women and men, and then I ended up directing it for a myriad of reasons. And thats been intense, Ive never made an independent movie before. Its basically a science comedy, which is very insane. I dont advise anybody to try to make a cerebral half-documentary, half-scripted neurology thing. Thats been really all-consuming, and thatll come out at some point this year.

What was the appeal of directing? It seems so overwhelming.

Its a nightmare. Theres no appeal. I only did it because I knew no one else was gonna make it. No guy was gonna make a movie called The Female Brain. And you know, Ive made TV shows, Ive created things, directing is you really just have to be incredibly decisive, which I am. Neal directs commercials and movies, [but], hes said to me, nothings as hard as standup. So I was like, OK, if its not harder than standup, I guess Ill try it. So I tried to apply the same principles of writing a good standup special to making a good movie. Doing test screenings, because I trust strangers to tell me if somethings funny. My approach was just, lets screen it for strangers and see where they laugh. If people arent laughing, I have to cut it.

Im sure this is the question that every comedian is getting these days, but how much do you feel an obligation to talk about Trump and the current political situation in your comedy, even if its not necessarily something you normally would discuss?

I think Im still in shock. My whole [Twitter] feed is comics talking about this and retweeting articles and I definitely feel a pressure to talk about it, but at the same time, I dont know if people care about my opinion on politics. I dont believe thats my skill, and maybe I just have low self-esteem or maybe this is a healthy take, but my thing is like, let me get out of the way so the people who actually know what theyre talking about can be heard. Let me just stick to what Im good at, and I can speak with authority about mental illness, co-dependence, alcoholism, addiction, comedy, relationships thats enough. Follow Trevor Noah, follow Judd Apatow, follow Samantha Bee, thats their wheelhouse, and Im gonna let them do what they do best.

I dont want to feel like Im capitalizing on a lightning-rod topic, just to get attention. Its like when someone dies and a celebrity whos never met the person is like, oh I miss this person, rest in peace. Its like, what are you doing? Are you just trying to get retweets? I just dont think my motives are clean enough. I dont want to be yelling because everyones yelling about the same thing. It feels slightly conformist. I think its important to know your place in the band. Im a drummer, Im not the singer, when it comes to politics.

So I noticed that IMDb says you were the first woman to do comedy in Dubai and Beirut. Is that true?

People are like, you performed standup in the Middle East, isnt that scary? Like, the scariest place to perform standup these days is America. We are in the most polarized, raw time since Ive been doing standup. I was in Napa three months ago and I was like, Oh, Hillarys running. And everyone was like Boooo! Like, a fight broke out, six people had to be removed, people were waiting for me in the parking lot. The most dangerous place Ive ever performed standup is in my home state of California. Now might be the most dangerous time to have opinions in the United States, because everyones just so emotional and have so much skin in the game. I was in San Diego, and fights were breaking out in the crowd between Republicans and Democrats, and people were kicked out. It was crazy.

I feel like Im hearing more stories like that from comics. There was a time you could make fun of George W Bush, and even the people who like him got that it was part of the deal.

Totally. And I did The Roast of Donald Trump. Ive been making fun of Donald Trump we all have for 10 years, and just bringing up his name I mean, even if youre supportive of Donald Trump, theres still a lot to make fun of. Even if youre his biggest fan, theres a couple joke premises that youre gonna have to be into, and I was making fun of him and this guy was like, Fucking liberal cunt! I was just like, you paid to come here. You knew what you were coming to see. But its like this third rail. Everyone so intense right now.

I know youve been doing a lot more acting recently, and I wonder how, as youve gotten more well-known for things that arent necessarily just your standup, how have your relationships with the audience changed? Does it feel different do do standup now that a lot more people know who you are?

Yes. Three years ago, it would have been, its so much easier! Everyone knows me! But that was before I was actually touring, and I realized people have higher expectations. Being known doesnt get you anywhere, it just makes the bar and the expectations higher, especially if the venue wants to charge a certain ticket price because youre known. So people are like, I paid $60 to see you and youre on TV. Lets see what you got, bitch. You better be funny. I feel a little bit of that, which is totally I think people should have that expectation.

Theres also a little bit of pressure, because people know you, so you cant lie. I cant get up there like, Im so wasted! People know that Im not like that, so you cant sort of do cheap generic stuff. I have to be very authentic. I just have to dig deeper and deeper, which is great. I think the audience pushed me to do that, which makes me better, but its harder. When nobody knows you, you can pretend to be anyone. You can go, Last night, I did heroin. Joke, joke, joke. I cant do that now.

And then theres the interesting new anxiety and fear of people recording. The obligation to give an audience what they deserve and want, which is videos and photos, but also trying to maintain a modicum of privacy when you perform so that you can work on new material without it being on the internet the next day. Theres kind of an interesting challenge that I didnt anticipate. You have to be vigilant, and then its tricky because then you become sort of a mom, where youre like, Excuse me, can you turn your phone off? Especially with younger crowds and college crowds, which I do a lot, its like, how do you embrace the change and use it in a positive way and not alienate your audience, but also make sure that that stuffs that not ready isnt getting out before its good?

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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