Cummings plays Whitney, a woman in a long term relationship with Alex (Chris D’Elia) and no plans on marriage.
If you live in a big city, you probably see lots billboards stating some of Cummings’ comedic observations about relationships. Over the summer, she met with the Television Critics Association to explain her views on humor and sitcoms. The pilot episode has her try to spice up their sex life by playing a slutty nurse in a bedroom fantasy. They can’t put that on a billboard.
Cummings also serves as an executive consultant on CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, where a former trust fund brat and a struggling waitress move in together and face the economic crisis together. Whitney premieres September 22 on NBC while 2 Broke Girls premieres Sept. 19.
Q: What’s the difference between standup funny and sitcom funny?
Whitney Cummings: I think there are a lot of differences and a lot of similarities. I think the similarities are that if you’re honest, you will get laughs. If people believe you, you will be funny. I think the differences are that on stage, it’s obviously just you and a microphone. You’re telling a story on your own and you’re very independent. Whereas on a sitcom, you have a lot of other people and the idea isn’t to tell funny jokes. It’s to be in funny situations and to act real, instead of being on stage and saying funny things, being in a relatively unfunny situation. The good news is, my boyfriend in the show, played by Chris D’Eliah, is a standup comedian also. I don’t know, you guys tell me if there’s ever been a show with a couple that are both standup comedians. I don’t know if it’s ever happened. I know Raymond, Brad Garrett and Ray Romano. I think me and Chris both being standup comedians makes it feel even more like standup because we both feel so at home with the audience and have such a strong relationship with a live studio audience.
Q: With things like the nurse costume, can you be sexy as part of your comedy?
WC: That’s a really good point that I think a lot of people fail to see sometimes. They say, “Being a comedian is not as hard anymore.” I think the only difference, women have obviously always been funny. Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers and Lucille Ball, the list goes on and on. Now I feel like women can be feminine and sexy and funny too and embrace that and not have to hide that: beautiful women in comedy, whether it’s Maya Rudolph and Christina Applegate and Tina Fey and Kristin Wiig.
Q: How do you incorporate your standup comedy material into a 22 minute episode script?
WC: A joke that I have in my act, the silent treatment is not a punishment, it’s a reward. We’re doing an episode where I literally give my boyfriend the silent treatment. For the first half of the show, I don’t talk to him at all. Then I realize at the end of the first act that the silent treatment is not a punishment, it’s a reward. He’s in heaven because I’m not talking to him. So the second half, to punish him, I talk his ear off. We’re literally translating some of these jokes into stories.
Q: What if the studio audience doesn’t laugh?
WC: The good news is they normally do, because I’ve spent so much time working on this material, touring. Last year I did 80 cities. I’m doing material that I know works, that I know is funny. I have amazing writers and the schedule is that we do a table read. We see what gets laughs at the table. We do three rehearsals during the week. We see what gets laughs at rehearsals so by the time we put it in front of an audience, it’s been tested by four other crowds of networks and our writers. It’s probably already been tested out by me on stage so we know that it’s funny. If something doesn’t get as big of a laugh as we want, we have a group of writers. In the multi-camera format, we do a joke and if it doesn’t do as well as we wanted, we huddle, come up with a new one, do it again. If it doesn’t do as well, we do it again and we keep doing it until it’s funny enough to send out to America.
Q: If it still doesn’t work, can you just use a laugh track?
WC: No, there is no laugh track on the show. It’s all live studio audience. All the laughs you here are 100% real. We actually don’t have trouble getting laughs thankfully.
Q: When execs like NBC’s Bob Greenblatt call you the “It girl,” does that freak you out?
WC: Yeah. Greenblatt, it’s like most people are fans of celebrities or writers or musicians. I’m a fan of Greenblatt. I was such a big fan of all the shows he did at Showtime. I’m star struck when I see him. It’s really weird how our paths have collided. I so admire all the stuff that he put on TV. For him to even know my name is really ridiculous and surreal. It’s funny, I was saying to my show runner the other day that my real life feels like a TV show and my TV show feels like real life. My real life now is like Bob Greenblatt and these amazing parties and working with my heroes, [2 Broke Girls producer] Michael Patrick King and all these incredible actors and writers. Now when I go to my TV set, I’m like oh, this is real. My actor boyfriend, my jokes.
Q: How much focus group testing went into the title Whitney?
WC: That’s actually funny because probably a couple. There was a while, it was first called The Untitled Whitney Cummings Project.” For the longest time, which was not sexy, not good. To me the idea of naming the show Whitney felt insanely narcissistic. It wasn’t going to be my idea. Because it follows the model of, maybe not necessarily its success yet or length of being on the air, but it follows the model of Roseanne and Seinfeld. Those shows were about a specific person’s point of view so it made sense to name them after the person. It seemed like everything we were doing was similar to that so it made sense. Someone else chose and we did it. It felt like it really stood out. All these shows that are like Modern Love, Love This.
Q: People may expect a reality show starring Whitney Houston.
WC: By the way, it probably wouldn’t be that different. My sitcom would be probably very similar to Whitney Houston’s reality show, if I’m lucky.
Q: Will you be roasting Charlie Sheen?
WC: I won’t. I have scheduling conflicts shooting this show with the Charlie Sheen roast. But the Charlie Sheen roast has been going on I think for the past eight years.
Q: What would you say about him if you got to participate in that roast?
WC: I don’t have any [jokes.] That’s another thing. The idea of roasting him is daunting because every late night show for the past five years has been trashing him. Where to go, but I know Jeff Ross and all those guys are going to go to town. I cannot wait to watch it.
Q: If you become America’s sitcom sweetheart, could you still be as vicious in your act?
WC: I don’t know. I don’t know if there are any rules. I think I just try to keep doing what I think is funny and what inspires me and if it falls into that path, great. If not, I’m trying to just trust my instincts and follow what I think is funny because that’s what’s gotten me here so far. I definitely don’t think I’m going to be the squeaky clean sweetheart that maybe Lucy was.
Q: Will you still have time to do standup?
WC: Yes. Standup is what got me here so I don’t ever want to get away from that because that’s what keeps me strong and I think quick and honest. There’s nothing that keeps you more honest than a group of drunk strangers. It keeps you honest and humble. It’s like going to the gym. If you want to be a bodybuilder, you’ve got to go to the gym every day. If you want to be a funny comedian, you’ve got to perform every day.
Q: Will you be able to once every couple weeks?
WC: I think the good news is, it’s part of the reason I chose to do this in front of a live studio audience, because although we’re doing scenes and acting, we’re in front of an audience so it feels like standup. The show should feel like a standup show. We’ve got 200 people in our live studio audience. We’re doing jokes so it’ll feel like I’m doing standup, but then I’ll do the L.A. clubs on the weekends.
Q: What was your learning curve for doing sitcom acting?
WC: I used to be in a lot of sitcom acting classes and that helped a lot, but since I’m really involved in writing it, I’m kind of just writing it to my strengths and trying to be myself. I don’t want to worry about acting or anything because that to me means I’m going to start feeling fake or something. Since I’m the same person in the show as I am in life, there shouldn’t have to be too much acting.