‘I Love You’

06.25.14

Why Whitney Cummings’ Dick Jokes Are Important

In her new Comedy Central special, ‘I Love You,’ the comedian may deliver her most controversial message yet: It’s OK for women to act like women.

Whitney Cummings wants to set the record straight on a rumor that’s followed her—followed all of us, really—around for the past few years.

“There was this rumor going on for a while that men like strong women,” the comedian tells me. “Remember that?” she asks, her voice soaked with sarcasm. “No, men like Asian porn where women are cheerleaders with ball gags in the mouths. They don’t like women with opinions.”

Cummings is a bit of a special authority on the matter. She is a woman with strong, provocative, and deceptively intuitive opinions. And she has, in the past few years, been given a rare platform from which to deliver them—one with more reach than a comedian’s typical standup microphone, but from which she became keenly aware of our reluctance to hear them.

She created, wrote, and produced the lightning-rod NBC sitcom Whitney, which was canceled after 38 episodes and countless critical debates last year. She’s still involved with the CBS hit 2 Broke Girls, the hit CBS comedy she co-created with Michael Patrick King, and often appears as a panelist on Chelsea Lately, a show which, along with her blistering takedowns at the Comedy Central roasts, served as the most significant early boost to Cummings’ career.

On Saturday, Cummings will premiere a new stand-up special for Comedy Central, titled I Love You. Deeply personal, blush-inducingly ribald, and, at times, almost uncomfortably frank, I Love You trumpets what might be Cummings’ most controversial opinion yet: It’s time that women stop being afraid to be women.

“We’re in this weird time where feminism worked really well,” Cummings tells me. “My girlfriends are super strong and have their shit together. They have awesome jobs and have houses. But they feel, and I feel, that they can’t act the way that a ‘stereotypical woman’ would, in ways that guys wouldn’t like.” 

There’s the notion, Cummings says, that, “‘I can’t be emotional. I can’t be weak. I can’t cry. I can’t be vulnerable. I can’t ask for help, because I don’t want to let down my gender.’ There’s a lot of shame around those kinds of things. So the stuff that I’m doing is to say that it’s OK to be sensitive. It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to cook a meal for your man—you’re not unraveling feminism.”

She jokes that for guys to be called crazy, they “gotta be naked in an alley jerking off on a dead pigeon singing Bible hymns.”

It just so happens that she’s impersonating a flaccid male penis on a stand-up stage for a special that’s being broadcast on national television while doing it.

There’s much to be appreciated in the media landscape today when it comes to reforming the portrayal of women, away from unattainable ideals and tired stereotypes in order to reflect back a healthier reality. As such, Cummings could certainly be counted as a soldier in the movement among female comedians and creatives to end the pop-culture mandate that women should strive to “have it all,” but instead take special pride in celebrating themselves as is, warts and all.

The likes of Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, and Tina Fey deservedly soak up a lot of the credit on that mission, for creating female character who embrace bodily imperfections, normal neuroses, personality flaws, and other, less lofty things, like an affinity for junk food. Cummings, however, has proven far more controversial and arguably less palatable than her contemporaries. Perhaps it’s because she’s decided, as important as a guilt-free Cheetos binge is, to talk about the more uncomfortable things. The sex stuff.

We’re all still so uncomfortable with the sex stuff. And we may even be uncomfortable with those who aren’t.

In fact, right before Cummings rang me last week for our interview, the open-space newsroom I work in—usually the volume of a dull roar—quieted to eerie silence, which is not exactly the environment I was hoping for to conduct an interview about a comedy special in which Cummings mimics a variety of orgasms, imitates the aforementioned penis, and discusses sex and relationships with a bluntness I wouldn’t typically (or ever) be comfortable with my coworkers overhearing.

“What is your family? Did you grow up Catholic or something?” Cummings asks when I inform her in a hushed whisper how nervous I was to discuss these things when the office was so quiet. She obviously nailed it—I grew up in a very Irish Catholic family. “There you go,” she says. “So you have shame around this kind of stuff.”

As it happens, Cummings had a similar upbringing, first attending Episcopal, and then Catholic school. “There was so much repression around me,” she says. “There was so much transgression but everyone was repressing it all and pretending it wasn’t happening. There was lot of promiscuity in my family, but everyone was pretending that they were pious and perfect. I felt like I was getting lied to so much.”

Any reasonably self-aware comedian can probably pinpoint the experiences in their lives that led them to that career path. Count Cummings among them. “I got so exasperated by shame and guilt when you’re doing perfectly normal things that we all do, but are lied to about, that I started doing it for a living,” she says. “The truth is actually where I feel safe. Talking about sex, or the stuff we all do but are taught to feel ashamed of, is where I get the most oxygen.”

Because Cummings is an open book when it comes to talking about sex, and because she talks about it a lot, her comedy perspective is frequently reduced to “the girl who tells sex and dick jokes.” It’s a woefully superficial reduction of what Cummings is doing. Yes, she tells sex and dick jokes. But as she told New York magazine in 2012, “I just want them to have a bigger impact. I want those pussy jokes to mean something.”

Two years later, she’s still on that crusade, and her comedy is still being misunderstood. Even after I Love You, that might still be the case.

“A lot of these bits might seem like dick jokes or vagina jokes, because they have that in it, but that’s not what I’m really saying,” she says. “Like orgasms. I do a big section in the show about orgasms and how hard it is for a woman to have them, which I think a lot of women have shame about. So I do a thing where I show what an orgasm really looks like. Someone might boil that down to, ‘Oh that’s a vagina joke, or a sex joke.’ But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about standing up for yourself, having power, and being honest.”

It’s not just matters of the bedroom that Cummings feels she needs to be a bit of an ambassador for women on. She’s also combating through comedy what she’s calls “the new c-word” that’s being used nonsensically and unfairly against women: “crazy.”

In I Love You, she jokes that for guys to be called crazy, they “gotta be naked in an alley jerking off on a dead pigeon singing Bible hymns.” But for girls to be called crazy, “we just gotta send you two text messages in a row.”

It’s all part of a double standard that, she thinks, sadly lingers when it comes to the way society has permitted women to be treated. It’s shaming them into acting a certain way. It’s calling them “the c-word” when they’re just acting rationally. (Seriously, if a strange girl is texting you at midnight, how is your girlfriend crazy for asking who it is?)

She’s experienced the double standard personally. “When I was doing press for Whitney, critics were commenting on my appearance, saying I was shrill, saying I was needy,” she says. “Stuff they would never say about guys in a review.”

Cummings’ experience with Whitney was an interesting one. It premiered on a fall TV slate that was overly primed for think pieces and dissection. Three new series—Whitney, 2 Broke Girls, and New Girl—premiered at the same time, championing young, independent women. That same season, a crop of sitcoms debuted—Last Man Standing, How to Be a Gentleman, and Man Up—each signifying the emasculation of men.

It was embarrassingly easy to cheer the trio of female-centric sitcoms, not just for their collective message but because the male-focused alternatives were so terrible. But of the three go-girl comedies, Whitney was creatively the weakest one when it debuted, and therefore—and perhaps a bit unfairly—it got a brutal lashing from critics. But as Cummings points out, much of that criticism had little to do with the actual comedy of the series, in which she played a commitment-phobic woman in a serious relationship.

This is when Cummings realized that it was time to debunk that “people like strong women” rumor.

“I think most actresses, especially at the time I was doing Whitney, were more vulnerable or feminine, and then I kind of came on yelling, and with a lot of opinions,” she says. “I think what a lot of people missed on the show, which I think was compelling and hopefully will be appreciated at some point, is the role reversal. I thought it was interesting that the guy on the show had more of the traditionally female qualities and I had more of the male qualities. I thought it would be interesting and subversive. Like, ‘Let’s talk about gender roles!’ And people were like, ‘Why is she yelling?’”

Sometimes, though, it takes a strong woman with strong opinions and a strong voice—she may even need to yell—to change people’s minds.

“I don’t set out every day to start a revolution,” she says. “I think, for me, if I was to have a goal, it would be to take a little bit of the shame away from being human.”