Whitney Cummings on Cancel Culture, Comedy Creeps, and the Death of ‘Roseanne’
The prolific comedian and TV writer opens up to Marlow Stern about her new charity special, why Hollywood people should try to empathize with Trump supporters, and more.
“Everyone’s very scared of you. Is this going to be confrontational?” Whitney Cummings asks me, half-jokingly (I think.)
I assure her that I’ll be fair, and understand why her guard is up. Despite reaching incredible Hollywood heights—a podcast, stand-up specials, film roles, starring in her own eponymous sitcom, co-creating the CBS hit 2 Broke Girls, and executive producing the Roseanne revival—Cummings has been the subject of a number of hostile, and downright sexist, pieces. In a 2011 interview, then-New York Times writer Andrew Goldman even asked her if she’d slept her way to the top.
The occasion for our talk is an undeniably good one: In Stitches: A Night of Laughs with Whitney Cummings and Friends, a live virtual comedy special airing the evening of Nov. 19 benefiting the Hydrocephalus Association, an organization helping research a brain disease that affects 1-2 out of every 1,000 babies born in the U.S.
“I just feel like babies at least deserve to grow up,” offers Cummings. “If you fuck up your life that’s on you, but you should get a fair shot out of the gate.”
In Stitches will feature performances by Cummings, as well as up-and-coming comics Kurt Braunohler, Chris Estrada, Dan Levy, and Esther Povitsky. There will also be special appearances, from Neil Patrick Harris to Meghan Trainor, and a performance by Natasha Bedingfield. It will be filmed in the backyard of Cummings’ home in Topanga, California, where she’s been hosting a number of socially distanced comedy sets during the ongoing pandemic, and in her downtime, hanging with her twin pitbulls—one of whom, Mona, almost ate a lemon during our Zoom interview, causing Cummings to sprint off-camera.
Of course, Cummings has also found herself tied to a number of controversies, none of which really had to do with her: leaving Roseanne after the star’s racist tweets emerged, the revelation that her former Whitney co-star Chris D’Elia preyed on underage girls, and a recent New York magazine exposé alleging that her stand-up pal Jeff Ross once groomed and abused a 15-year-old girl. (Ross denies the allegations and has filed a defamation suit against his accuser.)
In a wide-ranging conversation with Cummings, we discussed the special, these controversies, and whether “cancel culture” is really a thing.
Let’s talk about the virtual comedy event, which is benefiting a very good cause. How did you become the ringleader for this?
You know, when the pandemic hit, comedians all of a sudden had their drug of choice taken away—our violent need for attention and connection and to make people laugh was taken away from us very suddenly. We just had to go off of our adrenaline-drug cold turkey, and we couldn’t perform, we couldn’t make drunk strangers laugh, we couldn’t get that hit of validation. So I started doing shows in my backyard—having comics come over, getting COVID tests, wearing masks, being six feet apart. It was a way of coping. Everyone is trying to cope. I think there’s a very deep—I’m not saying it’s healthy—fear of falling behind as comedians.
You’re always working toward a special, and the pandemic happened, and then what was funny started changing. I had this whole bit that wasn’t really fleshed out about how whenever a man shakes a woman’s hand he always has to give her weird feedback about how her handshake was, like, “Strong handshake!” but as soon as COVID happened, that joke was dead. So I just wanted to film these in my backyard and put them on social media, so all that work that we’d done wasn’t wasted. Dave Chappelle was doing them in his backyard in Ohio, so I figured I’d do the L.A. version.
And it’s for charity, which is nice.
I think a lot of charities are scams. It’s a hot take! Gonna get me canceled! But babies and dogs is just a no-brainer. I really wanted to put people on this show that were warm, positive comedians. At the time in the news, everything in the news was so cynical, so I think almost the edgiest thing you can do is be hopeful and positive. People just want to watch The Floor Is Lava.
Or Great British Bake Off, in my case.
Exactly! I just want to watch Friends. I wish I could still watch The Cosby Show and Roseanne. But just the nostalgic, warm-and-fuzzy feeling. We wanted to make sure the comics weren’t being super negative or political, because nobody really wants to hear about that, you know?
I read something interesting about you that I didn’t know, which is that you dabbled in journalism prior to being a comedian and even went to school for it.
I want your job. I wanted to be a journalist. I’m a gossipy bitch! I want to be a spy. I grew up in a home where there were a lot of secrets, and a lot of tricks, and my reality was very confusing and people were very mercurial. I grew up in an alcoholic home—everyone has heard about this—and I had to become a sleuth in order to keep myself safe. Did they drink? Are my parents fighting? Do I need to be funny? Do I need to leave? So I have a very journalist-y, sleuth-y sort of brain where I want to solve crimes, and where I get very obsessed. I have snitch in my blood—with no judgment! So I went to the Annenberg School for journalism at UPenn. And I’m glad I did it. I tried to be a journalist, and interned at the local NBC station in Washington, D.C. (WRC-TV). I would sit in the room while they would pitch stories: Should we talk about the pothole? Or this? And it’s so weird because you’re sitting around thinking, “Human beings make the news.”
You mentioned wanting to become “a spy” and I’m reminded of your experience as EP of the Roseanne reboot. Did a part of you want to test yourself by getting out of your comfort zone and learning how the other side thinks? Getting into the mind of a Trump supporter?
I’m fascinated by playing devil’s advocate and want to understand the people I disagree with. I don’t want to dismiss and malign. My Dad used to make me argue with him at the dinner table. He’d say, “Give me three reasons why you should be able to stay out after midnight,” and I’d have to argue my case. I think it’s very self-righteous or sanctimonious to just dismiss people we disagree with without trying to understand why they believe what they believe. I don’t get it. I grew up in Washington, D.C., mostly, but also in Virginia and West Virginia, so I grew up seeing both sides, and people believing different things. Even though I don’t agree with somebody, I don’t think they’re dumb. And I’m a comedian who tours all over the country, and I see why people make the decisions that they make. And as a writer, you have to be able to do that.
It’s so weird to me in Hollywood where writers are like, “Fuck the right!” You’re a writer! You’re supposed to want to empathize with characters you don’t necessarily agree with because you have to write them. I just try to take the judgment out of it, and the emotion out of it. For me, so much of what happened when Trump won was there were so many people who felt like they were voiceless—not being seen, not being heard, being dismissed, being ignored, not being represented—and everybody’s basic human need is to be seen and understood. If you don’t see and understand them, they’re going to make themselves heard in some way or another. Am I… am I canceled?
No, I don’t think so. It’s interesting, because you were dealing with someone in Roseanne who’d been radicalized online. I almost feel like boomers just shouldn’t be that online—constantly tweeting, or constantly on Facebook—because they seem pretty susceptible to bad information.
Also, why the fuck are you listening to them? When people are like, “Roseanne’s so toxic,” then why do you follow her? You’re the one listening, responding, and just retweeted it. Just ignore her. This whole cancel culture thing, when people freak out, well you’re the ones amplifying it and legitimizing it by being outraged. I don’t even think Roseanne believes what she says half the time. She’s a contrarian by nature. We’re comedians—it’s our job to rile you up—and to me, a lot of the points she had made a lot of sense, and the other stuff sounded like someone who was out of touch, sequestered, does not have accurate data. I mean, the tweet that went out, that’s not what I’m talking about and unacceptable, but all the lead-up to it. I don’t forgive her, we’re not friends, and I quit the show, so I think it’s very clear what happened—I’m not giving her a pass. But if we’re not trying to understand why people are vulnerable to these conspiracy theories, we’re never going to be able to dismantle or understand.
You mentioned “cancel culture,” and I wanted to discuss that a little bit. Because it seems pretty overblown to me. I don’t think someone getting shit on Twitter for a couple days is getting “canceled.” Has anyone actually been “canceled” who didn’t deserve it? Are people really being “canceled” if Louis C.K. is still able to headline comedy clubs?
My publicist’s claw just pulls me off. [Laughs] No, I don’t have a publicist. Something that fascinates me about Twitter and cancel culture is, I was at the Twitter offices for some reason and reading statistics about it, and 22 percent of people are on Twitter—of that, 2 percent generate 80 percent of the comments. So there’s that. But I think humans are very consistent. We’ve done this with the town’s square hangings, or the Roman Colosseum. Humans used to watch hangings as entertainment. We’re a very dark species. I have this theory I’m working on—tell me if it’s stupid—but we have a very basic need to root for or against things, and then we didn’t have sports, and it got so much worse. All of a sudden it was, “He wore bronzer ten years ago!” And I think the pandemic amplified it, because we’re all so scared and freaked out. People don’t realize what they’re doing when they cancel comedians is: we’re funny because things are taboo, and the more you make it taboo, the funnier we get.
I know you need to find where the line is to be a comedian—to push up against it and even cross it to test and fine-tune your material. But if there’s “cancel culture” then what’s happened to Jeff Ross?
That’s a great question, and I don’t know. That’s one where it’s hard to tell because we’re in a pandemic, so we don’t know who would be getting jobs or who would be touring, because nobody’s touring or really working, so it’s a really weird time. But it was interesting to watch the comedy community kind of…
There seemed to be a collective shrug, which is crazy to me. That article didn’t seem to really hit as hard as I thought it should have.
You also have to have a certain amount of fame to be canceled, so it’s this weird thing of: How do you cancel someone who isn’t super famous? And why are we only canceling people who are super famous? Since power is relative, can you only cancel someone who’s super famous?
I mean, I would say Jeff Ross is about as famous as Chris D’Elia.
Really? The answer is: I don’t know. As comedians, it’s our job to advertise our flaws. We are scumbags. We admit it. We go onstage, say we’re a scumbag and piece of shit, and then when it’s revealed that we did all those things people get mad at us. So when it comes to minors and rape, that’s never acceptable and never OK, but expecting comedians to be perfect? That’s not what we do. We didn’t sign up for that. That was never our job. We advertise our mistakes. We hate ourselves! You don’t need to cancel us! Nobody hates us more than us. You don’t think we’re funny? We agree! So it’s this fascinating thing.
I was wondering how you felt about Trump parodies, because a lot of comics attempted to do that over the last four years, and very few were that successful.
I had a friend in Hollywood who told me, “Every time they do that, they’re helping him. Because it makes his supporters hate Hollywood more.”
I’m of a mind that SNL actually helped Trump, since Alec Baldwin’s impersonation didn’t really reveal anything about Trump, it was just a movie star pouting his lips and repeating things Trump said almost verbatim. It wasn’t like The President Show, where Anthony Atamanuik actually exposed how Trump was this weird erratic child.
It’s this thing of, “I’m glad Trump’s in office, because now I get to see Alec Baldwin play him.” It’s this weird, “Can’t wait to see Alec Baldwin play Trump!” positive association. I think Trump knows how much we need him, and plays to that. It’s this fucked up co-dependent, symbiotic cycle where the more we made fun of him, the more powerful he got. But yeah, I got some shit for not constantly tweeting negatively about Trump, because I truly believe ignoring him is the only way. I’m not powerful enough to make a difference anyway.
I think that’s a solid strategy. I think Trump subscribes to the Steve Bannon “flood the zone with shit” mentality, to where you’re still trying to clean up the flaming bag of shit he left on your doorstep yesterday when suddenly he drops another.
Remember when there was a pee tape? And Stormy Daniels? That feels like 10 years ago. I did this podcast about Silvio Berlusconi, who’s fascinating. But these guys, they know how to keep you so flummoxed and to victimize themselves. This might be conspiracy theory-y, but I think Trump is so calculated with his chaos. Like, it’s weird that people that are blue-collar love a rich person but they hate Hollywood people. I hate Hollywood people, but my president has a gold toilet. It’s this weird thing of, “I’m one of you but I have a private jet with my name on the side of it.”
With Trump, I think it’s because of the Queens thing. He’s always sort of cosplayed as a working-class hero, even though he inherited hundreds of millions of dollars, just because of his accent and tackiness. He has big OTB energy.
There’s also something so primal about us, and about how scared we all are on a daily basis. Confidence, I think, is ultimately the thing that we gravitate towards most, as opposed to any show of fear or apologizing. Remember when Marco Rubio couldn’t stop drinking water and everyone was like, “Fuck that guy!” He showed a weakness, and everyone was like, “To hell with him!” Michael Rapaport made a good point on my podcast one day. He said, “Look at Trump give a speech. He doesn’t even drink water.”
I think that’s because he can’t balance the glass.
But he’s just a fucking animal. And there’s something about our primitive brains where the more he lies, it has the opposite effect. It’s this fucked-up thing we have where someone will lie on the left and apologize and people are like, “Fuck them,” and someone will lie on the right with confidence and people are like, “Love that guy.” It’s this weird primordial thing of, “That’s who I would follow if there was a fire.”
But are comedians canceled? Are you not gonna watch a Shane Gillis show if he comes to town?
I wasn’t even that familiar with Shane Gillis when the controversy hit. I do think there needs to be better vetting by people in hiring positions, because SNL should have known about that stuff and at the very least been prepared for if it came up. But to your question, I was a fan of Louis C.K. prior to all the stuff coming out about him. Would I attend one of his shows now? I don’t think so.
But would you watch the special? It’s like, I listened to the Ted Bundy tapes! I love watching murderers give confessions. I’ve consumed and paid for entertainment featuring murderers—truly despicable people. I watch documentaries on killers all the time.
There may be more scrutiny of comedians because their work is so personal, and so inextricably linked to who they are, and their worldview.
I do think when people try to cancel a comedian their audience might shift but it does in a weird way make them more popular. When people try to cancel Joe Rogan, when people try to cancel Louis, it gives them more publicity.
Do you really think Louis is more popular now?
Well, it’s hard to tell because we’re not touring. I think if Louis did a tour, people would be like, “Yeah!” And I’m not voicing an opinion on what it should be, but I did a gig in Texas maybe a year ago, and I couldn’t get through my set because people were like, “What happened to Louis? What’s the big deal?!” I think most consumers can separate someone’s personal behavior and their skill. When I was doing my book tour after the Roseanne stuff, people would ask me, “What happened to Roseanne?” They still didn’t know. And I’d tell them, “Well, there was this racist tweet,” and they’d go, “Well, yeah, she’s crazy! Why is this surprising to anyone? We have three jobs and just want to watch a funny show for 20 minutes.”
But with people like Chris D’Elia and Jeff Ross, people who really abused their power and station, where do you think they should be in the industry? Do you think they should still be given a platform? It’s sort of like, if there was a journalist who was out there preying on young girls I wouldn’t want them in my industry, or have them represent my industry.
It’s interesting, because I’ve worked really hard to not be the #MeToo police. Here’s what I will say: I think that ultimately, because of the internet, the people will decide. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but people will find their audience—even if they’re curious, or if it’s schadenfreude. I think I’ve made my stance on predatory behavior super clear, but…I don’t know. I think Sarah Silverman had a really elegant take on this of, “Can you forgive? Can anyone have retribution? Can anyone get help?” I don’t think I know the answer, and I think right now we’re all in so much pain that we have such a low tolerance for forgiveness right now, because everything is so scary. The person next to you at the grocery store is scary right now. Your own brother or sister is scary to you right now, if they just flew. Everyone is so scared that it’s impossible to think about forgiving anyone. We have zero tolerance right now. But these people might resurface again on independent platforms, without sponsors or networks behind them, and the people that listen or watch, they might not be watching for the right reasons, but I’m sure people want to watch a freak show.