Whitney Came, Saw and Conquered

Photo by Jason Lin
Photo by Jason Lin

Comedian Whitney Cummings’ short-lived TV show, “Whitney,” was excessively, painfully bad. We know this. We’ve accepted this. We’ve moved on. So, too, has Cummings, who brought her act to the Student Recreation Center as part of Welcome Week.

Quick segue here: When you have a flop on your resume, you can either poke fun at what happened, or ignore it and hope for the best. As a self-deprecating, loud and lewd comedian, Cummings embraced her failures. She showed she is capable of rising above the flames of negative critic reviews. She emerged from her two-year career stagnation victorious. She made a lot of penis jokes.

The night opened with Dan Levy, a comedian and actor who wore larger-than-life sneakers and began his set with a college-friendly topic: long distance relationships (“The biggest mistake of your life,” Levy warned). That collegiate edge was lost once Levy began talking about parenthood and marriage, but he brought back the energy with his anecdote about finding a dead coyote on his porch. The physicality which accompanied this bit was as energetic as it was hilarious — Levy’s growing absurdity as he detailed howling at the coyote to rouse it before he realized it was dead, and his subsequent interaction with the animal control officer who looked him in the eyes and said, point-blank, “Shit happens every day,” was just wonderful.

One of the hallmarks of a comedian is her ability to poke fun at her audience, and the first few rows of people are always prime targets. Cummings used this to her advantage by beginning her set with a spotlight on a particularly eager fan, who had brought a shot of Cummings from her “Whitney” days for her to sign. “Look how happy and full of hope I am,” she noted, and deduced that the guy was a stalker, saying as she signed his paper, “Please don’t murder me.” From there, Cummings launched into her traditional brand of profanely humorous comedy, speaking about topics ranging from the venue (“Where am I performing? A half-empty basement?”) to the insecurities of womanhood and the daily rituals women must undergo to make themselves look accessible to men.

Speaking on topics of gender, the brunt of Cummings’ performance focused on the realities of femininity, the differences between men and women and the idea of shame. The audience roared at Cummings’ point-blank commentary on the makings of a successful female orgasm (“Kiss me on the mouth, goddammit,” she said, squatting low on the stage and gritting her teeth), and her representation of the ease with which men can climax.

In that vein, few things are as wonderful as watching Cummings imitate a penis. She took center stage and hinged forward at the waist, fingertips dangling above the stage floor. She ascended slowly in fits, and by the time she turned to face the audience, her face was a caricature of joy; “Would you like to play?” she growled, and the audience’s laughter was deafening.

Of her entire set, it was Cummings’ commentary on the idea of shared female shame that stopped my laughter and made me think, “Wait, that’s really interesting.” She discussed the idea that women do not dress for other women, and are instead focused on gaining attention from the opposite sex. When they do see other women in settings like bars and nightclubs, she explained, they try to avoid seeing each other in a shared state of yeah-I-can’t-believe-I’m-wearing-this-either embarrassment, and retreat to the women’s restroom to tend to each other’s wounds. “We are like prisoners at war. We are nursing each other’s wounds,” Cummings said, equating women touching up their makeup as a pep talk to get back out on the fields and fight for one’s honor, dignity and respect –– all while wearing something ridiculously revealing and trying to find a not-creepy man to take home.

Cummings’ humor feels as though it stems from real issues the comedian has faced throughout her life; the toils of womanhood and shared insecurity, the desire to revitalize a dwindling career, the need to leave a personal mark on the world in some individual way. But through that, her strong voice and fuck-it-all edge made me feel like Cummings is ready to own herself as a comedian, as a professional and as a woman. For once — even after remembering those times I sat through a few of episodes of “Whitney” just because it was on after “The Office” — I’m rooting for her and her continued success.

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