In Defense Of “Whitney”
Over the summer I learned Whitney Cummings, whom I loved from “Chelsea Lately” (a show I watch religiously), would be starring in a sitcom herself and would be producing a second sitcom as well. I felt excited for her new projects coming up in a way I get about celebs like Jon Hamm and Kate Winslet. It wasn’t entirely because of my feelings for her; I like Whitney Cummings, but I’m really a Chelsea Handler girl. And it wasn’t entirely because of any feminist loyalty I feel for her because she is a successful woman working in comedy. I just thought, Hey, cool, this really funny comedienne is starring in her own sitcom! Now I’ll have something new to watch on TV because, uh, “Two and a Half Men” is not my “thing.”
Fast forward to today. Here are a list of titles written by pop culture bloggers about “Whitney,” which I found with a simple Google search:
- Whitney Cummings Defends The Laugh Track Of Whitney (Splitsider)
- What Would Make “Whitney” Worth Watching? (Ms. Magazine)
- “Whitney” Debuts With Forced Laughter & Possible Rape Joke (Jezebel)
- Whitney Cummings Defends “Whitney’s” Multi-Camera Format (NYmag.com)
- “Whitney” And The Triumph Against The Discrimination Of Sexy Women (Splitsider)
- “2 Broke Girls'” Beth Behrs On The Whitney Cummings Backlash (NYmag.com)
- Can “Whitney” Survive Its Ad Campaign? A Discussion (Splitsider)
Defending! Triumphing! Surviving! Good Lord, people. What the hell is going on?
I don’t understand the people who say “Whitney” is not funny; I’ve watched every single episode of “Whitney” and I genuinely look forward to each new episode as it appears in my Hulu Plus queue. (I haven’t seen “2 Broke Girls,” so I can’t speak for it at all.) Sure, “Whitney” is not as funny as “Bridesmaids” or “The Hangover,” but then again, it’s a 22-minute long sitcom that airs on NBC. It’s also not as funny as “30 Rock,” which is also an NBC sitcom. But “30 Rock” is the gold standard of televised comedies right now. No show is going to be as clever or well-written as “30 Rock,” because there is only one show that can have Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer and Will Arnett on it at the same time.
But debating what is and isn’t funny is just pointless. All humor is subjective. I, Jessica Wakeman, generally do not find slapstick, people getting injured, or jokes — and “jokes” — about women being sluts/whores and gays being weak/fags funny, so I avoid that those shows/movies. Instead, I love sexually crass, raunchy and un-P.C. humor that Chelsea Handler does so well. (And which Whitney did in her comedy special, “Money Shot.”)
On “Whitney,” Whitney Cummings sorta does the crass, sexual thing, but to a much lesser, NBC primetime-approved degree. Mostly the jokes are about her character’s (also named Whitney) relationship with her boyfriend and are of the “women are sooo hormonal!” variety. If that humor was coming out of, say, Charlie Sheen’s mouth, I would bellow “DOUCHE!” and go watch a nature documentary about lizards. But I think Whitney is super-smart, with-it, and above all, funny. I could debate the particulars of whether certain topics are funny —like the rape joke mentioned above in the Jezebel post— but that’s a dense topic for another blog post.
So, my friends, the issue at hand is not whether “Whitney” is funny. The issue, as diagnose it, is that expectations for “Whitney” were so high that anything short of ZOMG THIS IS AMAZEBALLS OH MY GAAWWWWD was going to be a disappointment. How did the expectations get so high? Here’s my guess:
- Because Whitney Cummings is a woman who got her own sitcom, which has been a rare thing on TV lately (“30 Rock” is an ensemble cast and “Ellen” was on TV back when I was in elementary school) and is especially unique given the current popularity of Judd Apatow-style “bro” humor.
- Because Whitney Cummings is a pretty woman, which automatically makes people suspect of her talent.
Why do I think these are the reasons? Not just because Whitney Cummings has had to “defend” herself so often (as you can see above from my titles list), but because I myself have posted not one, but two quotes from her on The Frisky where she was talking to an interviewer addressing her sexuality/appearance in some way. In September, The New York Times Magazine interviewer Andrew Goldman asked Whitney Cummings in a roundabout way if she had “slept [her] way to fame.” (Direct quote: “On those Comedy Central roasts, your fellow comedians liked to joke about how you slept your way to fame. How accurate is that criticism?”)
Then in an interview on The Daily Beast, Whitney responded to an interviewer’s question about the difficulties she faced as a woman in standup and started talking about wearing makeup, styling her hair, and embracing her femininity. Even though I’m interested in that stuff from a person-who-cares-about-lady-issues perspective, I’m also groaning because Will Ferrell and Chris Rock don’t have to talk about stuff like that. The fact she has a vagina between her legs, waves of beautiful brown hair, and gloss on her lips is apparently A BIG DEAL. And because it’s A BIG DEAL, the expectations to be amazing are outsized. Outsized and unfair.
That phenomenon — the outsized expectations, the unfairness — reminded me of an interview I did in 2010 with Diablo Cody. Diablo, you’ll remember, wrote “Juno” and she spoke with me when she was promoting her second movie, “Jennifer’s Body.” (Which was funny, but intentionally campy.) We were talking about feminism and Riot Grrrl and ladyblogs, like The Frisky, and Diablo said this to me:
[H]ere’s a problem that is holding back feminism and you see it on the blogs. We all hold each other up to an incredibly high standard in a way that men do not. Let’s say a woman directs a movie that’s not very good—everybody piles up on her. It’s, like, “No! You’re representing us! It has to be perfect!” And that’s not how it works! Women should be allowed to make bad movies. Good movies. Porno movies. Terrible made-for-TV movies. Women just need to be out there directing as many movies as men do. We don’t all have to be the model woman—what we need is to be more visible. We really, really are tough on each other.
Diablo was talking about women, specifically, and feminists. But I took what she said to heart in the sense that everyone should stop holding women to “incredibly high standard[s] in a way that men do not.” No one, least of all me, is arguing that mediocrity should be the ceiling to which anyone — especially women — aspires. But let’s get real: mediocrity happens sometimes, or OK-but-not-amazingness happens sometimes and it doesn’t have to be A STATEMENT ABOUT ALL WOMANKIND. What I think Diablo was saying was that for every amazing, incredible Hillary Clinton, there are 300 Senator Joe Q. Schmoes. For every Tina Fey, there are 300 Lame Standup Guys. For every Aretha Franklin, there are 300 Random Dudes Who’ve Got Soul. And that’s not fair. We shouldn’t have to work twice as hard, to be twice as amazing, to get noticed.
So let “Whitney” be funny. Let “Whitney” be not funny. Let it be funny one episode and not funny the next. Let it wax and wane. That’s the standard we hold to every other show on television, isn’t it? It’s just a TV show starring a funny woman who happens to be beautiful. As Whitney put it herself on her Tumblr blog when she defended her show being filmed in front of a live studio audience (which is something people complain about, apparently):
Why is that making people spaz out so much?
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