How I'm Living Now: Whitney Cummings, Comedian

Whitney Cummings - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of subject

The writer and stand-up is working, re-evaluating the role of comedy and — for reasons she can't explain — wearing a fanny pack at all times.

With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's writers, actors, directors, executives and more are living and working in these challenging times.

Whitney Cummings was supposed to kick off a 40-city tour, beginning March 13 in Detroit, when the pandemic hit. The comedian has been holed up solo at her canyon home in Los Angeles ever since, dressed like "Pauly Shore in the nineties," taping episodes of podcast Good for You, taking an extra pause before cracking wise on Twitter and pondering the unknowable future of stand-up: "As comedians, we ask people to come by the thousands into a venue and just basically exhale for two hours, shoulder-to-shoulder." 

Let’s start easy: how are you?

You know, just living the dream. (Laughs.) Compared to what a lot of Americans are going through, I’m doing pretty good. So, I’d feel weird complaining.

What does your day look like now?

For a lot of writers, there’s a little bit of guilt coming up. We’re excited to have the time to actually write. Because of the way we're living, you spend most of your days responding to emails. By four o’clock, you’ve never actually written anything but correspondence. So, I’m actually waking up and working for real, not busy work, actual creative work — that and waiting around for anyone to call me.

What were you supposed to be doing right now?

I had to cancel a 40-city tour just before the very first night. This was March 12, the day everyone started canceling everything. The two days before, the attitude was very much, "the show must go on!" When everyone else cancels, comedians show up. We’re the road warriors. But by that Thursday, it looked unethical and greedy, but we can’t cancel shows until it’s a state of emergency — or else we’re violating the force majeure in our contract and people don’t get their refund. We had to wait.

Is it weird to think about what touring will look like after social distancing?

We’re all wondering, when this is over, if being in a space with a bunch of people breathing all over each other will ever be the same. As comedians, we ask people to come by the thousands into a venue and just basically exhale for two hours, shoulder-to-shoulder.

What’s been the most difficult adjustment?

Thinking about what my life would be like if I didn’t have live touring, my primary business and the thing I love more than anything. Now I’m just thinking about how to connect to fans digitally in a way that isn’t embarrassing and corny. You’re seeing a lot of people really embarrass themselves on social media — people who can’t go a week without attention. The temptation is to do these Instagram Lives, but you’ve got to make sure you don’t degrade the quality of what you put out and betray the trust of your fans during this time. Restraint is important right now. I’m seeing a lot of celebrities tell people to stay in their homes from their mansions. Let’s not further alienate our fans in this moment by being super out of touch.

Do you find yourself taking more of a beat before telling a joke on the podcast or hitting publish on a tweet?

Yes. The big struggle is to just restrain myself from tweeting anything political. It alienates your fans. I always want to step back and ask, "Is this even something people want to hear from me?" Unless you’re a Bill Maher or Trevor Noah, and that’s who you go to you for that, people want a break. You make a deal that you’re going to be that break. If you betray their trust, it’s hard to get it back. The same goes for something that’s too mean for no reason. Good jokes aren’t enough anymore. They also need to be conscious. Gone are the days where I’m like, "We’re fuckin’ comedians! We can say whatever we want!" You certainly can, but you might have fewer friends after it.

What have you learned about yourself in this period?

Comedians do well in solitude. We spend most of our lives on the road in hotel rooms. I kind of know how to do this. But I grossly underestimated how much our working relationships in TV and movies matter. I’m the first to tell you that I think Hollywood has got its fair share of psychopaths and sociopaths. But when something like this happens, I think about the crew, the grips, the script supervisors, the people I love so much. And looking back, especially in comparison to the experiences where one bad person ruined a production for everybody else, I realize how many amazing, incredible people I’ve worked with. I think it’s something called perspective. (Laughs.) And it’s not something anyone in this business has ever had before. We are all going to get it for the first time ever.

And what do you think that might look like? 

Not that we haven’t had a rude awakening the last couple of years as the business has shifted, but we’re learning how fragile this all is. We rely on human beings to go to movie theaters and buy tickets to shows. We don’t work for the head of Disney. We work for human beings. So it’s just been interesting to realize how vulnerable we are — as human beings, of course, but also just as a business. I think it’s going to change our business dramatically when we come back. Talent has more power than they thought they had.

What else have you figured out?

...that I can’t cook. I’m starving. And it’s so funny, because the last two years really have been all about women’s equality in Hollywood. Now, sure enough, we’re all confined to domesticity like it's the 1800s. The most powerful women I know are baking bread right now — lawyers, CEOs, showrunners and all these badass women are all living like the wives of soldiers in wartime, at home doing laundry and baking muffins. Guys, don’t get used to this. When this is over, we’re going back to being CEOs. This zucchini bread is a onetime thing.

Have you found yourself stockpiling anything?

I have stockpiled quinoa pasta. That has been my main thing, mostly because it’s the only thing I really know how to make myself. I’m probably anemic, to be honest. You can’t be picky during a pandemic.  

How would you describe your Corona era wardrobe?

There’s not a zipper in sight or an underwire bra on the horizon for months. I am dressed like Pauly Shore in the nineties — in tie-dye sweatpants, on my seventh day of dry shampoo. I look like a tech billionaire on vacation in Tahoe, with a lot of super normcore Patagonia fleeces. (Laughs.) I also feel like I’m ready to go at any moment. I’m wearing sneakers in my house. If shit hits the fan, I’m ready. I’ve got my dried beans and a fanny pack on all the time for no reason.

What are you watching, reading, playing or listening to as a reprieve?

I’m doing those MasterClasses, because I am desperate to not get dumber through this process. I did start watching Love Is Blind, and I was like, "Uh oh, I can’t read anymore! What happened?" I loved it, god I loved it, but now I’ve done the MasterClass with Anna Wintour, RuPaul, David Sedaris.... It not only gives me the illusion that someone’s talking to me, that someone is David Sedaris. It’s a way to imagine that you’re FaceTiming with people that would never talk to you in real life.

I’ve also been watching Mad About You, Mr. Belvedere, Martin and Small Wonder. It’s fun to just watch something old because you didn’t audition for any of the parts. We’re in a business where you can’t enjoy anything because it’s always, "I didn’t book that" or "I wish I had written that" or "I hate that person."

Are you dusting off any old hobbies or finding new ones?

I’m reading all the books that I pretended I read two years ago — the ones that I lied about to everyone when I told them I read them. I’m going to catch up with all my lies, basically, so that they are no longer lies.

But there’s so much stuff we can do to be useful. I don’t have kids, so I know parents are really busy, but when other people say that they’re bored, I’m like, why? A friend of mine and I went to a restaurant in L.A., got a bunch of meals, connected with one of the nurses at Cedars-Sinai and dropped them off for all the doctors and nurses. There are plenty of things you could be doing to help people. Drop off groceries for older people. Drop off groceries to nurses. Make masks! Why is anyone bored?

What’s atop your to-do list once this is all over?

I am going to go to the park and just make out with everyone I see. I’m going to be a monster. I just want to re-create that scene in The Notebook with everyone — just jump into all of their arms.