The Jester Interview:
the premiere episode of “Down and Dirty With Jim Norton,” a new stand-up
comedy showcase on HBO (debuting at midnight Friday, October 3), young
comedian Whitney Cummings might very well be the only performer in all
four episodes with a somewhat clean act, which deserves a merit badge
unto itself when one’s keeping that kind of company (Andrew “Dice” Clay,
Patrice O’Neal and Artie Lange are among the performers on the series,
not to mention the host himself). Aside from content, her material also
has an entirely different style from her Norton show colleagues, largely
built on short, witty quips. She also will perform at Gotham Comedy
Club, October 16-18. Jester spoke with Cummings about her career as she
drove around in L.A. early one morning, assuring us that she was using a
Jester: How did you get into doing stand up?
Whitney Cummings: It’s weird. You basically have no choice. It’s
not like ‘Should I be a lawyer or a comedian?’ It just follows you and
sucks you in so violently. A lot of people say ‘Oh, you must have known
you would be a comedian.’ I had no idea. I didn’t know in childhood what
life had in store for me. I took myself very seriously in high school,
did a lot of pretentious theater. I grew up in D.C. and was doing “A
Doll’s House,” Ibsen. Then I decided I was going to be a journalist and
started interning at NBC local news, and as you know, nothing is funnier
than local news. As a comedian, you’ll never be funnier than the local
news trying to be serious. I remember specifically one day I was given a
shot to read the news myself. I was reading it and there were the most
sensational rapes, stabbings and murders -- they’re so out of control.
It was something like a kid got kidnapped and they showed the photos.
The photo came up and I said, ‘Who would want to kidnap that?’ or
something -- and the kid was fat, and I said, ‘At least we know he
didn’t run away from home.’ I just could not take it seriously. I
thought, ‘What am I doing?’
I finished college and came out to L.A. and the first gig I did was
“Punk’d” on MTV. I got that pretty early on and that was kind of a
comedy show, so everything conspired to get me into it from the start.
J: But it’s not a choice between being a comedian and being an actor, a
singer or something close to that?
WC: I have worked as an actor which is great, but if you’re a comedian
-- you can kind of just be an actor, or just be a lot of jobs, but being
a comedian requires so much work and so much sacrifice. Every day is
just another reason to stop. You think, ‘What am I doing?’ It requires
so much energy and dedication to do it and get good and be successful
that it’s not something you can just fall into. You have to actively
J: How did you start out pursuing it?
WC: I basically did whatever I had to do to get stage time. When I
started -- in L.A., what’s different from New York is you have to drive
everywhere. I was doing probably three shots a night, times four [days a
week], which means you have to start at 6 p.m. and end at 2 a.m. I would
do as many open mikes as I could, which meant going from Pasadena to
Culver City to Northridge to Hollywood, just for three minutes a piece.
It’s what you have to do, not ‘woe is me.’ … I did as many open mikes as
I could. I started … a good way to get stage time is to run your own
show. Friends of mine, we would find our own place and run our own open
mike and do our own shows. Otherwise, it’s really hard. … In L.A. it can
be very difficult.
J: What was or is your home club, and did that bring you to a higher
WC: I absolutely am so blessed. I’m at the Comedy Store. Mitzi [Shore]
is very specific about who she puts on there, and in my opinion develops
the best comedians. Not only is it amazing because there’s three rooms
at the Comedy Store, so on any given night, you can maybe do two or
three slots, but … the Original Room in there has so much history and is
so great, because of the way Mitzi lights it. It’s the hardest room in
the country, so from a comedian’s masochistic standpoint, that means
it’s the best in the country. First, … I’m driving. But I have the
headpiece, so don’t worry. … Because of the way that it’s lit, the
comedian is completely blasted with light, completely spotlit and you
can’t see the audience at all. In most clubs you can see the first seven
or eight, if not the whole audience. For good or bad, in most clubs you
can see the person and engage them, while in the Original Room you are
defenseless. You can’t even see them. So that makes comedians incredibly
When people are lit, they feel a little more obligated to laugh if they
can see and make eye contact. In the Original Room, there’s no
obligation to laugh at all. People are anonymous. It is dark. They don’t
have to laugh at you. And Mitzi is very … most comedy clubs make all
their money off selling food and drinks. She has a ‘no food’ rule there
because she wants people watching the comics. She doesn’t want people
ordering food and eating chicken fingers during the show. It’s not like
they’re busy putting tartar sauce on their fish. It’s really -- all the
good comedians tend to come there when they have a special coming up and
will work out because it really makes you good. Also you get 15 minutes
a night, which most clubs [don’t do].
There’s no host, so every night in the Original Room and even on the
weekends. One comic brings the next up and it’s like headliner after
headliner. It’s not like here’s the host back on stage, and an 8 p.m.
show and a 10 p.m. show. It just goes on. I get spots there every night.
Getting past there was really great. It’s awesome.
J: Do you prefer that to a theater-type show? Have you done
WC: Yes. Each kind of venue. I love doing the Comedy Cellar. More
intimate venues are great. But then big venues like [a theater] can be
so rewarding. It can be kind of jarring sometimes because I tend to
‘machine gun’ jokes a little bit. But when you’re in a theater with
thousands of people, everyone’s done laughing at a different time. It
feels a little less intimate which has its benefits also, because that
can just be so rewarding when you’re crushing in a big group like that,
it’s really great because sometimes you can bomb at the Comedy Store in
front of three people. So it’s pretty cool. But an intimate venue is
great. At the Comedy Store, where I worked out a lot, it’s so intimate …
and that has the reward that it really strengthens you as a comedian.
You can get away with more with a big audience. You don’t have to be as
private. When you can do a big venue like that, it’s really rewarding.