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The Jester Interview: Whitney Cummings

In 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 hands-free headset.

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 pursue it.

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 level?
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 strong.

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 theater-style shows?
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.




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