I’m awesome. I wrote a book. It’s got little to do with movies. Download and read “Thank You, Goodnight” right HERE for free.
If I could interview subjects, people, like Whitney Cummings I could forever be content with being the guy on the sidelines who simply learns about what happens on the set of a film while trying to understand what the project means to someone’s overarching career goals. Whitney was deftly able to take my questions and give me honest answers in a way that I found genuinely refreshing, person to person. There wasn’t any pretense, there wasn’t a facade, there wasn’t anything between her job as backup to Patrick Dempsey and Michelle Monaghan and my questions about what she felt her place was in the grand scheme of things.
Opening today, MADE OF HONOR simply seems like one of those films which might actually depend more on the talents of the film’s leading man instead of the popular female lead. Dempsey has proven himself more than capable of holding his own in ENCHANTED, one of Disney’s greatest feats on the big screen in recent years, and who among us can argue with the Goliath-ian power it took Patrick to get from CAN’T BUY ME LOVE and LOVERBOY to prime-time prince of relevancy; it should have been an impossibility but it’s that guy’s charm which is proving to be his greatest asset. That’s partially why an interview with Whitney was alluring. The other part of it is that Whitney makes her living touring the country as a practicing comedienne and there isn’t anything more tempting than the opportunity to get an honest taste of what it’s like to step onto a blackened stage and having a pack of people treat you like it’s Roman circuses all over again: We are here. Entertain us!
Whitney and I discuss all sorts of things, like comedy, inspirations, education, why Patrick Dempsey is a gay crush of mine, films, traveling and whether Carrot Top deserves to live. You can’t help but wish all sorts of positive things for Whitney and as she broke down the ways in which she realizes how she fits in to the cosmic order of things, regardless of how big or small the project she’s being paid to be in, she just has the kind of easy breezy attitude I wish I could have just navigating my own job.
We open on a conversation between Whitney and myself, discussing the topic of what films Molly Ringwold has notoriously turned down. One of those, reportedly, was GHOST and the other was the widely well received whore cum (pun intended) princess fairy tale, PRETTY WOMAN. It’s best to just jump right into the middle of the fray.
CUMMINGS: It’s interesting, isn’t it?
CS: Fascinating. I love to hear stories like that of things that people have passed on.
CUMMINGS: She wasn’t really working around that time, was she? PRETTY WOMAN was what, ’92?
CS: Yeah, it was like ’90, ’91, sometime around there.
CUMMINGS: What was she doing with herself? If you think about it, that movie was literally a comedy about a prostitute. That movie would never get made today. Can you imagine a writer going through auditions – hilarious comedy about a prostitute who is doing a rich guy and she gets out there and then someone tries to rape her – it’s such a dark premise when you think about it.
CS: That’s very true.
CUMMINGS: That’s George from Seinfeld trying to rape her in that movie.
CS: But she’s got a heart of gold.
CUMMINGS: She does have a heart of gold. But in the first script she died at the end. The other movie I saw the other day is DIRTY DANCING. DIRTY DANCING is a movie about abortion. That was the whole reason that Baby needed to learn how to dance. It was an abortion movie.
CS: Just a fool to believe…
CUMMINGS: It’s just kind of funny at how dark the movies were in the late 80’s.
CS: But you know, those guys were salesmen. They were able to convince somebody, “Oh yeah, sounds like a really good idea.”
CUMMINGS: But the movie is about abortion. No, it’s about dancing. Abortion is just why they danced. It’s just so funny when you think about it because that would never fly today. We’ve gotten more conservative I guess.
CS: I would absolutely agree with that. Things have gotten a little more tame. But you got to be in a movie – watch this segue – you got to be in a movie with a man that embodied that 80’s movie vibe.
CUMMINGS: You know what’s really funny? When I was going in to do voice over after the movie was finished, we were looking at it – the movie was shot in England – really beautiful shots on film, lush green rolling hills and I’m looking at it and I’m thinking this movie looks like the 80’s. It had that vivid feel of like Robin Hood. It’s amazing the demographic he has because he’s so famous. What was that, 18 years ago? That movie was so meaningful to so many people. And now he has been reborn with his new show, so his demographic literally is 16 to 65. Where with some actors they have the teen audience – Zach Efron has the teens, Brad Pitt has the 30 year old women, but he has got every generation. It is so wild.
CS: You know, I have no shame saying this, I think my gay crush would be Patrick Dempsey.
CUMMINGS: You are not alone. Guys would even say Patrick Dempsey or Tom Brady.
Tom Brady – I know guys would even say, “If I had sex with him it doesn’t mean I’m gay.”
CS: But you have to say, “If I HAD to – If someone put a gun to my head…”
CUMMINGS: Yes, Patrick Dempsey – women want him, men want to be like him. That’s what I have to say about that. And I totally get it. He’s so charming, so talented, so fun to be with. I think this movie will catapult him back into leading man, opening movies, movie star land again.
CS: I saw him in ENCHANTED and I thought he did a great job in that.
CUMMINGS: I think that ENCHANTED was a tough film for him because he had to play it real but he had to sort of mock her a little bit. He was given a tough task in that movie because he couldn’t make fun of her because she was so likable and I think in the script she wasn’t written as so likeable. He had a lot of challenges in that movie. And Patrick, his charm and likeability can overcome anything.
CS: Like a gigolo pizza guy.
CUMMINGS: Yeah, remember that?
CS: I could go on all day about that guy’s roles.
CUMMINGS: He’s so likable and I think the key to him being a movie star is having women love you and men love you and he is just able to do that. He’s such a pro. He comes and says his stuff and improvises and just has IT. That guy has star quality. He’s got it for sure.
CS: Tell me – based on that – in the new movie, MADE OF HONOR, how do you compete – it’s not competing in that same space but if he’s being funny and you have to be the best friend – the funny person – how do you navigate that territory to let them be the stars that they are and you provide that backup?
CUMMINGS: It’s interesting and that’s a very good question, because I’m a comedian. I do stand-up every night and doing jokes is my thing. So it’s like going into the ring you have to know what your role is is really important. Are you the singer? Are you the drummer? Are you the bassist? Where you come in is very important. Because when you are doing a movie, especially with talented actors who have been doing it 20 years longer than you it’s important to know you place and to work for the good of the movie, not for the good of you. Selfish acting never gets you anywhere except on the cutting room floor. You don’t come in and try and be funny around Patrick – it’s just stupid. It’s best to just trust the writer and their vision instead of your own agenda wanting to be the funniest person. So that was a tough challenge because as a comedian my job is to always be the funniest person all the time and make everybody laugh every 20 seconds. I really did have to restrain myself but after a while – after coming in and seeing how funny Patrick was it was best to just leave it to the pro and stick to what the writer wrote for me.
CS: Certainly this differs from TV where you are able to be more fluid – this was more set up and practiced and having to channel….
CUMMINGS: I just have to be so conscious of the fact that there are 200 people working on this movie – the lighting guys, the grip and the camera guys, the sound guys have set up the theme around what the writer wrote and what the stage directions are and you start messing around trying to be funny and trying to be cute – people’s jobs are why is she doing that – why is she going off - sometimes, because they knew I was a comedian they would say now we can do a take and you can mess around or now you can improvise but that was different. When all those people are working so hard to create a shot that has been planned out for days, you can’t go in and mess around and give them a damn heart attack.
CUMMINGS: That was a hard thing for me to accept.
CS: Was it sort of a lesson learned or did you know when you went into things other than television and your stand-up how these unwritten rules play themselves out?
CUMMINGS: Interesting. I was actually blessed to have a job – my first job out here in LA was a show called Punk’d on MTV – it was a hidden camera prank show with Ashton Kutcher and we would have to do all these hidden pranks to get celebrities in compromised situations and get them to embarrass themselves or whatever and the key was to be very real – I did everything from being in the ballet to being a wardrobe stylist to a paramedic to a this or that and created situations where celebrities would really feel the stakes were high that they’re car was stolen or someone got kidnapped or all these crazy things and it had to be so real so they believed it. It would be very easy to give something like that away if you’re trying to make jokes too much because after the 3rd season all celebrities in LA were really paranoid about being punked. Whenever something weird happened, they would be like, “Is this Punk’d?” So we had the challenge to keep it really real and honest and keep it grounded.
I remember my first punk I was doing was with Adam Brody and I was trying to be cute and trying to be funny and doing the wrong thing. He started to catch on and then I had to quickly go back to be real and honest and quickly learned this is not about me, not about my agenda – if you just do the task at hand and do the best job at entertaining being honest and trusting the writers and directors, you will succeed, instead of trying to do your own thing and being selfish. So I guess I learned it there and I’m very grateful for that.
So, I learned it on cable instead of in a studio. But it was helpful.
CS: And how was that transitioning from a television atmosphere to a film? Does the scale change?
CUMMINGS: Definitely. I don’t have to bring my own wardrobe that’s for sure. At the end of the day it’s all fulfilling – it’s all food for your soul for yourself as an artist. But working on a studio movie – granted on every cable thing I’ve ever worked on I’ve always worked with people I admire – Ashton Kutcher is extremely talented and such a great guy and all the actors are amazing. But when you work on a studio movie you work with much bigger celebrities. At first I was thinking it was going to be a nightmare – working with divas, rude and sure enough they are the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. Patrick, Michelle, Sydney Pollak and everyone that worked on the movie were so great. So wonderful people from cable all the way up to working on big studio movies where the stress is high and pressure is on and instead of shooting in Burbank we were shooting in London and Scotland in all these amazingly beautiful castles. Catering is better.
CS: How did you get picked? Is this something you went out and auditioned for?
CUMMINGS: They saw a lot of people but I think what set me apart was that I was a comedian and they wanted someone who could add a little bit of comedy to it. It’s really amazing because it’s so hard to get a job in a studio movie if you are not a model or had been working forever because they don’t want to take risks and they are trying to sell it overseas and they need financiers to invest and be able to distribute all over the world and the more famous people that are in it the better and Sony was amazing and I think they were excited about me because I was a comedian and there was this fresh young person and that was really cool.
CS: The story itself – I apologize for not knowing a whole lot about it - but why does it take place overseas?
CUMMINGS: Well, there is no way you could know anything about it. Patrick Dempsey has a platonic friend, Michelle Monaghan’s character – they are best friends who realizes that he’s in love with her and she goes overseas to Scotland to work, meets a Scottish man and comes back 5 weeks later, engaged, and she asks him to be her Maid of Honor, says she’s marrying a Scottish man and they all have to go over to Scotland for the wedding. So we’re over in Scotland planning the wedding, doing the rehearsal dinner, doing the bridal showers and all this stuff and doing these Scottish games and all these crazy antics over in Scotland so we got to go over there for a month. It was all very, very cool.
CS: So they got to shoot on location?
CUMMINGS: Yes, it was amazing.
CS: Were you basically tagging along for the whole thing?
CUMMINGS: Yeah. They shot in New York for about 2 weeks that I wasn’t there but they didn’t have the bridesmaids. So, we shot in LA for about a week and shot in Scotland for about 6 weeks and London for 3 weeks.
CS: When you’re doing multiple takes is it difficult from the comedy standpoint to make it seem just as witty and just as spontaneous the 3rd, 4th, or 5th take?
CUMMINGS: Yes, and it’s nice to be able to do something different every time unless we are on a major time crunch and we just have to move on. Being a comedian my impulse is to make people laugh, so every time I want to do something different and fresh and make everyone laugh but, again, you just have to know when to be professional and give them just what they need so we can move on. Sometimes in the editing because I’ve done something different every time they can’t cut it – that would be my worst nightmare.
CS: I’m also just as curious to find out why – I’m reading your condensed bio – that you finished college in 3 years vs. 4 yet you chose a career that insures maximum instability.
CUMMINGS: I love you for that. Well, because I knew that this was going to be my career I knew I wanted to go to college. I got through high school and I knew that every girl who goes out to LA after graduation and doesn’t have an education, they don’t have anything to fall back on but as a performer and having so much training the best thing to do for me would be to not go out to LA and get on a bad sitcom. The best thing I could do was to go improve myself as a person and make myself more interesting and pursue my interests and curiosities and get an education so I have something to say and have a point of view and when I get new material I have some perspective on it and I have some goals, I’m doing a period piece, I’m doing a mystery. And also for my own confidence that when you go into a career that is so unstable the best thing you can do is to have something really solid to fall back on to keep your pride up. And I really wanted to develop as a person. I didn’t want to be an empty person. Not that people that don’t go to college don’t, but it’s something I really wanted to do the compromise was OK I’m going to go to college and do it in 3 years.
CS: Overachieving while being funny. I have to believe it’s one of the hardest things in the world to try to do but do you ever get to the point where you are doing sets every night, obviously some nights go better than others, is being funny a draining thing? Are there times you don’t want to laugh or do anything associated with comedy?
CUMMINGS: Doing stand up is the most enlivening, energizing thing you can possibly do but yes, during the day, it’s really funny because people say for a comedian you are such a serious person. It’s just that, no, I’m off work right now. I don’t always want to be doing jokes, I don’t always want to be on. I can’t always be doing quips. When it’s your job for a living you want to save it for the stage. You don’t see lawyers on their off hours reading paperwork for no reason. After you do it long enough – people get into comedy because they like to make people laugh – sort of have a need to entertain people and the need to make people laugh so if you’re not doing it on stage they don’t do it all the time. Everyone has their class clown, always making jokes, always on but when you start having 20 minutes, sometimes 40 minutes to an hour a night – that need to make people laugh, you get your fix, most of the time, thankfully. So I get it out of my system.
CS: Where did you find your roots? For me, I’ve always been fascinated with comedians – one of the first albums I bought was Bob Goldthwait’s album as a kid and I’ve always admired of taking average, normal everyday things and warping the hell out of them. Who were your comedic measuring sticks growing up?
CUMMINGS: My first ever was Paul Reiser. I found a book he wrote called “Couplehood” that he wrote in 89 or 90 and it’s kind of like what Mad About You was based on. It’s all about couples living together and the mundane goofy things that happen. Just like you said, it was about buttering bread in the morning, making coffee all of these little things and made these hysterical, brilliant commentary about the most mundane things and open it up to a hysterical world. The things we take for granted every day – you get up, take a shower, get in the car – all these things he had such interesting, funny observations. I was so fascinated – his sense of humor was so insane. Followed by George Carlin and big for me too was Bill Cosby. I used to watch his show religiously because so much of that was based on his stand up and then later – Dave Attell – he’s a legend now but he’s very edgy and then I got introduced to Lenny Bruce and then Bill Hicks and it was kind of over.
CS: Oh yeah, Bill Hicks.
CUMMINGS: People are changing the world of comedy. When I was in college I thought I’d change the world and be a journalist. Then I thought the ones that are really making a difference are the ones who do it with a sense of humor. Bill Hicks, George Carlin, those are the people who are making the most profound social commentary followed by Chris Rock, Bill Mahr, Jon Stewart. Humor is a way to endear people.
CS: Now, I am going to ask you a yes or no question and please answer it immediately when I ask: Do prop comedians deserve to live?
CUMMINGS: Yes. Yes, they do.
I cannot live without prop comedians. I just think of my jokes as props. That’s my way out. The thing about prop comedians is that – Carrot Top makes more than all combined… So I want to get on that train of negativity but you have to respect someone making one hundred million dollars a year with a baton and a teddy bear and some toys.
CS: Actually, I agree with you – I think at the end of the day I think the measuring stick is how much money – if he’s successful that’s great, it’s game on but why is there such a movement against people perceived as doing easy comedy?
CUMMINGS: Are you kidding? No comedy is easy. No comedy is easy. And guess what, I have to come to his defense, prop comedy is harder than real comedy. Not only is he telling jokes, he is juggling fire, he’s doing a marathon exercise and telling jokes. He does a two hour show with pyrotechnics acrobatically, doing magic, it’s mindblowing, where I just have to sit up there and talk. At the end of the day, funny is a democracy. People are lining up and filling auditoriums and they are making millions and millions of dollars and entertaining people and people are laughing. Carrot Top is sold out every night. People have paid $100 a ticket to go be entertained by him so you can’t say he is not funny. At the end of the day that’s the statistic.
CS: Seriously, I do not want to hijack your whole day so I want to be able to ask you one more question: With whatever kind of success that MADE OF HONOR gets, if indeed it does well and helps propel you forward in your career, what do you hope is the next step in your career progression?
CUMMINGS: I would like a studio project but there are not very many good funny, funny roles for women and it’s sort of hard to find those and I would love to find a role like that. Really big movie directors are doing TV – like 30 Rock and Weeds – there’s some really good stuff on and I just want to be doing stuff that moves me and makes me laugh. I want it to be meaningful. Stand up is big for me – I’d like to do a half hour special.
CS: Anything that might come about in the near future? Comedy Central loves doing those.
CUMMINGS: Yeah, that’s the idea, so check back in a couple months.
Leave a Reply