Three years after someone attempted to extort $10,000 from Whitney Cummings for a topless photo, stand-up comedian, writer and producer is ready to address the threat on stage.
About halfway through her fifth special, “Whitney Cummings: Jokes” (now streaming on Netflix), the “2 Broke Girls” co-creator jests, “it wasn’t that bad. They got my whole Cloud, and I was actually way more embarrassed about all of my screengrabs of inspirational quotes.”
In an interview, Cummings, 39, says: “I’m lucky I have a job where as soon as something bad happens, I’m like, ‘Oh there’s a bit.’”
Cummings’ routine also alludes to recent celebrity news, referencing Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at March’s Oscars and convicted sex trafficker R. Kelly.
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She isn’t currently interested in antagonizing her audience. “When things are tranquil, I like to be more shocking,” says the comic, who also devotes stage time to comparing how kids are growing up today with her own childhood.
“It’s nostalgia,” she says. “The freshest, edgiest thing to do is be positive and hopeful and find the silver lining because that’s what no one is doing.”
She explains to the Newark, New Jersey, audience in “Jokes” that the headline-grabbing image was a screengrab from her accidentally topless appearance in an Instagram Story video while “in the bathtub and high on edibles.” The blackmailer demanded payment and threatened to sell the picture to a tabloid, so Cummings decided to release the photo herself on social media.
Cummings explains why she decided to address the incident now, her initial thoughts on the ordeal and comedy audiences’ evolving sense of humor. (Edited for length and clarity.)
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Question: How did you decide on Newark for your special?
Whitney Cummings: Comedy, right now, we’re in a very bizarre moment where, when you’re in major cities sometimes, you feel this like, “Am I going to be filmed? Is someone from TMZ here? Do I need to walk on eggshells?” There’s just something about (being) outside of major cities that (feels) oddly safer for comedians to be braver.
Q: Why did now feel like the right time to address the extortion plot?
Cummings: My gut was this is a kid who’s in over his head and doesn’t understand that what he just did is illegal. So I had instant compassion. I (went public with it) because I don’t want this person to get in trouble, but I also don’t want to participate in enabling or not punishing someone who’s doing this to other people.
It’s obviously a very serious conversation that I don’t want to minimize, but I don’t want to preach to people (at my shows).
Q: What was your initial reaction to the blackmail attempt?
Cummings: First, I saw the photo and the vanity was like, “Uh! (This) can’t be out there! Chris Evans is single! What if he’s Googled me? What if the guy from ‘Bridgerton’ breaks up with his girlfriend?” I was watching my friends go through these horrible, sickening episodes of having very private stuff released. I was like, OK, if other girls have to go through this, I always want to be one that takes a hit also. It’s a masochistic thing. I always want to be like, “I wish I could take this problem from you. I wish I could take this pain from you” because I’m a comedian. I can make it funny.
Q:How have you seen audiences’ tastes change?
Cummings: I have no qualms with people wanting comedians to be more thoughtful and mature and play to the top of our intelligence. I don’t want to stay the same, and when the audience raises their expectations for you, that’s a really cool challenge.…
I was at The Comedy Store a couple months ago, and a guy came out, and he was doing a bit on fat chicks. And the audience wasn’t laughing. Then finally, this woman just went, “Can you stop?” The audience that’s there at live shows, they vote and people are evolving, and they want something smarter.
Q: That makes me wonder if you have any thoughts about Dave Chappelle’s controversial “The Closer” or the backlash.
Cummings: Here’s what I’ll say: (In) my new material I’m working on now, I open with, “You guys, I have a very hot take for a comedian: I love trans people. I think they’re cool. I have a lot of friends that are trans.” And people kind of lose their minds. (In) comedy (there are) always going to be extremes, and we need contrast. (As) comedians, our job is not to always be correct. It is our job to illuminate what exists and bring things out of the shadows.
It’s part of our job to exaggerate; it’s part of our job to go there. Anything that creates tension and conversation is always ultimately good, even though at the moment it might feel bad and scary. Comedians are going to evolve, and I’m a big Chappelle fan.
A trans person is more qualified to weigh in on the effect and the impact. But I’m always going to defend comedians having creative freedom and doing jokes and allowing the audience to decide.
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Q: It’s not just comedians’ material that’s under attack. Chappelle and Chris Rock have been physically assaulted. And you joke about the Oscars slap in your special. Do those events affect your sense of security on tour?
Cummings: There’s always been violence in comedy. This whole tour I just did – it was like 50 cities or something – I’d say (at) about half the shows, a fight broke out in the audience. As much as I hate that that happened to Chris, and it was disgusting and everyone should be horrified, comedians, every time you try to hurt us, it makes us stronger. We thrive on adversity. We thrive on being abused. We thrive on punishment. I’m so excited of what’s going to happen with Chris creatively because of this.
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