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Can Whitney Cummings Get Some Respect?

On a recent Tuesday, Whitney Cummings, 30, one of the most powerful women in lowbrow comedy and also one of the most disdained, bounds into her hospital-blue office in Burbank, California, to meet the writing staff of Love You, Mean It With Whitney Cummings, her new E! talk show. This is the third show that she has on TV this year—the other two are NBC’s Whitney, based on her long-term, non-altar-focused relationship, and CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, which she co-created with Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King—but this is the one she’s counting on to reestablish her bona fides as a stand-up personality instead of just a sitcom star. “Stand-up, as weird as it sounds, is the only time I feel 100 percent secure and safe,” says Cummings later, in brown sneakers with silver studs and skinny black jeans. “Onstage, the biggest break you have is moving toward the truth, and when that starts being rewarded, you get a sense of liberation. It stops you from being apologetic about who you really are.”

That would be a particularly good feeling for Cummings, because last year, Whitney—on which she’s the star, writer, and executive producer—became everyone’s favorite punching bag, an experience that she calls “emotionally very paralyzing and traumatizing.” Unlike Saint Louis C.K., who can do no wrong, Cummings, panned by critics and bloggers, has a hard time proving she can do right. In the sea of female-centric comedies that have become TV staples—Lena Dunham’s Girls, Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, Zooey Deschanel on Elizabeth Meriwether’s New Girl—Cummings’s shows would be ranked, by coolness, dead last. She’s the damaged woman, the one who covers up her scars by being too loud and too hard, and overcompensates for being emotionally unavailable by wearing her sexuality on her sleeve instead of hiding it behind baby fat or “adorkable-ness.”

This year, Cummings is hoping for another chance at acclaim. A lot of Cummings’s comedy is dark—about her need to smother a boyfriend, or about how she’s “emotionally unavailable” and “dead inside”—but she’s incredibly appealing in person: effusive and warm, with a smile for everyone she meets. She has a reputation in Hollywood as an anti-diva, someone who works sixteen-hour days and bends over backward to keep her staff happy. “I guess the verdict is in­—I am not a sociopath,” she says, flashing a grin. “It’s not effective or productive not to be nice. It would undermine the goals I want to achieve on any given day.”

As the writers jam onto her couches—in an office that includes a doctored advertisement for Whitney with the phrase “Half of All Marriages End in … sweatpants,” except the word suicide is taped over the last word (“Um, the person who did that might have been me,” says Cummings)—she offers a pep talk to help them reach the highest bar an E! show can reach. “I know we all got into comedy because we love dick jokes, we love ball jokes, all that stuff,” she says. “But I think we need to do something important with this show—and I know I’m an idiot—but we should do something that matters, something deeper.” She pauses. “Like if we’re talking about celebrities, let’s get into deeper issues, not just make a bunch of vapid, superficial jokes about Nicki Minaj’s butt, or Kim Kardashian’s butt, or whomever’s butt is the biggest.”

She ticks off upcoming segments like one on Spanx for pregnant women (“the one time you get to be fat and not have people objectify you”), a bit about the way guys always say “ ‘Oh, Kristen Stewart, she’s not that pretty.’ She still would never talk to you if she wasn’t famous and you were famous, okay?,” and the guests she wants to have on (Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple; Oliver Stone; Leonard Sax, author of Girls on the Edge). She’s open about her own experiences with sexism: “I remember my agent at ICM at the beginning of my career telling me that I wasn’t pretty enough, that I was always going to be a quirky sidekick,” she says. “And he was an ogre of a man. He should have been carrying a torch. If he was in a bar, he couldn’t have come near me, and then he was deciding my fate.”

After about half an hour, in which one of the writers uses the phrase “so much of what’s on TV is reinforcing super-­hetero-normative ideas of men and women,” a top producer, who has been shifting in his seat, interjects: “A lot of this will be decided as we write, of course, and hone the voice,” he says. “The key, though, is we can never come off as preachy.”

“Right, of course,” says Cummings. “This is just a vision to guide the taste.” She pauses. “I mean, we’ll still have dick and ball jokes. But I just want them to have a bigger impact. Let’s make those pussy jokes important.” 

As with many a comedian, Cummings’s hard edge comes from childhood pain, and her edge is harder than most’s. On Whitney, the plot, such as it is, revolves around her hesitation at marrying a pretty great boyfriend, because she’s been damaged by her parents’ relationship, and the truth is somewhat similar, if not a great deal gloomier. 

To the outside world, the Cummings family appeared respectable: Her mother was a publicist at Neiman Marcus, and her father called himself a “venture capitalist.” “Yeah, no,” she says. “Venture capitalist is a little like saying ‘actor.’ There’s Will Smith, and there’s the guy sitting at Coffee Bean.” She declines to describe her dad’s profession beyond saying “he was borrowing money, lending money, it was gone … I try to stay out of it.” Cummings’s mother was a problem drinker, and not around much. “After school, I’d wait for someone to pick me up and no one would, so I’d be like, ‘I guess I’ll walk home,’ ” says Cummings. “I had to be a hustler, because nobody did anything for me. I was always pimping myself out—being cute, or lying and scheming, so if my parents weren’t home or there wasn’t food, I could go to a neighbor’s who would say, ‘Do you want to stay for dinner?’ ”

She was also “the kid who always had something embarrassing going on,” she says. “I always had lice. The heat didn’t work in our house, so I’d get dressed in the morning by turning on the pilot on the stove. And I was as tall as I am now at 10.”

Cummings had an older half-brother, with whom she watched Three Amigos, Uncle Buck, and National Lampoon’s European Vacation over and over—“That’s how I learned about comedy, along with Three’s Company and The Cosby Show, which was my jam,” she says—and an older sister who lent her Doc Martens and with whom she ran away to Rehoboth Beach at 12. “At the beach it was … just acid, and guys, and you know,” she says. “Bad music. Ace of Base. A nose ring and earrings everywhere, shaving the back of my head like a hood-rat punk.” (Cummings lost her virginity “very, very young,” and adds, “Ironically, I was on vacation with my family in the Virgin Islands, which was my first foray into puns.”) Her mother and the police hunted the sisters down. “I saw the police, and I was running, running, running,” she says. “My mom pulled up, and I remember looking at her like, ‘I don’t know what I’m running from, I don’t know what I’m running to, Ma!’ ”

Her mother may have been aware enough of her shortcomings as a parent to drive Cummings directly to her own sister’s home outside Roanoke, Virginia. Cummings went to Catholic school there, raised a pinto horse that she named “Baby,” and learned “to do chores, to write a thank-you card, discipline, justice, grace—all things I hadn’t known. Learned to be a fucking lady.” She pauses. “I had a second chance, and I wasn’t going to waste it. I got into a good high school, and I worked my dick off. From then on, I was focused.”

Cummings’s emphasis on success—she went on to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania in three years—doesn’t mean that she doesn’t also have a lot of self-doubt, and the room sometimes vibrates with anxiety (she says that she started taking Trazadone and, a day after the writers’ meeting, tells me she “spun out” about having been too “much on a soapbox”). In her cozy dressing room a few days later, she pushes a mirrored sliding closet door to the side so that she can’t see herself. “I don’t want to look at myself—ever,” she says, picking at a plate of unsalted pasta delivered by a chef. “All I see is that my face is a problem. It’s asymmetrical. I get terrible bags under my eyes. On the show, I’m basically an animated character: We go into post and fix my face, because otherwise people would think I was Steve Buscemi.”

This tendency to worry made it particularly hard for Cummings to deal with the vitriol directed her way last year, plus she felt like she was the last to know. “I was working so hard—either at the office or home, and never going out or online—and then one night I went to an NBC event,” she says. “Everyone was treating me like I had cancer. ‘Are you hanging in there?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, this is the best time of my life!’ They said, ‘Everyone hated Seinfeld when it first went on the air,’ and, ‘You stay strong, girl.’ I Googled myself, which never ends well. I started realizing what was going on, and I went through trauma.”  

For Cummings, some of the criticism, particularly that she was a poor role model for women, was hard to understand. “I wasn’t trying to make a perfect character who has it all figured out,” she says. “I’m interested in flaws. We’re allowed to have flaws. To me, the idea that women aren’t allowed to have flaws is the most anti-­feminist thing imaginable. Plus, I’m someone who just put two shows on the air with strong female leads, and I’ve got a writers’ room here with half women and half men. I’m inherently very good for women, or certainly well-intentioned for women.”

Cummings began frantically trying to turn the show around—but as a kid who learned a lesson that she had no one to rely on other than herself, she had a hard time listening to others. She tried softening her character and taking the focus off her by emphasizing the rest of the cast but felt that nothing worked. She began refusing to attend social events. “I wouldn’t leave the house because I became so paranoid about who thought what about the show,” she says. 

And then her past, which she had pushed away for so long, became present. Soon after Whitney’s production began, her mother had a stroke, paralyzing the left side of her body. Later, she told Howard Stern, her sister, who had substance-abuse problems over the years, started doing heroin. Cummings called the dealer she was hanging out with, then sent her to rehab in Los Angeles, with a stop at the ER to treat pneumonia and gangrene.   

“I just got lost last year,” she says. “And one of the biggest mistakes is that I didn’t keep doing stand-up because I physically didn’t have time.” (Cummings made her name on Comedy Central roasts of David Hasselhoff and Joan Rivers, although she says she won’t do any more of them: “When you’re the underdog,” it’s fine, she says, “but [now she would feel] like, ‘Pick on someone your own size.’ ”) “I moved to the Valley, and when you move to the Valley, your life ends. But there’s no place I want to be more in life than in the back room of the Comedy Store, with a bunch of comics, ripping on each other. That’s the closest thing to family I will ever have.”

 But pity was not the feeling people had about Cummings last year. There was also jealousy. Because she became very, very rich. The fees for creating and starring in your own show, as she did on Whitney, are sky-high, and then, in the spring, the news came out that 2 Broke Girls, for which she had co-created the show as well as co-written the pilot—she came up with the horse—had been presold into syndication for $1.7 million an episode. I’d heard the take could eventually be about $45 million for Cummings.

“So I can afford the chef—I can afford this!” she calls out, to no one in particular.

“That’s a lot of money,” I say.

“Here’s the thing about that,” says Cummings. “My family will always make sure I am poor. My investments manager says he represents NBA players, and he’s never seen anything like this. The money comes in, and it just goes out.” She pauses. “I haven’t processed it. It’s just a number on a piece of paper … and when I got the call about it, my first thought was embarrassment. That’s how co-dependent I am: I felt sad for people who had to feel like, ‘Why don’t I have this?’ It bummed me out.” Later, when she says “I feel so blessed” in reference to another topic, she stops herself. “Who says that? Only assholes. Only people with $45 million. Ugh.”

This year, Cummings is going to have the Whitney character on the show grow: “Whitney will finally get a moment where she’s like, ‘You know what? I’m done being crazy,’ ” she says. “ ‘I’m done with my damage.’ ” And though her sister is now her “life,” she may not be ­totally done with co-dependency and looking for family in other places. She normally films Whitney before a studio audience on Wednesdays—“If I don’t hear noise from the audience, I get panic attacks,” says Cummings—but they’re accommodating the schedule of John Cleese, who plays a couples’ therapist. A crew of ­several dozen stands in for the studio audience, offering loud guffaws. “So, Alex,” says Cleese, turning to Whitney’s onscreen boyfriend, “you lied to Whitney because you wanted some alone time. Seems extreme. If you wanted some alone time, why didn’t you just take your laptop to the bathroom?”

There’s a lot of laughter for that line, and then a break for lunch. Cleese signs DVDs for the crew while his daughter Camilla, who was in the audience, runs up to greet him. “Oh, stop with all that,” she says to the crew getting him to sign autographs. “I spend my little time with him trying to beat his ego down,” she jokes.

“She never kisses me!” says Cleese.

“It’s like a Brillo pad!” says Camilla, pointing at his mustache.

They start talking about Cleese’s ranch in Santa Barbara, where he had an emu named Gwyneth Paltrow. “I went out with Blythe Danner,” says Cleese.

“I know, and you thought she was too old for you,” says Camilla. “And they tried to set you up with Jake Gyllenhaal’s mother, and you were like, ‘She’s nice.’ ”

Cummings puts an arm around both of them. “I love you guys,” she says. “You’re like my family.”         

*This article originally appeared in the November 26, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Photography by Jeff Minton; Styling by Deborah Waknin at Tracey Mattingly; Hair by Jonathan Hanousek for Exclusive Artists/Kerastase; Makeup by Jenn Streicher for Chanel at Starworks Artists; Photography by Jeff Minton; Styling by Deborah Waknin at Tracey Mattingly; Hair by Jonathan Hanousek for Exclusive Artists/Kerastase; Makeup by Jenn Streicher for Chanel at Starworks Artists