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Sarah Silverman Talks to Whitney Cummings About the Expectation That Comedians Need to Be in Movies

HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 21: Actress Whitney Cummings attends the premiere of
Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images, Angela Weiss/Getty Images

After her sitcom Whitney got canceled,Whitney Cummings knew she’d always return to stand-up. Her second hour-long special, I Love You, premieres this Saturday on Comedy Central. Vulture got comedian/actor/forever-endearing-person Sarah Silverman to talk to her friend and fellow stand-up. The two discuss being vulnerable onstage, roasts, “vagina” vs. “pussy,” and love.

Sarah Silverman: Hello? Ring, ring! 
Whitney Cummings: Ring, ring! Hi, girl.

You know, Whitney, what is this all about? This is all about two comedians having a phone call like they’re just on the phone … for Vulture.
Stop pretending like we don’t record all of our phone conversations.

Yeah, all our phone conversations are recorded. And we’re texting while we’re doing this.
I’m gonna text you some questions to ask me. [Both laugh.]

Well, Whitney, my friend, Whitney Cummings, I Love You is the title of your special, which is coming out on Comedy Central this weekend, and I can say with no doubt in my heart or mind that this is the best title of a special I have ever heard.
Like 2 percent of me still thinks you’re mocking me.

[Laughs] I’m not that kind of person.
Thank you. Just curious, why do you like it?

First of all, it’s simple, but it’s so complex. “I love you” is the most complex three words you can say to anyone. It can be a totally needy plea. It can be what I need you to say back to me — an attempt at needing to be mirrored. Or it’s a bold statement, brave and vulnerable, to say to someone. And also that you’re saying it to all people that are within the voice of your special, which are strangers to you, 99 percent, so it’s a combination of so real and so not real, and heartbreaking and beautiful, and strong and weak. And so I love it. I think it’s amazing. Just like when you had your short-lived talk show that was not given a chance that was the best title of a show I’d ever heard: Love You, Mean It.
Aww. Before we were buddies, you emailed me that. I just remembered that. That was so nice.

I know, because my brain exploded when I saw the commercial. Also, your hair looked incredible in the commercial.
It did. I was saying “Love you, mean it” to my hairstylist. That’s who it was geared towards.

That is the best hair I’ve seen since Cher in Moonstruck.
Oh my God, you’re the best. I feel like comedians, and my, instinct all the time is to come up with a funny title.

Funny titles are always a mistake.
Always a mistake because they just end up sounding hackneyed or forced. Or like, you’re doing press and you’re promoting it and every time you say it, if it doesn’t get a laugh, you feel terrible about yourself. It’s rough when you’re stuck with it, but at the same time, I Love You is weirdly so funny to me. I’m kind of emotionally dyslexic, and when I feel vulnerable or nervous, I laugh. So, to me, I Love You is a really funny title, but it wasn’t like intentionally supposed to be funny,

Yeah, it’s not a joke title, but it’s everything — it’s the color black, it absorbs every meaning and every emotion.
Well, I also talk a lot about it in the special — like, what does love mean and blah blah blah, ‘cause I’ve been hurt a lot and I blame this word that we all throw around irresponsibly with no common or universal definition. We all have different expectations. It was causing me a lot of stress. I feel like all my relationships, all the fights end with, like, “But you said you loved me. How could you do this?” It’s this weird weapon, and I felt like I started hearing [it] from guys in lieu of saying calm down. They would say, “I love you,” which is a new euphemism for shut up.

Ugh [laughs].
It was used to placate me, so I started resenting it a little bit. And something else I noticed was that my director said: At the end of every show, I said “I love you” to the crowd, and I didn’t even know that I did it. I was like, “No I don’t, that’s so weird,” and he played it back for me, and sure enough, at the end of every show, I say, “I love you.”

Aww. This is my chance, ‘cause we’re friends, but there are so many basic things I don’t know about you that I genuinely am interested about, and this is such a good format [for me to] ask you. And don’t be annoyed by it, because maybe you’ve been asked this a lot.
I’m the one asking you to do an interview for me. If anyone’s gonna be annoyed, it’s you.

Well, you said you’d give me a thousand dollars.
Oh, that’s right. The wire is coming through Western Union later.

[Laughs.] This is a sincere question. Do you know when you knew you wanted to be a comedian?
Honestly, I was like, such a serious kid. I wasn’t one of those kids who stole Richard Pryor records. I wasn’t a comedy-nerd kid. I had no concept of stand-up. Actually, the only inkling of stand-up I had was I read one of Paul Reiser’s books, when I was like 12. I found it at a yard sale and I carried it around with me for six years. But to me, I was obsessed with justice, and I think a lot of comedians have that common denominator. I loved the elephant in the room. I loved the truth. I didn’t really know that I was kind of doing stand-up at the time, or what now has evolved into stand-up, but as a kid, I would like, beg my parents to like just tell me Santa Claus is not real. I was so obsessed with getting to the truth, ‘cause as a kid, we’re lied to so much. My parents were constantly telling me, “It’s fine, everything’s fine,” but I knew nothing was fine. That’s kind of what we do as comedians: We try to get to the truth. And so I knew that kernel was there, but I didn’t do stand-up until I was like 21. I think I was annoying someone with what now I would call a bit, and they were like, “You should do stand-up.” People kept suggesting that I do it as their way to get me to stop yelling at them about things that annoy me. And it just resonated. I was like, Oh, yeah, I’m a stand-up. Before I ever did stand-up, I was like, Oh, yeah, that’s what I’m going to do for a living.

Do you remember any lesson moments as a stand-up? For instance, I remember Chris Rock would just do sets at the Comic Strip years ago. He wasn’t the way he is now. He was very quiet onstage, so when the crowd was just unruly and crazy and no one was listening, he would just start and he wouldn’t be heard. That was fine. Little by little, the audience had to get very quiet to be able to hear him. I was blown away, to do that instead of going onstage and fighting them by being even louder.
I had a moment where I was onstage once … As a comedian, you just think, Be funny as possible all the time, like funny at all costs — jokes, jokes, jokes. That’s how my mentality was. I remember after Greg Giraldo died, I went onstage that night and I started crying. I was just sad. I got onstage and I was like, “You guys, I’m so sorry. A friend of mine just died.” I was crying for like a couple minutes just talking about it and I wasn’t getting laughs. But I got through it, and after that I got into doing jokes, and I had them. It was just such a perfect set. We were so connected. I was like, Oh, they just want the truth too.

The audiences are like children or dogs, not in a condescending way, but in that they sense bullshit. Even if your whole act is lies, which is fine, there’s this underlying thing that just has to be true.
You’re exactly right. It’s the first time I realized that vulnerability is not a weakness — it’s a strength. I grew up shadowboxing, like, “Who’s next?” I just had the thickest wall and never let—

Pussy wall?
Pussy wall?

I’m sorry, every time I hear “wall,” my brain says “pussy wall.” I’m sorry.
Why? Like vaginal wall?

Yeah. Vagina wall.
I like vagina better than pussy. I’m the worst at dirty talk. If a guy says “pussy” to me, I’ll start dying laughing.

Well, yeah, if you’re talking seriously, then pussy’s embarrassing, but I love saying pussy as just a gross word. It’s a funnier word than, like — I think the word fart is gross. I don’t like saying that word.
It’s so blunt. It’s so short. Pussy’s got like a smoother melody, but the word just makes me laugh. It makes me think of guys saying it, like, “I’m gonna beat the pussy up.” [Laughing.]

Who are you sleeping with!?!?!?! [Laughing.]
Sarah, you’ve seen who I sleep with.

Oh my God … I’m gonna beat that pussy up.
That’s a song! You haven’t heard that song, “I’m gonna knock that pussy out like ‘Fight Night?’”

Oh, no …
You should download that. It’s called “Fight Night.”

Who sings that? Is that a new James Taylor song? I don’t know, even to be an old reference, that’s too old.
I’m curious how you come up with what you write. Like, I get obsessed with something and then I get angry about it and curious, and then I’m like, Okay, I have to write about it. So, right now I’m thinking a lot about why guys want to beat our pussies up. Why that kind of violence?

It is kind of fucked up, but at the same time, I do like to get my pussy beat up. I just have never heard that.
But you don’t want it to get concussed. You don’t want to get knocked out. You don’t want a black eye.

I just want to like, strain my pelvic bone or something.
You just want more of like a back slap. But murder? Murder? I don’t know if I’m supposed to get turned on or call the police.

Get More: Watch More Stand-Up.

That’s such comedian talk, though. That’s how we describe doing well.
Do you ever think about how interesting it is that we describe doing well in, like, war terms? “Destroyed, killed, annihilated …”

I know, because the best is when you connect with the audience, but there’s something about it that is like sparring. You talk about shadowboxing.
Interestingly, I think the approach is not necessarily, at least for me, to always get tougher, it’s to get softer. So this whole new special is literally telling secrets. I was dating someone while I was working on this before I shot it, and I wouldn’t let him come see me perform, because I was like, “Oh, no, the stuff I’m talking about onstage, I would never tell you.” These were all omissions I left out of the relationship. I was telling them to complete strangers. So he didn’t see me perform for five months, then he saw the special when I taped it. Two weeks later we broke up. [Laughs.] Not great for my relationship life.

Stand-up never is.
If you’re dating a guy, can he just come see you perform anytime you perform?

The guy I’m with now loves to watch, but it’s like, you don’t want them to come every time and see my bag of tricks. You’re very prolific, but I hone very, very slowly. He’s interested in that, and I just have to accept it. It’s been something for me to go like, Look, what I do is a process.
Oh, I’m the same way.

Yeah, it’s hard because whoever you date, they have to understand that you have to feel like you can talk about any part of your life.
Yeah, and it’s the ultimate form of blackmail. If you fuck with me, it’s going to be on television. I think I’ve spent my whole life figuring out a way to not be abandoned, and I’m now I’m like, Oh, I’ve figured out the perfect trap. But right now, the trap is empty. But yeah, I figured out that I wanted to literally tell the truth. You know, because we love jokes. I love writing jokes. There have been a couple of things that were like good bits, they did well onstage, but I was just like, Eh, they’re not true. This special’s like, uncomfortably honest. Like I’m scared, and I feel vulnerable and I feel weird about it. This time I just wanted to be really raw and honest. There are already a couple of things in this special that I regret having said.

Umm, can you tell I’m peeing?
Oh, you’re peeing. Oh, no, I can’t even hear it.

Oh, good.
I can’t hear it at all. Are you doing that thing where you put toilet paper under your pee so that it doesn’t make a sound?

No, I didn’t even. But I do know that maneuver.
I do that when I stay at guys’ houses and I don’t want them to know I pee.

Yeah, because you don’t want them to go through that weird thing of like, I’m hearing her pee out of her vagina and that’s weird.
Yeah, and That sounds like a wide stream. It sounds like a really wide circumference.

It just sounds like a bucket of water is falling out of her.
[Laughs] It sounds like she just did a cannonball.

[Laughs] Is there a horse in there?
[Laughs] So stupid. 

Well, I’m really glad you did this, because I really didn’t want to answer the question “Is it hard being a female comedian?” for a half hour. And I know that you’re the only person who would not ask me that.

I like that you are wrapping this up as if you are the one who gets to wrap this up.
[Laughs] I feel like it’s probably been enough time and that you probably have joints to smoke.

I feel like I had something else that I wanted to ask you. Oh! When I said “pussy walls,” I was interrupting something interesting that you were talking about, and this is the last thing. We were talking about walls, and it was interesting. I feel like as a comedian you want to talk about the stuff that consumes you and is important to you, but at the same time, you need distance. Here’s my thing: If you’re too close to something, it’s hard to make it funny. I have a couple of friends who have gone into the field of social work because they have big giant hearts and they wanna help the world. Then they get out of school and start working and they can’t handle it because it’s so upsetting.
Oh, I know, I’ve seen.

But it’s like, you actually need a wall to be effective in many cases in life. Comedy is no different. If you wanna talk about the things that are important to you, in order to make them funny, you have to get some kind of separation from them.
That’s really interesting. I think it’s a healthy blend of denial and honesty. This is kind of how we’re casualties of what we do. I would say we’re martyrs. Can Vulture put in parentheses, “Whitney is being sarcastic?” I actually rushed to shoot this special. The theater I shot it in had an option of February and an option of I think May. I wasn’t ready, but I was like, “You know what, let’s shoot in February,” because the stuff I was talking about was actually really painful and I didn’t wanna keep having to open the wound over and over again. We have to go to that place for a certain amount of time and hopefully be able to move on. Yeah, I think you’re right. I’m trying to master the art of being able to go back and forth from raw, open, bleeding heart to complete sociopath. I have to be really sensitive in order to be good at what I do, but I can’t just walk around being this sensitive glass figurine all the time.

Yeah you have to find a balance. It’s like people started knowing you from the roasts. Of course we all know that you go home and cry.
Something I do wanna say about the roasting is — because one of the hardest things is to feel misunderstood — doing the roast was tricky for me because it gave people the impression that I’m really this tough badass. [Lisa] Lampanelli and I would literally just collapse into a ball and cry for two weeks after. I’d walk down the street and people would be like, “Hey, you dumb cunt! Ha-ha!” and I was just like crying. I felt like I was getting shot at constantly because everyone had this impression that I was super tough. I think was sort of dishonest about how strong I am.

But also no. It takes a lot of strength to be vulnerable, and a lot of people are afraid to do that in their lives. You do that in your work. But the roast is a real art form, and you’re spectacular at it. I think we forget, as we live, all of us, to go like, Oh, what do I want in life? I know what everybody in life says we’re supposed to want. We’re supposed to want to be in a movie or do sitcoms. But like, Oh, wait, what am I into? I don’t even know anymore.
I love you. I’m such a people-pleaser that I’m like tap-dancing to meet people’s expectations, but this is really funny that you said that, because I was so excited when the TV show was over to get back to doing stand-up and to make a new special. That to me is the goldmine. That’s what I set out to want to do for a living. The last couple of weekends I went to a couple weddings, and people go, “What are you doing?” And I go, “Oh, I just did a 30-city tour and I shot a special,” and they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, but what are you working on?” I’m like, “I’m sorry, is that not enough for you?” It’s like, Oh great, you’re a standup comedian, what movie are you in?

Exactly. “That can’t be your final destination.” Really?
“You doing another show? You doing a movie?” This is already exhausting enough.

I’m a one-man band, but I’m supposed to dream to be some starlet’s friend in a shitty movie?
I’m sorry that I’m not the acerbic friend that gets cut out! I’m not in a huge rush to get back on high-definition television right now.

“Hey, you go out every night and say stuff that means something, but don’t you wanna be a sassy friend in some garbage movie? Then you’ve really made it! Why change the way people think when you can be like, ‘But he loves you!’”
Why go out and try to heal people when you could go straight to DVD?

[Laughs.] We’re assholes.
We’re such assholes. Meanwhile, if anyone is reading this who can hire me, please hire me. I’d love to be Katherine Heigl’s best friend in a movie! Thank you.

The special, I Love You, I can’t wait to see it. I love you.
I love you, baby! Thank you so much for doing this, and if this part is even printed to this point, if you don’t watch my special, watch Sarah’s special because it’s fucking amazing.

Shut up.
I’m texting you in two seconds.

Okay, bye.
Love you, bye.

Sarah Silverman Interviews Whitney Cummings