The Triumph of Soap-Box Comedy

Whitney Cummings’s new HBO special, I’m Your Girlfriend, often sounds like a TED Talk. It’s in good company.

Whitney Cummings performs during her new HBO special, I'm Your Girlfriend.  (HBO)

Whitney Cummings’s new HBO special, I’m Your Girlfriend, is very funny, except when it is not. Performed and recorded at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage, the set contains the stuff you’d expect of Cummings’s comedy: discussions of sex, and relationships, and porn, all of them inflected with an almost aggressive amount of raunch. Cummings jokes about how the language of sex has become more violent of late. She talks about the how the power dynamics of dating have changed now that she is, often, wealthier than the guys she goes out with.

Less predictable, though, is the fact that Cummings, in her set, actually uses the phrase “power dynamics.” That she begins some of her observations with introductions like “my theory is.” That she begins some others with “here’s my point.”

I’m Your Girlfriend is comedy, definitely (and if the lols it induces aren’t enough, its set—black stage, black background, the whole thing outfitted with a single, standing mic—makes that clear). It’s comedy, however, that is more than comedy alone. It’s comedy that is intent on making a political point. It’s comedy with a moral purpose. To the extent that I’m Your Girlfriend, for all its jokes about porn, ends up scanning, at times, more like a sermon. Or a lecture. Or a TED Talk.

In this, I’m Your Girlfriend speaks to a much larger trend in comedy: one that has elevated celebrities to the status of Tastemakers and Moral Guides, and that treats comedians, in particular, as a species of public intellectual.

Here’s Cummings, on the newly violent language of sex:

My theory is that women have gotten stronger, and as they get more self-sufficient, you guys are getting more aggressive towards us. Because 10, 15 years ago, you guys didn’t talk that way about us.

She adds:

Here’s the thing: I think feminism is working, but I think you guys are mad about it, and it’s coming out in nefarious ways. Like the way guys talk about women has gotten more aggressive. The way guys talk about having sex with women has gotten super violent.

I was talking to a guy friend of mine a few weeks ago, and he was like, “I hooked up with this girl the other night. Destroyed that shit.” I was like, “Excuse me?” He goes, “Yeah, dude, I murdered that shit, bro.”

She also adds:

Do you remember, there was a rumor going around for awhile that men like strong women? People would say that, they’d be like, “Men like strong women. Independent, strong women.”

Yeah—no, they don’t. Okay? I’ve seen porn. Men like Asian schoolgirls with duct tape over their mouths.

On the one hand: Cummings’s set is comedy that is directly in the tradition of George Carlin and Joan Rivers and Richard Pryor. And also, more recently, of Jon Stewart and Key & Peele and Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert and Amy Schumer and John Oliver and pretty much every other performer who’s currently enjoying a successful career in the field. Their comedy, very broadly, is distinguished by the fact that it isn’t content simply to elicit laughter. It’s comedy that has an ethic and a vision, and that even more importantly strives to convince its audience of the rightness of that vision. Comedy that argues and insinuates and in general has Something to Say about the world and its movements.

Cummings’s special, with its talk of theory and perspective and “power dynamics,” shows that work. These aren’t jokes-with-an-underlying message, buried subtly under layers, as per stand-up’s tradition, of self-loathing and/or braggadocio; the jokes, here, are the message. Cummings found a way to turn her jokes into theories, rather than vice versa. She used her HBO special—the performance of which was a “lifelong dream,” she confessed to her audience—for purposes of, essentially, punditry. If traditional observational comedy takes as its key premise the highlighting of the hard data of everyday life—the Seinfeldian “what’s up with airplane bathrooms?” and all that—Cummings used her time on HBO’s stage to analyze those data. She shared the theories she had formulated. She assessed and she argued. At points during the set, a casual channel-flipper could be forgiven for confusing HBO with PBS.

Which, again, is not to say that I’m Your Girlfriend isn’t funny. It is! Cummings’s observation that there’s no “CEO” category for women in porn, followed up by her declaration that “guys aren’t watching porn like, ‘Yeah, girl, get that promotion, yeahhhhh,’” is pretty much comedy gold. It’s just that Cummings doesn’t stop at comedy. Her set has higher aspirations than simply to make its audience laugh. It also wants to make them think.

All of that makes I’m Your Girlfriend a fitting embodiment of the general assumptions comedy (stand-up, and beyond) is making right now about its role, and its power, and its responsibilities. They’re assumptions that are influenced by YouTube and social media and Marc Maron and Comedy Bang! Bang! and the culture’s general insistence that celebrities can double as intellectuals without embarrassing themselves or the rest of us.

Cummings’s theories of feminism and relationships and the power dynamics therein are airing, after all, during a time that finds Lena Dunham campaigning for Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Banks lobbying for Planned Parenthood, and Shonda Rhimes moonlighting as an author, and Gwyneth Paltrow moonlighting as a life coach, and Sean Penn being Sean Penn. It’s the age of Caitlyn Jenner and Kim Kardashian and Bravo reality shows and Beyoncé’s athleisure line. It’s an age that, in conflating “celebrities” and “brands,” insists that actors and other entertainers are also, more broadly, “influencers.” That celebrities have something meaningful to say about how we normals should live our lives.

In that context, it makes some sense that comedians in particular—comedians, who have always brought a highly subjective and politics-inflected point of view to their work—would become, in their way, commentators. Tina Fey’s Bossypants is both a memoir and a feminist manifesto. Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance is both a memoir and a work of pop sociology. Marc Maron and (and also Zach Galifianakis and Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel) have interviewed President Obama. The girls from Broad City have yukked it up with Hillary Clinton. Amy Schumer recently visited the White House in her capacity as a gun-control activist. Stephen Colbert just interviewed Donald Rumsfeld—and grilled him about Iraq and the rise of ISIS. Hannibal Buress pretty much single-handedly took the Bill Cosby accusations from “open secret” to national news.

And comedians’ capacities as pundits are becoming, increasingly, institutionalized. There’s the digital-media frenzy, on Monday mornings, to post clips of John Oliver’s monologues from the night before. There’s the fact—the ultimately awkward fact, as my colleague Sophie Gilbert pointed out—that Chelsea Handler’s new Netflix series is classified as a “documentary,” and that Handler uses it to tackle issues like racism and sexism. There’s the fact that Samantha Bee, by way of her soon-to-air show, Full Frontal, is “trying to become a (humorous!) feminist voice we trust on topics … like, you know, electoral politics and public policy and global warming and immigration.” There’s the fact that Saturday Night Live, going back to the tradition of “bitch is the new black,” used its latest episode to weigh in on the #OscarsSoWhite discussion.

Which all makes some sense. Politics can be hard; relationships can be hard; negotiating the world, as a culture, can be hard. During a time of intense political partisanship, in particular, it can be difficult, and awkward, to talk about the things that need talking about. Racism. Sexism. Bill Cosby. Comedy, for its part, and whatever its failings may be, offers a kind of rhetorical purification: In a time of short fuses, its outrageousness can help to neutralize our outrage. Comedy, like Whitney Cummings herself, can have a point that goes far beyond laughter.