Sunday, September 25, 2011

Would the cancellation of "Whitney" be such a terrible thing?

Whitney Cummings and Chris D'Ella in NBC's Whitney. Photo courtesy of daemonstv.com.

Yael Cohen at The Daily Beast recently took it upon herself to argue that Whitney Cumming's eponymous NBC sitcom represents a shift in the world of female stand-up comedy; namely, that Cummings can break down the barriers that keep skinny, long-legged, hot women from pursuing a career in an industry dominated by men, unattractive women and lesbians. If Cohen is right, Cumming's success onscreen (she's also a creator of CBS's Two Broke Girls, but behind-the-scenes work apparently doesn't count) could pave the way for the poor, disenfranchised hot girls who just want to do stand-up comedy, but who haven't been given the chance.

That might sound a little harsh, but I've always had a problem with attractive female actresses and comedians complaining that their looks prevent people from taking them seriously, despite a multitude of studies showing that attractive people earn more money, are smarter, and are happier than their less attractive counterparts. In a looks-obsessed culture like Hollywood, it seems even more ridiculous to argue that a woman who looks like Cummings is put at a disadvantage because of her beauty. Cohen, of course, has an explanation for this that takes her argument from questionable to actually offensive. She quotes Dave Rath, a (male) comedy manager, saying "So when a hot girl goes on stage all the guys want to be with her and all the women are like, why is my boyfriend looking at her that way? So the audience was always put off a little bit by attractive women."

Rath's explanation, and by extension Cohen's, hinges on the idea that women are jealous shrews who can't handle the presence of an another attractive woman, much less an attractive woman who is also funny. (To her credit, Cummings contradicts Rath, saying "Whereas I used to think that looking pretty or sexy would alienate women, now it's the opposite. Now I feel like when I embrace my femininity, it makes women relate to me more, because they go 'Oh, she's just like me, she puts on makeup, she tries to look cute...'") The bigger problem here, however, stems from another one of Rath's words of wisdom: "[Comedy] is about vulnerability, people have to identify with those things and that's what everybody is laughing it." The audience has to identify with the person onstage and their problems in order to find that person funny, and most women just do not look like Whitney Cummings (or similarly attractive comics Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler).

Of course, the fact that Cummings is hotter than most women doesn't mean we can't sympathize with her. I can sympathize with Liz Lemon just fine, and Tina Fey is nothing if not good-looking. The problem is that 30 Rock is a quick, well-written show and Whitney just isn't. I watched the pilot episode of Whitney, and it wasn't Cumming's looks that kept me from laughing at the show; it was the way the half-hour was devoid of any originality and simply rehashed the same tired jokes about couples who don't have sex enough and unreliable men. Whitney could have been a smart, incisive look at a part of our society that doesn't get a lot of screen time - committed couples who, for whatever reason, choose to remain unmarried - in the vein of this fall's best new comedies Up All Night and 2 Broke Girls. Instead, the jokes are straight out of a King of Queens rerun, and the writers fall back on the old romantic comedy cliche of making the gorgeous Cummings more vulnerable by making her socially inept. (Seriously, who sees a three-tiered display of cupcakes at a wedding reception and doesn't realize that those cupcakes are the trendy wedding cake?)

Cohen concludes her piece by saying that Whitney's failure would signal to the television industry that "audiences aren't ready for a rom-com sitcom centered around a good-looking female standup." Whitney has a good shot at survival - it is on NBC, after all, a network that tolerates low ratings because it's too busy circling the drain to worry about them - but its cancellation shouldn't mean that audiences can't handle a good-looking female standup. It means that audiences are discerning enough to reject a pile of week-old leftovers dressed up with a sprig of parsley to make them look "fresh." If you want to support Cummings, watch the very funny 2 Broke Girls and root for Kat Dennings, a female protagonist who is refreshingly normal-looking while still being pretty damn hot. That is the kind of barrier-breaking television that I want to see.

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