Thursday, November 10, 2011

GOOD ON TV: WHITNEY CUMMINGS'S HIT AND MISS. A CLOSER LOOK AT "2 BROKE GIRLS," AND "WHITNEY"

When I first heard of Whitney Cummings, it was when she appear on the dais a couple of years ago on the "Comedy Central Roast to Joan Rivers." The popular joke about her during the show was that literally nobody knew who she was, including many of the so-called "nobodies" who were in the room. (Which included the typical Comedy Central roasters like Jeffrey Ross and the now-late Greg Giraldo, and the comedienne who made a career out of being unknown, Kathy Griffin) I also saw her in one other performance after that roast, in the short film "In Fidelity," which I actually viewed  as a volunteer film reviewer for the Las Vegas International Film Festival. Checking my notes, I didn't recommend the short film be included in the festival, but I made note that Whitney's performance, which was a supporting role and a very brief one at that, and it was the funniest thing in the film. The film focused on a story of a couple who both are considering having an affair. Her part was of a friend of the female lead, and required doing a funny reenactment of a sexual situation involving a baby bottle full of breastmilk.

She's since become one of the bigger names in stand-up comedy. I've seen one of her comedy specials, and she's clearly funny, and she's got a very particular point-of-view of the world, and especially her favorite subjects, relationships and living on a budget. I don't particularly think she's the funniest young stand-up around, but the keyword in that description is "young." She's got a long-career ahead of her. This season on TV, she came in as the biggest belle of this new fall season ball, with, not one, but two TV shows on the fall season. The first one is the CBS comedy "2 Broke Girls," which she co-created with "Sex and the City," producer Michael Patrick King. The other is "Whitney," her own TV show which she created, writes and stars in, and is based mainly on her stand-up material. A few things can be observed from these shows. The first thing is that Whitney not only has a strong a distinctive point-of-view in her comedy, she's also fairly knowledgeable about TV, and has definite opinions on what exactly her sitcoms should be. Also however, one show is clearly better than the other. "2 Broke Girls," is easily the best new show on TV, and frankly there's not even a particularly close contest. Strangely, the show she stars in, and is based on her funny stand-up material, actually suffers from a strange lost in translation effect. What works well in her stand-up, doesn't necessarily come off as funny on her own show. The pilot episode of "Whitney," especially when compared to "2 Broke Girls," which might not be the correct thing to compare, but they're clearly linked together through her, and "Whitney," started off disasterously.

Both shows have some similarities. They both have twenty-somethings as the stars of the show, both shows shoot in the three-camera live audience format, which is particularly unusual at this time for an NBC show, (She even makes note of it at the beginning of the show with a slight twist on the "Filmed in front of a Live Audience" Announcement, by adding "You heard me!" at the end), and both show a very knowledgeable and opinionated stance on television. "2 Broke Girls," stars two roommates who work at a shitty little Brooklyn diner, and are basically broke. The two main actresses are well cast, one as a tough, no-nonsense, streetwise girl (Kat Dennings), the tall, thin blonde who's father was basically a Bernie Madoff type, and she's now trying to learn how to live day-by-day (Beth Behrs). The show also has Garrett Morris, which I'm noting partly because I'm not sure if pressured, I would've known he was still alive. Sorry about that Garrett. I can see the conversation in CBS going on as this pitch is occurring. Good contrasting pair, and unlike any other show on TV, people who struggle over finances, perfect timing considering the economic collapse and the recession, plus she's the "it" girl right now, good idea to jump on her ideas. Except, take a look at the show again, 'cause there's something strangely familiar about it. Two girls, living in a cheap apartment, with shitty jobs, who keep constantly getting into all kinds of strange and ridiculous jams they have to keep getting out of... It took a couple episodes, but then I realized how ingenious she actually is. She and King basically sold CBS, "Laverne & Shirley." Is this a happy accident or a coincidence of parallel consciousness. Absolutely not! Whitney is a magna cum laude graduate in Film and Communications from the University of Pennsylvania (aka Ivy Leaguer). If anything, I'm willing to bet she's had this idea for years, and only needed somebody with experience like King to see it through while she makes her own success as a writer/comedian. And why not? When did suddenly TV sitcoms have to be about the Middle or Upper Class all the time? Come to think of it, except for Greg Garcia's shows "My Name is Earl," and "Raising Hope," I can't think of any show that even remotely focusing on the comedic aspects of struggling to survive poverty, since, like "Roseanne." Has it been that long? It used to be on TV, was "All in the Family," "Good Times," "Laverne and Shirley," Married with Children," "Roseanne," "Grace Under Fire,".... great shows about being barely able to make it work. She's not only observant of society, she's observant of television as well. She's got two strong lead characters, she created an admittedly sitcom-ish conceit of the girls saving money for a bakery (Which includes a running total at the end of each episode), but it gives the characters a goal, an allows for infinite amounts of obstacles to be place in front of that goal, and even then, there's still dozens of strong storylines that can be devised from the show. The only thing left is to cast strong, as they did. I don't think Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs are the greatest actresses, but they're good in these parts. Kat Demmings in particular, the camera just loves. (About the only reason I sat all-the-way through "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," was because of her.) There hasn't been an unfunny episode yet, and it looks like it's going to keep getting better.

"Whitney," on the other hand, fell on it's face, literally on the first episode. No, literally, one of the characters fell on his face, and was knocked unconscious, something which seems peculiar considering the show is shot in front of an audience. The set-up is that Whitney's character, thinking her and her boyfriend Alex (Bill D'Elia) need to spice up their sex life, and they're experimenting with role play, and Whitney's dressed in a slutty/stripper nurse outfit. She leaves the room to go get the doctor, and her boyfriend then slips and bangs his head against the edge of a table giving him a concussion. Now, there's two reasons this is simply awkward. One, it's strange how this material when in Whitney's stand-up is funny, but in the show, it turns into a bad slapstick joke, but two, why is this joke being tried on a three-camera sitcom? Whitney must have a lot of power to get a 3-camera, live-audience show at NBC. Tina Fey recently noted in her book "Bossypants," that the reason "30 Rock," is single-camera is because that was the common sitcom practice at the time, and that personally, she wanted a three-camera audience show. In order to get this shot, you either have to stop tape, and shoot an insert, probably with a stunt double or a dummy getting his head banged on a sharp corner, or preshoot the scene before shooting in front of the audience, and then restarting tape, with her boyfriend unconscious on the ground. That's impossible to shoot in front of an audience and get a laugh, even if you're incredibly good at taking falls. The fact that they had to shoot an insert, should have told them to scrap the idea, or possibly not shoot the episode in a 3-camera format. I don't think the latter was an option for Whitney. She seems to like classic sitcom formulas, and is hellbent on the single-camera idea, but she's also never worked regularly on sitcoms until now. "2 Broke Girls," has King's name and experience attached, and he's got "Sex and the City," "The Comeback," "Will & Grace," "Cybill," and "Murphy Brown," on his resume. He knows what you can and can't do on and on which sitcoms you can do it on, and 3-camera sitcoms should have almost no inserts, especially if they're critical to the plot of the show. There's no way the audience would've laughed at that joke. Truly none, the laughter on the episode was reedited in later. Mostly 'cause the audience wouldn't have been able to see the funny scene live of her boyfriend, slipping and getting injured, during this most inopportune time.

I will admit that the show has gotten somewhat better since this early slip-up. The basic premise is that the couple, who love each other although they're not married, they live together in New York, they each have friends who are either married, (or engaged, technically) or are looking for love, which contrasts with there more routine lifestyle, which resembles a marriage, although she's a modern-woman who actually rejects marriage. (Where the hell are these modern-women who reject marriage when you need them. Everytime I look for one, nowhere to be found.) It's still not great, and it's clearly a work in progress, although like "2 Broke Girls," it got picked up for a full season. To me, it's a little too cutesy of a combination of "Mad About You," and "Three's Company"-style misunderstanding. "Mad About You," was a great show about a couple in a relationship. I think that show dealt with a lot of the same issues "Whitney," is basically dealing with, annoying friends, the banality of married life (or living-together life), Whitney's character is a photographer, Paul Reiser's character was a documentary filmmaker,.... It's pretty close actually, but that show had a more "Seinfeld"ish aspect about it, where the mundane would be analyzed until it really meant nothing. (Actually, those who remember the show will recall that while they were all created separately "Seinfeld," "Mad About You," and "Friends," all exist in the same universe). Here though, usually there's conversing behind character's backs, that's practically out of bad romantic-comedies. It begins with the observation, but then it spirals into a bet to try and prove something about the other person, or the two characters talking things through with their useless friends, and then taking their advice, which leads to, really some dated "I Love Lucy," stuff more than anything else. It feels strange 'cause her stand-up is way more sharper than the translated version of her material on TV, and also because she has a keen thoughtful eye when it came to "2 Broke Girls," it feels somewhat odd that she's far more scattered on her own show.

I don't know quite what the reason for it is, and no matter the ultimate fate of "Whitney," she'll bounce back, and I'm fairly confident that "2 Broke Girls," has a good five or six years at least coming up for it. She's also only 29, and I don't think she's anywhere close to her creative zenith yet. So she's got a hit, and she's got a miss, and the miss might even be correctable. Either way, she's gonna be around for a while, and these aren't going to be her only ideas. Nobody with as sure-footed and perspective as her, and with her talent, is going to be a none-hit wonder flash-in-the-pan. She got years of stand-up and writing ahead of her. Considering her thoughts romantic-comedies, I wouldn't be surprised if she's got a good movie script somewhere out there, just waiting to be made. In the meantime, "2 Broke Girls," is an unusually good show for a debut, easily the best new show of the season, and "Whitney," well, we'll wait-and-see.

Whitney Cummings's stand-up material on role playing sex:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbV9Wxej2ok&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PL509CEB7EEC5B2A43
Post a Comment