Whitney Cummings finds a comfortable vibe in her latest special, which bookends a very funny middle section with some well-worn and largely uninteresting ideas.
This review of Whitney Cummings: Jokes may contain some minor spoilers.
By chance, I found out I was reviewing Whitney Cummings’s new Netflix special, simply titled Jokes, just a few moments after seeing her on a podcast promoting it. And I kind of wish it hadn’t happened that way around. Cummings is a performer who receives a perhaps undue amount of hate — she isn’t unfunny, even if she’s rarely hysterical — but she’s pretty inarguably better-suited to looser formats. In the same way that, say, Nikki Glaser is dynamite in celebrity roasts but thoroughly mediocre on stage, Cummings is funnier in a casual hang-out than she is in the midst of what she reminds us is her fifth special.
Perhaps that’s part of the problem. Dave Chappelle made a big comedic splash with his Netflix oeuvre because he returned from a self-imposed exile to deliver it. Whatever you might think of his more recent output — I personally thought his acceptance speech at the Duke Ellington School of Arts, which Netflix released as a mini-feature titled What’s In A Name?, was a work of minor genius — there’s no denying that his four back-to-back 2017 specials, Deep in the Heart of Texas, The Age of Spin, Equanimity, and The Bird Revelation, all felt like a nomad returning to civilization and trying to take account of everything that had changed in his absence. Cummings doesn’t have that advantage. While her five specials have been spread out over twelve years, and the last one, Can I Touch It?, came out three years ago, she has remained in the cultural consciousness that whole time. Like Bill Burr, whose latest special Live At Red Rocks was regarded even by his own ardent fanbase as more of the same, there’s a sense of familiarity to Cummings’s stage persona. It’s like checking in with an old friend to whom very little of interest has actually happened.
Things have changed, of course. She was engaged during Can I Touch It? and now isn’t. She’s thirty-nine, as she reminds us a couple of times, and has an attraction to older men, even though she’s dating a younger guy. The evolution of consent has made her sex life annoyingly tame. Some of this is chuckle-worthy, but never really goes anywhere that might challenge the ideas. Cummings will occasionally say something risque, but she’s mostly pretty safe, content to raise a subject and leave it unaddressed. That probably contributes to the general humdrum feel of an audience patiently waiting for a long pause that indicates where they’re supposed to laugh.
The clear highlight of the special, material-wise, is a midpoint digression into the supposed sanctity of personal data — “I’m old enough to remember when they put your phone number and home address in a book and threw it at your house” — and a mockery of the Millennial childhood that is absolutely spot-on for those of us in our 30s who grew up a certain way. Cummings mentions her age a lot — she’s thirty-nine — in a way that makes one suspect she’s thinking about it a lot; her own insecurities, particularly those related to her self-image, have been an integral part of her comedy over the years, and you don’t get older behind your own back. There’s something very human and relatable about all that when it comes to Whitney Cummings, but there’s also some element of it that rubs off on the audience, who never seem to be able to settle into her material, even though most of it is pretty safe and cozy.
“Cozy” is a good word for this special. There’s nothing remotely provocative or contentious about it, which will either make it totally refreshing or frustratingly inert, depending on what you’re looking for. I found it to be fine, mostly, with some well-worn ideas bookending a really funny and well-observed middle. I still don’t understand the hate Cummings receives, but I can’t say there’s anything here that would change someone’s mind about her.