Humor—thy name is woman. Welcome to the dawn of a new era in comedy, one in which the ladies reign supreme. Flip on the television on any given night and you’ll see no shortage of shows produced, written by, and starring female comics. And while comedy’s long-standing reputation for being somewhat of an old-boys club hasn’t completely dissipated, there seems to be a thriving generation of women in the industry who have learned the benefit of collective success. Rather than perpetuating rivalries, this class of funny women has learned the power of collaboration and the importance of fostering talent in younger comedians. Case in point: Whitney Cummings and Stephanie Simbari.
Though barely into her 30s herself, Cummings has earned veteran status after performing stand up for over a decade. In the past 10 years, she’s also written for Comedy Central Roasts, created the hilarious sitcoms 2 Broke Girls and Whitney (while simultaneously starring in the latter), and killed it on stage in two hour-long specials—all while continuing to tour. Simbari, on the other hand, has seen early success as both a writer (her sketches have appeared on Last Call with Carson Daly) and actor (she lit up the screen in indie thriller Coldwater among other roles), but spend one moment with the 28 year old and it’s clear stand up is where her heart truly lies. Before she opens for Cummings again this coming winter, we sat down with both women to talk about everything Simbari’s learned, the madness that drives a person to stand up, and what it means to be an ICON.
What does the word icon mean to each of you?
Stephanie Simbari: People who are undeniably doing what they do in a way that someone hasn’t done before them.
Whitney Cummings: There has to be an authenticity to be an icon. An icon doesn’t have to be super, super famous but they are changing the game in some way.
Comedy seems like a tough world. What inspires you to do what you do?
WC: Uhhhh, turmoil? [Laughs] People always ask me that, but I’m not inspired to do stand up. When you’re a comedian it’s not a choice, it’s a compulsion. Stand up is medicine, it’s something that heals a wound. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m so inspired’—it’s not that romantic. It’s more like, ‘F*CK, I have to go do stand up or I’ll go crazy.’
SS: But that feeling of ‘or else I’ll go crazy,’ is sort of an inspiration. My jokes come when I’m upset, or confused, or don’t understand something—it’s me trying to move through it. Where maybe a normal person might go call their friends and vent, stand up is our way of working sh*t out.
WC: Comedians have to take it a step further—we have to forfeit a healthy balanced life to get on stage and tell a crowd of strangers about it. I don’t get inspired, I get obsessed. And the only way to deal with that obsession is to be validated by strangers. When I make mistakes, or there’s some kind of injustice, or when something pisses me off I want to yell at someone about it but that’s not socially acceptable one-on-one, it’s only socially acceptable to do it on stage as jokes. I feel crazy all the time, but going on stage, when people laugh, that’s when I feel understood.
SS: When I speak a truth of mine and feel vulnerable and people come up to me later and say, ‘I feel that way, too’, that’s when I feel inspired.
WC: People laughing is them saying, ‘me too’.
SS: Exactly. And if I have to go through all the sh*t that I have to go through to have someone thank me because they’re not able to say it—that’s worth it.
At Wildfang we’re all about pushing boundaries. Can you tell us about a time when you broke the rules?
WC: I think rules are usually things we make up in our own head or things we just widely accept. In our business there’s a lot of widely accepted norms like, in order to sell a script you have to pitch it, then write a draft, then you have to get notes, then you have to write a second draft—that stuff just never worked for me. Anything I’ve ever achieved was because I took matters into my own hands. It was this Byzantine system that clearly wasn’t working so I wrote a show on spec and sold it, then I did it again with another show. And when I wanted to write for Comedy Central Roasts, they said ‘no’ initially. But I just said ‘f*ck it’, wrote 20 pages of Roast jokes and sent it in. I pretty much put them in the position where they HAD to hire me because there were jokes in there that they wanted to use. Any time I’ve ever gotten anything that I wanted it was because I thought there had to be a better way than sitting around waiting for non-creative people to tell creative people when they can work—that didn’t appeal to me at all.
Stephanie, why does Whitney inspire you?
SS: Whit is super hard-working—I’ll never be able to write and do as much as she does. Ever. I am working toward the ability to tell it like it is, to open up and make it funny the way Whitney does. She’s taught me that sometimes the truth isn’t funny but you keep telling it until you find the joke. I feel like I’ve been conditioned to hold everything in, but being a comic is about letting things out. I have moments where I’m fully in it and fully expressing and then other times where I’m still under layers, but when I watch Whitney her truth is always coming through. I aspire to that.
WC: It’s tricky because that work happens on stage and off stage. The reason most people become funny in the first place is because they’re putting up a shield. Being funny is very combative and usually comes from a place of not feeling like you’re enough. So you become hard. But then to be a successful comedian you have flip that and learn to be really soft. The work isn’t just the 20 minutes you’re on stage.
SS: It’s not! I’m always battling with this spiritual heart work that I’m doing and teaching myself to be open. It’s about admitting the sh*t you’re f*cked up about—it’s not funny to be like ‘I’m so peaceful, and I just to do yoga, and I can’t figure out relationships, but it doesn’t matter ‘cause we’re all one.’ That’s not f*cking funny.
WC: Stand up is one of the only businesses where you really learn to succeed by failing.
What advice would you give future Wildfangs?
SS: Become a doctor. [laughs] Don’t listen to anyone who tells you you shouldn’t do what you want to do—even if it’s your parents. Sometimes especially if it’s your parents.
WC: My advice is make a lot of mistakes as fast as you can. Don’t try to avoid them, just make them. And don’t make them twice.
Photographer: Lindsey Byrnes // HMUA: Victoria Aronson