If Whitney Cummings were to get an accurate business card, it would read, “Showrunner/Writer/Internet Punching Bag.” Cummings herself may have been unaware of the level of vitriol directed at her sitcoms 2 Broke Girls and Whitney, but online, the backlash was damn near impossible to avoid when the shows simultaneously debuted last season. 2 Broke Girls has sagged under high expectations and lines that seemed written for shock value more than laughs, while her starring vehicle Whitney committed the cardinal sin of not only crashing NBC’s beloved single-camera Thursdays, but getting decent ratings. It didn’t help that Whitney preemptively bombed with one of the worst ad campaigns in recent memory. The billboards repelled more than they attracted, and the much reviled and parodied tagline “All marriages end… in sweatpants” seems destined to become Urban Outfitter’s most popular ironic throwback t-shirt circa 2020. But the biggest problem with Cummings’ sitcoms so far seems to be a decidedly unglamorous one: They’re just not very good. Rarely has mediocrity been more polarizing.
It’s therefore hard not to read the almost silent debut of Cummings’ new weekly talk show (and third show in current rotation), Love You, Mean It, as a response to her previous treatment. You can almost hear some television executive praying that casually slipping Cummings into E!’s schedule the week after Thanksgiving staves off the potential avalanche of criticism that just her name can inspire. But Love You, Mean It suddenly sitting in between the channel’s trademark talk shows The Soup and Chelsea Lately could (and should) work to the show’s advantage. Love You, Mean It is a weird blend of both, taking the snap judgment of pop-culture clips from The Soup and the sidekick/panel combination from Chelsea Lately. As a host, Cummings is less cynical than either McHale or Handler, but works in the same snarky vein. In fact, the only thing that could trip up what should be a seamless transition is whether viewers are ready for Whitney Cummings: Host Edition.
As a standalone episode, the première of “Love You, Mean It” is basically the Whitney Cummings Rehabilitation (Half) Hour. Cummings addresses her “angry TV critics” directly but quickly, and with a wink. Her first guest is fellow showrunner and friend Mindy Kaling, who spends much of the interview praising Cummings. She invites comics she knows the TV snobs who hate her love, like Happy Endings’ Casey Wilson and Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney. She does a bit on why women should stop calling each other “hookers and whores” that, sure, might have already been covered in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls speech almost verbatim, but at least veers off for an unexpected punchline (at least hookers and whores “get paid to do things we should all get paid to do,” guys). With Love You Mean It, Cummings presents a slightly softer version of her trademark brass-tack comedy, and while it can be confusing, it’s more often fascinating.
So while the title could read as a not-so-sly dig at her critics, it becomes clear after watching that Love You, Mean It is aimed more at those fans Cummings did gain through her sitcoms (who really ought to join a couple comment sections, for variety’s sake), and the fans she still hopes to gain. The host packs as many different bits and comedians as she can fit into the half-hour; it often feels like someone you wrote off is trying her very hardest to win you back.
The strangest part is that Cummings laughs her way through the show. She can’t believe she’s doing it, when really, it’s harder to believe she didn’t do this show first. Cummings cut her comedic teeth on stand-up and Comedy Central Roasts, both of which require improvisation and personality; story has nothing to do with it. A talk show’s looser, unscripted format fits Cummings’s strengths far better than her sitcoms. If a joke bombs on a scripted show, it can stop a scene with a wince. On a talk show, it can be glossed over with a shrug, or in Cummings’ case, a bawdy laugh. And when the studio audience laughs with her, it’s not a mystery why.
- People have argued that sexism has played a part in Cummings’ infamy, since Chuck Lorre also has multiple mediocre shows on air and doesn’t attract nearly the same level of rage. That’s another essay for another day, but I do think it’s true, up to a point. Cummings puts herself out there in a way Lorre doesn’t, putting her image and name on her products (2 Broke Girls being the exception), which makes it easier to target her specifically. But while I like to think that it would be a different story if Chuck Lorre were the face of his sitcoms, it’s also hard to imagine he’d get the constant accusations of sleeping to the top that Cummings does.
- Comic Julian McCullough is a fine sidekick, though he didn’t have time for much beyond reminding us he has a wife and scaring the eligible-ish men of Los Angeles in his Man on the Street segment. And only time will tell if he ever gets to use that laptop.
- Whether intentionally or not, having Mindy Kaling on as Cummings’ first guest is one of the more interesting choices of Love You, Mean It. The Mindy Project has been met with more confusion than anything else, and the rumblings of that dreaded Internet Backlash are becoming more and more audible.
- If I started a petition to have John Mulaney star in a one-man show where he just describes Oprah’s inner monologue, how many of you would sign?
- Kaling, (accurately) describing the set: “It’s like a swanky sauna in here!”
- Kaling: “That’s my nightmare: someone asking people if they find me palatable to date.” Cummings: “That’s basically what being on a TV show is.”