I never really understood catcalling until Whitney Cummings explained it in front of a live audience. Rather than waxing snarky about backward oafs who don’t get why harassment is bad, she says she understands the impulse, and launches into a story about seeing a service dog in an airport terminal. One that was wearing a vest that says “Dog Working. Do Not Pet.” The kind of dog you’re never supposed to touch. “Now I’m in a pickle, because I’m going to pet that fucking dog. I mean, it’s a dog. It obviously wants it,” she says, as the audience bursts out laughing. “I get your logic.” Maybe women need vests, too.
The punchline gets more, but different laughter. Sarcasm about “wanting it” is standard fare for women comics, but trading working woman for working dog is sneakily, bleakly brilliant. You can almost hear the laughter change as it sinks in—how hilarious, how accessible, how grim.
Throughout her new Netflix standup special, Can I Touch It?, Cummings takes easy gender jokes and delivers them slightly askew, updated for the off-kilter moment women are living in right now. #MeToo-ed has become a verb, but guys still think it’s OK to call a coworker “wife material.” Women worry about being replaced by sex robots, but still have to be afraid while walking to their cars, clutching keys between their fingers like “a shitty Wolverine.” These are the days of future/past. So, naturally, Cummings shares the stage with an ultra-modern version of one of the most outdated comedy props imaginable, the ventriloquist dummy: a laughing, talking sex robot that looks just like her.
Some of the jokes, especially early in the set, you’ll have heard before. Cummings tells one anecdote from almost two decades ago, when she joined an old man in his trailer as a teenager, naively thinking the request was work related. What do you think happens next? You’re right, of course. Same deal with beats about walking to your car at night, and the no-win choice between risking it alone and allowing a solicitous “chaperone” to walk you there. Or the perils of getting into an elevator with men. Their familiarity doesn’t keep them from being funny because, while the jokes feel like they could have been written in any of the last four decades, the situations they’re spoofing are still happening. It feels good to let out a long(-suffering) laugh over them.
Emma Grey Ellis covers memes, trolls, and other elements of Internet culture for WIRED.
Cummings isn’t afraid to take women to task for their outdated behavior, either. The post-#MeToo world is a different place—better, but one that takes adjusting to. Cummings squats down to strategize with a huddle of imaginary women: “Um, they give a shit about us all of a sudden, and we have absolutely no practice being listened to,” she says. “So we need to level the fuck up right now.” Time to put the Rosé All Day shirts away. No more calling each other “hooker.” “Free the nipple? Not this month.” Beneath the irony, Cummings is saying something not all women want to hear right now: Being taken seriously will require seriousness, creating change will require changing, and uniting 50 percent of the population will take more than a hashtag.
One thing she doesn’t want women to take too seriously, though, is the coming of the sex robots. Over the last few years, sex robots have been creating moral panic in some circles. People worry men will abandon human women in favor of compliant inanimate replicas, or else develop (even more) hostility and unrealistic standards for women’s appearance and behavior. Cummings doesn’t buy it, and after you meet her sex robot, you won’t either. Her silicone doppelganger’s deadpan awkwardness makes it a great foil for Cummings’ highly expressive face and wild gesticulations, and also makes Cummings’ point. Sex robots, as they are now, are just appliances you’ll develop bizarre empathy for. (Cummings felt bad about leaving the robot in the garage, but also wishes it could make guacamole.) In fact, Cummings thinks every man should have one to care for. At least until they learn to ask before they touch.