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TV review: 'Whitney's' comic timing gains steam

The new Whitney Cummings sitcom on NBC about an oddball circle of friends reels you in, one slapstick laugh at a time.

September 22, 2011|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Whitney Cummings and Chris D'Elia star in "Whitney."
Whitney Cummings and Chris D'Elia star in "Whitney." (Jordin Althaus / NBC )

Whitney Cummings, the stand-up comic, is having a big fall season as a creator of two new situation comedies — CBS' "2 Broke Girls" (a female odd-couple series co-created with Michael Patrick King, which premiered Monday) and her own "Whitney," which premieres Thursday on NBC. Both are multi-camera comedies, of the old-school "Seinfeld" sort — a form that, in a field lately dominated by single-camera comedies of the "30 Rock" sort, seems both familiar and new again, as younger voices make it their own. As if to underscore that point, Cummings announces over the opening title, "'Whitney' is taped in front of a live studio audience — you heard me."

Perhaps it's that as the real world falls apart, the sense of even a second-hand community that such shows afford becomes more attractive. But there is also just a lot of live comedy around nowadays, and both Cummings and fellow stand-up Chris D'Elia, who plays her boyfriend, Alex, as well as their audience, are used to comics and crowds sharing a room and to the sound of laughter spelling the jokes.

"Whitney" is a show about happily committed unmarrieds — how a lot of people choose to live, after all, or are constrained to. And though "Whitney" will clearly address marriage — much of the pilot takes place at a wedding, and Jane Kaczmarek as Whitney's mother has a few things to say on the subject — to the extent that the show has a premise, beyond "here are these people, here," it seems to be that you can be happy with or without a ring on it.

The pilot works hard at first — you can almost hear it breathing — swinging for a laugh a line and introducing the supporting cast. Whitney and Alex make two of a customary sitcom gang of six, filled out by a too-cute couple (Zoe Lister-Jones and Maulik Pancholy), a caustic divorcee (Rhea Seehorn) and a policeman on the prowl (Dan O'Brien).

But eventually the mood relaxes, even as the slapstick amps up, and what may prove to be a charming comedy begins to emerge. Onstage Cummings, who is a star in the Comedy Central firmament and a semi-regular presence around "Chelsea Lately," works fast and furiously. Here, playing a character among characters, she pumps her brakes in a productive way. A stand-up comedian, in a sense, knows all: She brings you the fruits of her research. But in "Whitney," Cummings is always in a state of becoming — she has to not know things she'll learn in the progress of the show. And though she's referred to as "that photographer girl who's really loud," within the framework of the series she's even a little conservative, the sensible one in the middle.

"I'll do pretty much anything," she tells a saleswoman at a sex shop, looking for an anniversary-night costume, "except latex, feathers — bird flu — oh and no underwire, it's like I'm leaning on a fence."

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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