"Remember a couple of years ago, when we were talking about Donald Trump's pee tape?," comedian Whitney Cummings asks over the phone while holed up in Los Angeles amidst a global pandemic. "I said that comedy is dead because we can no longer compete with a pee tape. We can't compete with the truth anymore. Reporters are the entertainers now because they're way more interesting." It follows, then, for the comedian to choose a piece of nonfiction as her latest endeavor, this one in the form of a podcast.
On Bunga Bunga, developed by Wondery and now available globally, Cummings chronicles the history of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, touching upon the scandals that plagued his career and the way he shaped the European country throughout the years.
Although initially a rather odd matchup—a comedian known for her brash, always-on-point humor and a political character whose past incites anything but laughter—a conversation with Cummings about the project illustrates her rather sober and efficient take on a slice of history that undoubtedly reminds of the current situation in her home country, the United States.
Here, Cummings discusses the lessons learned from the podcast, what we should expect from comedy in a post-COVID-19 world and the world's hunger for salacious drama.
The podcast seems to be a departure in theme from what you usually work on. What made you sign onto the project?
I'm always trying to find things to entertain my brain and distract me [without] a screen. I was always surprised at how much I loved listening to these narrative podcasts because we've all become so visual and we're so bratty about the entertainment we consume and our attention spans are so short and there's just something soothing and comforting about listening to something without having to look at shows with beautiful actresses or actors that I went on a weird date with.
What about this specific story spoke to you?
This is such an important story because right now more than ever we're all thinking a lot about the ability of the media to sway us, convince us, turn us against each other. This is a man who brilliantly manipulated an entire country at their most vulnerable. I think it's important to not just say 'oh, screw this guy. I don't even want to learn about him.' It's a very poignant lesson in human nature: when we feel vulnerable and scared, we want a white knight to come save us. Sometimes, we want to believe the lie and participate in the delusion or distraction and it's time that we all really start asking questions about the information we're getting, who we're getting it from, what they stand to gain and really looking at the powerful men that control the world and stop being their puppets.
President Donald Trump is often compared to Berlusconi. Has working on this podcast helped you understand Trump better?
Yes! This is going to sound really polarizing but it has made me have compassion for the types of people who believe Trump. We assume that everyone's consuming the same media as we are all the time and making the same decisions with the same kind of information and that's just not true. Trump was a TV star before he [was President]. He had the number one show on television. I did a Donald Trump roast on Comedy Central and the ratings were through the roof. This is a guy that knows how to get people to look at him.
What similarities have you noticed between the two figures?
I think that Berlusconi and Trump understand that humans are in pain and they want to be distracted and have fun. They want someone who looks like they have it all figured out to [...] just run shit. I think Berlusconi and Trump understand how to appeal to our most carnal impulses. I usually don't get very political but I believe that the left in the United States does not understand that most people don't need their leaders to be perfect. They actually like that they have flaws. For the most part, we don't care who they are as long as they're honest about it. So that's what Trump showed us: the more horrendous things he did, the more his base liked him—and what does that say?
Salacious productions the likes of Dirty John and Tiger King have struck a chord with viewers around the world in recent years. Do you think that's part of the appeal when looking at Bunga Bunga as well?
Yes. Smart leaders that a lot of people say are dumb understand that we get high on anger, we get high on rage. We're very tribal. Berlusconi comes from sports and he knows that politics has become a sport and if you cheer for the Boston Red Sox and I cheer for the New York Yankees, even if I have never met you, I already hate you. They know how to pit us against each other. Now, when I watch a program or read a website, I think: who owns this website? Who owns this channel? I've never felt like that before.
How will COVID-19 permanently change the comedy landscape?
We joke that comedy is what brought COVID-19 because it's all about people exhaling next to each other for two hours. I believe it will go back to normal but it's going to be about ventilation and seats being a little further apart. I think that, in some ways, that might be good. I wouldn't mind going back to a model where people aren't eating while they're watching comedy.
The worst thing in the world for us in addition to COVID-19 is the stress that we're putting ourselves through. We're just destroying our bodies. Laughter really is [a remedy] so it's really important that we get out there and make this work, even if we're in masks, even if we're getting tested. Humans adjust very quickly. Comedians are professional complainers so we're gonna stop [that] and we're just going to figure this out.