top of page

Finn Whitney: Using Comedy to Critique the Modern Celebrity

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

By Tobias Havard

Finn Whitney in their apartment and main writing space (Photo by Tobias Havard)

Finn Whitney sits writing away, cooped up in a tiny room in Alumni Village which is enveloped from wall to wall in an array of colorful posters. The room can be blinding with sunlight but Finn prefers to write in the dark. A guitar case leans against the wall and a small, portable fan is perched upon the windowsill. Finn sits in their wooden chair and turns their television on to one of their favorite superhero shows. “I usually write with something playing in the background,” they tell me. Finn is a playwriting/screenwriting major who’s writing their senior project on what they describe as a unique dynamic entrenched in our society.

So, can you tell me what your senior project is about?

Well, the plot summary is about an entertainment reporter sort of falling for an A-list celebrity and the descent of their relationship into chaos. And like— he’s a cannibal, I don’t really know how to put it tactfully (laughs). It’s about social media and clout chasing[1] and also how far we’ll go as a society to redeem a straight white man with money just because he’s attractive, or in movies, or just for any reason. But it’s all done very cartoonishly.

And what's the name of it?

It’s called “Lady Killer.”

What inspired you to write this story?

There was an internet rumor about a certain celebrity, whose name I won’t say, that was never proven correct or incorrect but the rumor was that he was a cannibal. And he’s like a high profile, A-list celebrity, but he’s also a guy that I kind of just never really got. I didn’t see any of his movies, I didn’t really get the appeal. I forgot his face every time I stopped looking at it and I found this article that was from way before any of this stuff happened that was basically making a joke that this actor’s face is so incredibly generic that he could be the most prolific serial killer on the planet and we’d never have any idea. I just thought it was so funny and I was in the middle of Junior Seminar and we had to pick our ideas and I was just like, ok let’s go with this one. I’d never written a comedy before but I just forced myself into this very weird thing. I don’t know, it’s a script that’s very much outside of my comfort zone.

What genre would you categorize “Lady Killer” in if you had to?

Very much black comedy, satire. There was a period of time where I was writing it and in the moment I was like, “ok yeah I have to keep the tension here I can’t break it”– all this stuff. And then I was like, “it’s a comedy. It needs to just be completely off the walls so every time there starts to be something really dramatic happening, the tension gets cut pretty much immediately.” The whole thing is ridiculous and dramatic. Generally, what I write is psychological dramas and thrillers and stuff, that’s kind of my comfort zone so I really wanted to push myself completely out of it for “Lady Killer” and that’s what I did. Every time I started to go to drama with it, I thought, how can I make this stupider.

Are you trying to make any specific statement about Hollywood and celebrity culture?

Umm, yeah. That’s what a satire is but at the same time I feel like I'm just posing a question. I’m showing a situation for how both ridiculous and cartoonish it is, and how strangely real it is. I think my general statement is that the whole Hollywood thing is incredibly stupid. It offers up the opportunity for people to get hurt and that’s sort of a no-brainer. I say that as someone who wants to break into that world, as someone who wants to be a writer, a creative in Hollywood. Ultimately, it’s a critique of myself and a critique of all of my friends that want to do it or just anybody in this industry because it’s just so… silly, all of it.

I’m curious, you talked about how these canceled white men rarely experience consequences beyond brief online ridiculing; what are your thoughts on cancel culture?

I will say, in practice, the real victims of cancel culture are working-class people. People that get outed for saying something; you know they say something racist or they say something sexist or homophobic and like, it’s bad that they said that but they get a rush of so much hatred, they get doxxed[2], they lose their job, or whatever it is. I think that happens to a lot of people and it’s not necessarily deserved. So, you know, I think it’s not a black-and-white thing and I find myself being really frustrated with the mobs of people canceling somebody sometimes, and sometimes I find myself perfectly in alignment with them. It’s hard to make any kind of judgment without feeling a little bit hypocritical.

A lined notebook page with a three column table labled Act One, Act Two, Act Three. Whitney's notes are scribbled around the page
Early plotting of the acts of "Lady Killer" in Whitney's notebook (Photo by Tobias Havard)

Do you think, for the most part, the crusaders of cancel culture are genuinely well meaning or are they just bored people on the internet?

I don’t know. I mean I think it all has to come from a place of well meaning. You are genuinely campaigning for the voices of someone marginalized. It’s hard to say there are negative intentions behind that, there might be a negative force driving it. It’s good to care but person to person whether they’re genuinely really upset or kind of just angry about something else and wanted to take it out on somebody, you can never really tell.

Earlier you told me there haven’t been any real hiccups but have you found anything particularly difficult about the writing process for “Lady Killer”?

Well, it took me a long time to get started, I had the plot planned out but not really. I didn’t know what it was going to look like, I just sort of kept coming up with little ideas that I thought would be funny if I put them in. One day I was on set and when I had some time off, I sat down and started planning and I just got this idea for it to all be told like a storytime Tik Tok[3]. From there, I don’t know I got home from set at, you know, late and just started writing. I have a method for if I’m hitting a hiccup I just stop writing there and I go into my notebook and like just start planning out more and more details until I’ve basically written a script in my notebook and I can just type it up. That’s sort of the first step of editing, so it helps me to not get as stuck. I am completely stuck in my other project (laughs).

That’s interesting, the narrative style is that of a storytime on TikTok? That’s really funny because those seem almost self-aware of the corniness of it.

They do! Everyone at this point is being so many levels of post-ironic that it’s just genuine again. And that’s kind of what I wanted to emulate.

How long is it supposed to be?

I mean I’m done; I’ve finished the first draft. Currently– well the first draft is 120 pages[4], the second is 130. It depends on if I download it from my computer or my phone, if I download it from my phone it’s 151.

You mentioned the issue of finding not only time to write but the motivation to. Your senior project advisor, Edward Pomerantz (a screenwriter and professor) offered these words of wisdom for writers and I’ll tell them to you now: "Good writing is clear thinking made visible." And this was from a Chinese fortune cookie.

Pfft. Yeah, that sounds like Eddie. Ugh, I love that guy. Yeah, he’s totally right, when I’m able to get through the writer’s block it’s through making ideas visible on the page and I have to be able to see the scene or else I can’t write it. Spot on Eddie, as always.

You told me before about some of the other projects you're working on; a miniseries called Godsend, TN, a psychological drama-mystery about the vanishing of young women and girls centered in a small town; and a sitcom about a young woman realizing her geriatric husband groomed her. What interests you about gender-dynamics in society?

I didn’t even realize that it was so present in my work, which is funny because hearing you say that out loud and ask that question it’s like “wow I never thought that much about it.” So, I’m trans, I’m non-binary trans-masculine, I use he/they pronouns but I was born a woman, spoiler alert. So, I went through the first 19 years of my life as a woman and I was definitely gender confused throughout a lot of it. Watching gender dynamics in society, in the body of the subjugated with the mind of something completely outside of it; a lot of it just didn’t make sense to me so I think that I hyper-focus on it, especially in my work, because it’s a part of society that is so ingrained in everything. I think my gender identity is a really big part of who I am and so the presence of gender themes in my work is definitely related to that.

A picture of Whitey's notebook where an unidentified monologue is written.
More ideas in Whitney's notebook (Photo by Tobias Havard)

Would you say your senior project is for anybody particular?

I don’t know. There are definitely some people out there that are going to laugh at this; that are going to get this; that are going to get a kick out of this; and understand where I’m coming from writing it. But at the end of the day, it’s just something that I wanted to exist; I thought it was a really funny idea and I wanted to make it happen. All of the jokes are completely tailored to just what I think is funny, cause like what else would I be writing.

Your advisor actually left me with one more piece of wisdom for writers: "Throw away the lights, the definitions, And say of what you see in the dark." This is from Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar”. The poem is about how we, through art, blur the relation between reality and imagination. Blue is used to represent imagination and in the poem, it says, “Things as they are Are changed upon the blue guitar.” We see what some Hollywood socialites are able to do and more specifically what they’re able to get away with and people are troubled by their near-invincible status in society. Is “Lady Killer” your attempt at using art, your art, to create an alternate reality where these figures aren’t able to just get away with everything?

Oh yeah. I think absolutely. I think that all of my art in some way is escapism and I think that the more and more we create stuff in these sort of fantasy universes where people get what’s coming to them or at least experience some sort of consequences or show accountability, the more normalized it’ll get and the more it will happen in real life. That’s something we see, representation does matter in that way. I don’t want to say my script is doing anything to make the world a better place because I think it’s really just kicking the world down and pointing and laughing at it but I think sometimes that’s sort of necessary. Get people at least thinking a little bit about what all of these words we casually just throw around mean. You can say, “yeah that person really needs to take accountability,” but what does that mean? We’ve all done something in our past that we regret doing, that was bad, that hurt somebody. I’m sort of cosmically terrified of the concept of one day having to atone for that online, publicly, when it could’ve just been a thing between two people. I’m getting more and more scared of how normalized it is to air your dirty laundry out online.

Well, do you think we as humans use art to not just create our own imagination but as much as anyone can, change reality?

Absolutely. I think that it’s sort of interesting, it relates a little bit to the gender conversation and broader conversation about queerness, you go back and look at a lot of artists throughout history and it’s like, oh well there was this rumor that this artist was gay because he had a roommate for his entire life and they wrote love letters to each other; I think the fact that there have been so many queer people in the art world, forever, and it’s been so not accepted to be gay for so much of history. That was escapism, art was their way of leaving the subjugation and exploring their inner world in a way that somehow brings it into reality, whether that’s like a painting, or a play, or now a movie. I think it’s natural for artists to use their art as escape and that’s definitely what I’ve been doing the whole time.

[1] Clout chasing is when someone does something (specifically posting online content) solely for popularity or influence on social media.

[2] Doxxing is when someone releases private or identifying information about a particular individual on the internet, typically with malicious intent.

[3] A storytime video is when someone tells a supposedly true story from their life. The more improbable the story the more likely it is to garner online attention.

[4] The general rule for the screenplay format is one page per minute of screen time. 120 pages = 2 hours.



bottom of page