By Ken Tucker
November 14, 2012 at 12:00 PM EST
Jordin Althaus/NBC

Whitney is taped in front of a live studio audience,” said Whitney Cummings at the start of Wednesday night’s second-season premiere of Whitney, apparently in an effort to prove that, yes, there really are human beings that laugh at Whitney.

Whitney Cummings had appeared on The Tonight Show the previous evening and told Jay Leno that the new season was going to be “a little bit more provocative” and that she didn’t even think NBC read the scripts because “the stuff we’re getting through is insane!” Based on the premiere, if you thought using the phrase “Bitch can jump” as a punchline is funny — used twice — or that Whitney’s guy Alex (Chris D’Elia) getting an erection when Whitney cried was provocative, then you probably agree with Cummings’ assessment of her work here. But when Whitney said, “That chicken was my whole life!” and Alex responded, “I thought that Honey Boo was your whole life!” — well, I will fight an entire studio audience to the death in my disagreement with their guffawed insistence that that was funny.

The most striking thing about Whitney is not how outrageous it is, but how conventional and old-fashioned it is. The premiere, right down to its set, played like an episode of Mad About You during one of its later, talkier, more tedious seasons. And some of the jokes were constructed exactly — I mean right down to the syllable count, rhythm, and intonation — like bits of Woody Allen’s stand-up routines from the 1960s: “Whitney had four martinis and got into a fight with an olive. [Pause] The olive won.” (I intend no slur against Woody Allen’s old stand-up act, by the way.)

The new season found Whitney and Alex not married but committed to each other in every other way. That was the crux of the comedy — that her friends were alternately baffled and pleased about this new arrangement, and Whitney’s mom, played by a very game Jane Kaczmarek, was sort of appalled and embarrassed by it. When she wasn’t asking for a drink or talking about popping pills. Because, you know, that’s so provocative!

Viewed without the flurry of bad jokes, Whitney ought to be an interesting sitcom. It pulls against the current tide of ditzy-girl shows of wildly varying quality (New Girl, Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23, Mindy Project, Malibu Country). Cummings herself is a distinctive performer whose own stand-up is far less breathless-hysterical than what she does in this format. But by the end of this week’s half-hour, as Whitney and Alex exchanged mock-vows, I had the sinking feeling Cummings was actually trying to be… sweetly sincere. I’m a big fan of sincerity. Cummings can’t seem to pull that off; her heart’s not in it.

Nope; she’s more interested in other parts of the anatomy. Fingers — broken and unbroken — used in sex. “A visit from the goon squad” (i.e., an erection).

It almost made me nostalgic for Paul Reiser. Almost.

Twitter: @kentucker