The Misunderstood Genius of Amy Schumer

In what was probably the finest work of her young career, Amy Schumer devoted the latest episode of her Comedy Central series to just one sketch that asked a provocative question: Is she attractive enough to have her own TV show?

The 33-year-old brought to life the absurdity of even deliberating such a matter in the form of a “12 Angry Men” spoof, complete with accomplished thespians including Paul Giamatti, Jeff Goldblum and Vincent Kartheiser delivering impassioned monologues about whether they had enough “reasonable chub” to deem her “bangable.”

But let’s pretend the assembled jurists had turned their attention to a different assessment of Schumer: Rather than rate her looks, should she be ranked among the best comedians working today?

It’s probably wise to resist the sexist impulse to compare Schumer strictly to other female comics; seeding her in a ranking of her peers of either gender feels wrong, too.

If there’s a comparison to be made, the comic she brings to mind most now might be Dave Chappelle, another personality who rocketed to fame (perhaps too quickly, in retrospect) thanks to a Comedy Central sketch show. They both made their mark with very socially relevant humor, but while Chappelle explored race in America, it’s gender issues Schumer is mining just as brilliantly.

But there’s another telling difference between the two: Chappelle was branded a genius almost immediately after “Chappelle’s Show” debuted in 2003; Schumer hasn’t seen that level of respect until her third season, and you have to wonder why that is.

If the adoring media attention Schumer is suddenly getting is any indication, maybe previous episodes of “Inside Amy Schumer” just aren’t as good as they are now. All three episodes of the third season have been subject to a tonnage of rave reviews and “making-of” interviews, in which she and her writer-producers discuss their work, like no sketch show has ever received before, including “Saturday Night Live.”

But while the Schumer bandwagon has only filled up as of late, she has a longer track record that’s been overlooked.

As much as this will sound like a backhanded compliment, “Inside Amy Schumer” isn’t any better this season than the previous two. Though critics ignored the series until recently, “Inside Amy Schumer” has been consistently great from its very beginning. Terrific as her “12 Angry Men” interpretation was, go back to her incredibly NSFW but uproarious “2 Girls, 1 Cup” sketch and you’ll see her excellence was always there.

That particular one is cited here for a reason, and not just because her very first sketch still stands among her best. It’s because that sketch, in which she played a ditzy aspiring actress so desperate for acceptance that she’s willing to do scat porn, could be misinterpreted to be in contrast to her latest work, which has recast her as something of a feminist hero. These more recent sketches, like “Last F**kable Day,” “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup” and “Milk Milk Lemonade,” launch full-frontal attacks on chauvinism, similar in tone to “12 Angry Men.”

But no consideration of Schumer as a feminist should exclude the ample fact that she ridicules the foibles of womanhood almost as acutely as she rips on men. And she does that often enough by playing the part in her sketches of the very same women she holds in contempt, as she did first in “2G1C.”

She’s done variations on that persona time and time again, most recently in a hilarious sketch where she plays a woman so blindly supportive to her boyfriend’s delusional ambitions of being a rapper that she exhausts herself into a coma. Batting her saucer-sized baby blues with the wattage of the eyes of a deer caught in headlights, there’s no one better at playing the naif–always vacuous, usually profane, and in her dealings with men, sometimes misguidedly promiscuous.

That isn’t to suggest Schumer is actually some kind of female misogynist. She is every bit the feminist her new champions are finally giving her credit for; the airheads she portrays are presented as cautionary tales of what women shouldn’t be.

In short, the irony is that Schumer’s genius is playing characters who are idiots. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of comedy that impresses critics, hence her acclaim was delayed until the sketches of recent weeks.

Though there’s been a feminist streak pervading her work from the beginning, Schumer’s talent for acting stupid isn’t as readily received as genius the way, say, the more observational musings of a Louis CK or a Chris Rock lend themselves to be.

Luckily for Schumer, she’ll be able to show off that side of her act soon enough, having just signed a deal with HBO for her own stand-up comedy special, to be directed by Rock. That will be just one step in what we can expect will be Schumer’s march toward comedy’s A List.

Having a critically acclaimed movie directed by Judd Apatow coming out this summer, “Trainwreck,” will provide even more of the validation required to establish her. It is only going to make Schumer a bigger name, which she needs because all this acclaim hasn’t actually helped boost her audience: she’s averaged a paltry 881,000 total viewers over the first three episodes of the season, which is roughly where she was at in 2014.

That said, that figure likely misrepresents the size of an audience that probably sees her sketches far more as viral videos online–so much so that Comedy Central must be asking themselves whether permitting all this free access to her cable-bound material has effectively cannibalized the more monetizable eyeballs that might otherwise gravitate to her on TV.

Schumer’s late-onset gravitas may also be reflective of the simple fact that sometimes it takes the public a while to catch on to a fresh voice. (Note, however, Variety boarded the Schumer train early, having put her on a January 2014 magazine cover for a story about breakthrough performers for which she was honored.)

What may truly cement her newly exalted status could come in the fall when the Emmy Awards roll around. It’s not too early to make the case that “Inside Amy Schumer” could be a real competitor in a category that has been dominated by other Comedy Central series for too long. Yes, the outstanding variety series award could easily go to last year’s winner, “The Colbert Report,” even though the host’s exit from the show has cut its run short, or to another soon-to-be-vacating talent on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” as gestures of goodwill to either of these departing icons.

But given the latter show has already won the category 10 times prior, perhaps it’s high time to break up this boys’ club. At the very least, Schumer and her fellow writers could be due in the writing category, where she was nominated but lost last year, or better yet in best supporting actress, where even lead stars on variety shows are ridiculously restricted to submitting themselves. None of her ilk have ever bested a scripted star before, so it would be a great moment if Schumer became the first to do so.

You could argue Schumer is no different than many other artists of all types who typically have to wait years, if not decades, before they could be considered truly great at what they do. And it may not make a difference to her at all when, or if at all, she be on the A List. Regardless, a case could be made she deserved the respect she’s now getting quicker than it actually came her way.

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