The Misunderstood Genius of Amy Schumer

Amy Schumer HBO special
Peter Yang

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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  1. Leanne says:

    You simply cannot appreciate this episode until you read the article by Hollywood Elsewhere blogger Jeffrey Well that was the inspiration behind it all. I think without that nugget of info the best part about it gets lost. It makes me love Schumer even more!

  2. Keith Irving says:

    Um, she has WRITERS on the show. It’s not all her.

    Also, Chappelle didn’t ‘just become a star’. Anyone who knows anything about comedy is that Dave was a respected member of the comedy scene at 18, and had been on every show and in films by 23.
    And his show was PHENOMENAL.
    Once again, an article being written about comedy by someone who knows nothing about it.
    And Chappelle didn’t operate off of shock value; Amy, while good, does. If she were a guy telling those jokes, there would be no story. But apparently it’s really ‘groundbreaking’ for a woman to do edgy material these days. How about treating her as a funny comedian, and stop with all the ‘you go girl’ crap.

  3. Sal says:

    LOL at the people saying she is not funny. Get off of your high horse and just enjoy it. That sketch is GOLD!!

  4. Hope says:

    The 12 Angry Men sketch on Inside Amy Schumer was the best thing I’ve seen on TV in 10 years

  5. William Black says:

    This article has the tone of “I don’t mean to sound patronizing, but…”. It’d be funny to watch Schumer rip it to pieces on her show. The take-home I get from her comedy is- the time of waiting for others to roll out the red carpet for you is over. Why even bother to frame her as if it’s not? This tone of “look who’s about to be indoctrinated into the club!” makes me believe people still think “If we legitimize Kurt Cobain, maybe he’ll be able to write amazing songs forever.”

  6. She hasn’t seen the respect Chappelle has because most of the sketches on the first season of her show are awful.

  7. Xandra says:

    She is brilliant and incisive, and way above some people’s heads. Which is always how it is with brilliant and incisive wit. A lot of people just don’t get it. Too bad for them.

  8. Lola says:

    This isn’t a good article.

  9. Amy Schumer is a freakin’ genius.

  10. UD says:

    Hey JT, there are quite a few idioms around, and different ones are common for different groups. “Brought to life” is used for the representation of a concept or thing in such a way that it has life, animation. This is in fairly common use in my world, but I have not personally heard “brought to light” used, but perhaps it is another form of “shed light on”? as in the illumination of a concept or thing, allowing understanding or inspection.
    Either of these could apply here. I, personally, read it as “life”, as was quite probably intended, given the writer’s qualifications.

  11. JT says:

    Oh, I’m a fan. . . of Amy Schumer. But haven’t been able to read beyond the second paragraph of this article and, thereby, have a hard time taking it seriously. Which is a shame, I hope others do.
    My issue? The Co-Editor of Variety doesn’t know the idiom is “brought to light” instead of “brought to life?” Who is writing this these days? So sad.

  12. Prudence says:

    I started watching Amy Schumer on Last Comic Standing and was so impressed by her. She’s scathing yet likable simultaneously-that’s not an easy combo to pull off.
    What I’ve found interesting is all the publicity about her feminist comedy. But I wouldn’t call it that, I’d call it a female point of view. I’m 10 years older than Amy and I really wish someone my age could have done her brand of comedy 20 years ago because all her stand up and sketches speak to the single woman. I’m an old married mom now but I completely understand what she’s saying because I lived what she satirizes. At this point I can’t wait for her to pump out a couple of kids because I’d love to see her take on motherhood.

  13. daft says:

    I like amy Schumer but I don’t think her show is even close to the Chapelle show. Maybe a less funny curb. Key and peele is way better show but again, Amys show is deff better than most the gargle age out there.

  14. Marc Nichol says:

    first Amy show I turned off in the middle….wasn’t funny, with no hope of another sketch coming..didn’t she already do a sketch earlier this season about bleep-a-bility?…even two others?..will be back next week..btw, Seinfeld’s Chinese Restaurant show not exactly gold either…or the parking lot them both when they’re quick-hitting

  15. BroadwayBill says:

    SHUT UP! I like Amy Schumer…..yes, she’s funny and yes, she’s cute (She’s definitely funnier than Sarah Silverman who is cute, but not half as cute as she thinks she is), but the fact of the matter is – AMY SCHUMER HAS a show on Comedy Central! Do you have any idea how many comics are trying to get a show on Comedy Central? Isn’t that enough? No, she has to spend an entire show fishing for compliments? “Oh, it’s not good enough that I’m funny….it’s not good enough that I’ve got a show….it’s not good enough that she comes from an upper middle class family and probably never had to struggle a day in her life… we have to discuss if she’s attractive enough?” Get off your high horse sister and just enjoy the ride!

  16. tommymarx65 says:

    The problem with Amy Schumer is that she goes too far. Instead of letting us know (wink, wink) that she’s in on the joke, she reveals over and over again how the whole damn thing is a joke. Replace her with a guy in almost every one of her scenes, and it’s bizarre. We could believe a woman doing the cup porn, but no one would buy a guy doing it. We could believe focus groups debating whether or not she’s fuckable enough, but the idea of a man being judged like that is ludicrous. She challenges views that are so ingrained, many people react in anger. It’s a necessary reaction to say “she’s not funny” because then you don’t have to admit that she’s right.

    Is she actually funny? Personally, I think the herpes sketch with God is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve watched it several times and still laugh out loud at some of the lines. I have recommended her to several of my friends that appreciate humor that isn’t safe and comfortable, like Jay Leno or “Modern Family”. I don’t think she nails it every time, but no one ever has. But she goes places no one else ever has, and I love it. And I want her to keep going there.

    Amy Schumer rocks, and more power to her!!! And fuck anyone that thinks her gender defines what she can or cannot say.

  17. krindy says:

    Aren’t the Emmys introducing a separate sketch show category this year?

  18. David K says:

    the landscape is just more crowded now, sometimes it takes longer for things to be noticed. Chapelle’s show debuted in 2003, that might as well be prehistoric times

  19. chris says:

    I’m guessing from the other comments that maybe Amy’s comedy style is just too smart to appeal to your ‘average’ viewer. I wholeheartedly agree with this writer, and thought her Angry Men ep was gegroundbreaking. Can’t wait to see her special!

  20. Lala says:

    “and you have to wonder why that is.”
    Because she’s not funny.

  21. Daniels says:

    She’s not misunderstood, she’s just not funny.

  22. me says:

    Lady must have a great publicist. She’s about as funny as a doorknob.

    It’s also ridiculous how “all of a sudden” articles about her are appearing everywhere. Do they really think we’re that stupid?

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