Variety’s 2014 Breakthrough in Comedy Winner: Amy Schumer

Actress/comedian on the rise with Judd Apatow movie in the works and the return of her Comedy Central series

Amy Schumer HBO special
Peter Yang

The Variety Breakthrough of the Year Awards, which recognizes a select group of rising stars in entertainment and technology, will be held Jan. 9 at the Consumer Electronics Show. 

 It’s 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night in December, and Amy Schumer is hard at work. Closing her 20-minute set with a bit about getting stopped by TMZ (“They thought I was Paula Deen”), she exits the stage to thunderous applause. Upstairs from the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village, where she performs nearly every evening she’s home in New York City, she slides into a booth adjacent to the jukebox at the Olive Tree Cafe. A glass of red wine appears as if by magic. Her fellow comics trade barbs from the next table. Audience members stop by to tell her how much they enjoyed her set.

But she’s not done. After a full day spent knocking out her own writing and production tasks, by 10 p.m., Schumer has walked around the corner to yet another basement standup show, riffing in the audience and joining Dave Attell onstage as he shoots the first episodes of his new Comedy Central series. It’s past midnight when she finally bids her standup mentor farewell.

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Her schedule looked very similar yesterday, and it will again tomorrow. It was Amy Schumer’s year, after all, and her talents are much in demand.

“This year was crazy!” the 32-year-old enthuses. “I felt like if I wasn’t running on stress, then I would be fucking up. But in the last few months, I’ve started to just chill out and enjoy things. I feel good about the work I’m generating.”

Schumer broke big in 2013, debuting the first season of her Comedy Central sketch-comedy series “Inside Amy Schumer,” and releasing standup special “Mostly Sex Stuff” on homevideo. And 2014 looks to be even bigger: After embarking on a national tour in January and returning for a second season of her series in April, she will begin shooting the script she wrote for her first movie, “Train Wreck,” in which she stars, and which Judd Apatow will executive produce and direct.

“She’s just someone you want to watch,” says Apatow, who also orchestrated a memorable cameo for Schumer in this month’s season premiere of the HBO series he exec produces, “Girls.”. “For me, if I’m watching someone and I wish I could follow that person off the screen and see what that character’s life is like, then I know that’s somebody I want to pay attention to.”

Just shy of 10 years into her career, Schumer has made a name for herself by veering toward the decidedly dark and dirty side of the comedy spectrum. But it’s more than just talking dirty; she remains unapologetically honest about living single with a devil-may-care attitude.

Schumer advises of the morning-after pill: “They should call it Plan A. That’s how I used it.” On her drinking habits: “Nothing good ever happens in a blackout. I’ve never woken up and been like, ‘What is this Pilates mat doing out?’ ”

It’s a mentality reflected in her hit sketch TV show, co-created by “Colbert Report” veteran Daniel Powell. Each episode briskly revolves around taped segments of Schumer’s standup. Highlight vignettes skewer feminism, reality TV, addiction and standards of physical beauty; others offer frank commentary on sexuality, subverting the expectations and emotional land mines surrounding one-night stands, online dating, and pornography.

Not every comedian is capable of exploring such explosive terrain, notes Jessi Klein, co-executive producer and head writer of “Inside Amy Schumer.” “Amy has an ability as a performer to be both vulnerable and brave that allows the audience to laugh without having to worry about whether she’s going to be OK,” Klein says.
“There’s this feeling that even though she’s talking about dark or uncomfortable topics, you’re safe with her.”

It’s a quality that reminds Neal Brennan, who directed several sketches from Schumer’s first season, of a previous Comedy Central series he just happened to co-create. “The way ‘Chappelle’s Show’ was able to capture the horror of being black — just the ongoing unfair, inconvenient horrorshow that it is, Amy is able to capture the horror of being a woman in her late 20s, early 30s,” he observes.

The second season kicks off, April 1 and ups the star wattage with appearances by Paul Giamatti, Zach Braff, Parker Posey, Colin Quinn, Janeane Garofalo and Patrick Warburton. In addition to executive producing, Schumer will also direct a number of sketches herself.

Don’t peg Schumer as the type who schemed endlessly from an early age growing up in Long Island of hitting the proverbial big time. “I never had any goals,” she admits. No endgame.” She cut her performance teeth in theater before giving improv comedy a whirl.

Though she hated the group experience, watching a troupe-mate perform standup inspired her to take the stage solo.

Bookers and producers quickly took notice of her long, blonde hair and all-American look. Schumer is forthright about the circumstances of her early breaks.

“I was funny enough,” she says in hindsight. “But I was probably marketable, and I was given opportunities that forced me to get stronger (as a comic).”

In 2007, Schumer went from unknown hopeful to placing fourth on NBC reality competition series “Last Comic Standing,” where she caught the eye of Comedy Central. Her big breakthrough came in 2011, when she shared the dais alongside a motley group of better-known names including Seth MacFarlane, Mike Tyson, and William Shatner on the “Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen.”

“When we spoke to Charlie and his people, they were questioning, ‘Who is this? We want someone established,’ ” recalls Kent Alterman, president of content development and original programming at Comedy Central. “I finally told them, ‘Just trust me. You’re going to be thrilled.’ ”

On a telecast with seemingly no verbal blow too low to land, Schumer may have reset the bar by referencing the then-recent death of a cast member on MTV’s “Jackass” while roasting one of his co-stars on stage, Steve O.

“I truly am — no joke — sorry for the loss of your friend Ryan Dunn,” she said, addressing Steve O directly. “I know you must have been thinking, ‘It could’ve been me.’ And I know we were all thinking, ‘Why wasn’t it?’ ”

A guy notorious for abusing his body in numerous horrific ways in the name of grossout entertainment on “Jackass,” Steve O turned out to be sensitive; he later lashed out publicly at Schumer, who wasn’t exactly moved to apologize.

Audiences across the country will be privy to her new material beginning Jan. 24, when the 33-date Inside Amy Schumer’s Back Door Tour kicks off in New York City. Rarely observational or overtly political in nature, her live shows are less scripted performance than interactive, theater-wide conversation. The final week of tour dates coincides with “Inside’s” season two debut, at which point Schumer will redirect attention to her upcoming film project.

After Apatow caught her appearance on Howard Stern, the two met amid post-production on “This Is 40.” Her authenticity and uncensored point of view resonated with the helmer.

“I found her to be very believable, very funny in a different way,” Apatow recalls. “I thought this was somebody who could carry a great story.” Though he was originally slated to produce Schumer’s script for “Train Wreck” through his Apatow Prods., it was announced Nov. 27 that he would also direct the Universal comedy, his fifth time at the helm for the studio.

“He knows comedians so well, so he’s real patient with me, and encouraging,” Schumer says of the onetime comic, who has an excellent track record molding the work of other female comedians, from Kristen Wiig (“Bridesmaids”) to Lena Dunham (“Girls”). “He knows what’s funny and he knows the direction comedy is going.” That said, Wiig says, “I keep waiting for the time I call him and he says, ‘Who is this again?’ ”

Schumer describes “Wreck” as “an elevated version of who I am, or who I’ve been. A lot of sexual indiscretions, and not being who some people would hope a woman would be, especially at my age.”

Taking a talent best known for standup and sketch work and handing her a movie may sound like a tricky proposition, but one of her show’s staff writers, Gabe Liedman, warns people not to underestimate Schumer’s acting chops.

“She can do a lot,” he says. “I remember getting hired for her show and thinking, “God, Amy is such a standup, why does she want to do sketch comedy? Then seeing her flex her muscles was really, really impressive. She just has so much more than standup can offer.”

Schumer may be on the precipice of a new level of her career, but her ambitions are loftier. “I just want to create a body of work that — this sounds like such horseshit, but I swear to God — will make people laugh, and also feel better about themselves. And change people’s thinking a little bit about women. I know nobody wants to fucking hear that. But I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”