Amy Schumer has come a long way since 2017’s The Leather Special. She’s not blacking out anymore (not for lack of desire), but she’s still talking about sexual taboos. She’s halfway into her pregnancy, but she’s still shamelessly celebrating her bodacious figure in her latest Netflix special, Growing. She has always been open and candid about the trials and tribulations of a modern woman in her sexual prime. Still, there is a shift in Schumer’s presentation this time, and it has little to do with her new state of primal womanhood.
Apparently, there is a new set of rules in comedy now, which surpass narrative structure and tackle content.
Schumer is a liberated woman. She never shies away from disclosing the size of her genitalia, her current bodily functions, and the faux pas that she and her loved ones commit regularly. She has built her career on flagrant obscenity. In her new release, however, we see that Schumer has “grown” less overtly in physicality, and more so in *gasp* maturity. She sets the standard for the potential of modern comedians to modify for an audience in the climate of 2019. Now, she has a larger goal in mind – to flip the rules of comedy on their head and remain accessible in a hyper-sensitive America, while maintaining her reputation of crude and absurdist truth-telling.
Inside Amy Schumer: A Tiny Human, A Lot of Strength, and an Understanding of the Role and Rules of Comedy in 2019
“For me, comedy starts as a spew, a kind of explosion, and then you sculpt it from there, if at all. It comes out of a deeper, darker side. Maybe it comes out from anger, because I’m outraged by cruel absurdities, the hypocrisy that exists everywhere, even within yourself, where it’s hardest to see.”
The Rules in Comedy
In contemporary stand-up comedy, there seems to be two sets of rules. One is based on the performative structure; the other, newly-requested set, is based on the content of the stories told. The audience doesn’t need to consciously understand the first, but an experienced patron of the comedic arts can usually judge the quality of the work based on if the structure is followed, whether they are aware of it or not. It’s the phenomenon of seeing a movie and hearing a character utter the title. Oh, that’s it. That’s the thing. I get it. Wow. And when that moment is there, be it so blatant or not, the work is successful. This, therefore, is the set of rules that should be inarguable in determining the success of work such as a stand-up set, or a film, or a piece of theatre, or a feature.
But then, there’s the matter of content. And the reality is that when I hear Louis C.K. use the “n-” word, even (and maybe especially) as a young and liberal white female, I am offended. Because who gave him the right? And who, if someone, thinks they have the authority to do so on behalf of black people everywhere? Though he protests that “offending people is a necessary and healthy act,” and that “every time you say something that’s offensive to another person, you just caused a discussion, you just forced them to think,” Louis could stand to take notes from comedians like Schumer. I’m not asking for his work to read as modestly and as kindly as Ellen DeGeneres, whose first stand-up special in fifteen years (Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable) was a little too clean cut for my flavor profile.
I’m not even asking for a firm commitment to prescribed language boundaries, which were socially requested in recent years, and contain specifications that prohibit certain topics, words, and anecdotes that make a section of the public uncomfortable. I recently attended a show featuring the popular, though recently socially shamed comedian Aziz Ansari, and watched big-ticket spenders in the front ten rows rise from their seats upon their own perceptions of personally offensive material. And that is FINE. Everyone has the right to walk away. But the late George Carlin proclaimed that “it’s a comedian’s duty to find the line and deliberately cross over it,” and Amy Schumer is one of a handful of artists who have managed to do so without overtly cruel attack.
Comedy novice little-old-me is not here to legislate what an attack is, but I’m of the persuasion comedy can be done with just one guideline: using honesty and public awareness to effectively communicate a message about the human condition. And that can’t be done if the 2019 public is shell-shocked by an offense. That is where Louis C.K. has committed to failure, and Amy Schumer continues to succeed.
Amy Schumer is Growing Up
In Growing, Amy Schumer does what she did so well in The Leather Special, making light of deep and large-scale issues like violence against women by using her own life and experiences. She intersperses these messages as gracefully as she can amongst tales of female taboos that seem disgraceful. Elegant, somehow, is her latest Netflix venture. Straight from the top, Amy tributes the theme of The Leather Special in the brave act of lifting her shimmery and appropriate dress to reveal her underwear and the bandages that cover her allegedly deformed belly button. She verbally assaults women who have been where she is right now (pregnant), and claim to have enjoyed it.
Despite her discomfort, her energy radiates maternity—but that’s not the word. In The Leather Special, we saw a woman on the cusp of readiness to embrace adulthood, swigging from a bottle of wine and demystifying sex. In Growing, we see a woman embracing that adulthood, and READY to be a mom. She took her time getting there, and she’s far from grown, but uses this opportunity to disclose that growing is never done. Her own growth has included a realization of obligation – to herself, to her public, to comedy.
Sensitivity vs. Substance
There are definite rules for comedy, and I refuse to believe any differently. There are, however, no rules for how to process it. Still, when an audience enters a show or tunes in to a special, they do so prepared to be “wowed,” and with that in mind, it’s impossible to argue the fact that the extremity of audience sensitivity has gotten a bit out of hand. But similar to the way a bartender serves a drink to an expectant customer, an audience enters an interaction with a comedian expecting jokes; jokes that spur laughter.
Most of America isn’t laughing at Louis C.K. anymore. It’s his own fault, because he refuses to evolve. Amy Schumer has had an easier time in this process because she was never that offensive to begin with. Still, even the controlled chaos of The Leather Special, which I consider to be appropriately outlandish, might not be so considered by other women if it was released today. Can you imagine the backlash to a woman openly admitting to asking a cab driver to finger her? Preposterous!
Is it telling of a comedian’s true talent if they refuse to follow the structural rules of storytelling? Not really. Are we too sensitive? Absolutely. In a world where more people of color are incarcerated for weed-related crimes than white people who have committed murder, is it our fault that we are so sensitive? No, it is not. Can we categorize a comedian’s work as “good” and “bad” by whether or not they accommodate our sensitivity? Yes. Yes, we can. We have that right. Because if we’re walking out of the show, or turning off the T.V., the comedian has not succeeded in telling stories about their theme. It is work unsuccessful.
The Last Word on the Evolved Amy Schumer Brand of Comedy
Ellen DeGeneres has made her fame and fortune upon the principles that you don’t need to be offensive or hurtful to make someone laugh; a concept lost on comedians like Louis C.K. Amy Schumer is far from kind-funny but somehow has managed through her career to toe the line between the extremities of the C.K. brand of comedy, and DeGeneres’. While there may be no set “line” to be crossed, Schumer shows in her body of work that there is a way to be controversial and probe thought while navigating that territory. If comedy is a sculpted explosion, as the late Robin Williams so eloquently said, Schumer operates in the structure of an essay like this one. The rules of that structure are as follows:
- A narrative introduction that functions as a deceptive means to an end
- An exhibition of a trend in current culture that shows us why we care about listening to her RIGHT NOW
- Another narrative section that sets up conflict
- A second exhibition that provides, at the core, what she wants to say, which is typically aligned with something we didn’t enter the work to hear
- A final narrative that gives the beginning of the piece a newly informed light
Each section informs the overall theme of the work. For Amy in The Leather Special, it is bravery, and it happens within this structure. She is your cold and explicit older sister Amy. In Growing, she takes more liberties with the first set of rules, and less with the second. The theme this time is growing up, though it is less opaque the title of her special suggests. She is your warm and harsh crazy aunt Amy. She’s still acting out sex acts for her audience, and making jokes at her own expense and that of people close to her; this time, however, dancing the lines with elegance. And it is this type of class-less classiness might then reopen the social constructs of the comedy cannon down the road.