Amy Schumer’s Cultural Significance Is Manifest in the Trainwreck Comedy Tour

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Amy Schumer, in full control. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

“I’m not gonna be a very good movie star,” Amy Schumer sighed last night to a sold-out and adoring hometown crowd at New York City’s Beacon Theater — a crowd that seemed to disagree very strongly with the statement. I don’t remember exactly when she uttered it, but I want to say it was right after the bit about the dieting tips she had learned during her recent stint in Los Angeles (“That’s the Hollywood secret: Don’t put any food in your dumb mouth!”); or the one about exactly how LeBron James ended up with a supporting role in her upcoming movie Trainwreck (“I wrote him into the script because he’s the only basketball player I’d ever heard of”); or maybe it was after her long, impassioned rant against the 2011 Kevin James movie Zookeeper that doubled as a lacerating critique of the rules about casting male and female love interests in Hollywood. She summarized the film for those who hadn’t seen it: “Kevin James is dating a beautiful blonde skeleton,” and is too preoccupied with the talking animals around him to notice that he has earned the affections of a khaki-wearing girl-next-door type played by … wait for it … Rosario Dawson. Schumer made one of those beady-eyed, Will Ferrell–doing–George W. Bush–tasting-sour-milk faces she’s now famous for. “Rosario should get an Oscar for that movie,” she declared. “Let’s see Meryl pretend to want to fuck Kevin James for six months.”

This is precisely why Amy Schumer is going to be a very good — or at least a very different — kind of movie star: Even as she stands poised to enter Hollywood’s comedy elite, she is still brazenly unafraid of naming names. Or anything, it seems. Watching her over the past few months — stealing shine at awards shows, giving destined-to-be viral acceptance speeches, and wrapping the triumphant third season of her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer — has been nothing short of exhilarating. She’s like a comet streaking gloriously across the Zeitgeist, leaving a tail of smudged mascara and Fireball aftertaste in her wake. There was her great, biting set at Comedy Central’s Night of Too Many Stars (“In L.A., my arms register as legs”), her swaggering speech at Glamour U.K.’s Women of the Year Awards (“I’m 160 pounds, and I can catch a dick whenever I want”), and, maybe most affecting, her candidly autobiographical monologue about self-confidence at this year’s Ms. Gala. In the words of her Trainwreck co-star Tilda Swinton, Schumer’s been dropping “honesty bombs” wherever she goes. The Beacon last night was no exception.

Schumer was there headlining the Trainwreck Comedy Tour, a promotional stint for the film (out July 17) with an impressively stacked bill of co-stars and collaborators: Judd Apatow, Colin Quinn, Dave Attell, Mike Birbiglia, and Vanessa Bayer. (Schumer’s love interest in the film, Bill Hader, also made a brief cameo before running home to read his kid a bedtime story. He asked the crowd which character we wanted him to do; I will let you guess the unanimous request. “The Upper West Side’s hottest theater is the Beacon,” he said, to uproarious applause.)

Trainwreck will be released into a strange, charged moment in comedy. Everything feels a little topsy-turvy right now. Former heroes have fallen; others are showing questionable streaks of conservatism. We seem ready, finally, to give up this tired old assumption that women aren’t funny, but this cresting wave of young female comics has made the atmosphere suddenly a little weird for their older male counterparts, many of whom served as inspirations. (Last night Schumer called Attell her favorite comedian of all time.) At worst, logic seems to have flattened into identity politics that unfairly reduce the complexities of male and female comics alike: WOMAN GOOD, MAN BAD. This seemed like the unspoken tension in the air last night: Though it was Schumer’s show, the bill was still two thirds men, each one of them showing a different way of depicting and caricaturing masculinity in a shifting climate that at times seems, for better or worse, downright hostile to its continued existence.

One option, of course, is to overstate your weakness. Mike Birbiglia, the star of Sleepwalk With Me, did a hilarious set embracing and exaggerating the role of the flaccid husband — a variation on what he plays in the film. He and his wife had a baby six weeks ago, and he told us he decided to become a dad because — he pointed to his rumpled flannel shirt and jeans — “I wanted to grow into my look.” He did a great bit about trying yoga (or, as he calls it, “trying not to fart while stretching”) and being so passive-aggressive that he does not always finish his sentences. In 2015, this is one way to present masculinity in comedy without ruffling any feathers, but his set was sharp and thoughtful enough that it never quite felt “safe.” Birbiglia’s yoga pose of choice, he told us toward the end, is “the gentle turtle.”

Colin Quinn and Dave Attell, on the other hand, engaged head-on with the whole p.c. debate, both waxing nostalgic for the days when you could actually say shit and proving, through a combination of self-awareness and sharply observed detail, that — rest assured, Jerry — you still actually can. Of the two, Quinn’s set played better, maybe because it was the more New York–centric. “Brooklyn, New York: 100 percent white as of today,” he informed us. “I looked it up today. Have you ridden the L train at 2 a.m.? It’s like a ski lift.” I saw Quinn try out some of this material about a year ago at the now-defunct Brooklyn comedy night Big Terrific, where it came off unformed and at times even a little defensively antagonistic. But his great set last night had an unexpected kind of — oh, how he’d hate this compliment — warmth, as he reanimated some of the characters from his pre-gentrified Brooklyn youth with knowing, lived-in texture. (My favorite: Directions Guy, the old lifer in every neighborhood who used to wait on the corner, ready to give lost people directions and insult them in the process.) Attell, the self-described “skid mark on the tour” (“I look like a cross between a homeless man and ISIS”), was also very funny, but at times he felt too quick to cast himself in opposition to Schumer — and, by extension, whatever he perceives to be the coming wave in comedy. “Amy, this is your crowd,” he said after one joke that fell flat (but not quite as flat as he seemed to think), leaning tiredly on the mic stand. Had this been his crowd, he said, he would have seen outside at the bar “some teeth, and at least one used condom.”

Apatow, who directed Trainwreck, is in a particularly interesting position in this whole environment. After basically casting the mold of the modern man-child (and retroactively catching some flak for it when that trope began to go out of fashion), he’s been very savvy about suddenly aligning himself with emerging female talent. He co-produced Bridesmaids and helped Lena Dunham get Girls off the ground; his creative faith in Schumer feels in step with this. Apatow does seem to genuinely believe that the future of comedy is (at least a little more) female … but he also knows that this is a very good look for him at the moment. Sometimes — as in his relentless campaign to be seen as the Man Who Hates Bill Cosby the Most — Apatow gives off the air of someone protesting a little too much all of a sudden, slightly panicked about the commercial viability of semi-funny, damn-near-three-hour explorations of middle-aged male angst. His set, though, was surprisingly fluid and even a little self-deprecating. “People say my movies are too long,” he sighed, “and then they go home and watch 11 episodes of Breaking Bad in a row.”

But, as everyone seemed well aware, last night was Schumer’s night. She killed. There was a hometown energy to the crowd, and the front row showered her with unexpectedly personal gifts. The owner of a camp she went to as a kid gave her a handmade pillow (“Thanks … I got lice at your camp”). A man who worked with Schumer’s great-grandmother — a bootlegger who was the recipient of New York’s seventh liquor license after Prohibition — presented her with an old Schumer’s Wine & Liquors jacket. She regaled us with some impromptu asides about her great-grandmother: “Tennessee Williams bought the bottle of wine from her … that he died from.”

Schumer is having one of those fateful moments when she’s hitting her stride at the exact same time that everyone is starting to pay attention to her. She seems acutely aware of the pressures of this, too: The second we make her stand for something larger than herself, we are asking for too much from her. She recounted a story of doing a recent interview with a women’s magazine. “Do you think it’s a game-changer that you’re going to be on the cover of magazines now?” the interviewer had asked. For herself? Of course, Schumer said. “No, for, like, everyone.” She frowned; the crowd groaned knowingly.

Maybe the most revolutionary thing about Schumer’s comedy right now is that she’s speaking truthfully from the inside of success — but still candidly reporting on its disappointments and the ways in which achievement is never simple when you’re a woman. “This always puts a real hush over the crowd,” she said, “but I’ve never hooked up after a show.” (Even mediocre male comics, by contrast, “do the backstroke in pussy.”) The character that Schumer plays onstage and on her show is, in her famous words from the pilot, “sluttier than your average bear,” but she frequently breaks character to let us know she’s not having nearly as much sex as we think, or as she would like. “Guys don’t care what you do,” she said. “A guy could be talking to two women at a party, and one is a beautiful and just won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the other is slightly, just sliiiightly hotter and, like, has an interview at H&M in the morning. And ten times out of ten, you how that’s going to go.”

Trainwreck will probably be Schumer’s make-or-break moment, personally, but one of the most refreshing things about it — and the surest sign of progress — is that its success or failure does not feel like a referendum on “female comedy.” For as reassuringly great as it ended up being, Bridesmaids arrived with an almost civic sense of duty; Rebecca Traister famously wrote that, for feminists, seeing it was “a social responsibility.” Trainwreck seems poised to do well in this changing climate, but even if it doesn’t, you get the sense that, regardless, the cultural momentum is moving in its general direction.

Outside the Beacon, the glowing, chattering crowd filed out a little after eleven. Two young-ish men behind me discussed what a treat it was to be out this late on a Monday. “Yeah, you have a family now,” one said to the other, teasingly. “Ha, no I don’t,” he replied with exaggerated gusto. “She can suck my dick, that dumb blonde bitch.”

I turned around and flashed a big smile, which is what I do when I am secretly scanning someone’s face for inclusion into my mental database of People I Would Never Be Friends With If I Ever Happened to Run Into Them Again. Our eyes met, accidentally. “Ha, I was joking,” he said to me a little nervously. I shrugged and didn’t say anything, for once feeling confident in this weird new world into which we’re barreling at high speed, in which it might take just a smidge more work and thought and awareness for a man to be able to call something a “joke.”

*A version of this article appears in the June 29, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

The Trainwreck Comedy Tour Explains Amy Schumer