Photo: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times/Redux
You might not expect the queen of boundary-pushing basic-cable comedy to greet a reporter with a big bear hug, but on the recent Friday I met up with Amy Schumer in a Santa Monica hotel room, she brushed right past the handshake I was offering and pulled me in for a warm embrace. In the hours before our interview, the Supreme Court had ruled that same-sex marriage was the law of the land, and the politically attuned Schumer was beaming.
“It’s a beautiful day, for a bunch of reasons,” she said as she sat back on the couch and smoothed her slinky black dress. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, good news? We haven’t gotten this for a while.’” Schumer had spent her morning makeup session scrolling through reactions to the same-sex-marriage decision, and the scope of them had deeply affected her. “I started crying,” she said, “and my makeup artist was like, ‘I will cut you.’” She took a deep breath and shook her head in happy disbelief, her blonde braid swinging to and fro. “It’s just the fucking best.”
Recent accusations of racism notwithstanding, many aspects of Schumer’s life have been worthy of that exclamation as of late. We were meeting to discuss Trainwreck, the well-reviewed film she wrote and stars in, and its debut in theaters later this month couldn’t be better timed to Schumer’s surging profile. The driving force behind the 34-year-old comic’s rise has been her Comedy Central sketch show Inside Amy Schumer, which wrapped its third season this week. Though the show’s TV ratings dipped slightly from seasons two to three (to an average of 1.4 million total viewers, from 1.6 million last year), its online reach more than quadrupled year over year, with nearly 4 million fans having streamed full season-three episodes on Comedy Central’s various platforms. Meanwhile, stand-alone clips of her sketches rack up millions of views and dominate social media, to an extent that has surprised even her. “I could not sense that surge while we were working on it,” she said. “It felt like we were doing the same thing we’d been doing for three years.”
Maybe it’s the rest of us that finally caught up. After all, Schumer’s been turning bad headlines and misguided politics into great sketches since Inside Amy Schumer began; as she explained, “Comedy is more palatable than being lectured. It’s like we’re going to make you laugh your way into realizing you’ve been a dick.” But as the feminist agenda has gained traction in popular culture through the efforts of Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and countless other entertainers, Schumer and her brand of humor have been able to find a larger, more receptive audience.
“If you look back at the history of comedy, there have been very few voices like Amy’s,” said Judd Apatow, who directed her in Trainwreck. “The people who do comedy about important issues have trouble balancing the funny and the message. She’s one of the few people who can be insanely funny and put comedy first but can also eviscerate things that need to be eviscerated.”
The filmmaker had been only vaguely familiar with Schumer until he heard her interviewed on Howard Stern’s radio show four years ago, following her buzzed-about set at Comedy Central’s roast of Charlie Sheen. On Stern’s show the jokes were just as raunchy and R-rated, but as Schumer discussed her family — especially her father, who has multiple sclerosis — her punch lines were tinged with a welcome, matter-of-fact empathy. “What does your dad do for a living?” Stern asked at one point. “He mostly just shits himself,” said Schumer, who made the scatological jab sound almost affectionate.
Apatow was driving when the Schumer interview came on; when it concluded, he’d been sitting in his parked car for some time, unwilling to miss even a moment. It wasn’t long before he called Schumer and encouraged her to write the film that would becomeTrainwreck. “I thought she might be more of a storyteller than even she understands,” he says, “and I was proven correct as soon as she started handing in pages. She wrote fantastic scenes and learned story structure as fast as a human can. This is something she was meant to do.”
In Trainwreck, Schumer plays a boozy journalist more likely to fall into bed with her subjects than greet them with a hug, and for people familiar with Schumer’s ribald stand-up, her screen hookups will come as no surprise. Still, even Schumer superfans might be surprised by her willingness to explore the psychological meaning behind those one-night stands. “More than anything, the story of this girl was really important for me to tell,” she said. “We’re so quick to label somebody: ‘She’s a drunk slut, got it.’ But I want to look at the nature and nurture that got her there.”
That meant examining what has motivated her own bad behavior — most of it, she assured me, long-outgrown. “I’ll still drink a little too much and maybe sleep with someone I shouldn’t, but not with that frequency,” she said. Still, as Schumer filled in her character’s backstory with details drawn from her own life — including a father struggling with MS (played by Colin Quinn) and a blithe attitude toward sex and relationships that threatens to tank her romance with a caring doctor (Bill Hader) — she realized just how self-destructive she had sometimes been: “I was learning these things about myself while writing it: ‘Oh, I’m not okay.’”
That rang especially true when Schumer mined some of the latent resentment she harbored toward her more responsible sister, Kim. The two siblings are now extremely close — Kim writes for her sister’s sketch show and served as an associate producer on Trainwreck — but Schumer used “the darkest thoughts I’ve had about her and her life” to power a scalding third-act argument between Movie Amy and her married, put-together sibling (Brie Larson). “It was hard,” Schumer said of sending Kim the pages for that scene. “I told her not to be on set the days we shot those moments.” Overall, though, she considers Trainwreck to be a “love letter” to her sister: “There was a line that got cut where I told Brie, ‘You’re so fucking sweet for letting me think I was okay for this long.’ It made me realize that my poor little sister had been watching me hurt myself for years, and that had to have been really hard for her.” Schumer paused. “It would have been impossible for me to watch her do that.”
Trainwreck has gotten great reviews since its South by Southwest premiere in the spring, and if it scores this summer with general audiences, it could mint Schumer as an R-rated comic movie star to rival Melissa McCarthy. That trajectory would seem to be more good news for Schumer, who just signed on to develop another big-screen starring vehicle, but she admitted to some reluctance. “Honestly, I’ve been having nightmares about fame,” she told me. “Last night it got very weird.” Pressed to elaborate, she couldn’t resist going for the joke: “I might have wound up hooking up with a girl in the dream. Maybe it was sort of a gateway to today’s news!”
What really keeps Schumer up at night, though, is the scrutiny that’s coming with her increased spotlight. “Every time I do a show now, it’s like that episode of Black Mirror where everyone’s filming on their phones. It’s such a gotcha society,” she said with a wince, “and every little thing being read into, it’s not something that I’m used to.” Two days after our interview, she would learn that lesson the hard way when an article in The Guardian cited some of Schumer’s old stand-up jokes — including “I used to date Latino guys. Now I prefer consensual” — as evidence of her “shockingly large blind spot around race.” The heat only intensified after she responded on Twitter in an uncharacteristically defensive manner, writing, “You can call it a ‘blind spot for racism’ or ‘lazy’ but you are wrong. It is a joke and it is funny. I know that because people laugh at it. Even if you personally did not.”
As we talked in the days before that controversy, Schumer admitted, “I’d like to say a couple dumb things that I know are horrible just for a live show, and now I know I can’t. I feel a little bit safe, though, because at my core, if you could look in my mind, it’s all good stuff. I’m not racist, and I’m not a cunt, so there won’t be a night where I just lose it and ‘say what I really feel.’ Like, I’m already doing that.”
But what Schumer has since learned is that people expect more from her than the “ignorant white girl” character she would sometimes adopt in her stand-up routine. Now that she’s been heralded as a Peabody-winning satirist, that dumb-girl act feels like a bygone put-on. “Once I realized I had more eyes and ears on me and had an influence,” Schumer tweeted this week, “I stopped telling jokes like that on stage. I am evolving as an artist. I am taking responsibility and hope I haven’t hurt anyone.”
That’s a better apology than the one Schumer initially issued, and it’s one that suggests she can learn something from this brouhaha. It’s telling that Comedy Central recently approached Schumer to host the network’s most prestigious program, The Daily Show — like departing emcee Jon Stewart, Schumer’s best material packs a cathartic, “someone’s finally saying it” punch. Though she turned down the Daily Show gig, it may become increasingly difficult to dismiss the trust that the network and her viewers clearly want to place in her. That would involve Schumer carrying herself more carefully in the future — a tall order for a comedian whose supposed drunken irresponsibility serves as the source material for many of her jokes — but the public is hungry for another comic voice who’ll speak truth to power, and that title is Schumer’s to claim if she wants it.
The question is, does she? In our conversation she copped to her increased influence, but it was clear that she wants to be wielding it on her own terms. When talking about her sketch show, she said, “I really want people to go, ‘Oh yeah, things are fucked up, and we shouldn’t accept it as the norm.’ It’s totally cathartic for me, and I’m really glad to say these things that I mean and have never heard [on television] before.”
That mentality is a product of her belief in the way that comedy can influence the dynamics of society. “Something like gay marriage,” she said. ” I think comedy’s been a real friend to it in a, ‘Okay, so let me get this straight,’ breaking-it-down kind of way.” But as I pointed out to her, even something comparatively minor, such as the Inside Amy Schumer sketch about women who can’t accept a compliment, can strike a significant chord — in that case, with countless girls I know who realized while watching it that their self-effacing attitudes were getting them nowhere. Schumer’s comedy doesn’t have to alter the way people think, I told her, but when that happens, it’s a pretty wonderful thing.
She went silent, her eyes welling up in a way that would set her makeup artist on edge. “I’m gonna cry. That’s so nice,” she said. Her voice, typically so certain, grew quavery. “That’s fucking awesome.”