tv review

Amy Schumer Is Growing But Not Sure What It All Means

Amy Schumer in Growing. Photo: Elizabeth Sisson/Netflix

Amy Schumer’s new stand-up special Growing is one of what’s now a small but established genre. Schumer is pregnant, so the special’s title is resonant in all the expected ways: She is physically growing; she hopes she is also personally growing. Much of the set is intended to be revealing. She talks about how hard her pregnancy has been, her recent marriage, and her decision to get arrested while protesting Brett Kavanaugh. At one point early in the hour, the set is literally revealing: She lifts the veil on mysterious pregnancy experiences by lifting up her own dress to show off the two Band-Aids she has taped over her belly button so that the dress’s fabric will lay flat. Too often, though, Growing is an exercise in well-trodden territory. In spite of showing off her own skin, and in spite of how personal this special is, Schumer’s revelations rarely get past the superficial.

The truisms about pregnancy — the ones usually framed as funny, anyhow — are that it sucks. This has been truer for Schumer than for most pregnant people. She thanks her audience for coming, especially because she imagines them wondering before the show, “Is this bitch in the hospital?” Schumer’s diagnosis with hyperemesis gravidarum is one of the threads she returns to throughout the hour: her intense sickness, her husband’s disastrous attempt to cheer her up while she was hospitalized by painting her a terrible piece of pottery, and the way it’s destroyed her sex life.

In spite of that idea’s omnipresence, there’s no attempt at a deeper dive, nor does the joke resonate outward into a broader consideration of the fact that she’s still working while being so sick that she’s regularly hospitalized for dehydration. The closest Schumer gets to being barbed comes near the beginning, when she mentions how people admire her for soldiering on in the face of adversity. “I’m contractually obligated to be out here, guys,” she retorts. “I’m not like, ‘I don’t care, the show must go on.’ I’m like, ‘I will be sued by Live Nation.’”

That’s a fascinating umbrella to spread over the whole special — not just the horrible practicalities of living with hyperemesis, but the idea that the entire show everyone’s watching is less a labor of love, and more a legally required fulfillment of an employment contract. Some of the best moments of the special are the bits where Schumer’s stamina in forcing herself to produce a special under such abysmal circumstances become visible, like the contractual obligation line, a joke about how close she comes to shitting herself when she does a bit of physical comedy, and the demonstration of a telltale yeast-infection pinch. There is a moment where it looks like Schumer could dig into what all of that might mean. Growing could be stand-up as a begrudging, self-aware endurance test, a special that acknowledges the whole financial enterprise of the thing, that turns Schumer’s legal obligation into a core premise that ratchets up the tension and the stakes of it all. But Schumer punts.

Instead, there are jokes about drinking while pregnant, being a late-30s bridesmaid, and periods and tampons. Many of them go for shock, for a forthright frankness about the physical realities of femalehood to do with tampon sizes and hemorrhoids and yeast infections. They’re designed to be the joke versions of Schumer lifting up her dress to show off her navel Band-Aids. They are truths about women’s bodies that often go unsaid, and Schumer’s there to show them off. But sometimes they don’t feel shocking enough, especially given that Growing is playing in the same space as Ali Wong’s two pregnancy specials, Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, and Natasha Leggero’s joint stand-up special with her husband Moshe Kasher. Each of those feature intense sequences of body-horror comedy. It’s unsporting to turn various pregnant comics’ specials into the maternity equivalent of a genital-measuring contest, but next to Wong’s “Her pussy looked like two hanging dicks side by side,” Schumer’s playacting of safari bushwhacking through the forest of her mother’s pubes feels quaintly demur.

There is a place for demur. Comedy about pregnancy does not have to be any one thing, and it definitely doesn’t have to be a race to whoever can best express the experience in full Cronenberg-esque gore. But it’s telling that in the moments when Schumer turns toward introspection late in the show — “The baby?” she asks, and then continues, “What the fuck am I doing?” — that line of thinking fizzles quickly, never leading anywhere.

The biggest issue with Growing is that for audiences already well-versed in politics, pregnancy, and periods — for many women, in other words — the insights Schumer offers don’t feel new, and some of them are downright exhausted. She has one sequence about a study that says what women fear most is violence, and what men fear most is ridicule. It’s a fairly commonplace observation, dating back to a lecture Margaret Atwood gave in 1982 that’s since been boiled down to “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.” It doesn’t matter that the idea’s neither well-attributed in Schumer’s stand-up, nor that it’s presented as a relatively new observation. What matters is that she doesn’t do much with it. The joke then twists into the ineffectual way women are told to hold their keys between their fingers, and the unfair reality that women get off of the subway and then have to run home at night. All of these things are true, but Schumer doesn’t try to push them any further or to connect them to the other ideas she plays with — the unevenly distributed burden of pregnancy, the way women are taught to romanticize men who are cruel to them — even though they seem relevant.

By the end, the special’s title feels relevant in a way it probably did not intend. Growing is an in-process sort of state, the kind of thing you say about something not fully formed. Unfortunately, for too much of Growing, the special feels like that: an impressive execution of ideas that needed more time to evolve.

Amy Schumer Is Growing But Not Sure What It All Means