[This review appears in a upcoming edition of the Rutland Reader.]
The first time I saw Amy Schumer perform I wasn’t impressed. To be fair, it was one of those god-awful Comedy Central roasts where she was forced to play along with the choreographed rehabilitation of some D-list celebrity. In her brief appearance, Schumer struck me as another raunchy female comic desperately trying to fit in with the boys.
Then I saw her 2012 special Mostly Sex Stuff, and I realized how wrong I was. Here Schumer’s hot-mess shtick belied a withering feminist critique. She rolled through topics of sex, relationships, beauty, and gender with brutal candor and honesty.
Audiences have come to accept a certain level of frankness from male comics, but females are unfairly held to a different standard. Being too blue is considered unladylike. It’s something Schumer acknowledges and owns in her special. In doing so, Schumer asserts something most men would rather not admit: though they may not put it as bluntly, all women think this way.
Schumer has delved deeper into the female psyche on Inside Amy Schumer her hilarious, razor-sharp sketch show, which recently kicked off its third season on Comedy Central. While previous seasons were strong, funny, and often insightful as they explored the trials and tribulations of modern womanhood, season three sees Schumer firing on all cylinders as she successfully mines comedy from some truly difficult places
This season is a bold and confident step forward with Schumer and head writer Jessi Klein willing to cut deep to make their point. Where the excellent Broad City presented a goofy, loving, and sunny take on female relationships, Inside Amy Schumer wants to get its hands dirty. The latter’s sketch format allows for more flexibility to take on a variety of issues without concern for narrative cohesion.
In the first two episodes, Schumer has taken big swings on hefty issues. The result has been some most trenchant satire on television in recent memory. After opening the premier episode with a hilarious and expertly executed music video celebrating butts, Schumer settles into what has probably been the series’ most talked about sketch, “Football Town Nights.”
The sketch, a parody of Friday Night Lights, is a scorching commentary on rape culture and institutional complicity. Josh Charles (Sports Night, The Good Wife) plays a new football coach who tells his high school team that his one rule is no raping. Players erupt with insane negotiations prompting questions like, “What if she thinks it’s rape, but I don’t?” and “What if she’s drunk and has a slight reputation, and no one’s gonna believe her?”
Outside the locker room, the coach faces a backlash from a community where even kindly old ladies are incensed that the boys on the team can’t rape with abandon. The sketch culminates with a rousing halftime speech by Charles’ coach where he uses an extended rape metaphor that underscores the mixed messages community’s send to young males. “…Football isn’t about rape,” he says. “It’s about violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want.”
Written by Christine Nangle, the sketch was inspired by the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, case where a group of high school football players raped a fellow student at a party. The community reaction was shockingly blasé. Even corners of the national media sympathized with the rapists revealing a bias toward victim blaming.
Amid the laughs — it’s damn funny — the sketch cuts deep. (A note to all those jags who defended that lazy rape sketch on SNL a few weeks back: this is how you write an effective, funny rape sketch.)
In the same episode, Schumer takes on ageism in “Last Fuckable Day,” where Schumer joins Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette in celebrating Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ last day of sexual desirability. The sketch humorously comments on how actresses are aged out of roles in Hollywood using the example of Sally Field going from Tom Hanks’ love interest to his mother in the span of a only a few years to illustrate the blatant double standard.
A final sketch takes the “ask your doctor” tag in a birth control ad to an exaggerated conclusion as Schumer consults numerous males — some in positions of authority, some not — in order to decide if it’s right for her. It’s a quick, absurdist jab at absurdity of men thinking they have a right to dictate what a woman does with her body.
The centerpiece of the second episode, which is an extended mediation on the lengths women will go to accommodate men, is a music video parody of One Direction that takes on standards of beauty with a song titled “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup.” Schumer pushes back against the “natural beauty” idea by ditching her makeup and calling the bluff of the guys in the video
One place where Schumer stumbles, however, is in her “Amy Goes Deep” interview segments. When done well, these segments can be both entertaining and enlightening. Schumer uses them as an opportunity to chat one-on-one with someone she finds interesting. Unfortunately, Schumer’s desire to be interesting is undermined by her lackluster interviewing skills.
The segment in the premier episode features a trans woman named Bailey Jay. Bringing attention to the transgender community is both important and topical. However, Schumer’s clumsiness led to a surprisingly regressive segment that obsessed with details of Jay’s anatomy rather than breaking any meaningful ground. Schumer’s omission of the fact that Jay is also a porn star further complicates things since that fact casts Jay in a different light than the average trans person. Nonetheless, Schumer’s good intentions are evident even if she stumbles in the execution.
The second episode features an equally disappointing interview with the creator of the adultery website Ashley Madison. This guy comes off as a total scumbag in the segment as matter-of-factly states that pregnancy and weight gain are understandable justifications for male infidelity. I expected Schumer to go for the throat, but while Schumer does register her dislike, calling one ad campaign for the site “mean and unsympathetic,” she keeps things disappointingly superficial.
But, honestly, that’s a minor shortcoming for a show that is otherwise so deft, well observed, biting, and consistently funny. Where previous seasons saw Schumer playing with these same themes, she was only scratching the surface. In season three, she has raised the level of discourse, and the show is stronger for it.
We are in the midst of an important cultural moment. Long marginalized segments of the population are finally stepping up t the mic and speaking their truths. Past notions of gender, sexuality, and race are being challenged. This give and take naturally leads to difficult conversations. Through it all, it’s helpful to have people like Schumer using comedy to bring not just laughter but insight.