Comedy can serve multiple purposes — besides and in addition to making us laugh, of course. Sometimes life is too ugly, too stressful, too unpleasant, so we seek out humor to make us forget, even if just for the duration of a sketch, a stand-up special or a dumb, raunchy comedy movie. Comedy also can help explain those negative aspects of life — or at least, to bring them to light, to expose their ugliness, their unpleasantness, their flaws and their hypocrisies. Comedy can present us with political truths, societal double-standards, and horrible facets of human nature. Without comedy, maybe these truths would never reach us, at least not in a way that we can comprehend, not in a way that can be stomached by the masses. Things like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, South Park and others have given millions of American viewers a better opportunity for understanding our culture or our government’s blunders, embarrassments, and general failings. But, unfortunately, our current pop cultural climate is still fraught with ageism, sexism, and one obvious misconception: that women simply aren’t and cannot be funny.
Of course, we’ve had plenty of comediennes in recent years and throughout comedy history — Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Gilda Radner, Lucille Ball, to name a just a few — who have clearly dispelled this idea through their talents, timing, and respective successes, and yet it’s a theory that persists. If there is anyone working today though who is taking this idea and not merely flipping it on its head but completely shattering it to pieces (and then flinging those pieces — as if they were ninja throwing stars — straight at the funny bones of skeptical misogynists everywhere, it’s Amy Schumer.
Having been a casual fan of her stand up for a while now, it wasn’t until her current (third) season of Inside Amy Schumer, her wildly popular and persistently relevant Comedy Central sketch show, that I realized just how inspirational, smart, observant, and hilarious she truly is. Multiple sources, with every sketch that goes viral (and there’s been at least one per weekly episode since this season began), are touting her as a genius, and they’re not wrong. Her comedy, and her success, matters. It matters to all women, and in a way it should also matter to men, but it also matters to our media landscape at large. Schumer is challenging and questioning the way media messages are constructed and conveyed, and the way we are, at times, all complicit in those messages, by receiving them and mirroring them in our everyday lives. So, no, Amy Schumer may not be where the revolution began, but her brand of comedy is the first to make a media revolution start to take hold in our popular imagination and in the skewed and corrupted culture of everyday life. Schumer is feminism delivered by humor, and humor made feminist.
Amy Schumer is everything I would want to be if I were a comedian: first of all, she is honest without being overly crass, or without being off-putting when she is crude — she speaks her mind and doesn’t care. She’s self-aware and even self-deprecating while also being confident; it’s a balancing act that we can all learn from. Her sketches cover themes of feminine self-worth and image and purpose; men’s expectations of “natural beauty;” how Hollywood categorizes women or what Hollywood expects of certain women over others. The sketch show screams female empowerment in a way that reaches men rather than alienating them– not that she’d care, necessarily, about alienating them, and perhaps it’s unavoidable where certain audiences are concerned. But her comedy — if popular among men and women — is still where progress begins and where change starts to occur.
Let’s begin with “Last F**kable Day,” which seems all the more relevant given numerous news reports swirling in the entertainment world these last couple of weeks– from Rebel Wilson’s real age (*gasp* 36?!) to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s being deemed too old for her to be the love interest to a 55 hear old male star (*gasp* 37?!) In this sketch, the aforementioned Fey and Dreyfus are joined also by Patricia Arquette, as Schumer stumbles upon their picnic-turned-ritual meant to commemorate the last day Hollywood deems Dreyfus plausibly sexually-attractive. Again, comedy is often the only way we can handle tragedy, and this sketch is proof of that — it’s hilarious but also somewhat painful, because it’s simply all too true. In another media-related sketch with an even darker vibe and crazier gut-punch, Schumer decides to play a hyper-realistic first person shooter video game. When she chooses the female soldier avatar however, what we realize has taken place within the game (even though we do not see it, we can understand what is happening based on her reactions) is that her avatar has been raped by a male soldier. The rest of the game, for her, consists of filling out military paperwork and an eventual lack of punishment for her attacker.
Once again, good comedy is equal parts amusing and painful, especially when the comedy is geared toward social commentary; laughing eases some kind of blow, sure, but it’s the message that remains with us thereafter. I’d be remiss of course if I didn’t mention “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup,” one of two irresistibly catchy and unreasonably smart pop song spoofs of this season. The other is a rap/hip-hop song called “Milk Milk Lemonade,” which explores what’s up with our culture’s lustful fascination with a woman’s rear end, which biologically speaking, has the least sexy and most disgusting function of any of the others that are referred to in the song. Schumer has essentially, and effectively at that, conveyed a feminist message through a kind of bathroom humor. “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup,” meanwhile, is essentially a parody of One Direction’s entire vibe and specifically “What Makes You Beautiful.” It skewers what men think of as natural beauty (it boils it down to one phrase: “natural looking makeup”) as the song starts by praising Amy’s natural glow only to find the boy band shocked at her actually-natural appearance. Pop songs like this often do sell us a terribly skewed message of female empowerment in which, makeup or not, the approval and thus your sense of self-worth is measured by men. This is a problematic trope throughout pop culture, one of many that Schumer tackles incessantly and brilliantly.
Perhaps the most brilliant among her recent streak of gems, is the full-episode 12 Angry Men spoof. Co-directed by Schumer herself, the film history buff in her comes out to play in more ways than one — even a sex toy substitutes in for the iconic knife from the original to hilarious effect. The episode chronicles a hypothetical trial in which 12 men are debating whether she is hot enough to have her own show on TV (or whether she’s better suited to supporting parts, like a quirky neighbor). Referencing another contemporary funny lady, one juror even says something along the lines of, less Melissa McCarthy, more Jenny McCarthy. Perhaps even more telling though is when, later in the episode, Schumer interviews people on the street and learns that a lot of men love Sofia Vergara on Modern Family– but less because she’s actually funny, and more because she’s hot.
This recalls the opening of season 2 in which a focus group is debating whether they’d have sex with Amy — rather than answering the actual questions at hand about the show’s structure, writing, etc. At the end, when we see Schumer has been observing the proceedings, she only seems relieved and flattered that a few said they’d sleep with her, rather than being concerned with their skewed priorities. Whether this is sexually empowering or sad, or both, the sketch takes a critical, hyperbolic stance (the men scramble for beef jerky and energy drinks that are rewarded for their participation) without coming off as unreasonably man-hating; all of Schumer’s sketches, especially those that revel in making fun of women or even herself, are not meant to rip into people so much as to rip a hole into a patriarchal system that nurtures these kinds of people.
When she is making fun of women — those who succumb to unrealistic diets, or those who judge strippers and then do pole dancing as a form of exercise, or those who go onto late night talk shows and act coy about wearing sports jerseys or loving Star Wars and comic books — she is doing so to prove a point about what led women to this point, what societal, systemic norms, expectations, and double standards have caused us to be how we are, how we have arrived at and reinforced these stereotypes. Likewise, she doesn’t blame men necessarily for how they are, either: beer commercials that make it seem like men are sexually attracted to their beers actually do exist — Schumer just makes the connection more overt and highlights the ridiculousness of these advertisements. That’s the media, though. Media is informed by norms and norms are then re-established and ever-enforced by the media. Schumer throws a wrench in that reciprocal process, leaving us to pick that wrench up and fix the process so that the media may one day better reflect who we really are. Schumer is creating media images that actually remind us that we are not defined by our gender — or what the media at large says we can and cannot do depending on our gender.
So, Amy Schumer is a hero, to me as she is (or at least should be) to all of us, men and women alike, for making us laugh and think and laugh again — for making us think about why we are laughing. Her success is paving a road for other women to talk freely about their desires, anxieties, and sexuality — but for themselves, not for men. Women can be funny, sexy, silly, smart, weak, strong, stupid, flirtatious, whatever — as long as it’s on our terms, and that’s what Schumer represents. The fact that Schumer is paving this road on her terms means something, and her popularity is all the more noteworthy and exciting for it. With her hosting stint at this year’s MTV Movie Awards, and now the upcoming Trainwreck — the film she wrote and stars in that was directed by Judd Apatow, coming out in July — this year is the year of Schumer, but that’s not just great for her; it’s great for all of us that have been touched by her brand of comedy, and it’s great for the future of comedy, entertainment, pop culture, media. Because hopefully, we’ll be seeing more of her, and more things in our society (or at least in our media) will start to change according to her genius vision. No matter how much does or does not change though, she will always have something to say, as we all will — at least now, funny women everywhere will feel freer to say it. The doors that have been opened inch by inch by female comedians before her have now been blown wide open by Schumer; now, it’s our job to step through and see what lies on the other side. And whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll be pretty darn liberating and important — and funny.