Amy Schumer: Enemy of the Status Quo

Curator's Note

 Comedian-auteur Amy Schumer, creator of the Comedy Central sketch program Inside Amy Schumer, is both hero and anti-hero. Where female comics are still trying to prove that women can be funny and continue to struggle to make it in a traditional boys’ club, Schumer has earned admirable success and power. Her explicit and assertive take on sex and alcohol consumption, for instance, challenges “good girl” expectations and tacitly asks the question, “Why can’t a female comic act and talk like a male comic?” To that point, she was recently instrumental in charging Comedy Central with a double standard that led to removing the ban of a previously censored word, marking a breakthrough in gender equality.

At the same time – and ultimately toward the same goal – many of the characters she creates and portrays are two-dimensional, politically incorrect narcissists who assist Schumer in delivering hilarity paired with social commentary, as comedians have been doing for centuries. Her strategy, quickly bringing to mind fellow comic Sarah Silverman, is to make us laugh at both her bold humor and as a reaction to uncomfortable self-recognition. We can appreciate Schumer the auteur for her keen observations, choices and honesty as the performer cleverly displays a host of unsavory “isms.”

While the protagonist of “Urban Fitters” is not one of Schumer’s most depraved or egregiously self-centered, the sketch depicts her relentless prodding at first world irritants. Her inability to identify an employee as “black” to the black cashier is meant to betray a lack of maturity and consciousness, and this instance of racial discomfort is unfortunately familiar to many of us from one perspective or another. Her extreme actions – bribing the cashier to stop pressing her and rashly running out of the store  – lift the scenario from vérité to comedy so the viewer is somewhat absolved (“well, I would never do that!”). The sketch finishes with the succeeding customer comfortably identifying “the Asian over there” as the employee who had helped her, and the cashier appreciates the direct response. In a deconstruction that any comedian would be loath to explicate, the message is: get over your fearful and vain self-consciousness that hinders honest feelings and communication about race.  But such is the status quo.

Comments

Bridgett Vanderhoof's picture

Great Post!

Hi Kathleen,

First, I’d like to say how much I appreciate you writing about a female comedian this week. I think that is so clever, especially in the case of Amy Schumer, where she both writes and performs these two-dimensional characters.

I also think the women on Broad City live in the same vein as Amy-they push back against expectations of female comediennes and deliver first-class comedy everyone can enjoy.

Great read!

Kathleen Collins's picture

Broad City!

I’m glad you enjoyed it, Bridgett. Yes, I completely agree re Ilana and Abby! I can’t believe they didn’t occur to me as I was writing this, especially since I watch them and admire their anti-heroine ways, too. Well, good. Then there are even more women comics doing the good/bad deeds that we value. There may not be enough women (esp. headlining) comics at this moment, but many of the ones that are out there are carrying more than their weight and doing it well.

Staci Stutsman's picture

on genre

I’m interested in the role that genre plays here. Why are most of the female antiheroines in drama (Revenge, Damages, Weeds, Nurse Jackie) and not comedy? What can drama do for its heroines that comedy can’t? What can comedy do for its heroines that drama can’t? Also, how does stand-up comedy differ from sitcoms? I’m thinking about how Schumer’s star persona plays a role here in a way that works differently than the fictional Broad City characters.

Comedy

I’ll admit that I’m not a follower of many (if any) television comedies, so this may be based on my personal preferences. But, I rarely think about the main characters of sitcoms as heroes/heroines (or anti-heroes/anti-heroines). I’m sure the terms apply in many cases, but I just don’t think of them that way. This is most certainly a genre issue (tied up with status, perhaps). This may also just be based on my lack of knowledge about comedies. I’m curious, who the characters are in comedies/sitcoms that you would consider heroes or heroines?

Kathleen Collins's picture

Comedians as heroes

Initially I chose Schumer because I, too, thought it was unusual to think of a comedian as a hero, but as I respond to Barbara, it seems like a more obvious choice overall. Many comedians, esp. from the 1960s onward, traditionally speak truth to power and make bold social commentary - a perfect set-up to be a hero or an anti-hero, depending on the audience’s sensibilities or politics. As to Staci’s question about fiction v. Schumer’s sketch brand of comedy, I want to think about this more, but off the bat I think that in a ficitional series the characters have to commit to their personalities and motivations for a longer stretch, so they really cannot be too awful (I’m sure we could conjure up exceptions). Schumer and other sketch comics create these hyperbolic characters who can be really distasteful because they deliver their strong message, punch us in the face, and they they’re out. They don’t care what we think of them. Abby and Ilana might be self-centered, lazy, crazy, etc. but we are still meant to like them and stick with them through their mishaps and be on their side. I also think of Lisa Kudrow’s two characters in The Comeback and Web Therapy. We get to know these insecure and flawed protaganoists over the course of time and while we don’t necessarily condone their behavior, we begin to understand it and feel sympathy and maybe even empathy. I think what drama can do that comedy cannot is to reveal complexities of human nature in a more nuanced and perhaps realistic way.

Phoebe Bronstein's picture

Such a great and

Such a great and thought-provoking post, Kathleen! I really like how you (as Bridgett said) talked about comedy vs. drama. And, I’m intrigued by the the idea of expanding the category of antiheroine well beyond the drama. Following most of the conversation so far, I’m curious about how you/we define antiheroine? Vs. a character that is unlikable, yet sympathetic (like Lisa Kudrow in Web Therapy) or just plain unlikable (like you note about some of Amy Schumer’s characters). I think it is so exciting to see more female characters that are indeed not so likable, but I wonder if that is the same as an antiheroine? And if so, what kind of power does that categorization provide? (Or, here is it Amy Schumer herself (not the characters she plays) who is an antiheroine?)

Kathleen Collins's picture

Are anti-heroes just people?

I’ve been pondering the same question, Phoebe - what do we mean by anti-heroine? No doubt lots has been written about this, esp. since the advent of the anti-hero in quality TV with Dexter, Walter White, et al. But it has probably expanded since then, and especially when we include more women (e.g. a certain power or agency, as your suggest). On one level, we can all anti-hero/ines simply more human, 3 dimensional characters, where we see their good and bad, strenghts and weaknesses. As for Amy S. (separate from her characters), I see her both as an anti-heroine - ‘you’re not going to like what I have to say to you! it’s ugly!’ - and as a hero who takes the initiative or displays the courage to say those ugly things and make a point.

Maria San Filippo's picture

Kudrow's reflexive (anti-)heroism

Another thought-provoking discussion, Kathleen, and one well-timed to coincide with the release of the trailer for Schumer’s debut film ‘Trainwreck’ (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3152624/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1), about which I’d be curious to know your thoughts.

I’m glad Lisa Kudrow was mentioned above, as I think her series ‘The Comeback’ exemplifies the way in which the female anti-heroine functions heroically not just in making female representation more complex and human, but also works reflexively to critique representations of women and the exploitation of women within the entertainment industry overall. Returning to a question raised above about the majority of female anti-heroes being in dramatic shows, I wonder if the kind of reflexive critique at which Kudrow as well as Schumer (see the skit that opens her show’s first season, “2 Girls 1 Cup,” in which she skewers the pornification of contemporary culture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNJhwtx4AJc) excel is defused by its comic delivery.

Kathleen Collins's picture

Does the medium obscure the message?

It’s a good question, Maria, and I have to nudge myself to really think about it because I so want comedy to be the answer to all social ills :) But I think like any genre, it becomes diluted or desensitizing when one watches too much of it (binge watching, of which I am guilty, only hastens this) and the messages are in danger of being lost.

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