It’s hard to watch TV, go online, or even leave the house without encountering the deceptively cherubic face of comedian and filmmaker Amy Schumer. Sketches from her Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer, are viral sensations; her HBO standup special, directed by Chris Rock, will air in October. She wrote and stars in the critically-acclaimed film Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow, which is raking it in at the box office. On Monday night, she appeared as one of Jon Stewart’s final Daily Show guests; earlier that day, Schumer held a press conference to announce her support for a plan championed by her distant cousin, Senator Chuck Schumer, to make it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to obtain guns. This comes on the heels of the July shooting at a Louisiana movie theater during a screening of Trainwreck, in which two women were killed and nine people were injured.
Amy Schumer’s stand-up and sketches tackle issues like birth control, abortion, rape, sexism, and warped female beauty standards with humor and fearlessness, positioning her as a feminist icon. And indeed, some critics and fans have hailed Trainwreck as a clever subversion of the typical romantic comedy plot. But others complain that it reinforces the rom-com narrative more than it challenges it. Schumer has also come in for criticism over her handling of race issues, both in Trainwreck and in her sketches and stand-up.
I talked about Amy Schumer’s comedy and its presentation of gender and race with writers and performers who themselves engage with these themes in a funny and thoughtful way. Laura Swisher is a stand-up comedian who worked as a producer for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and now works for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. Gabe Pacheco is a stand-up comedian who co-hosts and co-produces Funhouse Comedy, a weekly stand-up comedy show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and is a co-host on The Katie Halper Show on WBAI. Rae Sanni is a comedian and writer who co-hosts the It’s About Us podcast. Samhita Mukhopadhyay is the author of Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life. Kate Levin is a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction, and faculty member of the University of Southern California, whose most recent piece, for The Boston Globe, reflects on being a teenage prank call addict.
Katie Halper: Let’s start with the argument that some of Amy Schumer’s jokes are racist. What do you think of that criticism—and Schumer’s response?
Laura Swisher: There are comics whose material I loathe and find offensive, and often times it’s because their material is racist and/or sexist and utterly lacking in craft. But if a comic can make me laugh, or surprise me, I give them a lot more leeway, even if individual jokes might be offensive. I’d put Schumer in the “give her more leeway” category.
Kate Levin: The most salient thing for me when I think about Schumer and race is the response she gave after a Guardian writer called her out for having a blind spot around this subject. In response to criticism of the joke, “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual,” she replied, “It is a joke and it is funny. I know that because people laugh at it…. Trust me. I am not racist.” I like Schumer—some of the stuff on her show I like a lot—but her response doesn’t hold up to the tiniest bit of scrutiny. She knows what she said wasn’t racist because… it was funny and people laughed at it? People laugh at racist jokes all the time! She knows that. (People also laugh at stuff that isn’t funny all the time, which she knows, too.) So what could land a smart person in such a swamp of illogic?