During “Compliments,” a first-season sketch on Inside Amy Schumer, a group of female friends respond to every bit of praise with a verbal self-maiming: “I tried to look like Kate Hudson but ended up looking like a golden retriever’s dingleberry,” says one. Sighs another, “Of course I see everyone when I look like Susan Boyle’s toothbrush.”
It was sympathetic satire about female self-loathing and how women are socialized to downplay both their beauty and their achievements. A year later, Schumer floored me again with “A Very Realistic Military Game,” which simultaneously skewered rape culture in the armed forces and casual misogyny in the gaming world. Last month, the third season began with another bang: “Last Fuckable Day,” a viral sketch in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, and Patricia Arquette torch the “Is she fuckable?” yardstick by which women are judged in the entertainment business.
Through funny and frank appraisals of everyday sexism, Schumer has become comedy’s latest truth-teller, a rightly romanticized role that elevates comedy as an art form and allows the performer who takes up that mantle — and can keep it — to define his or her generation. In the past few weeks, Schumer has taken over truth-telling duties from Louis C.K., who of course has predecessors in Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, Fey, Sandra Bernhard, and Janeane Garofalo, as well as Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce before them. Once in a while, a cultural commentator, usually during election season, will express dismay that some of our most trenchant pop-political commentary comes from a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert. But comedians have occupied the truth-telling role since the days when court jesters were the only people who could voice criticisms of the king to his face — as long as the dagger was cloaked in a joke — and not have their heads lopped off for it.
If the role that Schumer occupies is an old one, she’s come to dominate feminist discussions about pop culture, sex, and impossible expectations for women by taking advantage of the current Web-centered media landscape: socially shared videos, a recently established bloggerati eager for gender analysis, and aggregation sites always hungry for more content. But Schumer’s freshly minted reputation is also bolstered by a new kind of TV comedy auteurship that evinces a sense of candid authenticity through insightful social commentary, careful self-imaging, and a critical play with form.
In these regards, Louis C.K. is Schumer’s closest analogue. Given the similarity of their self-loathing personas and the structural flexibility with which they approach their eponymous shows, it’s surprising that Schumer and C.K. aren’t compared more often. Both routinely use their shows to comment on the world around them, C.K. most recently in the “Cop Story” episode of his FX series Louie, in which the millennial owner (Clara Wong) of a chichi cookware store lays bare why C.K.’s middle-aged protagonist feels so resentful of twentysomethings: “Because we’re the future, and you don’t belong in it. Because we’re beyond you, and naturally, that makes you feel kind of bad. You have this deep-down feeling that you don’t matter anymore.” As with so many of C.K.’s routines, the sketch then takes a logical hairpin that leads us toward an unexpected but shrewd conclusion: “You should be glad, though….Do you want your kids’ world to be a step above yours? Isn’t that what we’re all doing? So, doesn’t it follow that if you’re a good parent, and your kids evolve and are smarter than you, they’re gonna make you feel kind of dumb? So if you feel stupid around young people, things are going good.”
Schumer and her writers craft jokes from that youthful perspective. Their comedy is also highly gendered, and their targets are ultra-contemporary and demographically specific to Schumer herself in a way that a more sprawling, collaborative sketch series like, say, Saturday Night Live isn’t. (Inside‘s sister series, Broad City, also benefits greatly from letting its young female creators and stars be themselves and draw from their own lives.) At the risk of stating the obvious, we don’t have too many shows focused on female arrested development, women’s self-loathing, or feminist takes on pop culture — though the landscape is surely changing (Girls, The Mindy Project, the much-missed The Sarah Silverman Program). Things have perceptibly evolved even within Inside‘s first two and a half seasons — it’s a bolder, sharper show than it used to be, less focused on the fictional Amy’s Silverman-esque self-absorption and more on the issues that affect women in her age bracket, like the “fuck you” to the “Cool Girl” phenomenon, or in her industry, like the instantly iconic 12 Angry Men parody in which jurors weigh in on whether Schumer is hot enough to be on TV — and thus conventionally attractive enough to enjoy mainstream success as a comedienne. Like the best of C.K.’s work, Schumer’s most brilliant skits feel like a public service.
Schumer’s image on Inside is far more elastic than C.K.’s “most reasonable guy in NYC” persona, but both play characters named after themselves and pay no mind to continuity. The characters of “Amy” and “Louie” are defined largely by their self-loathing, especially as it relates to their appearance and sexual appeal — a kind of tactical self-debasement that seems to say, “If I can be this blunt about myself, imagine how much more honest I can be about the world around me.”
But Schumer and C.K.’s auteurship is most obvious in the largely unstructured format of their shows — a deliberate looseness that contributes to the perception that each comedian wants to do more than simply amuse. C.K. plays around with mix-and-matching stand-up segments, long and short story lines, even a multi-episode “movie” last season. Schumer does something similar — if to less obvious effect — while including those highly underrated interviews with strippers, gigolos, porn stars, the creator of the cheating site Ashley Madison, and other people with highly curious jobs. The flexibility of each episode contributes to a sense that Schumer and C.K. aren’t just entertainers trying to inject their voice into a prefabricated format — not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Schumer’s upcoming rom-com Trainwreck will probably illustrate.
Schumer’s reign as TV comedy’s viral queen won’t last, of course — Comedy Central’s Key and Peele, which returns for a fifth season in July, could soon take the throne. But with just two dozen episodes of her show, Schumer has already made herself a comic audiences need to hear from.
Inkoo Kang is the TV critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television and tweets at @thinkovision.