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Star Track: Amy Schumer’s movie Trainwreck
Star Track: Amy Schumer’s movie Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow, is out in July. Martin Schoeller for TIME

Amy Schumer: Class Clown of 2015

Dec 18, 2014

Amy Schumer hangs out with a lot of guys. Not regular guys. Guy guys. She joined the Anti-Social Comedy Tour, performing onstage with Dave Attell (former host of Showtime’s Dave’s Old Porn), Jim Norton (arrested in 2000 for driving around Manhattan with topless teens in a glass-walled bus) and Artie Lange (barred for life from ESPN for racist and sexually explicit tweets). She hangs out with guys where they’re their most indelicate—not just at comedy clubs but as a frequent guest on The Howard Stern Show and the Opie and Anthony radio show, where she’s talked about getting a taxi driver to touch her very intimately. Her ice-bucket challenge involved standing in her underwear and pouring clam chowder all over herself. This is not the typical curriculum vitae for one of America’s most popular feminists.

Schumer is the giant-smiled, doll-faced 33-year-old comedian in the too-cutesy dress who tells very un-cutesy stories about what it’s like to be a single woman distressed by her complicity in a sexist society. She’s your sorority sister confessing to last night’s drunken mistakes as filtered through her assigned reading on Simone de Beauvoir. She’s turned this act into an Emmy-nominated Comedy Central sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer, which begins its third season in April and was the channel’s highest-rated premiere of 2013. Schumer’s 2012 stand-up special, Mostly Sex Stuff, was the highest-rated special on Comedy Central in the past two years. Most weekends, Schumer flies around the country to perform, filling 2,500-seat theaters. In April, she’ll host the MTV Movie Awards. In July, she’ll star in her first feature film, Trainwreck, which she also wrote and which Judd Apatow is directing; she’ll be playing opposite Tilda Swinton and LeBron James. It’s the first time Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) has directed a movie he didn’t write.

Schumer’s success comes at a time when gender politics is becoming both more prominent and more divisive. Earlier this year, blogger Anita Sarkeesian received death threats for pointing out misogyny in violent video games. But Schumer’s comedy, while playing heavily on gender politics, has gone down easy—with both male and female audiences. “People who maintain their sense of humor while having something to say are very important in the culture,” says Apatow. “She’s threading the needle perfectly. It’s impossible to exaggerate how difficult that is to do.”

Sitting at Cast & Plow, the restaurant at a Ritz-Carlton in Los Angeles, Schumer explains she didn’t set out to become a feminist comic. She didn’t want to be the voice of anything. She recalls once surfing alone near her hometown of Rockville Centre, Long Island. She hurt herself badly, tearing three layers of skin off her leg, eventually requiring 41 stitches. “My first thought was I was going to die. Then I thought, I’m going to have to go to assemblies and talk about what happened to me and what I’ve learned and have a good attitude. I was so grossed out.” She’s been successful at making a point because she’s so averse to being seen making one; she’s just trying to make the funniest joke possible, hopefully one that makes everyone as uncomfortable as possible. As she orders a decaf coffee, she notices the name of the restaurant. “That’s what happens to you here in L.A.,” she says. “You get cast and you get plowed.”

Growing Pains

Schumer went to New York City in 2004 after majoring in theater at Towson University. She took acting classes and eventually went to the Comedy Cellar, a small space in the West Village that attracts a certain type of comedian: raw, personal, interactive. It’s where Louis CK is always headed on his show Louie. She took the stage as a ditzy, Shirley Temple–inspired party girl who told dirty stories. But unlike Sarah Silverman, who wears the armor of a tomboy while trying to provoke, Schumer revealed a lot about her life. The first time Jessi Klein, now the head writer on Inside, saw Schumer, they were doing stand-up together in New York. “In one of her jokes, she made reference to having HPV, and I thought that was the bravest thing I’d ever heard,” Klein remembers. “Everyone has it, and nobody talks about it. I was like, ‘Oh my God, she dared to talk about HPV. I want to be her best friend.’”

Attell, for whom Schumer opened for almost two years, says she’s one of the best comics at handling a crowd—even the sometimes rowdy ones on their Anti-Social Comedy Tour. “This is not a TED convention. This is not a high-tea social,” he says. “There are a lot of edgy acts that if everything goes right with the crowd, it’s good. But she rolls with the punches. A drunk guy in the audience yelling at her, she will work that in her act,” he says. Audiences don’t expect it, because she plays such a girly girl. And that dichotomy is real: In person, Schumer is exceedingly polite and charming. She has the dainty handshake of a finishing-school graduate, is fiercely loyal to her friends (she casts a lot of them) and yet fails to make any shift in her casual, matter-of-fact tone whether listing her fashion choices or the many sex acts she’s never tried.

Schumer has always been fearless and vaguely unaware that it is unusual to be that way. Her sister Kim Caramele, who is four years younger and quit her job as a school psychologist to be Amy’s tour manager and a writer on the TV show in 2013, remembers showing up for high school: “I’d be like, ‘Hi, I’m Amy Schumer’s sister,’ and the teacher would be like, ‘Ugh.’ When I told Amy, she was like, ‘Oh, I thought I had a different vibe going,’” Caramele says. “She’d ask to go to the bathroom, and the teacher would say, ‘No.’ So she’d say, ‘I have my period.’ Rockville Centre was very Irish Catholic. Girls were very tame and quiet in front of teachers. She wasn’t like that.” When Schumer was 9, her dad was diagnosed with MS and her parents declared bankruptcy. They got divorced three years later. By her own account, Schumer was a slightly troubled kid, quitting shoplifting only after being arrested when she was 19.

After three years of stand-up, Schumer came in fourth on NBC’s Last Comic Standing in 2007 and impressed Comedy Central executives, who had her conduct man-on-the-street interviews for internal sales videos. Then they persuaded a reluctant Charlie Sheen to let the obscure stand-up be part of his 2011 roast. Schumer was so outrageous and piercingly funny, even for a roast—“You were amazing in Platoon. Your marriage to Denise [Richards] was kind of like her Vietnam because she was constantly afraid of being killed by Charlie”—that afterward Sheen tried to cast her in his sitcom, Anger Management.

Meanwhile, her comedy got more personal. In each of her venues, Schumer plays a character not too far from herself, all named Amy. In her upcoming movie, the Amy in question is a writer at a lads’ magazine called S’Nuff who, after a lifetime of very short-term relationships, falls for a nice-guy sports surgeon (Bill Hader). But just like the real Amy, her character dates a professional wrestler played by John Cena (Schumer dated Cena’s WWE colleague Dolph Ziggler) and has a dad with multiple sclerosis and a lot of difficulty being in a long-term relationship.

Last June, shooting a scene in a loft in the Chelsea section of Manhattan decorated with huge fake magazine covers with lines like garden of eatin’: yes you have to, Apatow says he initially suggested that Schumer pick a different name for her onscreen character. “I think we just forgot to change it,” she interjects. “And we weren’t sure if you would be able to remember another name,” he adds. In fact, Apatow got her to throw away her first film script and write something directly from her life, since her honesty is what he found so compelling. He first contacted her after hearing her on Howard Stern talking about her father’s illness. “She was very sweet and vulnerable and funny as hell on a difficult subject,” he says.

She had already become even more real onstage, the veneer of short poofy dresses and a singsongy voice dropping away. She made stinging cracks about awkward sexual encounters and feelings of dissatisfaction with herself. Men, she was relieved to find, stayed seated without her having to try to maintain their attention through her Gracie Allen bit. But the wider reaction to her increasingly personal material was unexpected: On NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross shocked her by asking, “Do you really think of yourself as a slut?” Her male comic friends, who talked about sex just as much, weren’t generating similar assumptions—they were just dudes talking about their lives.

She fought this portrayal as sexist and unfair for a while but then decided to go the other way. Beginning with her 2012 Comedy Central special, she emphasized the material about sex and body image that made people uncomfortable. If the point of those jokes was that these are things all women are familiar with, she was going to make it even clearer. “That was a conscious thought when I was working on that special: ‘I’ll be a voice for women. This is an emotional market that hasn’t been cornered. Why don’t I stop resisting that and look at it as an opportunity?’” When the editor presented his first take to her, he asked if she thought there was another way to cut the as-yet-untitled special since it was “mostly sex stuff.” Instead, that became the program’s title.

Calling Out

By simply talking about her life, Schumer came to be seen by fans as a feminist. She has embraced that identity and done so without alienating men. Which is pretty important not only because men like to go to see live comedy but because she has appealed to Comedy Central’s audience, which is 60% male—about the same as college football’s. Her second season premiere actually did better with 18-to-34-year-old men than Tosh.0, the very dude-oriented clip show of Internet fails that precedes Inside. “I don’t think guys necessarily realize she has such a strong feminist point of view,” says Comedy Central president of content and original development Kent Alterman. “She shows her own neediness that guys can relate to from their own experiences with women. And even if you’re a misogynist, it’s still funny.”

Even when her material is criticizing male behavior very directly. In one Inside sketch calling out male Internet commenters who largely focus on her looks (see the MTV Facebook page where Schumer announced she was hosting the awards show), she asks a male focus group what they think of her show, and they just talk about whether they’d have sex with her. In another, she takes on video-game misogyny and sexual assault in the military simultaneously. In the scene, she picks up her boyfriend’s controller during a Call of Duty–style video game and her female character is immediately raped and demoted to paperwork duty after she files assault charges.

Then there’s the part of her stand-up routine based on her first sexual experience in high school: “We’ve all been a little raped. Just a hair. Every girl I know has one night, usually in college, and she’s like, ‘Huh? I think that was rape. Not totes consensh. I don’t remember yelling ‘Yes.’ It’s not all black and white. There’s a gray area. Grape happens.”

Schumer’s reaction to the sexist scenarios she describes is always less an outraged “How dare they!” than a bemused “Huh. This is weird.” Her default position is empathy. She’s stumbling onto societal horrors, accidentally blurting out larger truths she seems unaware of. Or, as her Trainwreck co-star Tilda Swinton puts it, “She has a basilisk eye for the humane. She is like a hypocrisy-bomb-disposal expert. She’s looking into all the nooks and crannies and carrying out controlled explosions for all our sakes.”

Schumer’s comedy makes the argument that things might be unfair, they might be messed up, but as needy egomaniacs, we’re all complicit. Especially, she always points out, herself. Schumer has a recurring sketch where women backhandedly compliment each other, and on the show she’s constantly playing a woman who is simultaneously furious about being objectified and worried that men won’t find her attractive enough to objectify. “There’s a lot of stuff that women do that she’ll call out, and I’m like ‘Oh, I’ve done that,’” says Vanessa Bayer, who plays her co-worker in the movie.

Before Jerry Seinfeld interviewed her on his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee last fall, he lamented to Colin Quinn that he was going to have to check out yet another sketch show. “We feel like we’ve all seen that kind of show. Then you watch it and think, Why is this different? Because it’s so personal,” says Quinn, a longtime friend who plays Schumer’s dad in Trainwreck. “She’s saying we’re trying and we’re making fools of ourselves sometimes. She’s being vulnerable not just for herself but for all the girls. It’s almost a toast: ‘Hey, girls, we’ve all been there.’” And when she points out how men behave, Quinn says, they see their own foolishness too. “You laugh and say, ‘I’m a creep. Oh well. So what? What do you want out of me?’ We’re not going to be like women and say, ‘Oh, wow, I had that moment,’” says Quinn. “Well, maybe there was a half moment.”

There’s been so much positive reaction to her feminism that Schumer is starting to feel more assured. She’s getting further from the freshman with body issues who has desperate sex with a drunken older guy, an emotional story she told in a Ms. Foundation for Women gala speech that got reprinted on the Internet. So there are fewer jokes like “I know what I look like. Like, you’d bang me but you wouldn’t blog about it.” She used to be known for wearing sweatpants in public, as if by not trying she could avoid opening herself to all that physical judgment, but now she’s let the movie’s stylist rebuild her personal wardrobe. “I’m just now trying to dress a little better. I’m placing more value on myself,” she says. In the movie, she wrote herself a lot of sex scenes, which, she says, was uncomfortable. “I would usually defuse a situation by being self-deprecating, and I said, ‘I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to say anything self-deprecating on set,’” she says.

This season, Schumer plans to make the feminism on her show more direct without being preachy. She’s determined, for instance, to take on unequal pay in a sketch. She successfully fought the Comedy Central standards-and-practices department to let her use a euphemism for female genitalia on her shows that’s been forbidden, though the network has allowed a similar euphemism for male genitalia for years. It may not be women’s suffrage, but it’s probably the feminist issue that Schumer is most uniquely trained to fight for.

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