Amy Schumer is promoting her movie, Trainwreck, due in a couple weeks, which means she’s giving a lot of interviews and is very visible right now, which means we have a lot to talk about. Specifically, we have to have the sacred cow conversation again, because Schumer is being called out for her racial comedy and also her non-intersectional feminism. We’ve covered this with Trevor Noah already, so I’m sorry if this sounds redundant, because my opinion hasn’t changed—Amy Schumer can tell whatever joke she wants. Any comedian can tell whatever joke they want. There should be no sacred cows. The minute you set something up as beyond comedy, all you’ve done is thrown chum in the water and encouraged comics to come and get it.
But. Your joke has to be GOOD. Speaking to Schumer, specifically, racial humor is not her strongest suit. I like her “Milk Milk Lemonade” sketch as both a parody song and as a send-up of videos like “Shake It Off”, but it didn’t land well with everyone. Not every joke is going to amuse 100% of people, but with Schumer her racial jokes aren’t as focused as her material about sex and gender. Schumer is capable of delivering scathing satirical humor, and she wants to bring that to jokes about race and racism, too, but her fangs aren’t quite as sharp when chewing on that material. The only way to get better is to keep pushing until you finally get a bite of something good.
Over the weekend Schumer offered a non-apology for pursing racial humor on Twitter—which was re-tweeted by Seth MacFarlane, never a good sign—and made a lot of people mad. Speaking of MacFarlane, the reason he doesn’t get a pass is because he’s actually devolved over the years, and mostly just in the last couple years. As I mentioned in my review of Ted 2, it’s like he’s lost his mind and is trying to be something he’s not. MacFarlane has always been raunchy and mined humor from juvenilia, which is fine, but it’s like over time minor criticism—the kind EVERY comedian gets—caused him to dig in his heels and lose any sense of nuance. Comedy has always been contentious—it’s a give and take relationship between audience and performer. But it’s getting so loud and angry on the internet that comedians are starting to get really defensive and entrenched, which only makes audiences more aggressive and condemnatory. MacFarlane is stuck on the negative side of that cycle because he doesn’t seem willing to just f*cking grow up and have the self-awareness to realize his own limits. Schumer, on the other hand, doesn’t seem that clueless.
Her comment about her racial humor, which boils down to “some people laughed, so f*ck you”—no wonder MacFarlane backed her up—is pretty bullsh*t. But she also addresses the topic in a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable, and she’s more measured and thoughtful. Although, it is worth noting that when she talks about auditioning black actresses, Tracy Ellis Ross CLEARLY wants to interject about the way Schumer is describing those auditions and she is cut off. There’s some spikiness there we don’t get to see play out, which is too bad, because what I get from Schumer is just that when it comes to issues of race and racism, she just needs to be brought out of her comfort zone a little. The sincerity is there, she just needs greater understanding. Maybe she could hire more women of color for her writing staff on Inside Amy Schumer. The best way to “get it” is to invite different voices into your creative process and listen to what they have to say.
I just don’t know what people want to happen here. Is the goal that Amy Schumer no longer tells jokes? Is it that she can only tell certain kinds of jokes? I’m not okay with either of those things. I am okay with pointing out that Schumer can stand to deepen her empathy and understanding of racial issues so that her comedy can be more focused and sharper when dealing with those topics. That’s called growth and improvement, and that’s a natural process of writing and performing, and it never really stops. You’re never too old or too good for those things. But in order for that to happen, we have to accept that Schumer will sometimes make jokes that don’t work. You can’t have one without the other.