Amy Schumer’s Race Controversy Highlights the Gap Between Her Stand-Up and Sketch-Show Personas

With the publication of a second, much more contrite response to critics yesterday, Amy Schumer seems to have brought the news cycle surrounding her “blind spot” around race to a close. “I am evolving as any artist,” she wrote on Twitter. “I am taking responsibility and hope I haven’t hurt anyone. And I apologize it I did [sic].”

This week’s round of Let’s Rescind the Sainthood This Entertainer Didn’t Ask For began with Anne Thériault’s Daily Dot essay “Amy Schumer Isn’t as Feminist as the Internet Thinks,” in which Thiérault criticizes Schumer’s jokes about race, statutory rape, and stereotypical devotion to Oprah. In a more evenhanded essay published by the Guardian a few days later, writer Monica Heisey balanced out her praise for Schumer’s sharp parodies and “drunk party slut persona” by noting her less-than-subversive cracks about Hispanic men and crazy Latinas.

Because the Internet’s attention span works in mysterious ways, the Schumer backlash focuses less on recent material (though she called Gone Girl “the story of what one crazed white woman, or all Latinas do, if you cheat on them” just three months ago) than work that’s been publicly available, and even widely celebrated, for years. Schumer’s most widely — and rightly — criticized joke aired during one of Inside Amy Schumer‘s stand-up segments in the show’s first season; Grantland’s Molly Lambert even pointed it out last year in her own overview of Schumer’s comedy, though the criticism didn’t stick. “I used to sleep with mostly Hispanic guys,” Schumer gleefully tells her audience. “But now I prefer consensual!”

These jokes are lazy, cruel, and seemingly at odds with the incisive and self-aware voice behind “Last Fuckable Day,” “The Universe” (“We now know the universe is essentially a voice sending cosmic guidance to white women in their 20s”), and “A Very Realistic Military Game.” But when Schumer initially responded to the controversy by claiming, “I go in and out of playing an irreverent idiot… I enjoy playing a girl who time to time says the dumbest thing possible,” she may have missed her detractors’ point, but she also wasn’t lying.

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Schumer’s persona as a stand-up comedian certainly bleeds into her sketch show, both in its frequent cutaways to her solo act and its tendency towards self-parody in the form of clips like “Publicity Stunt” (Amy tries “pity-fucking a prom loser” to make up for a PR disaster involving a naked PETA shoot, a dog, and some peanut butter) and last week’s “Therapist” (Amy complains she has too much money to a woman whose parents just died). But Schumer’s stand-up both predates her Comedy Central series and operates in a different register from it, making the backlash against the former by those who know Schumer from the latter almost inevitable.

Like all comedians, Schumer plays a character onstage, and she assumes her audience knows it. Sometimes, “It’s just an act!” sounds like a built-in escape valve, allowing an entertainer to take credit for the jokes that land and pawn off the ones that don’t on a persona that doesn’t represent their real views. Mostly, however, stand-up characters are a way for comedians to craft a consistent point of view that they can use as a platform and their audience can recognize. Doug Benson is a stoner; Anthony Jeselnik is a clever asshole who speaks in one-line insults; Louis CK used to be an absurdist, and now he’s a perceptive everyman.

Amy Schumer, or rather “Amy Schumer,” happens to be ignorant, insensitive, ditzy – and, most of the time, the intended target of Amy-Schumer-sans-quotation-marks’ comedy. It’s the ethos behind some of her best cracks, and why Thériault’s objections to jokes like, “I finally slept with my high school crush… but now he expects me to go to his graduation!” don’t land. And when it fails, Schumer stops making fun of the clueless and simply becomes one of them.

All of which is fine! No comedian has a perfect track record, particularly when that track record is acquired through catering to an audience with its fair share of comedy club patrons who have a very different set of standards than the average Comedy Central viewer, as any nationally touring stand-up must. But it does call attention to the difference in Schumer’s output when she’s writing for an audience that skews younger and more progressive, more likely to find a sketch through a morning-after Jezebel pickup than catch a set at the local Laugh Hole.

It also means that the same people who propel this photo set of Schumer proclaiming, “People always think because I’m a white female female I don’t deal with racism. And I don’t!” to 220,000 Tumblr notes and counting will eventually have to reckon with the second half of that joke: “I saw that movie Jungle Fever and I get it. I love black and white movies!” Schumer delivered that line during her set in Women Who Kill, a four-comedian special that was released in 2013, just a month before the series premiere of Inside Amy Schumer (and is available in full on YouTube).

The line is gross, in the tradition of Schumer’s weakest standup, and definitely wouldn’t fly with her newer, larger audience — nor should it. But it’s worth acknowledging as the flip side of what makes Schumer’s persona work, and as Schumer herself put it, a sign that she’s evolved along with her increased exposure.