Amy Schumer Adjusts to Fame in ‘Live at the Apollo’

Amy Schumer hates being labeled a “sex comic,” but she’s also very, very good at sex comedy.

It’s a contradiction she both acknowledges and exploits towards the end of Live at the Apollo, her hourlong standup special premiering on HBO tonight. A male comic “could literally whip his dick out and people would be like, ‘He’s a thinker!'” she cracks . . . right before tearing into 20 minutes of material on the merits of cum, the female orgasm, and humiliating sex positions. Therein lies the two sides of Schumer’s standup persona, which don’t so much contradict each other as interact in increasingly interesting ways: the comic who likes to talk about her vagina looking like “the mouth of an old lounge singer,” and the feminist figurehead she’s become over the past three years.

Directed by Chris Rock, Live at the Apollo caps off a “crazy year” for Schumer, a fact she addresses — and plays with — right off the bat. Trainwreck, Schumer’s first film, and her first brushes with Hollywood are explored at length later on, but to begin, the comic ignores her sudden, stratospheric success in favor of the two goals she’s accomplished this year: successfully catfishing someone and having a used pair of underwear “not look like I blew my nose in it.” The intent is obvious, and reasonably effective. Schumer may be a movie star who hangs out with Hillary Clinton now, she’s saying, but she’s still enough of a regular person to write relatable, and thus funny, jokes.

That’s a line Schumer walks throughout Live at the Apollo. When her role in Trainwreck does come up, it’s to riff on how Schumer isn’t  like the typical movie star; she could barely shave off ten pounds to get in camera-ready shape, and when she’s in LA to rub shoulders with Hollywood higher-ups, she’s considered so unattractive she doesn’t even register as human. Which isn’t to say that the insecurity one experiences in an industry that ruthlessly and repeatedly reduces women to their appearance isn’t real, but it also serves a practical purpose in Schumer’s attempt to connect with her audience.

Instead, the effect of Schumer’s increasing fame on her comedy is more implicit. As Salon’s Sonia Saraiya notes, there’s little trace in Live at the Apollo of racist material like the “I prefer consensual” or “crazy Latinas” bits, even if she never addresses this summer’s controversy head-on. (The only potential for backlash I detected was a throwaway line where Schumer intentionally messes up Colombian actress Sofia Vergara’s name; a few minutes later, she counteracts the joke by doing the same to the almost comically white Hemsworth brothers.) Schumer’s clearly aware of the scrutiny she’s under, and while it certainly doesn’t stop her from dropping gleefully obscene cracks like, “Gandhi was cum!” it’s also had a noticeable impact on her comedy.

And then there’s the overt feminism, which breaks down the wall between Schumer’s shrewd, insightful sketch persona and the Silverman-esque ditz provocateur she’d previously played onstage. Sometimes, she fuses the two, like when she’s complaining that there’s no novelty sex position that’s enjoyable for women — she calls one, the Houdini (look it up, or don’t), “just rape” — and sometimes the former takes over, as when she’s pointing out that Rosario Dawson once had to pretend Kevin James was out of her league. It’s both one of the best jokes of the hour and one that feels like a spiritual sequel to “Last Fuckable Day.”

Schumer’s new persona isn’t a sudden development. Outside her comedy, she’s issued public apologies and taken on causes like gun control, both actions of someone who understands their words have consequences, for others as well as themselves. And in her comedy, much of Live at the Apollo is assembled from material she’s debuted over the past year, whether in standup performances like her five-minute set at The Night of Too Many Stars (Hollywood executives telling her to “stop eating”) or talk-show appearances (her odyssey with a personal trainer).

This makes perfect sense; the point of a stand-up special is to crystallize a period in a comic’s career in one easy-to-find place so future fans won’t have to comb through disparate clips, not debut a whole hour of brand-spanking-new jokes. Besides, even the less fresh jokes have still been tweaked in interesting — to nerds like me, at least — and effective ways; “Ms. Lively, the line,” for example, has been expanded to “Ms. Lively, the line is, ‘My pussy hurts.'” Amy Schumer may be of Hollywood now, but she still isn’t afraid to make fun of it.