It takes guts to insult Mike Tyson directly to his slutty lower back-tattooed face, or to casually shrug off death threats, but that’s all in a night’s work for Amy Schumer. The 30-year-old comedian has been making a name for herself since her appearance on NBC’s 2007 fifth season of Last Comic Standing, surprising herself by advancing further than she could have imagined while winning over judges with her biting, hedonistic party girl act. After spending almost a decade tirelessly working the NYC club scene, Schumer had her coming-out moment at Comedy Central’s Roast Of Charlie Sheen in 2011, where she insulted Patrice O’Neal’s grandmother, pissed off Steve-O and the entire Jackass community by making a too-soon joke about the late Ryan Dunn, and walked away with most of the best lines of the night.
In the wake of the Roast, Schumer received death threats, mostly for the Dunn joke—but also just for the simple fact that she’s a strong, female presence in a racket still fueled by testosterone and closeted misogyny. With a recurring role on Adult Swim’s cult hit Delocated and a role in the upcoming Steve Carell apocalypse comedy Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, Schumer remains undaunted and fearless in her attack on stand-up and acting. The A.V. Club caught up with Schumer before her April 26-28 three-night stand at Comedy Works, and she discussed her all-time favorite joke, growing up funny, and carrying the flag for female comics.
The A.V. Club: If 2011 was the breakout year, how is 2012 treating you? Is “breakout” a term that only managers and journalists worry about?
Amy Schumer: It’s so funny, because I think I’ve been labeled the fastest rising comedian since 2007. For me, they could have said that me being on Last Comic Standing was a breakout year, so I don’t really know what it means. But, I have been working consistently since I started, so this year or last doesn’t feel any different than any other year to me. Industry-wise, it’s a little different. When I audition for things now, they know me as a comedian, whereas before I was just an actress auditioning. I think a lot of industry people, especially in L.A., watched the Roast [Of Charlie Sheen] and were like, “Where did you come from!?” And I’m like, “I’ve been here!”
AVC: Is getting discovered harder or easier now than, say, in the mid-’90s?
AS: I don’t know, man. I really don’t know. You’d hear tales of going to the Montreal Comedy Festival, and if you had a new face, you could buy a Lamborghini immediately. People were throwing a ton of television and film deals at comedians based on a strong seven minutes of material before they realized that, oh shit, that doesn’t work. So people are a little more hesitant to throw money and opportunities at comedians until they are a little more established. That’s not 100 percent, but with comedians, the people who are rising to the top have certainly paid their dues. Comedy isn’t really something where you get discovered. People will be like, “Oh, you’re shooting an hour special? How did you get that?” And I’m like, “I worked my ass off for the better part of 10 years.” You can’t network your way to being funny or talented. It’s not hard to get seen if you’re funny. If you’re funny, talented, and work hard, you will go somewhere.
AVC: While it was a big breakout moment, is the Roast something that you’d like to put behind you? Steve-O certainly hasn’t forgotten about it.
NR: I couldn’t care less how Steve-O is feeling. But put the Roast behind me? Definitely not. I was really proud of my performance on there.
AVC: But you received death threats? We weren’t sure if you were kidding about that.
NR: I did get death threats, but, you know, every female comic gets death threats. Tina Fey, Janeane Garofalo, they all get death threats. If a guy had said the joke I said, it would not have even been mentioned again.
AVC: What’s your litmus test for the limits of taste? Is anything taboo?
NR: Yeah, totally. Whatever the joke is has to be funny, and not coming from a mean-spirited place. I think some things are totally off limits. If someone’s spouse died, or one of their children, I would never joke about that in a Roast situation. I don’t have any aspirations towards writing any cancer jokes, and there’s some stuff that I think is definitely taboo.
AVC: Do you use edgy humor as a defense mechanism, or are you naturally wired with a darker sense of humor?
NR: I’ve always been really dark, and drawn to darker humor. Nothing has been forced, and I don’t say anything for shock value. I just say what I think is the funniest thing I could say. I’m not trying to make headlines. I’m just trying to say the stuff that I think is funny and will make people laugh.
AVC: With your tough exterior, it seems like you were raised with a lot of older brothers.
NR: You know, people have asked me that a lot actually. They’re like, “You must have a lot of brothers.” But I don’t. I just have one brother, who is this kind of pacifist, free-jazz musician who lives in Chicago. I was just born feeling pretty strong and outspoken, and like I had a right to speak. But my defense mechanism, definitely when I was a kid, was if a kid said something mean to me, I wouldn’t go cry to my mom. I would come back at that kid, a million times harder than they came at me. It’s just how I’m wired naturally. My reaction, and my whole family’s reaction, to tragedy is to joke about it. It’s just how I’ve always been since I was a little girl.
AVC: A talent and love for music can sometimes be something that is passed down from parents. Do you think comedy is like that?
AS: My mom is very good at being passive-aggressive, and my Dad is a total wiseass, so I think the mixture of the two of them is my comedy. But, I am definitely the first comedian in my family.
AVC: Is comedy something that can be learned or taught, or do you have to be born with it?
AS: I think you can go from being not very funny to working really hard for 10 years and figuring out how to make a living on the road, but I don’t think you can rise much above that. To be really great, you need to be naturally funny in order to stand out. But you can work at it, and find the best vehicle that you have to communicate what you’re saying to people.
AVC: Do you have an improv background, or did you go straight to clubs?
NR: No. I tried improv for a couple of months with this really dysfunctional improv group, but it wasn’t classes. It was this crazy New York group, and I was the youngest person, with the oldest being 60. It was just really awkward, and I think the guy who organized it just wanted to meet girls and make some money. So, that left a bad taste in my mouth for improv, and I left after a couple of months to do stand-up.
AVC: What were some of those first stand-up gigs like? It’s hard to imagine getting up there in front of a crowd for the first time.
AS: They were fine. I was an actor, and I had done theater my whole life, so I didn’t have to get over stage fright. My material was definitely lackluster, but I think I had an okay stage presence right out of the gate. Stand-up is not something that you’re good at right away. You have to do it a ton. But, I think I got to shave a year off because I didn’t have to get over stage fright. And, doing Last Comic Standing, the tour I got to go on was 42 cities in three months, in these big theaters and arenas. That was like comedy boot camp, so that shaved off a couple years that it would have taken me to do that on the road. So, for someone who has been doing this for just under eight years, I’m doing pretty well, because I’ve gotten those opportunities.
AVC: Was there a defining moment when you knew that you might be headed for a career in comedy?
AS: My whole life. The girls that I grew up with, and my friends and I, we just never had interests in common. I loved comedy. I loved Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner, Lucille Ball, and Goldie Hawn movies. I just wanted to laugh. I liked women in comedy, and I liked male comics as I got a little older. My interests just never matched up with other girls’. The things that I was drawn to early on just made sense. I’ve always loved hip-hop, and I love female rappers like Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Rah Digga—these chicks that were just kind of in your face, unapologetic, and kind of crass. I also love Wu-Tang, and I was just drawn to that stuff early. The lyrics, and the wording, and rap battles—and it’s not because any of my friends liked that stuff. It was very clear that it was very strange that I was gravitating towards that stuff. As I got older, I found the nerdy guys who liked comics and comedy, and they were my best friends. We’d make crank phone calls and fuck around in school, just to make ourselves laugh. That’s always been what’s driven me. Now, as a 30-year-old woman, I feel a bit more responsibility towards my comedy evolving. The stuff that I’m interested in talking about has changed.
AVC: Do you think that female comics have finally won the battle for acceptance? It seems like the members of the old guard who thought women aren’t funny are either dead or irrelevant.
AS: I think that a lot of women, when asked that now, will be like, “I’m not even gonna talk about that,” because they don’t like to even deal with it, because it’s just so retarded. But I think it will always be something that comes up. I don’t know why, but I don’t believe that it’s an issue that will ever die. No, Bridesmaids didn’t put it to rest. It should have been put to rest forever ago. There have been so many hilarious women that it’s just a very strange thing that it still ever comes up. It’s ridiculous. After every show I do—I do about 10 shows a week—after every show, at least one person will come up to me and say, “I usually don’t think women are funny. But you’re hilarious.” It’s women saying that, too, so it’s not just a battle of women versus men. I know that every other female comic that I’m friends with gets the same thing. It used to really bug me to the point where I would stop whoever asked me a question about it and say, “Wait, let’s stop and think about that statement for a second.”
There’s just this stigma around women and comedy that hasn’t been shaken, this old model that hasn’t been relevant for so long. We do the same thing guys do, and there’s just this weird stigma that people hold on to, and I think there’s just a lot of aggression towards women in general. Women in any position of power or outspokenness, and people are just uncomfortable with it, men and woman alike. It just freaks them the fuck out. I may sound like a megalomaniac, but I feel like I’m equipped to become a great, memorable comedian, if I keep working my ass off and staying at the pace I’m at, and I feel a responsibility to do that because of the women who have done it before me, and the ones who need to do it after me. After doing the Roast and getting a bunch of death threats and people writing hateful stuff to me, I can see that stuff holding me down and thinking, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.” But, the people who spoke out for me, and tell me they appreciate what I do and that I inspire them, means a lot more than whatever 14-year-old Jackass fan who has never seen a Roast says. I understand why so many female comics quit or change their path, because it is hard. It’s hard to be a comedian, and people have so much aggression towards women. I don’t really know where that comes from, but I feel a total responsibility, and I’m gonna do my part, to continue on the path that I’m on.
AVC: Do you ever find it hard to turn off the stage persona?
AS: No! Not at all. That’s never been a struggle for me, especially since I hang out with so many comedians. If somebody was doing their persona or the cadence that they have onstage backstage after a show, they would get so smashed. If I came up to a table of comedians and was like, “Hey guys! It’s me being funny again,” they would be like, “Shut the fuck up.” No, it is not at all a struggle. If anyone has trouble shaking off their persona, then I do not want to talk to them. Someone who does that is either pretty new to stand-up or crazy.
AVC: Do you have an all-time favorite routine or joke? What makes a bit timeless?
AS: Some street jokes are just timeless. There’s an old street joke about comedians. This is from old Vegas shows, George Burns’ time. The joke is that a beautiful girl comes up to a comedian at the end of the night and says, “I saw your show tonight, and I just loved it. I want to go home with you, and I’ll do anything you want.” And the comedian says, “Were you at the 7 or the 9?” That’s just a perfect joke, because it points out how egomaniacal and obsessive comedians are. Even though I’m not waiting for a groupie, I can completely understand it. It just defines how comedians are driven. My favorite joke for years now is a Zach Galifianakis joke. I may be butchering it a little bit, but he says, “People are always mistaking things I say as racist. The other day, this guy thought I called him a ‘sand nigger.’ But what I said was, ‘Get out of the sand, nigger. Volleyball is a white man’s sport.”’ Nothing has come close to replacing that joke.
AVC: Is your own series the ultimate goal, or is working with smart, creative people, like the cast of Delocated, what makes you happy?
AS: All that stuff. I want to keep working really hard at getting better at stand-up and touring, and I can’t imagine a time when I won’t want to do that. But, who knows? I don’t have an ultimate goal, but things like Delocated—which, I was a fan of that show, and just auditioned as an actress and got it—those things are a total dream for me, working with people who are my heroes. But I also like dramatic stuff, too. I’m greedy. I want everything. A sitcom does not appeal to me at all. The word “sitcom” still has that stigma to me. I think I’m the most excited about things I don’t know exist yet.