There’s a fine line in comedy between subversive and offensive, and with every meteoric rise from stand-up to film and television stardom these days, there tends to be controversy over whether or not that line has ever been crossed. Amy Schumer, whose Comedy Central sketch show Inside Amy Schumer has been dominating the Internet on a weekly basis since its third season debuted in April, and who stars in the upcoming Judd Apatow comedy Trainwreck, is the latest figure to experience the pitfalls of being under such sharp scrutiny. A recent profile of Schumer in The Guardian by Monica Heisey, although largely positive, criticizes the comedian for having a “shockingly large blind spot” on race—and cites some clunky jokes she’s made about Latinos as examples.
It’s rarely a challenge to unearth weak, or even offensive, jokes in a stand-up act, since any comedian’s work is in a state of constant evolution. The material Heisey highlights suffers in retrospect not just because it plays on dull stereotypes, but also because it’s not that well-crafted or funny. Considering Schumer’s status as one of comedy’s newest public intellectuals, and how her sketches are so widely disseminated online, a deeper investigation into her history was probably inevitable. But it also calls attention to the unique pressures facing stand-up comedians who break into film and TV, where more sensitive material about subjects such as race can get lost in translation.
The criticism feels similar to the backlash directed at Trevor Noah when he was tapped to replace Jon Stewart on The Daily Show—a role that comes with astronomical expectations. While Noah quickly dismissed and otherwise ignored criticism of jokes he’d made on social media, Schumer is running directly at her critics, posting a long online statement defending her material. “I will joke about things you aren’t comfortable with. And that’s OK. Stick with me and trust I am joking,” she said. “That includes making dumb jokes involving race. I enjoy playing the girl who time to time says the dumbest thing possible.”
Though Schumer didn’t specifically cite Heisey’s article, or a Daily Dot piece skeptical of the comedian’s newfound reputation as a feminist hero, she’s clearly pushing back against these arguments. Such criticism is part of a larger debate about comedy, which has seen legendary figures like Jerry Seinfeld complaining that younger audiences are too “politically correct” for boundary-pushing humor, as well as critics arguing that complaints about the “outrage machine” are misguided and exaggerated. Schumer later noted that she hasn’t used any jokes about race in her act for more than two years. But she’s been forced to remind her fans that stand-up comedy is a performance like any other, and that jokes are delivered in character, no matter how personal the humor might be.
Like Sarah Silverman before her, Schumer roots her act in a simple subversion, playing off the thrill audiences get from seeing a woman speak frankly and outrageously on stage, especially about sexuality. Schumer’s “character” is often that of an ignorant, middle-class white woman whose comic sentiments underline her own stupidity and unacknowledged privilege. It’s an act that sometimes falls short—just like all stand-up acts often do.
To be sure, Schumer has courted controversy in the past, and not just because of jokes that unintentionally flopped. One of her first big breaks came on a Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen: Addressing fellow roaster Steve-O, she made an off-color joke about his recently deceased Jackass co-star Ryan Dunn, saying, “I truly am—no joke—sorry for the loss of your friend Ryan Dunn. I know you must have been thinking, ‘It could have been me.’ And I know we were all thinking, ‘Why wasn’t it?’” The line drew groans from the audience and a pained look from Steve-O, and an onslaught of abuse and death threats on Twitter for Schumer from his fans (something no other roaster has experienced). But her appearance on the roast also galvanized her career on Comedy Central and led to the network greenlighting Inside Amy Schumer.
To her credit, she hasn’t simply repeated her routines and approaches as she’s moved to other mediums. One of her contemporaries, Anthony Jeselnik, also rose to fame via Comedy Central’s roasts, but translated that into a show called The Jeselnik Offensive, where he mostly delivered roast-style jokes to other comedians and celebrities. Schumer has instead used TV as a platform to address all kinds of issues on a more ambitious scale, in ways both absurd and shrewd, while remaining brutally funny. One sketch this season turned a spoof the TV show Friday Night Lights into a blunt-force skewering of the ways athletes dodge rape allegations; another highlighted how women often lean on the word “sorry” when there’s nothing to apologize for. Heisey’s article identified one sketch as being about black employees at Urban Outfitters looking the same, but the joke there is on Schumer, not anyone else, as she ties herself in guilty knots trying to identify an employee without mentioning his skin color.
Like Noah, Schumer’s brand of comedy earned her an invitation to take over The Daily Show, an opportunity she declined. But she’s never resisted an opportunity to point out human folly or make people laugh while also making them at least a little uncomfortable.
You could micro-analyze every joke Schumer has told, good and bad, but that would undermine the value of the experimental nature of stand-up, which lives in the split moment an audience decides to—or not to—laugh. This isn’t to say Schumer’s comedy doesn’t have the power to offend, or that people don’t have the right to be put off by her particular persona. It’s simply to acknowledge that it’s unfair and impossible to ask a comedian to push boundaries without also giving them room to write material that sometimes falls short, or pushes too hard.