On the one hand, this is unremarkable: A jokey sketch about a very serious thing is at this point standard issue for contemporary comedy. Contra the observational fare that peaked as Jerry Seinfeld did, in the ’90s, today’s jokes—as told by Schumer, and Key & Peele, and John Oliver, and Sam Bee, and pretty much every other comic who is currently Having a Moment—tend to come with a point, and a message. What is remarkable, though, was that the point of Schumer’s gun-safety episode was not just to say something about the world, but to change it: to move people not just to amusement or anger, but to action. Schumer’s HSN sketch was followed by a series of other segments—all of them somehow connected to gun violence—that were meant to spur people to action.
So while the fourth wall has long been a component of comedy—Schumer and many of her fellow Having a Moments regularly exploit the knowledge audiences have of them, via Instagram and Twitter and Vulture and Us Weekly, to get irony-laden laughs—Schumer’s gun safety efforts suggest, instead, a fifth wall: the plane that is off in the distance, beyond the screen and the stage. One that marries not just performer and audience, but performer and audience and society-at-large. The fifth wall is an outgrowth of a culture that blends the capacities of Internet activism with the morally indignant legacies of The Daily Show and The Nightly Show and Last Week Tonight: It’s a broad recognition that comedy can bring not just laughs, but also change.
Schumer, Thursday night, broke comedy’s fifth wall—by insisting that viewers of her show are not just passive viewers, but potential agents of activism. It called her audience to arms, sometimes literally. (888) 885-4011.
She’s been breaking the wall in other ways, too, of course. Schumer’s work has long treated “we can change this, you guys” as an upshot to her comedy, whether it’s “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” or the recent sketch that found a bunch of dudes in suits acting as her OB-GYN. She has gone to Washington to meet with her cousin, Senator Chuck Schumer, to strategize ways to curb gun violence. She gave an emotional interview to Vanity Fair about a shooting that took place in a screening of Trainwreck last July. (Her publicist told her about the shooting, she recalled, “and then I put on the news. I was by myself in a hotel, and I was just like, ‘I wish I never wrote that movie.’”)
Schumer “really stood up and became a leader in the gun-violence prevention space,” Brina Milikowsky, the chief strategy officer for the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, told Entertainment Weekly of Schumer’s embrace of politics. “This is a really important fight to improve public safety and help save lives in America. We do need to use every tool that’s at our disposal. The ability to use comedy to reach new audiences is incredibly powerful.”