Inside Amy Schumer, Guns, and Comedy’s Fifth Wall

The latest (very funny and very political) episode of the performer’s sketch show doubles as a call to arms.

Comedy Central

Last night came the airing of Amy Schumer’s long-anticipated show about gun safety. Things kicked off with “Welcome to the Gun Show,” which found Schumer playing the role of an HSN-style stuff-seller, all smarm and schlock and pseudo-mullet. First, she and her co-stuff-seller hawked Steve Irwin commemorative coins. But, then, they moved on to guns. They sold the virtues of guns—“make perfect stocking stuffers,” “they’re great for every age group,” etc.—and pointed out that anyone can get a gun on the Internet or at a gun show. (Even a guy with “several violent felonies” and “a suspected terrorist on the no-fly list.”) Act fast: don’t think about it, a chyron encourages.

Things (d)evolved in pretty much the way you’d expect from a Schumer sketch (think a display gun might discharge accidentally?). But the fictive sketch also ended tellingly: with a scrolling list of the (very real) United States congresspeople who receive the most money from the gun lobby. Throughout the sketch, a phone number—(888) 885-4011—was displayed onscreen: not a fake one for Schumer’s HSN-style network, but rather one that, if you called it, would connect you to a message from the gun-safety advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. The message in question provides instructions on what to say to support gun safety, and helpfully offers to connect callers to the office of their member of Congress.

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.”

Indeed. Which is partially why Schumer brought Milikowsky into last night’s episode for an “Amy Goes Deep” segment. Schumer asked Milikowsky to share information about gun violence (“What is the most disturbing statistic?”) and about the NRA (“So you meet a guy in a bar, and he gives you his card, and it says that he’s an NRA member. What does that do to you and your vagina?”). Schumer also, blending the topics she has until this point been most politically vocal about—guns and feminism—made a point of adding another statistic to the mix.

Schumer: So a lot of people don’t know that gun violence really is, heavily, a woman’s problem.

Milikowsky: Mm-hmm.

Schumer: Can you talk about that a little bit?

Milikowsky: American women are 11 times more likely to be murdered with guns than women in other countries. I mean, the majority of mass shootings are actually instances of family or domestic violence, where an abuser gets a gun and kills his family, or his ex and her friends. So what American women are really at risk of is being shot to death.

Schumer: By a spouse! Or a boyfriend! Or, like, a casual hookup!

Schumer paused. “Do you want to say anything?” she asked Milikowsky.

“You guys should go to,” the advocate replied. “You can sign up to join our email list and learn how to get involved in your community. And you need to vote. It’s an election year, and it’s really important that more Americans get out there and vote for candidates who are going to stand up for this issue and fight to end gun violence.”

Schumer, unsurprisingly—and savvily—bookended the episode’s advocacy by live-tweeting the show’s proceedings, making liberal use of hashtags in the process.

It’s a tense balancing act Schumer is engaging in—because not everyone, certainly, wants comedy with a side of politics. Especially when the politics is so stridently partisan. But the small miracle that Schumer pulled off? The episode still managed to be very, very funny. Schumer made her point; she also made me, at least, laugh. That’s a crucial accomplishment: If comedy is experimenting with moralism, its power as a moral force will rely on the same thing comedy always has: the ability to bring about lols.

“You know, people are like, ‘Ewwwww, we don’t like it when celebrities get involved in politics,’” Schumer said during a recent stand-up show. “And I hear you, and I feel the same way.” But then she talked about meeting the families of young victims of gun violence. She talked about their pain, and their frustration. She shared how they asked her to join their cause. “They were like, ‘Will you help us? ‘Cuz no one listens to politicians. They listen to you idiots.’”