With her new film Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow, Amy Schumer is about to go global. Buckle up as Stylist meets the queen of boundary-pushing comedy
Words: Helen Bownass / Photography: Tom Van Schelven
She is the biggest deal in comedy right now,” said Tina Fey. Caitlin Moran called her a “Lady God.” And to Jennifer Saunders? She’s “a comedy genius who has revolutionised sketch comedy. She skewers the contemporary experience of being a woman better than anyone else.” An impressive list of praise. Not least about someone whose name you might not know. But we suggest you learn it now. AMY SCHUMER. Commit it to memory. Tattoo it on your palm if you like.
Feminist, controversial and fearless, Schumer is a major over-sharer and her brand of humour is the type that makes you laugh while simultaneously wanting to scratch off the top layer of your skin. The purpose of her humour is twofold: entertaining herself and challenging society. There is nothing observational here. But we’re going to say it: Amy Schumer is the most important voice in comedy right now.
When we meet, Schumer is jetlagged (it’s the day after she gave a speech at an awards ceremony; the same speech which racked up over 3.4 million YouTube views and included the line: “I’m probably 160 pounds right now and I can catch a d**k whenever I want”) but that doesn’t stop her mounting parts of the set and offering to spray paint obscene messages on the wall.
The studio shakes with the hip-hop of Run The Jewels. There is no doubt Schumer knows exactly how she wants the camera to see her, telling our photographer she doesn’t want to be directed. “He’s like, ‘Are you gently telling me to f**k off?’ And I said, ‘I’m fully telling you to f**k off,’” she laughs. “I know what to do so let me do what I can do.”
The next day, at our interview at The Soho Hotel, she’s softer somehow. I get a sense of someone on the verge of something huge that she can’t quite get her head round. I can see it in the way she subconsciously pushes the table between us towards me with her feet until I’m pretty much trapped on the sofa opposite her; the way her eyes widen when I mention those accolades.
She also reveals she’s never been to the UK before. It’s a stark reminder of how new this is. “I walked round the streets at 6am; it’s beautiful,” she says. “America is so young, it’s embarrassing.”
If she seems fazed by all this new attention, she’s not. Which is fortunate, because the 34-year-old is about to have a full-on Kristen Wiig Bridesmaids moment. She plays the lead in Trainwreck, out this Friday, which she wrote. Judd Apatow, who contacted her after he heard her on Howard Stern’s popular US radio show takes on directing duties.
The film is sharp, subversive – there is an extended joke about periods that I never expected to hear in a Hollywood movie – and genuinely laugh out loud. Telling the story of a female journalist who’s a major commitment-phobe, parts are based on Amy’s life, or heightened versions of it. It’s the moment her career has been building up to since starting stand-up aged 23. It’s been a illuminating rise to the top.
Schumer grew up on Long Island, New York, in a fairly average suburban family. Her father, Gordon, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was nine and in the same year his furniture business went bankrupt. Her brother, Jason, is a musician and her sister, Kim, is her comedy partner-in-crime and BFF. “She knows as much as you can know about me without being in the bedroom while I’m having sex with someone,” Amy laughs.
Kim is an associate producer on Trainwreck and a writer for her Comedy Central sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer. Three series in, it’s a bold, funny and challenging show, which can be akin to the experience of interviewing Amy.
There are few comedians with the bravado to portray a lawyer defending Bill Cosby or come up with a feature called 12 Angry Men, where 12 men debate whether Schumer is hot enough to be on TV.
But it’s these comedic treatments that have made Schumer such a hit in the US. So while things are going stratospheric for Schumer on the other side of the pond, it’s now only a matter of time till your mum knows her name. She hosted the 2015 MTV Movie Awards, was named on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people and is now equipped to challenge Taylor Swift to a famous friend face-off – making human pyramids on boats with Jennifer Lawrence, counting Lena Dunham as a buddy and even having a poem written about her by Tilda Swinton.
World, are you ready?
Could your Trainwreck role have existed if you hadn’t written it?
I think it could have existed but would I have gotten an opportunity to be in it? Probably, definitely not. I didn’t write it to be in it. I thought they would put someone else in it.
Kate Hudson, or… Jessica Biel? A beautiful actress.
What was happening in your life when you wrote it?
I was falling in love and it is a very personal, honest look at that.
It’s been touted as ‘the new Bridesmaids’
Oh, great! You must have heard that? No, that’s awesome. Oh please, let that be the headline.
Does that mean you’re less aware of the pressure?
Maybe. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t have any financial stake in the movie, I’m really proud of it, but I’m not like, “If it’s not a box office smash, I’ll lose anything…” I don’t have anything.
Were you anxious you’d have to reign yourself in for Hollywood?
I was worried about telling the story of this girl. I wanted to make sure that the character came across as a full human because there is such a low tolerance for a woman being sexual. I had a fear that wasn’t going to happen because Judd had the final cut, so there were a lot of frantic late night emails, but he was good on his word. So I learned to trust [laughs]. It’s hard when usually I have the power.
Some of the jokes are quite X-rated. Did you feel a responsibility to tell them?
Always, because it’s unfortunately so inspiring to see a woman just being a human. It still feels rare to see a woman not apologising for who she is. I love things that are hard to watch.
So you enjoy making people feel uncomfortable?
Yes, yes I do.
Only when you’re performing?
Oh no, especially in my personal life and with strangers. I like those moments where the air is sucked out of the room. It’s harder to have them now I’m more recognisable, but I love to ask the most annoying, worst question. I like to look at the darkest parts of life.
Can you give me an example?
If I’m in Starbucks and they ask, “What’s your name?” I might say, “Auschwitz”, so they have to yell out “Auschwitz”. Anything entertaining to me makes me happy. We were at a restaurant [Chiltern Firehouse] last night and the waiter said, “I’ll bring over your menus soon.” A minute later he’s handing out the menus and I’m like, “We didn’t get menus!” He just can’t f**king believe it. And I’m like, “Is this the menu?” I just love it.
Do you care what people think about you? That behaviour suggests you don’t…
I guess they go hand in hand. But no, I don’t care. Everyone’s so obsessed with themselves really!
Have you ever worried about that?
I’ve had moments where I forget that I don’t care, for example with a guy in college, I’d be like, “Oh I hope he…” and then I’m like, “I don’t even like this guy, what am I doing?” I care what my friends and family think but if 30,000 people were tweeting, “You’re an idiot”, it wouldn’t affect the course of my day at all. Am I mentally ill?
Has that let you push the boundaries with your comedy?
Yes. Being fearless on stage is a superpower.
Were you encouraged to be fearless growing up?
I was definitely born like that. My parents were so supportive, they made me think that I was beautiful and talented and amazing. I would grab my mom in a busy restaurant and loudly say, “I want to tell everyone how much I love my mother,” and she would be so embarrassed. This was not a learned behaviour, this was just in me, I don’t know why.
Did they know how to react to it?
No, they adjusted to it. They love comedy though. They showed us The Muppet Show and a lot of stand-up. My dad is so sarcastic, he really doesn’t give a sh*t what anybody thinks. If we’re in a restaurant and someone coughed at the table next to us, he’d say, “Urgh!” really audibly.
You wrote about your dad’s MS in the film, was confronting that tough?
It was super painful. But that’s how it is in life; some days it’s just excruciating.
Is your sister as fearless?
She’s equally an asshole. But she’s less likely to make a public fool of herself whereas I crave it. I want to get up on the subway and make a speech, and sometimes she’ll go along with my schemes and sometimes she’ll just be like, “Please, stay seated.” I’ve always just loved entertaining myself.
Growing up, did you ever think life was different for girls?
From a young age I felt discriminated against. I knew I was funny, but there was a sense that you should be pretty and quiet, and being funny was for the boys. I felt people underestimating me and my girlfriends. And that bugged me. I was a justice fighter, I would bully the bullies.
So you’d stand up for the underdog?
Yeah. This girl Joyce got her period and it went on her seat. People were teasing her so I said, “That’s mine!” Kids prey on the weak, so I just said, “What? I’m going to bleed on your seat too” [laughs]. If you don’t care they won’t.
Did you always think comedy would be your life?
I don’t think so. I thought I was going to grow up to be Miss Piggy and have a boa and entertain people, but I had no goal.
Did you ever think you’d be seen as a trailblazer?
Before I filmed my first TV special, I thought about the material I had been doing and I thought, “Oh, I’m actually going to be a voice for women. OK, great. I don’t remember hearing this perspective when I grew up.” I want to empower women to speak out and not have to apologise for themselves.
Is there anything you won’t joke about or is everything comedy gold?
Yeah! I don’t set out to make people uncomfortable or be shocking, but I do demand that no-one ever pretends they’re any better than anyone else. I call my friends’ parents by their first names. You don’t get respect just because you’re older.
And are there any jokes you regret?
Yes. I was doing a show in San Francisco eight years ago with my friend [comedian] John Mulaney and there was a guy wearing a red hooded sweatshirt. John called him Little Red Riding Fat, and told me to work it into my set, so I did. The guy looked sad and I just wanted to die. I stand by all my other jokes, though.
You look like you still feel bad about that.
I can picture his little sad face. I’m sure he’s fine, he’s a guy. He was kind of hot actually. I’m sure he gets undeserved p*ssy like most men.
You said earlier you wrote Trainwreck when you were falling in love. Are you in love now?
Would you like to be?
Not right now, I want to be focused. It’s so relaxing to not be in love. When you’re falling in love it’s like you’re on drugs.
What if you met a guy you liked and he didn’t think you were funny?
I wouldn’t like him. He would have to think I was funny [laughs].
So you’re not on Tinder?
No, I don’t imagine that would be very fun. Auditioning is constant rejection enough, let alone that, ‘Why wouldn’t this Uber driver want to date me?’ [laughs].
What are your passions outside of comedy?
I like to walk for hours and hours by myself. I have all the passions of a woman in the winter of her life. I’m getting more into politics. I love Hillary Clinton and her unwavering sense of, ‘I’m not going to go away. I know I’m not the woman you wish I was.’ I’m also starting a charity to teach girls how to dress for their body types, learn how to love themselves and not be like, “Urgghh”.
You love hip-hop too; that’s not always the kindest about women…
No, that’s true. But a lot of female rappers like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown have really influenced me because they just say, “Yeah, my p*ssy’s the bomb and you’re lucky…” A lot of my good male friends I would say are misogynists, although they wouldn’t treat me that way. There’s an honesty to lyrics like, “Yeah, I do just wanna f**k you and then please leave.” I like honesty, even if it’s not fun to hear.
Something more fun is the praise you’ve been getting from people like Tina Fey and Jennifer Saunders…
I don’t believe it. I’m like, what the f**k? It makes me feel emotional. It’s too much for me to handle [laughs]. It feels like something is happening here. It’s a big moment.
How are you processing that?
It’s scary, because we all like to build people up and then tear them down. It could be an arbitrary thing I say that gets me in trouble, and then that’s it. But I’ll keep speaking up.
Trainwreck is out in cinemas from Friday 14 August
* Following our interview, on 23 July, a gunman in Lafayette, Louisiana, went into a cinema screening of Trainwreck and shot and killed two people and then himself. Schumer has since spoken out about the event, calling it a “tragic, senseless and horrifying action”. Last week she called for tighter gun control alongside her second cousin, New York senator Chuck Schumer.
Images: Tom Van Schelven, Rex Features, Getty