Amy Schumer, profile: 'Trainwreck' star is the stand-up standing up to be counted

Just months ago she had to fake a fall to be noticed. Now the candid comedian is being hailed as the voice of a generation

Gillian Orr@gillian_orr
Friday 14 August 2015 21:51
Comedian Amy Schumer
Comedian Amy Schumer

After the annual ceremony in April to celebrate Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, one incident had everyone talking. Despite the stuffy gala hosting showbiz heavyweights including Martha Stewart, George Lucas and Diane von Furstenberg, all the chatter was over a blond woman who fell dramatically on the red carpet right in front of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Was it a PR who had taken an embarrassing tumble? Or a stunt by some blogger? No one seemed sure.

It took a little while to work out that the woman was the comedian Amy Schumer. But the 34-year-old hadn’t elbowed her way into the gig to promote her Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer. She was actually named on Time’s hallowed list.

Appearing on BBC1’s The Graham Norton Show in June, Schumer explained her antics: “I was invited to be one of the Time 100 Most Influential People even though no one here’s heard of me... The journalists were looking past me to see if someone more important was behind me... I couldn’t help myself.”

Since then, her stand-up comedy and television sketches have gone viral, and she’s on the cusp of becoming a household name with the release of her debut lead film role this weekend. Trainwreck, which Schumer also wrote, is a romantic comedy – but one in which the female lead chugs booze from a brown paper bag and is described as “approachable” rather than “gorgeous”.

Its release has also forced Schumer to a assume a new political identity as an anti-gun lobbyist: after two people were shot dead at a screening of her film in Louisianna she spoke out in support of gun control legislation proposed by Senator Charles Schuman, a distant relative on her father’s side. “People say, ‘Well, you’re never going to be able to stop crazy people from doing crazy things,’ but they’re wrong. There is a way to stop them,” she said. Her intervention was welcomed by the senator who described her words as “a great antidote” to America’s powerful gun lobby.

Her engagement in the political is a new direction, but perhaps less surprising given the evolution of her art form from bar room stand-up to viral feminist provocateur.

Schumer was raised in New York’s Upper East Side. Her parents, Sandra and Gordon, ran a successful baby furniture company and, along with her sister Kimberley and brother Jason, she was brought up Jewish. In an interview with The New York Times, Kimberley, now a writer on her sister’s show, recalls, “She always wanted to make up plays and characters and dances.” Later, at high school, her antics led to her being voted “teacher’s worst nightmare” and “class clown”.

The privileged childhood came to a sharp halt with her parents’ bankruptcy, and her father’s multi sclerosis diagnosis in 1990. Then, when she was 12, her parents divorced and her mother moved her and her siblings to Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1999, she moved to Baltimore to study theatre at Towson University.

Returning to New York after college, Schumer studied the Meisner acting technique (which relies on emotional recall), worked in bars and developed a stand-up comedy routine. She found she particularly connected with audiences when she spoke uninhibitedly about sex. “I thought, oh my God, I don’t think I ever saw a female comic talk about sex like this,” Schumer told The New York Times. “I was like, I’ll be that voice.”

In 2007, she came fourth in Last Comic Standing, a reality television show, which led to guest spots on late-night network shows and fleeting appearances in 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm. A well-received Comedy Central Presents special went out in 2010.

Then, in 2012, came the break. Comedy Central asked Schumer to create her own sketch show. Inside Amy Schumer, a mix of stand-up, skits and man-on-the-street interviews, debuted under the radar in April 2013. Early reviews were lukewarm, with Variety commenting: “It would be lovely if Schumer’s material didn’t return so frequently to sex, excrement and (yuck) a combination thereof. Cut through the sludge, though, and there is a comedic voice here.”

But Schumer chipped away with her routine. Feminism inspired a larger part of her act and she developed a stage persona that allowed her to poke fun at young, single woman as well as the demands put on them by the media. One such skit, “Sex Prep”, perfectly summed up this dichotomy. On receiving a lunchtime text from a potential suitor suggesting they hook up that night, Schumer spends the entire day in various salons doing increasingly horrifying grooming, while reading women’s magazines. By the time her gentleman caller turns up, the primped and plucked Schumer’s self-esteem has taken such a battering that she hides under the bed when he knocks on the door.

When the third series aired in April, Schumer had well and truly hit her stride (as the four Emmy award nominations she received for it last month attest). Her party girl act now waded in more politically charged areas: a parody of the American football drama Friday Night Lights in which the new high school coach horrifies the town with a “no raping” rule, or “Last Fuckable Day”, in which Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Julia Louis-Dreyfus teach Schumer about Hollywood’s double standards in regards to an ageing woman’s desirability.

The following month, the 37-year-old actress Maggie Gyllenhaal revealed that she was recently turned down for a role in a movie because she was deemed too old to play the love interest for a 55-year-old man; Schumer’s work was right on the money.

The series’ success even led to an HBO stand-up special directed by Chris Rock. And he’s not the only A-list fan. Fey agreed to star in the sketch because she believes Schumer “is raising the bar for all comedians”. The 30 Rock star even agreed to present Schumer with the Peabody Award for public service to television in May, an accolade Schumer admits was “preposterous”. A clip of the two women kissing on the awards podium went viral, as did an acceptance speech at the UK Glamour Awards in June in which she told the audience: “I’m probably like 160lb right now and I can catch a dick whenever I want.” Jennifer Saunders, who requested to present Schumer with the award, was spotted howling with laughter in the background.

Despite being network television’s comedic darling, Schumer certainly owes a lot to the internet. And she can put her wildfire-like spread of popularity down to these moments, as well as her skits being obsessively shared on the internet. Online popularity doesn’t necessarily translate to box-office returns, but Trainwreck made $30.2m (£19.3m) on its US opening weekend, meaning it is already a sure-fire hit.

As the media awaits the inevitable backlash, Schumer continues to get on with things. Having turned down the chance to replace Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, she is preparing a fourth series of Inside Amy Schumer and is rewriting a script with her sister about a mother-and-daughter holiday.

And when she shows up at the Emmys, you can bet she won’t have to fake a fall to get some attention.

Amy Schumer: A Life in Brief

Born: 1 June 1981, Manhattan, New York.

Family: Parents Sandra and Gordon Schumer were business owners. Eldest of three children.

Education: South Side High School, New York; theatre degree from Towson University, Maryland. Studied performing arts at the William Esper Studio, New York.

Career: First pro stand-up, 2004. Placed fourth in a TV comedy talent show, 2007. Comedy Central appearances, including award-winning Inside Amy Schumer.

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