Breaking all the rules. . . and still having a laugh
As Amy Schumer sets out on her world tour, she tells Donal Lynch about her harsh upbringing ... and why there are no boundaries to her comedy.
The last time Amy Schumer came to Ireland her mere presence in a bar - she and Glen Hansard 'crashed' a wedding party - caused a Twitter meltdown. She was the hot new thing, number one at the box office with Trainwreck. But there she was, socialising like a normal person! The bride looked positively grateful to be upstaged. The millions that watched it online were freaking out.
Four years later Amy kicked off her world tour in Dublin last night, and a lot has changed. She's even bigger now, if that were possible. And this time she has a bodyguard, who would presumably prevent such YouTube-friendly moments and singsongs. Understandable of course - she's been borderline harassed in the States by autograph hunters, as a TMZ video recently attested.
But such a precaution feels all wrong here somehow. We can surely be trusted to detect if she's feeling more weary or playful - today her voice flickers constantly between both - and act accordingly.
It seems for a second to represent everything that we fear for her - that the burdens of success will dilute her everywoman-meets-Miss Piggy appeal. We need her to still be real. We need her to never turn into Jerry Seinfeld. We do not need to be looking at her over the shoulder of some guy who has a gun. "No, I mean I have just a guy who is there on the road with me, but it's not always the same guy," she explains. "Not a Kevin Costner situation, definitely. But don't tell people that. Everyone should think I have an armed bodyguard with me at all times. I'll have security, you guys, and they'll be very scary, so there."
Her impressions of Ireland, like Amy herself, abruptly flit from mock cheesy to super real: "I feel such a kinship with Irish people. I couldn't wait to get back. I grew up in a big Irish Catholic town, so I feel like an honorary Irish person. While other cultures riot, the Irish sing beautiful love songs. I feel like the Irish Catholic guys I've dated have always been, like, looking forlornly out the window, looking for something more."
There's a part bawdy shock value to her humour, but Schumer's genius might be her ability to make deeply political comedy that is also very, very funny. Her series, Inside Amy Schumer, has won wide plaudits. She's also not afraid to skewer female targets like Blake Lively and Taylor Swift. What's most amazing is that with her the politics and silliness seem to magically leaven each other. Schumer seems like a living contradiction of the idea that feminism is somehow humourless.
Like a presidential primary candidate, she has also pivoted slightly, becoming discernibly more "nice" as her star has risen. There's probably still no danger of her turning into Ellen Degeneres, but one has to cast one's mind back to where she started to appreciate the contrast. Her first big break was the comedy roast of Mike Tyson, where she put a flame-thrower to her opposition. It was jaw-droppingly cruel in parts - she mocked Steve O about the death of his Jackass co-star Ryan Dunn, for instance. She also got accused of having a "blindside" for racism - telling since-deceased black comedian Patrice O'Neal, "I just assumed you were raised by your grandmother" - even while others protested that she was just playing the roast game better than anyone.
"The difference is now that if I find something really funny but it might offend a lot of people, I won't say it. I might say it to my best friends, but that's it. I don't want to upset people unless there is a very good reason. I can't just say 'I'm a comic!' and leave it at that. I've learned that."
In an entirely different and unrelated context, this lesson was hammered home on June 23 last year when a mentally ill man opened fire at a screening of Trainwreck in Lafayette, Louisiana, killing two people and injuring nine others before killing himself. She has spoken out about gun violence ever since. Donald Trump's handling of the issue is one of the reasons this presidential election "scares me", she says. She has performed for Hillary Clinton fundraisers and joked with the Democratic nominee afterwards about getting coffee the next day ("shockingly, that never happened," she deadpans).
Growing up she more or less always knew she was funny. "Since I was a little kid I was making people laugh in a way that went beyond 'make this face' or 'make that face'. When I was five I did The Sound Of Music onstage. I played Gretl and every time I would come onstage to say my line the audience would laugh. I got really upset and the director asked me why and I was like 'why are they laughing at me?' It was explained to me that they laughed because they think I'm funny and cute - so it was explained to me as being a good thing. I guess they kind of gave me that self-esteem about it. So even at five I thought of it as a talent and something that was good."
There was turmoil at home. At age nine her family went bankrupt, and her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; her parents divorced three years later. She tells me that she and her sister Kim Caramele (who also works closely with her) "basically raised each other."
"I'd love to say: 'Oh, I'm really happy that everything happened as it did,'" Amy tells me. "But that wouldn't be true. I have regrets. I wish my dad didn't have MS when we were growing up. I wish a lot of things could be different, but I do think that a lot of it brought me here and made me who I am."
The family moved from Manhattan to Long Island, where she was voted both Class Clown and Teacher's Worst Nightmare upon graduation in 1999. In an interview with Marie Claire she recently spoke about losing her virginity in her teens in a non-consensual situation. She never once used the word "rape". Was that a conscious decision? "I described exactly what happened. I don't particularly remember trying to avoid the word rape. There are so many different versions of rape and it depends on whose definition you take to decide if that is what happened to me."
She had boyfriends, she once said, that "didn't count" but added that some of those ascribed to that scrapheap would probably like to punch her in the face. "There were relationships that lasted a couple of months, where in my heart and in my mind it never became a real relationship," she explains. "For me, it never got to the point where they were my partner, and maybe it didn't for them either."
After a stint studying theatre in Baltimore she moved back to New York and waitressed while she tried her hand at stand-up. "It was lonely and tough in some ways, but I believed. I didn't have much evidence for that, but I thought: 'This is where I am now, but if I really work hard, something will happen'."
Her comedy drew hugely on her life, which she'd spent the previous decade chronicling. "I kept these journals from aged 13 to 23 and they were really very detailed." They formed much of the basis for her autobiography, just released, entitled The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo. "My concept of reality was so different and to go back and sort of read those impressions, with an adult understanding, was quite eye-opening," she tells me. Was there a little part of her that thought one day this will be a bestselling book or comedy tour?
"Um, yeah a teeny bit. No, seriously, not at all, I think all through the years it was just therapeutic for me to write and I felt like I was more completely living my life by just writing it down and describing what I saw. Like every other kid, I read The Diary Of Anne Frank and that really affected me."
Her wild early adulthood certainly seemed to spill forth a lot of great material - from two tours, to Trainwreck, to the new book.
Did she ever feel too exposed in terms of how much she revealed? "Honestly, I think we all go through those moments at some point in our lives, where something disturbing happens and you're like: 'Am I ok?' Luckily, that didn't become a pattern. I think in some ways the most awful and humiliating things also served as reminders to be grateful for what I have and to laugh at myself."
Her first moment of national prominence in the US came in 2007 when she placed highly on Last Comic Standing. She had her hair in a ponytail and wore a little woolly jumper then. Her face was scrubbed clean - a far cry from the smouldering vamp of the current tour poster. Still, she rails in her comedy against the ideals that women are expected to live up to, and pointedly objected to being called "plus-sized" by a women's magazine recently. And even the contradictions of these two approaches - trying hard to live up to the ideal, while rejecting it - are sent up on Inside Amy Schumer. "You have to up your game," she says of the makeover. "I 'fess up to it. It's the truth. On one level I know it's not all about how you look, but on another level I still want people to think that I'm attractive. People say that I'm fat every day. And also people write other sexually aggressive things to me. There is an ugly side to that reality - maybe I see it more with other women. I know I'm never going to look like some other actresses, but I want to look the best I can without being, you know, hungry all the time. I don't say 'oh, I shouldn't eat that' to myself."
Trainwreck begins with the two little girls - who we later see as women - repeating a mantra their father teaches them: monogamy is not realistic.
The second prong of Amy's happy ending - along with her world-conquering success - is that she is in a happy and committed relationship with a furniture maker, Ben Hanisch. Luckily he is "very funny", which is high up on her list of most important qualities in a guy (although she claims the same quality for Bradley Cooper, which makes you wonder).
"Monogamy is realistic for a lot of people, it is for me. I wrote about a one-night stand and it's totally not the answer to everything but at a certain point in your life it might be just what you need. That's really how I felt about it."
Her career has gone so stratospheric lately - from opening for Madonna at Madison Square Garden last year to headlining at the same venue this year - that I wonder how all of the current demands on her sit with her confessed introversion. "I need to really recharge, I go off on my own and meditate. Most of the day I am by myself or I'm with other introverts, who are OK with being together, but being quiet. I think I spent so much of my earlier life hustling and working so hard, now I'm at the point where I can actually slow down a little bit. A big difference now is that when I'm on the road my family is with me; my brother opens the show with his jazz trio."
She says that the version of her we see is "getting closer and closer to being myself. It's a version of myself. People do expect me to be funny all the time, to be on all the time, for sure. How do I handle that? I guess I disappoint them. No, I'm actually pretty good with my boundaries and if I'm not in the mood to do something you'd better, you know, back off".
She's famously bfs with Jennifer Lawrence, and other stars have queued up to befriend her. She's currently in a movie with Goldie Hawn - "who is golden, like her name". Her new comedy special will be produced by Chris Rock.
She's undoubtedly living her dream but does she ever feel - as her "forced lesbian kiss" with Tina Fey implied - that they are "feasting on her youth" or co-opting her coolness?
"I can tell you that I don't have a single 'yes' person in my life," she responds. "Everyone can tell me what's up to my face. People close to me know me and we all speak our mind, so I'm not worried about losing touch with reality. I'm still the same person." For which we can be grateful.
Just don't test her bodyguard.