Why everyone is talking about Amy Schumer

She’s a feminist comedian who doesn’t shy away from ridiculing women. She reaches millions of viewers on the internet without breaking a sweat. Oh, and she’s just really, really funny.

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If you’re British and not constantly hooked up to a social media drip feed you’d just about be forgiven for never having heard of the American stand up comic and sketch writer Amy Schumer. “No one here has heard of me,” she told Graham Norton on his show on Friday, before proceeding to be the funniest thing on there by a country mile. Even if it were true, after such a performance, and the imminent release of her first film Trainwreck (written by her and directed by Judd Apatow) this is unlikely to be the case for long. On the internet, Schumer is everywhere. Her sudden prominence, despite her show Inside Amy Schumer having launched in 2012, is largely thanks to a series of sketches that have gone spectacularly viral (in one of the most recent she plays Bill Cosby’s defence lawyer, handing out sweaters to the jury in the “Court of Public Opinion” and telling them they should be able to “watch like nobody’s raping”).

By combining bitingly hilarious cultural criticism and parody with a slutty, feckless, and amoral stand up persona, Schumer has hit on a winning formula. Though ostensibly contradictory, the many factors that come into play in her comedy are also what takes it to the next level. I’d go as far to say that it’s perhaps some of the most sophisticated comedy writing on our screens right now. Schumer’s feminism is unapologetic, her skewering of the daily injustices that women face (and their complicity in them) is merciless. And yet crucially she is never, ever worthy. She challenges society’s perceptions of womanhood in ways that manage to be simultaneously revolutionary, hilarious and utterly filthy. In doing so she has changed the landscape of comedy forever.

There’s no doubt that the immediacy of the internet has played a role in Schumer’s success. Her work is immensely topical, and very shareable – both factors in the so-called “virality” of “content”, if you’ll excuse the hideous, hideous sentence. But it’s also Schumer’s feminism, which, while tapping into the internet’s enthusiasm for social justice movements, holds itself apart enough to examine and mock itself, pushing its own boundaries in myriad tasteless and uproarious ways.

Schumer carefully treads the boundary between being heartfelt and being funny, a delicate balance perhaps best illustrated by her speech about female confidence – perhaps, I’d say, the most moving speech that has ever featured an inner monologue that takes place during cunnilingus – at the Ms. gala in early 2014. As well as including such lines as “I felt paralysed. His asshole is a canyon, and this was my 127 Hours. I might chew my arm off,” it ended movingly with the words:

I am a woman with thoughts and questions and shit to say. I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story – I will. I will speak and share and fuck and love and I will never apologise to the frightened millions who resent that they never had it in them to do it. I stand here and I am amazing, for you. Not because of you. I am not who I sleep with. I am not my weight. I am not my mother. I am myself. And I am all of you, and I thank you.”

It was fiercely funny, but also fiercely galvanising – a quality that is becoming a hallmark of her work.

Schumer certainly has “shit to say”. I first began to love her in 2012 when I came across her standup show “Mostly Sex Stuff”. Within the first ten minutes, she jokes about finally getting to sleep with her high school crush (“but he keeps wanting me to go to his graduation. Like I know where I’m going to be in three years, right?”) calls her mother a cunt, and discusses going to yoga after taking the morning after pill (“can these people tell I’m like, mid-aborsh right now?”) And it was a revelation, like watching the worst side of my own personality or that of my friends burst forth to express it’s every dark and hideous thought without fear of censure or “offending” someone. Part of her appeal is that she refuses to be the kind of well-behaved, people-pleaser that so many women in the public eye are expected to embody. In contrast to that stereotype, she couldn’t give a toss if you think she’s vulgar or fat or offensive or slutty (she owes much to Joan Rivers in these respects, yet to my mind has a talent for self-examination that surpasses her).

Does it matter that she is a woman? In sketches such as “A Very Realistic Military Game” and “Football Town Nights”, as well as with her stand-up, she has proven that she can tell a better rape joke than any male comedian. In the latter, it is her unflinching satire of the players’ sense of entitlement on and off the pitch that makes it funny, not her gender. Some sketches only work because of who she is; in “The Last Fuckable Day” she teams up with Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette to skewer the sexism and ageism of Hollywood. She plays the optimistic dilettante to their weary, been-through-the-mill cynicism about the industry. “POV Porn” (porn from a woman’s point of view), meanwhile, is a role-reversing masterstroke.

Schumer’s gift for parody is also what makes her internet-friendly. “Girl You Don’t Need Make Up” takes a pop at the modern boyband’s cynical lyrical preoccupation with the “natural look”; Milk Milk Lemonade exposes hip-hop’s fetishisation of women’s booties as the ridiculous undertaking it is (“this is where our poop comes out, this is what you think is hot”) Her episode-long parody of 12 Angry Men in which said men are locked in a room to discuss whether or not she is hot enough for TV is such a brutally accurate portrayal of an ageist, sexist industry that elements of it must come from personal experience. “This is what it’s like,” she’s saying. “It ain’t easy for me, either.” Her pitch-perfect dissections of modern womanhood that make you laugh just as much as they make you wince. There’s an inclusivity to them. “Hey, remember bread?” she asked, in a recent stand up set. I do, but only just about.

This is all great stuff, but it’s the extra layer to Schumer’s work that puts it in another league. For a feminist comedian, she does not shy away from ridiculing women. She’d still be brilliant if she stuck to exposing and satirising society’s feminine expectations, but, by turning the spotlight on women themselves, her comedy reaches heights that have not been met before, exposing as it does the hypocrisy with which modern womanhood is fraught. One sketch, for example, sees a group of middle class women at a pole dancing class looking down at the strippers on the street below and speculating about their sad childhoods. Another mocks the female inability to take a compliment properly. “Look at your cute little dress!” “Little? I’m like a size 100 now. Anyway I paid like two dollars for it. It’s probably made out of old Burger King crowns. I look like a whore locked out of her apartment.”

There’s something liberating about laughing at ourselves as well as others, especially, for a change, it’s in scenarios that feel as though they’ve been beamed to you directly from a fellow woman’s brain. So often jokes about women are either told by men, at our expense, or, if told my women are infuriatingly self-deprecating. The genius of Amy Schumer lies in her refusal to play that game, to make herself in any way smaller (I mean this metaphorically rather than literally, though the way she uses her 160lb body as a stand up prop is worth noting too). Instead, her comedy says: “This is what it’s like; and it’s dirty and messy and hypocritical and sometimes not very nice. In fact, it’s downright nasty.” That is not only an intelligent way of approaching comedy, but also an incredibly powerful statement to make as a woman. Yet ultimately, the reason everyone is talking about Amy Schumer comes down to one thing and one thing only: she’s fucking funny. If Schumer carries on smashing it to the same level she has been recently, she might just change the world.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog. Her novel, The Tyranny of Lost Things, is published by Sandstone Press.