This item may have escaped the attention of the media at large, but it turns out a lady comic called Amy Schumer is having a pretty good year. Understatement aside, it wouldn’t be unusual for the hype around Schumer to become overblown, at least in terms of her broader visibility. Her sketch series Inside Amy Schumer is exactly the type of program certain comedy-loving folks will assume everyone is watching, and is in fact watched by far fewer people than, say, Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing (or even on the Comedy Central playing field, fewer people than, say, the decidedly douchey Tosh.0). But taken with the show’s recent Emmy win, her $110million box-office hit Trainwreck, and a recent Saturday Night Live hosting gig, yeah, Schumer may have become real-world ubiquitous, not just media-coverage ubiquitous. That she has an hour-long comedy special on HBO this fall almost feels like an afterthought.
Though she receives cheers for her now-hit movie during that special, Amy Schumer Live At The Apollo was actually recorded in May, before Trainwreck hit theaters and just a few weeks after the third-season premiere of Inside Amy Schumer. It airs after Schumer’s killer summer, and the timing places her on the verge of two different but related (and potentially awkward) positions. First, she is, to some degree, leaving behind the life of a working comic and starting to have experiences that may challenge her ability to seem immediately relatable. Live At The Apollo doesn’t have any material about, say, goofing around with Jennifer Lawrence. But when Schumer talks about hanging out with Bradley Cooper, even in the context of her being confused that he wants to talk to her, it’s not far off from that territory. (Truly, by Hollywood standards, hanging out with Cooper is the slightly poorer man’s goofing around with Jennifer Lawrence.)
This is especially important to Schumer’s material because of her second awkward position: Much of her sketch material, at least, riffs on recognizable stuff like social routines and relationship dynamics, often with a smart feminist slant. As such, some of her fans, in and out of the media, have developed certain expectations about Schumer’s material and its ability to make powerful, progressive, feminist statements. She’s already seen a backlash to some of her older stand-up jokes, which were more in the Sarah Silverman vein of making deliberately offensive remarks as a caricature of a selfish, oblivious white girl. When Schumer was, say, a contestant on Last Comic Standing, even her weaker material qualified her as the best and most enjoyable of her season (she finished fourth in season five). Now she has more eyes on her (though again, in raw numbers, more people probably watched her season of dopey Last Comic Standing than any season of Inside Amy Schumer), expecting jokes that aren’t just better (as in higher-quality) but better (as in more closely aligned with their projections of her as a feminist hero).
Even if those expectations aren’t fair, Schumer seems to be rendering them somewhat moot by evolving as a comedian. Like Silverman, she’s less apt, these days, to affect her clueless and insensitive persona. Little shocks are still there, but in Apollo, most of her routines feel like they’re coming from the real Schumer, rather than the litany of hostile, lazy, or self-centered characters named Amy she plays on her Comedy Central show. This version has faults, but isn’t an insensitive monster. Early on, she talks about her two front teeth falling out late, coinciding with her first period arriving early, both in fifth grade, and the jokes are about herself, not a more abstract set of racist or backward attitudes. The personal stuff balances out her more Hollywood-centric material, where she tries to bring her acerbic attitude to jokes that are, self-deprecating or not, about getting a personal trainer so she can star in the movie she wrote. She does make time for more pointed moments, though, calling out how Rosario Dawson—by Schumer’s reckoning possibly the “most fuckable” of actresses—was cast in Zookeeper as the love interest for notably schlubby Kevin James, and speculating about the unsung acting challenge that must present. (“I dare you, Meryl!” she bellows on Dawson’s behalf.)
Schumer has also upped her physical game. She still uses the same baby-girly voice for herself and others whenever she wants to make a statement sound dopey, and it’s funny, but she gets bigger laughs from varying her actions: mining a pause for the right time to jump into a (metaphorical) double-dutch game, or illustrating her evolving walk past construction sites over the years. The special gives her enough space for these routines, but sometimes just barely: The director—one Chris Rock!—sometimes uses antsy cuts and unnecessary pans, and makes at least one sudden transition seemingly mid-routine. It’s not unusual for a stand-up routine to be cut down slightly for a special, but it is a little unfortunate for the cut to be so visible.
The Live At The Apollo set doesn’t build to a thrilling pitch the way the best stand-up shows (and documents) can. But Schumer does show off her versatility toward the end with a routine that feels more like her Inside Amy Schumer stuff: a list of outlandish names for sex acts that could probably be turned into a sketch, and a hilarious, unexpected bit of crowd work reminiscent of her quick-hit street interviews. This special doesn’t hold the inspiration of her best sketches or the emotional pull of her movie. But Live At The Apollo does show how Schumer might blend the sensibilities of her other projects even when she’s alone on stage—and continue working as a stand-up at a point where plenty of comics might put down the microphone.