The first voice in Rachel Feinstein’s comedy special is Amy Schumer’s. The first face is hers, too. As the title suggests, the relationship between the women is conspicuously on display as Amy Schumer Presents Rachel Feinstein: Only Whores Wear Purple begins. In the opening backstage sketch, Schumer luxuriates in the perks of fame—wine and chocolate-covered strawberries that appear unbidden, her name on the marquee, her unassailable narcissistic confidence—while Feinstein looks on in envy. “Have a good my/your special!” Schumer simpers as she exits, leaving Feinstein to pocket her greenroom scraps.
On stage, Schumer introduces Feinstein as “not only my best friend, she is literally my all-time favorite comedian,” and Feinstein launches into a story about Schumer’s support during “the most humiliating moment of my life.” Her description of a misdirected “dirty picture” sets her tone for the special: conversational, confessional, and unhesitatingly confident in her own foolishness. Once Feinstein gets the mic in her hands, there’s not a chance of anyone overshadowing her, not her famous friend and co-executive producer, not the stream of relatives, strangers, and “kindly morons” she imitates with verve and precision, not the celebrated adult-film actress at the heart of her closing anecdote.
“Do you ever do this?” Feinstein asks mid-story, “where as you’re listening, you stop and compliment yourself on what a good listener you are?” During a 50-minute set where she never stops talking about her own (often intimate) experiences, Feinstein manages to show what an astute listener she is. Her impressions are distinctive in voice and mannerism, but more than that, they’re insightful and often generous. Talking about her grandma, Nanny—who instilled in young Rachel “a lot of specific rules about whores,” including the titular “Only whores wear purple”—Feinstein’s pinched mimicry blossoms into a layered, affecting imagining of her grandmother. She’s a wide-eyed girl yearning to explore an unknown world of daunting but exciting possibilities, only to be reined in by her father’s conviction that women who strive for adventure and autonomy are “whores.”
Feinstein’s acute observation creates memorable, silly, sympathetic characters with a shift of tone, a turn of phrase, or a gesture, keeping her exquisitely, if subtly, attuned to her audience. It’s subtle: She sounds so chatty and candid that even familiar material (like the lopsided “starter tit” bit she worked into the premiere episode of Not Safe With Nikki Glaser) feels fresh. But exquisite attunement is what lets a comedian make a structured set feel like a conversation, not a monologue.
Feinstein knows her characters inside and out, she knows her material, and she knows her audience. Just when a prolonged imagined narrative becomes alienating, she pops out of character to say, “Stay with me, guys, I know this is getting weird.” In the middle of impersonating her mother, who approaches every conversation with unquestioning self-possession that lapses into tactlessness, she confides, “My mom hates that joke. She goes, ‘Can you take that one out of your talent show?’” In one stroke, Feinstein admits to the fictions she’s crafting even as she confirms the cluelessness at the heart of the caricature, and she does it with equal parts affection and unflinching perception.
The strongest elements of Only Whores Wear Purple are its star’s empathy and her distinctive comedic voice. The material is funny, but what’s really winning is Feinstein’s connection to the audience and to the people she’s describing, a connection she forges from rigorous attention to detail and an easy acceptance of absurdity. Whether she’s fondly detailing the difference between a douche and a tool, railing about her one-sided Facebook rage cycle, or remembering the 14-year-old ass-man who counseled her through high school humiliations, Feinstein homes in on what’s preposterous in everyone. She even lampoons herself, recounting half-listening to a yammering stranger while smugly congratulating herself, “‘I am a remarkable listener.’” It’s a joke at her own expense, but it’s also the crux of her stage presence. Rachel Feinstein is a remarkable listener, and it shows in every word she says.