Amy Schumer Comedy Special 2018 Image Credit: Elizabeth Sisson/Netflix

Since comedian Amy Schumer became pregnant, she had vomited, in her conservative estimate, 980 times. So on a Monday evening last month, when she told her husband, Chris Fischer, she was going to throw up, sitting in the passenger seat of a compact SUV on her way to perform a drop-in set, what followed had the blase feel of routine.

Keeping his eye on the road, Fischer calmly handed her a bag, and she lowered her face, emitted a guttural sound and threw up chunks of shrimp and grits. With hardly a pause, the couple, married for a year, started to banter. “That smells bad,” he said. Schumer shot back, “You want me to go outside?”

Feigning embarrassment about a marital dispute, he motioned toward me in the back seat: “We have a guest.” The car stopped, Schumer, who is due in May, got out, vomited again in front of a church, tossed the bag in a metal trash can and immediately started joking with her husband again.

This is not mere morning sickness. Schumer, 37, suffers from a condition called hyperemesis that makes her feel persistently, relentlessly nauseated, including nearly every time she travels. She has been hospitalised four times. Because of the physical obstacles, Schumer calls her new special, ‘Growing’ (starting March 19 on Netflix), the most difficult challenge of her career.

Changing direction

I first interviewed Amy Schumer in 2012, and her position since then has changed radically, from relatively unknown club comic to one of the biggest, most polarising names in comedy. She still talks onstage about throwing up, but now it’s because she’s pregnant, not because she’s getting blackout drunk. What also remains constant is a commitment to revealing imperfections and vulnerabilities that others prefer to hide. She has always cared deeply about not caring too much, a contradiction that has fuelled her entire career but that has become increasingly tricky to sustain.

Before the drop-in show, she told me that she expected the local comics to hate her because of typical disdain for any successful comedians. “Then there’s internet rumours and just the hate out there,” she said. “They hear my name and think whatever, you know. So it’s kind of fun to go in with the deck stacked against you.”

One question I often ask artists is what clique they belonged to in high school, and perhaps because it invites no sympathy, no one has ever said the popular crowd, except Schumer.

In show business, she said, she now knows what it’s like to be cool and not cool: “Being cool is powerful in this industry, but there’s nothing more powerful than not giving a” — and here she used a word that rhymes with truck.

She is spending two months in New Orleans while her place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan undergoes renovations in preparation for the baby. “Our home is kind of stupid,” she said. “It looks like Tom Hanks’ in ‘Big’ — karaoke machine, jukebox.”

Over the past decade, New Orleans has been a beloved getaway. She visits several times a year and often holds a New Year’s Eve party with actress Jennifer Coolidge. She has developed a Bill Murray-like reputation around town for goofy, news-generating appearances, like crashing a couple’s engagement photo shoot, joining Mardi Gras practice or painting her face with beignets.

It hasn’t been a quiet pregnancy. She has been touring theatres and shot her special in Chicago. She herself contacted the booker at ‘Saturday Night Live’ the night before to see if there was a host slot open. There wasn’t, but she still had new ideas to work out, so she headed to a dive bar that holds a weekly standup show.

Her new special catches fans up with her life, her hellish pregnancy (within the first few minutes, she raises her dress to show her belly) and her marriage to a chef.

Sneakily smart show

Schumer’s breakthrough came in 2013 with the Comedy Central series ‘Inside Amy Schumer,’ a sneakily smart show whose viral sendups of gender double standards and misogyny featured some of the funniest feminist humour in the history of sketch comedy. Then came her hit movie ‘Trainwreck’ (2015), and she was a movie star, flying in private jets to shows and hanging out with Jennifer Lawrence. (The movie they had been planning is on the back burner; instead she intends to shoot a big-screen adaptation of the play ‘The Humans’ in autumn.)

“Young me thought this would bring some other level of joy,” she said, shaking her head at how she pictured being wealthy and famous. “I think I will experience that with a baby. But other than that, it doesn’t exist.”

Success did, however, bring another level of scrutiny. Being a famous comic in 2019 means a stream of criticism every day. If you are a woman, double that. And if you are Amy Schumer, it never stops. She has become a lightning rod, taking criticism from all corners of the internet, periodically finding herself at the bottom of a pile-on.

There were accusations of appropriation and insensitivity when she made a video paying tribute to Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade.’ Then there were the YouTube clips of her jokes juxtaposed with the same or similar ones from other comics, suggesting she was a joke thief, and charges of racism about early jokes delivered in the persona of a bigoted fool. (“I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.”)

“I think people may have been laughing for the wrong reasons,” she said of her early standup, which she now cringes at. “I played a Republican fool, kind of racist, homophobic, everything. Once I started being myself onstage, some felt I lied to them. They felt duped.”

A similar sense of betrayal exists on the left. In the same week that Breitbart ran a story arguing that her comedy fell into “the woke trap,” The Ringer questioned what happened to the progressive comedian of ‘Inside Amy Schumer.’ The title of the article: “Did We Get Amy Schumer Wrong?”

While her comedy has, if anything, become more political — her new special has to be the only Netflix standup release this year to include a joke about Sen. Chuck Grassley — Schumer’s work has changed, and those who got to know her through her bruising jokes on ‘Last Comic Standing’ and Comedy Central roasts have different expectations from those who were fans of the feminist satire of ‘Inside Amy Schumer.’

And in shifting from the sketch television tradition of ‘Chappelle’s Show’ to that of big-budget Hollywood movies, her comedy has broadened, with some edges softened. (She is still under contract for another season of the show but hasn’t wanted to shoot it until recently.)

Schumer has always been anchored by a core of confidence, as a photo of her running naked across a park demonstrates. She said she always knew she would be famous and once gave back a $1 million (Dh3.7 million) book advance because she believed in herself and figured she would get more money when she was more famous in a few years. She was right.

Comic Rachel Feinstein, who has been friends with Schumer for more than a decade, recalled being on a conference call pitching a pilot with Schumer when an executive outlined what the company was looking for. Schumer responded bluntly that they had no interest in doing that. Feinstein couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Then I get a text from Amy saying: ‘Don’t panic. I know what I’m doing.’ She sold the pilot.” Feinstein added: “She has always encouraged me to ask for things I never would have. I am in awe and try to channel her.”

Even when it comes to her romantic life, she is fearless. A month into dating Fischer, she texted him asking if he was serious about her and if he wanted kids. His response: “I do want kids, and I want them with you.”

But what about those who lack this self-assurance, who can’t shake off the insults that women deal with every day online? Schumer pauses here. “I want to think on that,” she said: “How do you rise from that?” Less than a minute later, she returns to the question: “Therapy, meditation, weed.”

Amy Schumer Comedy Special 2018 Image Credit: Elizabeth Sisson/Netflix

Given the volume and vitriol of the criticism, it’s remarkable how rarely Schumer gets defensive about it. She agreed that her handling of the Beyonce video was naive. And while she denied she ever stole jokes — parallel thinking is far more common than you might think — she conceded that if she had seen those YouTube videos, she would have thought she was a thief, too. She said that when she asked John Mulaney to give her notes on the special, he kept an eye out for overlap with Ali Wong, who also performed pregnant.

“Comics say we used to be able to say this, and it was funny,” she said. “That’s over, so evolve! I’m down to evolve.”

But there are signs that being in the fishbowl of fame has taken its toll: a certain caution in her voice, a sighing acknowledgment that people can grow tired of you. She has been attending filmmaking classes at New York University and is looking at a future in the director’s chair.

For her standup, she has recently asked the camera operators shooting her shows to send her clips of crowds laughing at her jokes, proof that people are enjoying themselves. “It’s a good thing to be reminded,” she said, saying that audience members can become abstract, like lab rats in an experiment.

Back in New York, I received a text from her that caught me off guard: “When you first wrote about me, you described me as melancholy,” she texted. “I had never seen myself that way, but when I read it, I knew it was true. Am I still melancholy?”

It was characteristically direct, more blunt than the usual interview subject and difficult to answer. She seemed both incredibly happy and in love, but also a bit haunted. I said yes.

She agreed, and then expressed the most earnest expectant-motherly sentiment I had heard from her: “I’m ecstatic and furious,” she wrote, then: “And pleased and peaceful and manic and hopeless and so hopeful it’s crazy.”


Don’t miss it!

Growing with Amy Schumer is out on Netflix from March 19.