In many ways, Live at the Apollo is the Amy Schumer triumph I’ve been waiting for throughout 2015. That might sound like a bit of a weird thing to say, since 2015 has been the year of Schumer, who has skyrocketed to the very top of the American comedy scene more rapidly than any other comedian in the last decade. While I wouldn’t deny the extraordinary achievement of Season 3 of Inside Amy Schumer or the seamlessness with which Schumer crossed over into mainstream Hollywood cinema with Trainwreck, both ventures left me a little cold, at least in terms of comedy. Most obviously, it seems to be pretty generally acknowledged that Trainwreck offered us something of a watered-down Schumer, which is a bit surprising given how immediately it was drawn from her personal experiences and stand-up, but perhaps explicable in terms of the part that Judd Apatow played as director, since Schumer has mentioned in various interviews that she was very careful to craft an Apatow-friendly film. For that very reason, though, I found it one of the least flattering versions of Apatow yet, just because it shows what an extraordinarily idiosyncratic charisma such as Schumer’s has to do to accommodate herself to his worldview, with the last act in particular feeling like the cruellest repudiation and repression of everything that makes her shine as a comedian. Of course, that’s not to say that it wasn’t an incredible achievement for Schumer to make the leap to the big screen in this way, nor that I would have done anything different in her place, but just that I didn’t find the film captured her voice as much as it might have.
At the same time, while the third season of Inside Amy Schumer may have accelerated to become something close to the most critically acclaimed comedy of the decade, I actually found it less funny, in some ways, than her previous seasons. While they were rough around the edges and very much organically linked to her stand up, Season 3 was more interested in developing and fleshing out sketches, which I have never found one of Schumer’s strengths, at least in terms of comedy. There’s something just so irreducibly funny about her manner, presence and facial expressions – the true sign of comic genius – that I find she works best when she’s not too constrained by the conceit of an elaborately planned sketch. Season 3, however, was something of an effort to take the sketch format itself to a new arthouse level, culminating with the episode-long sketch “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” a 12 Angry Men parody that Schumer directed with an exquisite attention to the beats, framing and cinematography of Sidney Lumet’s original. It was at this point that it started to become clear that Schumer was perhaps aiming for something other than straight comedy this season, a new and original fusion of sketch comedy, social activism and cinematic immediacy that itself seems quite symptomatic of an era in which the boundaries between sketch, stand-up and serial comedy have been so denuded with the omniscience of mobile digital media. As a result, Season 3 felt like an emergent version of some profoundly original comic vision that – for me – hasn’t been realised just yet, even if it has already produced some extraordinary moments, most iconically the “Last Fuckable Day” sketch starring and co-written by Tina Fey, Julia-Louis Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette.
As a result, I wonder whether the challenge for Schumer moving forward is to continue to build her stand-up career in tandem with her acting career, so as to cross-fertilise both as productively as occurred on the first two seasons of her show. In that sense, her Live at the Apollo broadcast is a significant moment, since it represents her first major swathe of new material in a couple of years, something that will be particularly clear to fans, like myself, who have sought out pretty much every Schumer stand-up clip on the Internet, and are familiar with – and have taken delight in – all the iterations of some of her most iconic sketches. While this stand-up special does contain some of the material, it’s in a fairly cursory way, and more as a point of departure for the newer stuff, as well as way of communing with those fans who have followed her all the way up until this moment. Watching it, I was a little reminded of Jerry Seinfeld’s decision to retire his stand-up routine in the early 00s and start anew, a process that was recorded in the 2002 documentary Comedian. If that film suggested anything, though, it was that Seinfeld had left this reinvention a little to late, just as his iconic I’m Telling You For The Last Time tour felt a little like rehashes of Seinfeld, resulting in a new set of material that still hasn’t quite gelled or come into its own ten years later. In Live at the Apollo, however, it’s clear that Schumer has chosen just the right time to shift into new material, resulting in a wonderfully fluid and organic alternation between old and new material, with the older material often seguing into the new in a remarkably fluid way – segues are one of Schumer’s strengths – resulting in a profoundly assured and winning comic voice. Watching her, I found myself wondering whether the best stand-up comedians are often the best improvisers, just because it allows them to improvise new material out of old in just this way, a strength of Schumer’s that was particularly clear from her appearance on Seinfeld’s otherwise stilted Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
If Schumer shines, though, it’s partly because of the medium and format itself. Since its inception, the HBO hour-long special has been a unique stand-up format. At one level, that’s simply because it provides a venue for extended stand-up on “quality” television – as opposed to the fragments of stand-up that percolate across other forms of comedy television – but it’s also because HBO specials tend to be directed, giving artists a chance to perfect their routine with a mentor at the helm, as well as a chance to segue stand-up into acting if they’re that kind of comedian, which Schumer undoubtedly is. Some of the most iconic specials have emerged in precisely this way, with Paula Poundstone’s Cats, Cops and Stuff and Eddie Izzard’s Dressed to Kill being two of my favourites, although it also produced such formative moments as Robin Williams’ An Evening With Robin Williams in 1982. In this case, it’s particularly telling that the special is directed by Chris Rock, who has apparently been a fan of Schumer’s for some time. For my money, the single best comedy of 2014 – and one of the best comedies of the decade – has been Rock’s Top Five, a beautifully languorous vision of post-cinematic New York that renews Rock’s own comic voice by immersing it in precisely that dissolution of stand-up, serial and sketch sensibilities that Schumer personifies. In particular, the thread of the film sees Rock returning into his earlier stand-up days in the guise of a mentor, watching and helping young artists perform in ways that recall his and Schumer’s descriptions of his work at her gigs as well. Ever since I watched it, I have been excited to see Rock continue to flourish in this new-found directorial role, and Live at the Apollo needs to be understood as a continuation of his filmography as much as a continuation of Schumer’s stand-up career.
Of course, the nature of a stand-up special is that the comedian is front and centre, and this is undoubtedly Schumer’s most confident comic appearance since Mostly Sex Stuff, and probably even eclipses that in terms of sheer panache and assurance. While some of the later material is obviously still a work in progress – an extended riff on beauty pageants feels a bit like low-hanging fruit – the overall impression is of material that has been rehearsed for some time, which it perhaps has, since Schumer is renowned for her comic professionalism and perfectionism. At the same time, even the beauty pageant stuff is notable for the way in which Schumer introduces a new level of physical comedy into her repertoire. Although she is known as a comic, Schumer trained as an actor, and a great deal of her magnetism comes from the way she can seamlessly transition between her stand-up persona and an acted part, something that is particularly clear in this special, in which she adopts more personae, voices and characters than ever before. As much as she might joke about a short piece of onstage physical exertion leaving her winded, there is a physical restlessness to her stand-up this time around that seems her mercurially seguing in and out of all the different comic personae she might play if Hollywood could give her the chance, until it’s bit like seeing a projected twenty-year filmography unfolding before your eyes. While the material is often quite polished, then, the sense of finality attendant on even some of the best stand-up is collapsed into a roving, roaming creative restlessness that, for me, felt like a much more compelling and authentic demonstration of Schumer’s voracious acting appetite than her circumscribed performance in Trainwreck.
What makes this actorly presence even more extraordinary is that, by speaking in this multiplicity of voices, Schumer also seems to come closer to herself as well. While her style of comedy is premised on a cloistered, confessional and confronting proximity to the audience, the sheer flamboyance of her sexual exploits have always given her presence a touch of irrealism, even or especially if they are actually true, and we are actually in the presence of the polymorphously promiscuous sexual experimentalist she claims to be. While that radical promiscuity – and extravagant self-deprecation – is still there, it’s more tempered by a restless curiosity and creativity that, for want of a better word, is more “positive,” and in some ways more realistic as well, drawing her into a synergy with her audience that seems even more intense than the rapport she enjoys with the smaller crowds that populate the stand-up – or, more often, sit-down – segments of Inside Amy Schumer. While it’s become the norm for celebrities to affect immediacy as part of their media portfolio – I’m sick of hearing how normal Taylor Swift or Katy Perry are – there’s something about Schumer that is still residually incredulous at her success and which makes her presence quite intoxicating and captivating in an arena like this where she appears to have a bit of time away from her schedule to just relax into her old stand-up self.
Let’s hope, then, that these kind of ventures continue in the future, for Schumer and for Rock, since in both cases we’re dealing with comedians who – in very different kinds of ways and at very different periods in their career – are restlessly looking for a way to fuse their stand-up and serial selves into a form of comedy that can speak to their present moment, as well as a milieu in which comedy itself dates faster and faster than ever before. That acceleration is presumably part of why lies behind Schumer’s creative restlessness here, but it’s to her great credit that she always manages to keep up with it and often overtake it. Speaking of speed, look out for her reference to Snowpiercer, one of the best and most incongruous moments in this glittering comic special.