It begins, as many of these comedy specials do, with a seemingly sentimental throwback — scratchy home video of stand-up Amy Schumer as a little girl. “My name is Amy … and this is myyyyy show!” sings the pajama-clad tyke, adorably dragging out that second-to-last word. But before the cutesiness can take permanent hold, on comes the profane refrain to Nicki Minaj‘s “Beez in the Trap” (“Bitches ain’t shit and they ain’t saying nothing/A hundred mothafuckas can’t tell me nothin‘ “), which underscores images of grown-up Schumer posing with fans and doing some of her alcohol-addled shock shenanigans.
Thinkpieces may very well be written about Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo‘s canny appropriation of the Trinidadian-born Minaj’s hardcore hip-hop anthem — the overture, in this context, to an acerbic white girl taking the stage at a historic Harlem venue (the Apollo Theater) for an hourlong HBO special directed by an African-American comedian (Chris Rock). Schumer is, of course, hip to the ethnic ironies: “You guys all look like you’re from this neighborhood!” she says to the mostly Caucasian audience.
Yet race isn’t really Schumer’s shtick, and so she quickly segues into the clueless-gal-of-privilege mode that’s earned her both praise (as a feminist warrior) and scorn (as, well, a clueless gal of privilege). It’s an interesting, frequently very funny line to watch her walk. And it’s often as awkward as the lumbering strut she performs early on when recalling her gap-toothed, hormone-afflicted fifth grade self. (“I was like this jack-o’-lantern with tits walking around.”)
Her one prop — handheld mic aside — is a wine bottle that she takes a few swigs from on occasion. (No jokester’s glass of water for this one.) Mostly, though, Schumer sticks rigidly to center stage, letting her acid tongue do the heavy lifting. It’s difficult to say how much of her standing around is performance anxiety and how much of it is an intentional gambit to let her vulgar banter take precedence. Schumer certainly doesn’t seem comfortable (and Rock’s direction is purely functional at best and rhythm sapping at worst). But this could all be part of the joke. Schumer’s confidence is all in her confrontational attitude, and that doesn’t necessarily translate to the rest of her body.
Her looks are, unsurprisingly, a big part of the act. When Schumer talks about her experience writing and starring in the Judd Apatow-directed Trainwreck, she does several gutbusting riffs on modern femininity in Hollywood. She begins with a terrific dissection of the atrocious talking animal comedy Zookeeper starring Kevin James (“the real King James,” Schumer quips) and the unreality of Rosario Dawson playing the smitten love interest. Then she talks about the shock, and the quick ego boost, of being cast in a lead role she was convinced would go to someone like Blake Lively. But, of course, weight loss is part of the deal, and Schumer’s impression of the personal trainer she was assigned is both a hilarious and mortifying encapsulation of the Tinseltown standard of beauty. (“He’s smiling at me, trying to be brave, like you would for a burn victim.”)
It’s a great routine, one that’s matched only by a subsequent ode to semen (during which she does a priceless shout-out to Oprah Winfrey), as well as a climactic monologue about sexual positions that features some pretty uproarious audience participation. It’s during these sections that Schumer’s humor is most alive — truly transgressive in ways that confront, rather than winkingly tweak, the chauvinistic prejudices she’s targeting. The rest is scattershot in the way of a very talented comic still honing both her points and her live-act presence. Guaranteed Schumer only improves from here.