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The domestication of Amy Schumer may be, perhaps, my favorite new TV genre of 2020. The truth-telling stand-up was a doyenne of edgelord club comedy before breaking out with her primo feminist satire sketch show Inside Amy Schumer and her screenwriting/starring role debut in hit movie Trainwreck, one of 2015’s best films. In a polemical career spanning more than fifteen years, she’s experimented with identities ranging from “bigoted boy’s club blowhard” to “brash pussy-centric sex comedian” — and faced criticism for both — but Schumer’s mutability is part of her charm. “Comics say we used to be able to say this, and it was funny,” she told the The New York Times last year. “That’s over, so evolve! I’m down to evolve.”
No matter how waspish a joke or how cutting an observation (often about herself), she’s developed a style that infuses honey with venom. (I’ll never forget watching her shut down a heckler with grinning ease. It made me afraid of her and also admire her, like she was a high school queen bee.) Schumer’s signature vulnerability, which she previously featured while deconstructing gendered insecurities on her sketch show and showcasing familial anguish in her semi-autobiographical film, is now on full display in two new reality series, which serve as prequels/sequels to her very-pregnant 2019 Netflix stand-up special Growing.
On The Food Network’s 4-episode Amy Schumer Learns to Cook, a hilariously and self-consciously janky DIY quarantine food prep show, Schumer’s professional chef husband teaches his wife kitchen skills as their nanny films them in a secluded cabin. Inversing marital sitcom archetypes, Amy plays up a rare TV slugwife persona while her placid James Beard Award-winning husband, Chris Fischer, pitter-patters around in an apron. Their banter is natural and silly, the two embracing the absurdity of this pandemic set-up. (To supplement on-screen graphics, Fischer straight-up sharpies notes on a piece of cardboard and holds it up to the camera.) My husband and I could not stop laughing along with them.
It’s Schumer’s three-part HBO Max docuseries, however, that has forever endeared me to the comedienne. Self-shot in a guerilla filmmaking/cinema vérité style with smartphones and selfie video confessionals, Expecting Amy documents Schumer’s joyful but excruciating pregnancy with her now one-year-old son, Gene. Warm, thoughtful and intimate, the doc is no ordinary celebrity vanity project or insider’s peak reality series. (Schumer is a vocal fan of franchises like The Bachelor and The Kardashians, but this lacks the synthetic luster of typical reality TV.)
Instead, it betrays her resolute (white) feminism: By showing herself completely unfiltered and unglamorous while suffering from a dangerous vomiting disorder of pregnancy, Schumer unveils the wrecking physical costs of maternal devotion. By showing us the exhausting labor (and luxury lifestyle affordances) that goes into a career as a working entertainer, she exposes the sweat of ambition. Think of Expecting Amy as Schumer’s Madonna: Truth or Dare or Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé, sans the chiaroscuro pretensions of both.
Here, Schumer’s ego paradoxically rests in her complete lack of vanity. Set in the nine months between finding out she’s pregnant and giving birth to her son, Expecting Amy features scene after scene of an ailing Schumer puking on camera, sometimes in a bag, in a toilet or even on her own shirt. Later, we see her scamp naked in her third trimester and pump milk completely bare-breasted. Make no mistake, this is a political statement from Schumer, who rose in the 2010s during a wave of body-humor feminist comedy (Girls, Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Orange is the New Black).
If Ali Wong radicalized pregnant raunch, Schumer radicalizes pregnant rawness. She refuses to cut away, and, in turn, refuses the audience comfort. Yes, the barf and the boobs are the joke — the joke on you for expecting prim, polite modesty. In 1952, Lucille Ball caused a scandal when I Love Lucy revealed her protagonist as TV’s first pregnant character (without uttering the apparently-vulgar word “pregnant” even once). Nearly 70 years later, the visuals of pre- and post-natal life are so rarely on screen that they remain shocking today.
Expecting Amy also succeeds as a love letter to her husband, Fischer, a soft-spoken but similarly irreverent personality who shares playful chemistry with his quick-witted wife. Her earlier career explored the horrors of entitled machismo, mocking toxic boyfriends and horndog attitudes, so it’s a surprising delight to see Schumer in the glow of supportive partnership.
Some of the most memorable segments from the series delve into Fischer’s autism, including the audio-captured moment his medical evaluator reveals his diagnosis. Fischer, shown here to be sweet, genial and a little bit dorky, pairs well with the acerbic Schumer. While Schumer sometimes leans into stereotypes about people on the spectrum, she’s always loving when describing his unique responses to her. If anything, Expecting Amy normalizes neurodivergence, especially in showcasing Fischer’s emotional and nurturing spirit (as opposed to a robotic or unfeeling one, as autistic people are often portrayed as having).
Director and editor Alexander Hammer, who also edited Beyoncé’s Homecoming, hyper-focuses on Schumer’s domestic life, but we also see her in the throes of her career: testing jokes at clubs across New York City, producing promotional photo shoots and filming her Netflix stand-up special. Even in her private moments, you see that Schumer is always working, always developing her craft. She can’t help but make a joke because she’s trained herself into twisting expectations. How much do her performances reflect her true personality and how much of her true personality is performance? (“I can’t believe we’re gonna have another white man in the house,” she kids upon learning the sex of her fetus.) In the portrait of this artist, we finally see the effort put into being “effortless”.
Directed by: Alexander Hammer
Produced by: Amy Schumer
Premieres: Thursday, July 9th (HBO Max)