The First Two Minutes: The Semiotics of an Opening with Amy Schumer

“NETFLIX ORIGINAL” is on the top of the thumbnail, in small letters. “AMY SCHUMER: THE LEATHER SPECIAL” is written beneath in yellow letters, all caps; the “Amy Schumer” has a larger font than “The Leather Special”. Compare this to Louis C.K.’s title: “Louis C.K.: 2017,” in which the “2017” is much larger than his name. C.K. has five specials on Netflix, so what is important is not his name in the special, but the title of his special. This is Schumer’s first special on the Netflix streaming platform (though she has had specials on other platforms before, including Hulu and Comedy Central), so her name reads large as a way of branding her special as representative of herself on that platform. As is typical with Netflix specials, there is a slideshow of images. The first is a glamour shot, with Amy’s hands on her hips, her eyes looking up left (this is the first of the images, and it is the one, probably not coincidentally, that she looks most attractive in). We can see that she is wearing a shiny, skin-tight, leather shirt, and can recognize that this is why she titles her special “The Leather Special.” The second is an action shot of her in the special, “hamming it up.” Her body is slightly bent over, her right palm out. She has a slight double-chin, and is wearing a smug expression on her face; she is in the middle of a joke that involves her body in the telling of it. The third is a close-up on her face in which she is staring at the audience with a calm expression, gauging the crowd’s reaction.

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There are two special descriptors that we are offered; one thumbnail version and one extended version. The first is: “Comic sensation Amy Schumer riffs on sex, dating, and the absurdities of fame in a bold and uncensored stand-up set at Denver’s Bellco Theater.” The second description of the special is: “All of the swagger. None of the shame. A night of stripped-down, turned-on, and totally unbridled hilarity.” Consider the word “unbridled,” which perhaps puts Schumer in the category of what Kathleen Rowe has termed “the unruly woman”: the voluptuous, rebellious, joke-making “woman on top” (this most specifically refers to primetime star Roseanne Barr). Opening the description with, “All of the swagger. None of the shame” also puts Schumer in the “unruly woman” category. She is a subject who perhaps makes a spectacle out of herself, but is not ashamed; she allows us to laugh at her, but also with her. The stripped-down, turned-on” hilarity primes us for Schumer’s raunchy comedy, as does the emphasis on sex in the first description. Amy Schumer has a reputation for making jokes about sex in her stand-up. She embraces this fully; she named her 2012 stand-up “Mostly Sex Stuff,” and in a sketch she wrote called “Last Fuckable Day,” she wrote in a line in which Tina Fey asks her: “Aren’t you the girl who talks about her pussy all the time?” Netflix wants to make sure that the audience knows about her raunchy humor (even though male comics make jokes about sex very consistently, but are not labeled for it). Under the details section, Netflix describes the special as “irreverent” and “raunchy.” In case you need some context for what Netflix considers “raunchy,” in Louis C.K.’s special “Live at the Comedy Store,” he enacts fingering a female rat – yes, the animal – onstage and is labeled as just “irreverent,” not “raunchy”.

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The special begins with the familiar Netflix logo, then a cut to black. The next shot we see is a lens flare shot of Amy in the car, reading. She is wearing a coat, and her hair is slightly wavy; it is a wholesome shot, complemented by sentimental piano music playing in the background. This opening shot is in contrast to the “raunch” and “sex” we have been primed with in the description; we learn to sympathize with her. The next shots include her walking with her production team backstage, and her walking with her sister down a hallway, making her laugh. We see a shot of her holding hands in a circle with her production team backstage, and then a few shots of her past shows onstage, which include Schumer dancing and waving to large crowds. The piano music continues in the background as we hear an announcer’s voice break in across this montage: “Ladies and gentlemen and all you other motherfuckers!” We see several quick shots of Schumer here: riding on a boat with her friends, feeding a goat, spitting out a piece of gum, waving to crowds, and writing (her sketches and stand-up; presumably). More than two shots include Schumer holding a wine bottle (unabashedly being drunk is part of her persona), and she is laughing in most of the shots. “Get up off your ass for the baddest bitch: Amy Schumer!”

These images are in stark contrast to what we saw in Louis C.K.’s “2017” opening (see my earlier post); they do not establish gruffness, but a fun-loving and still hardworking persona. We see Schumer with her friends and family – she is a caring, compassionate person who we are to sympathize with. We see Schumer dancing, drinking wine, and laughing – she is a fun-loving gal who doesn’t take herself too seriously. And, of course, we see Schumer writing – in the midst of all this, she works her butt off and writes everything she performs. It is only twenty seconds into the special and just through the introduction, Amy Schumer has established herself as being compassionate, fun, crazy, funny, hardworking, and, as the announcer says, “the baddest bitch” – we are already primed to like her and look up to her, almost as a cool big sister.

The screen goes black, and yellow letters in cursive spell out: “Amy Schumer: The Leather Special.” We hear deafening applause in the background, and there is no more time wasted with the intro. The black fades, and we are suddenly behind Amy Schumer as she walks out to greet her audience, waving hand outstretched. She is awash in blue and purple lights. The camera pans around her as she raises both arms now outward, and we can see that she is holding a wine bottle in her right hand. As the camera pans outward, we are able to see the stage, which is round, and a sweeping view the audience surrounding her. They are mostly in the dark, but the dim lights allow us to see that they are on their feet cheering for her. We hear some “pump-up” opening music in the background: some drums and a guitar.

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We are next offered a number of sweeping views of the audience; this offers the Netflix viewer reassuring shots of the size and enthusiasm of the live audience (the Netflix viewer then, as a member of the extended collective, will also feel drawn to support her). In one shot, we are behind some of the audience members, and offered our first frontal view of Schumer walking onto the stage, arms outstretched. This shot allows the Netflix viewer to further feel assimilated into the live audience. We get a quick close-up shot of Schumer’s grateful, smiling face; the next shot is a wider one in which we are able to take in the full size of the theater she is in. The crowd is expansive, and is mostly in darkness; we can only see faint outlines of cheering bodies. There are two screens in the theater that allow audience members who are further back to watch Schumer’s facial expressions “up close.” In these screens, we see that Schumer is self-consciously putting the wine bottle on the stool (a twist on what comics usually do – put bottles of water on the stool). The dominant color of the lights is a deep purple, shone against blue velvety curtains. While Louis C.K. went with warm hues of orange and red, Schumer opts for the cool blues and purples, establishing coolness, wisdom, and extravagance. Her persona is not gruff in the least; she, rather, needs the deep blues and purples to counter her bright personality and add a certain coolness or wisdom. She is on a small, round stage in a large to medium-sized theatre; there is nothing on the stage but her and the stool, but her big personality seems to fill the room. The seats in the theatre start below and around her, and slope upward; half the audience is below her, and the other half is about at her level.

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The camera pans from the audience closer toward Schumer. “Yeah!!” She shouts, jumping up and down with arms outstretched. She puts her hands together, smiling, and then grabs the microphone off the stand.

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She opens with an energized shout. “What the fuck is up, Denver?! Deafening cheers and applause come from the audience. We get a panning shot behind her as she moves the microphone stand back behind her – the crowd is almost overwhelming. Next, we get a body shot from the front. We can see that she is wearing a skin-tight leather halter top, leather pants, and black heels; she has fully committed to the leather. “Thank you so much for coming out. Oh my god!” The audience cheers. “This is such a big deal for me. I um…I uh, I don’t know if you guys know this but this past year,” She shrugs, “I, I’ve gotten very rich, famous, and humble, um…” She inhales, allowing the audience to absorb the impact of the joke. They laugh during the pause. This is one of Schumer’s tics: she’ll inhale quickly after a joke, especially a joke about her own cocky nature, to communicate the irony of the statement, and allow it to register in the audience’s minds.

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“Thank you, thank you,” she says with slight vocal fry, further indicating the irony of her previous statement. Her tone changes, raising slightly, the vocal fry gone – she’s “getting real” with us now. “And maybe you caught this, I don’t know if you saw this. Uh,” We get a more intimate shot that just includes Schumer’s upper body. “I tweeted out a photo of myself wearing just underwear.” She bends her body slightly to demonstrate. “Nothing but underwear…” There are cheers from audience, which she smiles and acknowledges with an outstretched palm. “Thank you, just the women.” Her faces scrunches, confused. “What the fuck?!” She shouts. The audience cheers, and we get an audience shot of three (white) girls laughing so hard that their bodies are thrown forward (noticeably, we do not see any clips of people of color laughing in these first two minutes, though we are offered several shots of audience members).

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The camera returns to Schumer. She has turned to the left, and seems to be addressing an invisible audience member, her arm outstretched as if to scold him. “No! It’s too late, sir.” She plays with her hair. “This could’ve been crumpled on your floor in the morning, but no!” She pauses to let the audience laugh, and smiles, allowing herself to laugh. “I really like the idea of this being crumpled on someone’s floor. Like having to put this back on in the morning?” She is referring here to her leather get-up, as she indicates by bending her body forward slightly and clutching her leather pants.  “Just like…mmmm!” She demonstrates attempting to slide back into her leather outfit, groaning. Her eyes open wide, innocent. “And you’re like, ‘Call me.’” She uses a whiny vocal fry again, waving to an imaginary man she has slept with. “And then – imagine doing a walk of shame in this shit? You’re like, ‘Hi. Taxi.’” She puts up a frail hand to wave half-heartedly to an imaginary taxi. “And they’re like, ‘Hmm…’” She puts her hand behind her head, taking on the character of a taxi driver who is taking in the absurdity of her “morning after” get-up. Her voice becomes deeper, more rational now as she launches into self-deprecation of her “dumb-blonde morning after” character. “That’s an actual trash bag. Like that looks like a Glad bag.”

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What are we to make of this bit? On one hand, we are only two minutes into the special and almost her entire routine thus far has been based on self-deprecation. In “Self-Deprecatory Humor and the Female Comic” scholar Danielle Russell emphasizes that because stand-up is such a masculinized art form, the female body is automatically registered as “abject” in a comedy space. Immediately, the female body is scrutinized for attractiveness, and may be criticized for too much of it, or not enough of it. Self-deprecation is a way of countering the male gaze in stand-up: “One method of adapting to the demands of performing is to attempt to assimilate to the ever-present male model. Minimizing personal attractiveness…can be tactics to ‘placate’ the audience; inciting envy or resentment are not in the comic’s best interest” (Russell 7). The audience knows that Schumer has become relatively famous in the past year (she wrote ands starred in acclaimed movie Trainwreck, has her own Comedy Central show “Inside Amy Schumer,” and is the best friend of A-lister Jennifer Lawrence), so immediately Schumer addresses this, putting on a mock-cocky attitude: “As you know, this past year, I’ve gotten very rich, famous, and humble.” Her willingness to make fun of herself lets the audience know that she is still “on their level”; she doesn’t think that she is “above” them in any means. This is especially important for female comics, as an overly pretentious nature (or, to generalize, a nature that is unsettling in any way) is displeasing to the audience, as her body is already rendered as abject in the space. And, Since Schumer recognizes that her body is on display and is being scrutinized, she decides to acknowledge it, launching into a self-deprecating bit about the ridiculousness of her leather outfit.

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On the other hand, Russell indicates that self-deprecation can be a useful means of “exposing the incongruities of the dominant culture” (13). Schumer’s self-deprecation seems to not be directed at her “real” self, necessarily, but of an imaginary, “dumb blonde” character that she has created for her comedy. This character is characterized by vocal fry, innocence, promiscuity, and pseudo-confidence. She juxtaposes this character with a more rational “big sister” character, who calls out the ridiculous nature of the “dumb blonde” character. If the “dumb blonde” character is the one timidly saying, “Call me,” then the big sister character is the one saying, “That’s…an actual trash bag. Like that looks like a Glad bag.”

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In switching between this characters, what Schumer seems to be doing is calling out postfeminist sensibility. As explored in my research, “postfeminist sensibility” is a term coined by British feminist Rosalind Gill, and involves the entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist themes in media culture. It is characterized by:

-The notion that femininity is a bodily property

-Shift from objectification to subjectification of women

-Emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring, and discipline

-Focus upon individualism

-Makeover paradigm

-Resurgence in ideas of sexual difference

-Sexualization of culture

-Emphasis upon consumerism

-Irony and knowingness (Gill).

In the “morning after” bit, Schumer is already attacking several of the qualities of postfeminist sensibility. Though postfeminist sensibility is a sensibility in media culture and not the qualities of an actual person, what Schumer seems to be satirizing is a young woman trying to live by the “feminine” values fed to her by postfeminist media culture. The subtext of the bit is that a young woman has donned a sexy, glamorous, all-leather get-up to go out. She ends up going home with someone, only to realize that she has to do the so-called “walk of shame” in the morning. Postfeminist sensibility emphasizes that women can find empowerment in hookup culture: that women can find empowerment in being “sexual beings”. In the morning after, the seeming glamour and “empowerment” of making oneself up and sleeping with a stranger is satirized, as the young woman realizes how much work she has put into making herself look “effortlessly glamorous.” What is also important to emphasize here is that Schumer is not slut-shaming this innocent young woman; rather, she is exposing the amount of effort women have to go through in order to adhere to newly sexualized feminine standards of beauty. In just this bit alone, Schumer is calling out the makeover paradigm, the sexualization of culture, the emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring, and discipline, and the notion that femininity is a bodily property.

She continues in her “rational” voice. “I feel like every comedian needs a leather special. Like, there’s,” The audience cheers, interrupting her. “Right? Every comic has some special where they wear all leather and they regret it later?” She holds her arms out, embracing it. “It’s my fucking moment. Leather special! Whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo!” She dances around in a circle as the audience cheers. She points to the audience, taking on her rational “big sister” voice again. “Already regret it! Already regret it. Very overheated. Very overheated.” Here, though Schumer is putting her body on display, she does not emphasize that she regrets wearing all leather because of the way her body looks in it, but rather because of the heat. This is important, as Schumer has been often criticized for being “heavy,” but here she refuses to acknowledge those criticisms even in the midst of a self-deprecating bit.

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She continues. “So I tweet out this photo of myself, okay? I’m in, I’m holding coffee, I’m topless in just underwear, and it goes viral. Like it was everywhere, like every news show, every website, and that’s when I learned…” She slows down, emphasizing every word. She is getting to the punch line. “…the word you don’t want people to use when a nude photo of you goes viral.” She pauses for dramatic effect. “Brave? Um…” Her face contorts, confused, and the audience bursts into laughter. She looks down for the first time at her body, scrutinizing it as if she is noticing it for the first time.

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Another tic that Amy Schumer has is that when she makes a joke, she’ll follow it with a very quick, seemingly confused, “um,” or “I, uh,” and then pause. This is a characteristic of hers in specials and stand-up shows throughout her career – Schumer rarely lets a joke stand on its own without that verbal tic. We could read this in two ways – the first being that as a woman comic, all of Schumer’s “uh”s, “like”s, and “um”s speak to a certain self-consciousness about the funniness of her stand-up. This seems to underestimate Schumer’s intelligence and confidence however; rather, since this tick is a pattern throughout her stand-up, it seems intentional. The “um” becomes a part of the momentum of the joke – a space in which Schumer makes a noise to allow the audience to absorb/register the meaning of what she just said, and then laugh. The “um” also allows Schumer to establish her ironic “dumb blonde” persona. The history of this persona is complicated. In an earlier special on Comedy Central, Schumer says, “I used to sleep with mostly Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual. Um…” She uses this to jump into a larger point about the pervasiveness of rape culture. Using a “dumb blonde” persona to joke about race is not uncommon; Sarah Silverman does this as well. In some cases, the comic is using “comic minimization,” a humorous rhetorical strategy in which one reduces the apparent significance of a topic in order to emphasize its true gravity and relevance. Schumer, however, rarely has larger points to make about race; she just wants to make the audience laugh. I’m hesitant to call it comic minimization; Schumer’s early comedy is textbook “white feminism” – feminist ideology centered around white, well-off, abled, cisgender women. White feminists fail to recognize, acknowledge, and respond to the problems faced by women of color and/or women with less privileges.

Amy Schumer expresses a certain ambivalence in regards to joking about race. She has been oft criticized for racism in her comedy, and she knows. Guardian writer Monica Heisey said of Schumer’s comedy, “Schumer’s stand-up repeatedly delves into racial territory tactlessly and with no apparent larger point….much of her character’s dumb slut persona is predicated on the fact that the men she sleeps with are people of colour.” At first, Schumer defended her jokes about race, but she has since realized that if she wants support from her mostly liberal audience, this is not the best route. In 2015, she tweeted a response to someone criticizing her Hispanic guys joke:

“Thank you so much for asking. I wrote this joke 2 years ago. I used to do a lot of short dumb jokes like this. I played a dumb white girl character on stage. I still do sometimes. Once I realized I had more eyes and ears on me and had an influence I stopped telling jokes like that on stage. I am evolving as an artist. I am taking responsibility and hope I haven’t hurt anyone. And I apologize it I did. Thanks again for asking.”

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In “The Leather Special,” Schumer’s persona is a bit more wise, and a bit more calculated. As she says, “I’ve gotten very rich, famous, and humble” – she knows that she cannot get away with explicitly racist jokes anymore, and they are noticeably absent from her comedy. Jokes about race at all seem to be absent from her comedy – but this does not mean that her comedy is not implicitly racist and directed toward a certain (exclusive) group of people.

Let’s return to the nude photo joke. As we have covered, a good portion of Schumer’s comedy involves satirizing postfeminist sensibility, though her history with feminism is very white. What Schumer is creating through her comedy is a space in which she acts as a “big sister” and guide for women encountering a postfeminist media culture. The extent to which Schumer plays with postfeminist sensibility is complicated. On one hand, she satirizes the makeover paradigm; on the other, however, she still portrays it as necessary to “get by,” and relies on self-deprecation of her own body image in her comedy. And, in addition, her feminism is mostly centered around white, cisgendered, upper middle class, able women. Her comedy centers around comforting bodies that are cis (she still associates her “woman”ness with her female genitalia, and the upkeep of it, even in her satire of it), middle to upper-middle class (the people who can afford to buy a ticket to see her comedy, and who can afford to attempt to “maintain their femininity”), and white (she has moved from making derogatory jokes about race consistently to not acknowledging race as a factor in her comedy at all). If the comedy space is a homosocial pleasure dome of sorts, then it is a cis white middle-class women’s homosocial pleasure dome. This is an improvement, of course, upon a male homosocial comedy space, and I do not mean to discount the work that Schumer has done in satirizing postfeminist sensibility, but there is still criticism to be had of Schumer’s comedy.

Schumer continues with her nude photo joke. “Can you imagine? You take your clothes off in front of someone for the first time, and they’re just like,” She bends her body over, imitating the male gaze. “‘Damn. You look mad brave right now. Whoo-ee! Shorty looks empowered!’ Like no! As if I’m standing there like, ‘I am brave!’” She puts her hands on her hips and puffs her chest outward, further satirizing the “empowerment” mantra of postfeminist sensibility.

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She ends the bit with a blunt statement that indicates the desperation of her young woman persona to appease the male gaze, made ironic by vocal fry: “No, just fuck me. I am blacking out tonight, I am blacking out tonight. Anybody?” There are cheers from the audience. She has established the politics of her space, and the audience – both the live audience and the Netflix audience – are with her.

Citations

Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10.2 (2007): 147-66. Web.

Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Danielle Russell, “Self-deprecatory Humour and the Female Comic: Self-destruction or Comedic Construction?” Third Space: A Journal of Feminist Theory and Culture.  (November 2002): 43 pars. [http://www.thirdspace.ca /articles/druss.htm].

Staff, THR. “Amy Schumer Apologizes for “Racist” Rape Joke About Hispanics: “I Am Taking Responsibility”.” The Hollywood Reporter. N.p., 07 July 2015. Web. 19 June 2017.

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