How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice -- but having a hit sketch comedy show doesn't hurt.
Just one night after packing one of the most dreamed-of performance spaces in the world, Amy Schumer brought her writing staff to a panel discussion at the Paley Center For Media on Saturday, as part of the 2014 New York Comedy Festival.
Hosted by New York Times writer Jason Zinoman, who spent an extended time in the "Inside Amy" writers' room to study their process, the discussion, appropriately called, Clown Panties and Other Unpleasant Truths: An Evening With 'Inside Amy Schumer,' covered everything from the show's conception to how hard it is to pretend to be turned on by a magician.
1. It was originally a supposed to be a talk show.
When Amy was originally asked to submit a pilot to comedy central, she and her writers wrote a talk show. "'Chelsea Lately' was doing great, and I have ovaries also," Schumer explained. But one night, after a glass (and a half) of wine, Jessi Klein convinced Amy to throw out what they had written and start from scratch to make "the show of [Amy's] dreams," which turned out to be a combination of sketches, stand-up, and "man on the street" style segments inspired by HBO's "Real Sex."
2. The show called out Comedy Central on censoring the word "pussy," and now they can use it.
Schumer hasn't had much friction with her show's network. "There's no 'Us' and 'Them,'" she said. But when she and executive producer Dan Powell realized that she couldn't say the word "pussy" on the show without it being censored, she pushed back, citing the fact that other genitalia words, particularly "dick" doesn't get the bleep. It should be noted that at least one Comedy Central show, particularly this episode of "South Park," has used "pussy" without a censor in the past, suggesting some leniency depending on context.
In terms of "Inside Amy Schumer," the censorship of the word has been lifted as long as it's used in an anatomical context. Her sketch about doing a voice-over recording for an animated character with a visible vagina was the first sketch to take advantage of that.
Citing the show's embracement of women's issues and skewering of gender politics, Powell let Comedy Central know that being free to say "pussy" without a censor was something important to Amy and the show. "I'd written a letter, sort of like I'd write to my congressman, and I guess it struck a chord."
"That was his 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'" Schumer joked.
3. The show isn't watched by more women than men...
The "Inside Amy Schumer" viewership is split nearly 50/50 between me and women, often skewing more male. “This is not a show that is watched predominantly by women,” Powell explained, while writer Kurt Metzger joked, “My job is to make sure it’s not a 'chick' show.”
Schumer says that "Compliments," a sketch that skewered women's inability to accept praise from one another, was the first sketch to go viral, "And not just with women." Her parodies of specific female behaviors, like in the "I'm So Bad" sketch and an upcoming one about women constantly apologizing, resonate with both genders.
"It’s so ubiquitous and essential to the constant 'low self-esteem machine,'" she explained. "On other shows where men are in charge, that might not seem relatable or important enough to put on TV."
4. ... However, Amy "accepts the responsibility" of it being a "feminist" show.
Comedy being the first priority of the show, Schumer doesn't start writing with an agenda. "It wasn't like, 'Everyone -- bras off! We're going to make the dream feminist show!' but we accept the responsibility and are aware of that," Schumer explained. "I hate when pop stars, like Miley Cyrus, say they never meant to be a role model. It’s like, ‘Well, bitch, you are!'"
As the title suggests, much of Schumer's show focuses on her own experiences as a woman and female performer. She spoke about her Season 2 sketch in which a male focus group refuses to comment on anything but her body as testament to being honest about her desire to be attractive and funny -- the two are not mutually exclusive.
"I’m not above wanting people to be attracted to me and I have moments where I really would like to be appreciated aesthetically, but sometimes that's not what it's about. Like, 'Dude, did you laugh?'" Schumer said. "It’s a constant cycle of feeling enraged that so much of our value as women is placed on how attractive we are ... It's all unfair but we’re all a part of it."
While that notion might go over the heads of some of her male viewers, she has plenty of opportunties to be more blunt, like in her popular "Newsroom" parody about a fast food restaurant. Lines like, “A woman is nothing if she’s not making a great man greater" skewered Aaron Sorkin's portrayal of women and, as Klein said, “It made him apologize for his own show!”
As Zinoman pointed out -- and admittedly related to -- the sketch in which we were given the term, "Hello M'lady" highlighted an instantly recognizable behavior that we had never really seen lampooned on TV before. While Metzger described it as something most guys grow out of after high school. Schumer broke it down: “A guy who projects a whole relationship on you."
"He puts [a woman] on a pedestal, does unsolicited favors for her and then gets filled with rage and fury when the feelings are not returned. He doesn’t see her as a person," Schumer said, hoping the sketch written by former writer Neil Casey (whom Schumer says was poached from the show to act in another project) would highlight that specific kind of violation. Casey made sure to play one of the "M'Lady" men as real and relatable, "not crazy," and Schumer pointed out that even women -- and John Cusack in "Say Anything" -- can be "M'Ladies" as well.
6. Amy's sister is now a full-time writer on the show.
The Schumer sisters are close, and if you follow Amy on Twitter you know that she's constantly referring to her sister Kimberly as her "Road Manager," but she's also much more than that. Schumer asserted that Kimberly is now an "official" writer on the show after wearing many hats during her sister's rise to fame.
“She's been my road manager, stylist, dietician, person who says, 'No, you don’t look fat,' joke puncher-upper and more," Schumer said. "But now I have an assistant [...] So she can just be the writer."
Kimberly also keeps Amy sane. After Zinoman asked if she was worried about pulling a "Dave Chappelle" and running away from her sketch show in Season 3, Amy admitted, “The reason I haven’t gone to Africa is because of [Kimberly].”
7. It's really hard to keep a straight face when pretending to hit on a fake magician.
"Has anyone on the show had sex with a magician?" isn't a typical question you hear directed towards a comedy writing staff, but Zinoman had to know what inspired the Season 2 sketch in which Amy is hit on by a Criss Angel-esque illusionist with questionable skills. The sketch rested on writer Kyle Dunnigan, who played the magician, and his talent for "Magic hands," or making it look as though he is doing a sleight-of-hand trick when he's really just flailing his hands around in a confusing way. As he demonstrated this talent -- which pairs the hand movements with a hilariously nonsensical walkthrough -- for the panel, it was easy to see why Schumer ruined several takes due to cracking up.
"That was the hardest one of the entire season for me,” Schumer said. "To act like I was dying to have sex with this guy."