Inside Amy Schumer and the trouble with topical comedy

The Inside Amy Schumer skit “Dr Congress” depicts a recognizable hell: the comedian in a sterile examining room, seeking gynecological care from a doctor but instead met with four condescending, clueless, puritanical men. Her medical care is actually at the hands of politicians, members of the all-male, decidedly unscientific “House committee on women’s health.”

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The sketch, from the show’s fourth season, was released in April 2016. But watching it earlier this month, I mistook it as recent, a bit from the new season of Inside Amy Schumer on Paramount+, the show’s first since it went on hiatus half a year before Trump’s election. That’s in part because the sketch’s grotesque satire is only degrees removed from our current reality – especially absent Roe v Wade, unscientific committees of politicians are now making medical decisions for women across the country. (As Pennsylvania Senate candidate Dr Oz put it in a recent debate: decisions over abortion should be between women, doctors and “local political leaders”.)

But it’s also because the skit feels in line with much of Inside Amy Schumer’s fifth season, which attempts to skewer some big issues facing women with barely contoured hyperbole, sketches whose absurdity is less provocative or enlightening than declarative. Instead of a joke, the punchline is an undercurrent of righteous fury with subtext that’s basically: “It’s bad, we know.”

“Dr Congress” would actually be one of the better political sketches in the show’s fifth season, which premiered last month and has, over the course of four episodes, demonstrated the limits of what topical comedy can achieve in 2022. The new episodes have their bonkers or well-observed bits – a “fart park” in New York, women smugly invoking “gratitude!” for all the cosmetic procedures that foster appreciation for their natural bodies. But it has foregrounded sketches that handle dire causes – the wars on reproductive and trans rights, as well as sexual assault – that function more like PSAs than comedy. They’re not wrong, not mincing words and from a clear point of view, but that doesn’t make them funny.

Take “Colorado”, a sketch from the premiere in which Schumer stars in a fake tourism advertisement for a state with lax abortion laws, encouraging women to visit from a number of nearby states without mentioning abortion by name (for those in Iowa and Missouri, she says, Illinois is also a nice option.) The sketch has the sheen of comedy – lines such as “I could’ve gone to a city in Texas that has a super-chill DA, if you know what I mean,” delivered with brittle cheeriness – but fails to deliver laughs. It’s barely even a distortion. There’s nothing surprising, let alone funny, when the punchline is that things are as bad as you know them to be. Another sketch reveals a Texas male Republican’s worst fear to be – surprise! – a trans woman using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender.

Or take another sketch, “O-Week”, one of the few to not feature Schumer, in which a college RA prepares freshmen during orientation by handing out increasingly deranged goodie bag favors – rape whistles, mace, swords – and declaring every girl out for herself. There’s nothing revelatory about pointing out that college campuses are hotbeds for sexual assault; if anything, the skit feels like it’s responding to 2014-2015, when the botched Rolling Stone story and the documentary The Hunting Ground trained focus back on colleges’ handling of sexual misconduct. “College orientation is basically just: ‘Welcome to college, you’re about to be assaulted,’” says writer and university student Sascha Seinfeld (daughter of Jerry) in one of several fifth season interstitials that deflate whatever humor remains by explaining the joke, which almost never go much deeper than “shit is bad, this exists.”

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To be fair, it was always going to be difficult for Schumer to reboot her signature show in 2022, only six years but cultural eons away from when it left, during which time a shared US political reality disintegrated and the locus of cutting-edge comedy shifted further online. The original Inside Amy Schumer, which ran from 2013-2016, arguably the height of the pop feminism era, made its lead one of the most famous comedians in the country for a reason: when it was good, it was great – cutting, insightful and, crucially, hilarious. Schumer demonstrated a shrewd understanding of upper-middle class white women: how they communicated, how they compromised, how they presented to other women and were still, for all their privilege, circumscribed by sexism. She specialized in identifying familiar yet fuzzy cultural tropes, which she distorted to the point of clarity (see: the wine wife in “Football Town Nights”, ageing female actors in “Last Fuckable Day”, the war of women deflecting compliments.

That type of comedy – impressions of tropes you know on-sight but couldn’t categorize, bits skewering the narcissism of white women or the binds of sexism – has flourished online since Inside Amy Schumer went off the air. Scroll for a few seconds on TikTok or Twitter and you’ll see front-facing comedians donning half-exaggerated personas. Given the hyper-speed and inescapability of social media, the task of finding an original angle, or a trope to wheedle into and explode, has become more difficult and niche.

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But Schumer and her writers haven’t found the right recipe in topical or political humor either, a category which for years has delivered evermore diminishing returns. Issue-based comedy is only so funny when the stakes get higher, the fringe more mainstream, the source material more unhinged. Saturday Night Live has hit this wall for years with its cold opens, whose main revelation has been seeing which celebrities are most game for impressions, and which still struggle to distort an already ghoulish political reality for laughs. Sketch or comedy shows tied to some level of contemporary discourse such as Showtime’s Ziwe, HBO’s Pause with Sam Jay and That Damn Michael Che – all of which have Black hosts with different perspectives than Schumer – have struggled to break out. There’s the ever-evolving staleness of late-night television, whose monologues remain stuck in a rightwing response loop two years after Trump left office.

The rebooted Inside Amy Schumer is just the latest to hit this ceiling, to use sketch comedy as a bullhorn rather than a black light. When reality becomes more and more absurd, with characters devoid of sincerity, there’s little air left for satire. The jokes scratch an itch but don’t tickle. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these sketches – they’re well-performed and constructed. But when the intended response seems to be a nod of recognition rather than a cackle, maybe these jokes have run out of road.