It’s Feb. 28, and in the greenroom at Comedy Central’s Night of Too Many Stars, Jon Stewart starts in on some jokes with Paul Rudd. Sarah Silverman sits on the couch, laughing with Chris Rock. “Weird Al” Yankovic tells Steve Carell how much he loved Foxcatcher. Wherever you are, you can hear Gilbert Gottfried.
But when Amy Schumer strides on stage—legs long and lean under a little black dress, blond ponytail swinging—a hush falls over the room. She opens with a wry “I believe it was my mentor, the great Bill Cosby, who said…” before plunging into the kind of set that’s made her a comedian to whom other comics pay attention. Tonight, in just five minutes of screen time, she hits on some coastal double standards (“I just found out I’m too disgusting for L.A.”), what to do when your stunt double is a guy (“We look alike. Do you hate yourself? Have sex with me”), and sleeping tips (“I was having some wine…and, uh, weed and Ambien, or as I call it: tucking myself in”). She is all brassy confidence as she picks apart the absurdity of human behavior and gender inequality. “I think I get labeled a sex comic just because I’m a woman. I feel like a guy could get up here and literally pull his d—out and everyone would be like, ‘He’s a thinker!’”
Back in the greenroom, Silverman turns to Bill Burr. “Have you seen the trailer for her movie?” she asks, sotto voce, referring to this summer’s Trainwreck, written by and starring Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow. “Funnnny.”
It’s not just comics in the know. Schumer’s star has been on a steady rise for years. She placed fourth on NBC’s Last Comic Standing in 2007. Then there was her big breakout—the now-infamous Charlie Sheen roast in 2011 when she hit the dais, flashed a friendly grin, and absolutely murdered everyone in sight. (Sample quip to Mike Tyson: “You have a slutty lower-back tattoo on your face. Men don’t know whether to be scared of it or finish on it.”) Next came a Comedy Central special, 2012’s Mostly Sex Stuff (no, the title was not ironic). When Inside Amy Schumer—the show she co-created, exec-produces, writes for, and stars on—debuted in 2013, it was the network’s highest-rated premiere. The second season was nominated for an Emmy.
Yet all signs point to this being the year that Amy Schumer’s career will undergo a seismic shift. She’s hosting the MTV Movie Awards on April 12, and on April 21 Inside Amy Schumer returns for its third season, dubbed “The Year of the Ass,” with guest stars like Jerry Seinfeld, Natasha Lyonne, and Jeff Goldblum. And on July 17, Trainwreck—which slayed audiences and critics at SXSW—will arrive in theaters and place her firmly in the same movie-star league as box-office-busting comedic actresses such as Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. It’s the kind of planet-aligning lineup that has everyone poised to wax poetic about the 33-year-old’s ascension. But this is not a story about luck or good timing. “You tend to have your moment when you create something that’s very strong,” says Apatow. “Amy is very, very deserving.”
Amy Schumer spent the early part of her life on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side,”the middlest,” she says, between older brother Jason, now a jazz musician, and sister Kim. But things went spectacularly pear-shaped starting when Schumer was 12: Her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and his successful company went bankrupt. Soon after, the family relocated to Long Island. Then her parents split up. “It was Hunger Games,” says Schumer. “I was like, ‘I’ll take it from here.’ I tried to make everything okay by making everyone laugh about how horrible things were. It kept us alive.”
She and Kim, now 30, always close, grew closer. (They’re still completely inseparable: Kim Caramele serves as writer, associate producer, best friend, road manager, and spiritual touchstone. She was working as a school psychologist in Illinois until Schumer moved her to New York to write for the show. “Amy thinks I’m really funny, which is nice,” says Caramele. “Maybe that’s because she loves me?”) Caramele was her partner in crime—especially as a costar in Schumer-directed plays, dance routines, and songs performed in the living room.
Their father’s disease progressed, and things got tougher. When Schumer was 17 he took her to the airport and walked her to the gate. At one point, he lost control of his bowels in the terminal. “I was flying out to see my brother in Montana and I think I spent the flight looking out the window, blinking,” she recalls. “By the time I got there and told him what happened it had become a bit.” Later in life, she tried to work this childhood trauma into her stage act. “People were like, ‘Nooooo, too dark,’” she says with a laugh. “In my family no one has ever laughed that hard at anything.”
She majored in drama at Towson University and after she graduated continued to study in New York at the prestigious William Esper Studio. It was there that she met Kevin Kane, a close friend and producer on Inside Amy Schumer. Together they founded a theater company called the Collective that still meets every Monday; Schumer tends to workshop her material there. “I’m excited about Trainwreck because people are going to say, ‘Hey, look at this stand-up comic—she can be an actress,’” says Kane. “I’m like, look at this serious actress who has made her way by doing stand-up.”
She started to do stand-up in her early 20s, and slowly began crafting her on-stage persona, spending a lot of time at New York’s Comedy Cellar, where she still performs. Schumer has the blond hair, round blue eyes, and good bones of an all-American cheerleader, which is why her explicit talk of penises, vaginas, and the things that happen when they meet takes audiences by surprise.
After the Charlie Sheen roast elevated Schumer’s status—”Now I watch it and I’m like, who the f—is this kid? I can’t believe the b—s on me”—Comedy Central offered her a blind pilot deal, hinting they’d be interested in a Chelsea Handler-type format. She and Daniel Powell, a former executive at the network, started to hash out a pitch. A few nights before the meeting, Schumer had drinks with an old friend, comedian Jessi Klein (now the head writer on the show). “She just talked about what she ultimately wanted to do, which was to be an actress,” says Klein. “I told her: Do not squander this. Go bananas!”
Schumer took Klein’s advice. “She texted me and said, ‘Scrap the treatment. I want to do my Louie,’” remembers Powell. “She wanted to make sure this was exactly the show she wanted to do.” Inside Amy Schumer, which has sketches, man-on-the-street interviews, 60 Minutes-esque one-on-ones with everyone from porn camera operators to flight attendants, and interstitial clips of her stand-up, debuted in April 2013. Sketches such as “Compliments,” an exaggerated, uncomfortably true send-up of how women have trouble accepting them, and “Gang Bang,” a cringeworthy flip of the script, have gone viral. “That began to clarify our point of view,” Powell says. “This is a brashly feminist show, and I don’t think there’s any shame in that.”
Season 3 will push the envelope even further. Highlights include a Friday Night Lights spoof about football players and rape and a sketch three years in the making about how Hollywood treats middle-aged women (starring three A-listers we’re not allowed to name). And that’s just in the first episode.
Next: on the set with a mechanical bull…