The Guerrilla Feminism of ‘Inside Amy Schumer’ and Comedy Central’s Radical Sketch Shows


Early in the Season 3 premiere of Inside Amy Schumer, a football coach (Josh Charles) attempts to teach his team not to rape. The high school boys respond with extreme bafflement, trying to find loopholes: “Can we rape at away games?” they ask. “What if it’s Halloween and she’s dressed like a sexy cat?” And, most cutting and familiar, “What if she’s drunk and has a slight reputation and no one’s going to believe her?” The key to the sketch is in its increasing incredulousness, how the joke is punching up at those who perpetuate rape culture rather than at those who are the target of it. It’s not exactly something you can imagine on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, but it’s right at home among Comedy Central’s uproariously funny — and surprisingly socially conscious — sketch comedies.

Inside Amy Schumer, which begins its third season tomorrow night, had an impressive first season, but it was Season 2 that really broke through to the mainstream (read: the Internet) and cemented its place as one of the most scathingly funny and proudly feminist shows on television. Along with Key & Peele and the dearly departed Kroll Show, Comedy Central made space for a new class of sketch comedy: intelligent, self-aware, sometimes focused on social issues, and basically just doing whatever they please. In fact, in a recent promo, Amy Schumer says almost exactly that: “It’s Season 3 and I’m doing whatever the fuck I want.”

It’s certainly not new for sketch shows to take aim at current events or to provide a heightened, humorous reflection of society’s ills. But although recent seasons of Saturday Night Live are not nearly as bad as most people say (some episodes are glorious), the show often takes a too-soft approach to politics that lacks a real bite, no matter who it’s mocking. After all, this is a show that still relies on dudes-kissing-dudes as a punchline in 2015 — hardly cutting satire about homophobia. To be fair, this is all more reflective of the show’s broadcast-network home, its legacy, and its wide audience than anything else; when SNL does tries to go a little further with, say, a sketch about ISIS or a monologue about slavery, the backlash is strong and swift.

Meanwhile, one of Key & Peele‘s most famous sketches features the titular comedians posing as slaves on an auction block and becoming increasingly frustrated when they are passed over in favor of “lesser” slaves (weaker, older, and shorter men). Toward the end, they start to practically beg to be taken, playing up their strengths: speed and docility. Thematically, it’s in the same vein as (albeit better executed than) Leslie Jones’ monologue about how she would’ve “been a catch” in the slave days, but it remained free from the heightened scrutiny that followed the SNL joke. Perhaps that’s because of the smaller audience, or because Key & Peele are men, or because Comedy Central’s recent programming seems built on an “all out of fucks to give” platform — and nowhere is the latter attitude more apparent than on Inside Amy Schumer.

This platform is a necessity: Feminists often need to assume a “give no fucks” approach in order to live with — and fight back against — the backlash we face every day, without losing our minds. Inside Amy Schumer has no doubts about its feminist agenda. It might sometimes be snuck in there, a few layers deep — as Schumer mentioned yesterday at the Tribeca Film Festival, her show does have the unfortunate task of retaining Daniel Tosh’s audience, an audience that once enthused about touching women without their consent. But that’s how it manages to lure you in close enough to smack you in the head.

This brilliant approach is evident in two of Schumer’s scathing rape-centric sketches: Season 2’s “A Very Realistic Military Game” seems like it will go into familiar, “look at these dumb video games” territory but instead segues into haunting gameplay that involves a female character getting raped by a fellow soldier; Season 3’s aforementioned football sketch begins as a pitch-perfect Friday Night Lights parody (including Schumer as the wine-chugging, supportive wife), before dropping the R-bomb on the audience. Both sketches start with decidedly “male” pastimes — video games and football — before pulling a spectacular bait-and-switch.

Later in Season 3, the show sharpens its strategy even further, in an episode-long, celebrity-packed parody of 12 Angry Men that hilariously tackles the male gaze, as a jury debates whether or not Amy Schumer is hot enough to be on television. The episode is one of the laugh-out-loud funniest Inside Amy Schumer has ever done, and the parody is both spot-on and fantastically directed, but it’s the underlying themes that resonate the most.

These are sketches that thrive on Comedy Central but wouldn’t totally work elsewhere. The same goes for plenty of subversive Key & Peele sketches, and even Kroll Show — which spent three seasons masterfully skewering subjects like teen pregnancy (and, more pressing, our society’s hunger for witnessing these pregnancies via reality shows) and our fascination with prestige dramas about dead women (in “Dead Girl Town,” a recurring sketch that should have gotten more air time in the final season).

But it’s Inside Amy Schumer that is providing the best feminist comedy on TV, one that effortlessly segues from over-the-top humor to women’s issues (a particularly impressive sketch seamlessly transitions into commentary on the wage gap). The show cleverly destroys masculinity, cutting particularly deep when it comes to exposing men’s influence on media; in one sketch, Schumer learns about that time in an actress’ life when she is deemed no longer “fuckable” by men and goes from playing sexy love interests to Mrs. Claus. Inside Amy Schumer is the best example of the type of sketch comedy that the world should demand: funny, smart, and always capable of putting a thought-provoking spin on issues you never thought would end up in a comedy.