Can ‘Inside Amy Schumer’ and ‘Broad City’ Overcome the Underdog Complex?


This week, Comedy Central giveth and Comedy Central taketh away: as Broad City’s third season comes to an end, Inside Amy Schumer’s fourth begins. Unfortunately, it’s a bummer of a week: Broad City’s finale was a weak ending to a ho-hum season, and Inside Amy’s season premiere, which airs tonight, struggles to capture the magic of the first three seasons.

In many ways, the shows’ growing pains are a permutation of a problem so many successful artists face: What do you do when your art elevates you out of the circumstances that inspired it in the first place? For comedians, the problem is complicated by the “punching up” principle — a responsibility to ensure your jokes aren’t lobbed at those with less power than you, which is that much more difficult when you’re at the top.

In the year since Inside Amy’s last season ended, Schumer has hosted the MTV Movie Awards, recorded an hour-long HBO special, gone viral many times over — and written and starred in her first feature film, Trainwreck, which was well-received both critically and financially, grossing over $30 million on opening weekend on its way to becoming one of the most successful films of 2015.

The first couple episodes of Inside Amy’s new season struggle to balance Schumer as the underdog she used to be — a woman in a man’s world, swimming against a tidal wave of dick jokes — with the celebrity she’s become. The new season includes post-show chats with comedians like Jim Norton and Bridget Everett at the crowded Comedy Cellar bar, a shaggy, fun addition to the show that serves as a reminder of Schumer’s natural habitat: the basement bars and clubs that are usually dominated by men. Inside Amy has always been full of such reminders that Schumer is one of the guys: sketches are formatted as sportscasts or set in bars surrounded by dudes, with Schumer playing the girl who’s always “cool with it.”

In other sketches, like the second-episode opener in which a version of Schumer (“Amy Winsbury”) is nominated for an Oscar, she lets slip her elevated status. She enlists some high-wattage stars — Julianne Moore, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Hudson — to make a point about the lack of roles available for women in movies. In the standup bits she sprinkles throughout episodes, she jokes about her photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz and her new wealth. Louis C.K. did the same in his 2011 standup special Live at the Beacon Theatre (“I’m not like you”), and in fact we catch a glimpse of C.K. in the new season, in the blooper reel at the end of the second episode, a brief reminder of the league Schumer’s joined.

Other segments are closer to earth, and those tend to be sharper: she interviews her bikini waxer in the first episode, a woman with Down syndrome in the second. In one sketch, Schumer has to face a panel of congressmen before she can get a pap smear; in another, she plays an office worker frustrated that none of her male co-workers appreciate her efforts. Her colleague (the hilarious Claudia O’Doherty) has a solution: “Guy-gles,” goggles that “show you the kind of woman the guy in front of you needs you to be.” (She lists the options: “Flirty victim, spunky kid sister, nurturing mother, but flirty, wounded skank, step-MILF, sexy sex kitten, flirty sex kitten, flirty friend of mom, manic pixie, or Amy Adams.”) When a black woman puts them on, they become so overloaded with data they explode.

So far, the sketches in season four are hit-or-miss: One in which Schumer, as herself, proposes a “hip-hopera” based on the life of Betsy Ross to Lin-Manuel Miranda quickly overstays its welcome, and a spoof of the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man In the World” ad is a lackluster opening to the new season. Taken together, the new bits form an uneven collage, an awkward collision of Schumer the 20-something every-slut and the Schumer who vacations with Jerry Seinfeld and Jennifer Lawrence.

Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson have faced similar problems as Broad City’s profile has risen. Despite the near-instant popularity of the show, Glazer and Jacobson have always seemed a little more approachable than Schumer, a little more real, in part because even though they play version of themselves, their TV personas never acknowledge their real-life fame the way Schumer does — which makes it tricky for them to balance their mainstream popularity with the scrappy upstarts they play on the show.

For some viewers, Broad City’s self-awareness about Ilana’s identity confusion — her “Latina” earrings, even though she’s Jewish; her obsession with hip-hop culture and preference for black men — doesn’t necessarily make it digestible. What’s charming in a web series can look unsettling on a popular network show, but in its best moments, Broad City is simply funnier than anything else on TV; when it’s funny even as it directly deals with its own relationship with race, like in the episode where Abbi poses as Ilana to take her shift at the co-op, well, it’s hard to argue when you’re laughing so hard.

After that episode, though, the show dulled a little, losing some of the gleam of its earlier, wackier seasons. Abbi and Ilana were getting older; they were losing jobs and boyfriends, facing problems instead of avoiding them. And yet the show continued to lean on now-familiar jokes about Abbi’s nitpicking, Ilana’s obsession with Abbi’s ass, and her “Yas queen” tagline (which has lost its edge as it’s infiltrated the mainstream, as taglines are wont to do). The characters were growing up, but the show seemed to regress.

Parts of the finale worked — I loved how the parallel storyline of Tracee Ellis Ross and Tymberlee Hill as drama-loving flight attendants collided (literally) with Abbi and Ilana’s quest for a tampon. But the part about the girls going on a faux-Birthright trip felt like background noise (aren’t they a little old for that?), and relied on age-old clichés about the kind of upper-middle-class Jewish kids that the real Abbi and Ilana probably grew up with. Now that the real Abbi and Ilana are on magazine covers, the conceit felt like punching down — like they’re just too cool for this planeload of loser redheaded Jews who only want to get married. The bit could have worked if it were funnier, but it just shows how much more difficult it can be to land a joke when you’ve been elevated above the people you want to lampoon.

The success of Abbi, Ilana, and Amy shows how comedy works in the underdog’s favor. But for women in comedy, this is a good problem: Amy Schumer’s become too big? Great! Let’s see her wriggle her way out of accusations of racism and “whiny white woman” privilege with the best weapon she has: humor. Let’s see her get that mythical golden-winged beast that is the “Louis C.K. deal.” Let’s see Abbi and Ilana conquer Comedy Central with stoner-themed side projects and introduce new faces and voices to the comedy scene like Amy Poehler did for them.

And no matter how big they get, we have Samantha Bee now. Late night is so stubbornly white and male, she’ll be an underdog no matter how popular she gets.