A comedian’s first HBO hourlong is a sign that they’ve made it to the very top. It’s the gateway to sitcom deals and movie roles and selling out theaters instead of clubs. So it’s weird that Amy Schumer’s first HBO special feels kind of anticlimactic. She’s already bigger than stand-up. Instead of announcing her arrival at the top, Live at the Apollo feels like a victory lap.
If you only know Schumer from her show, well, then you also pretty much know what her stand-up is like. String together an hour of those stand-up clips that play between Inside Amy Schumer sketches and that’s what Live at the Apollo feels like. It’s an hour of her talking about her sex life, about how much she eats, about how much she drinks, about how she’s normal and fallible and yet now somehow getting to write and star in her own movies. She explores familiar shock comic topics from a female perspective, like when she talks about how she’d let anybody go down on her, or when she tells a story about going to get a massage, realizing the spa is of the happy ending variety, and evolving from her initial disgust to anger when nothing sexual winds up happening. Through it all it feels like she’s both playing a character but also being honest, exaggerating her own desires and behavior and talking about them in a matter-of-fact and conspiratorial way that makes her relatable. She’s doing what great comedians have done for generations, playing an outsized version of herself while telling stories that may or may not be true but easily feel like they could be.
That character has changed somewhat from her earlier stand-up. In the past she’s come under fire for racial material where the joke was supposed to be on the clueless white privilege of Schumer’s stereotypical self-obsessed white girl caricature. She’s still often the butt of her own jokes, but she’s wisely moved away from using and stereotyping other races to make herself look bad. She’s still broadly playing that white girl persona, but outside of the graphic sex stuff she’s not really trying to shock as much as she used to. It makes her feel more honest, but also proves how she’s matured as a comedian—she’s able to get bigger and better laughs with material that’s a little bit subtler than in the past.
If you love Inside Amy Schumer for the social commentary, you might be a little disappointed in the special. Other than an extended bit on Hollywood’s double standards for beauty, where women like Rosario Dawson have to act like they have a timid crush on men like Kevin James, or how Schumer herself had to basically starve and try to develop an eating disorder to star in a movie, the special’s rarely as pointed as her show. Bits about how she assumed Hollywood would cast a younger, hotter actress in Trainwreck, or how beautiful girls always want to be friends with funny girls, are funny and could be fodder for Inside Amy Schumer sketches, but there’s little overt sign of the show’s blatantly progressive viewpoint.
Despite doing stand-up for eleven years, despite it being what earned her a show in the first place, stand-up isn’t Schumer’s greatest strength. She’s done better and more important work on her sketch show, and reached a much bigger audience with Trainwreck, and even though both works grow out of her stand-up, they’re also deeper, richer, more fully-formed versions of what she’s trying to say. So many successful comedians struggle to transcend stand-up; Chris Rock, who directed this special, is one of the greatest stand-ups of all time, but struggled for years to parlay that into a successful movie. Meanwhile Schumer became a movie star without even really seeming to try, and before she even became a stand-up star. Live at the Apollo is her funniest and most thoughtful stand-up yet, but it proves she still has room to grow as a comedian, if she doesn’t devote herself to movies full-time.
Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo premieres on HBO on Saturday 10/17 at 10 PM ET.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections.