There’s a moment in Amy Schumer’s QVC-themed anti-NRA sketch in which a man with a felony record ordering a handgun over the phone cheerily proclaims, “Great! I’ll get one for me and my mouthy c**t wife!”
“Oh, one’s for your wife?” Kyle Dunnigan’s orange-faced home shopping host asks him.
The caller’s ominous response: “In a way.”
It is the most biting moment in an episode mostly devoted to comedy about gun control. Like Schumer at her best, it is edgy, dark and painfully honest. Research shows that most women who are killed by their intimate partners are killed with guns and the converse—that most women who are killed by guns are killed by intimate partners—appears to be accurate as well. Schumer drives that feminist point about gun violence home in her interview with a representative from the gun safety group EveryTown at the tail end of the episode, smiling mirthlessly as they discuss the link between mass shootings and domestic violence.
But that line from the QVC sketch stands out because it’s the only bit that digs below the surface of the gun debate. Of course, after the sketch aired, media outlets declared that it was “scathing” and “hard-hitting” but hyperboles make for good headlines, as we’ve seen every time John Oliver “destroys” something. The truth is that Schumer’s commentary on guns, while well-intentioned, doesn’t really have the teeth that her other humor does.
The sketch’s first segment focuses on the “private sale loophole” in gun control legislation, whereby Americans can circumvent a background check by buying from unlicensed sellers online or at gun shows. The broad opening stroke—a giant “Gun Show” banner falling down behind Amy and Kyle to the sound of an air horn—is good for a laugh but it doesn’t last. Satire is at its most effective when it isn’t merely pointing out the obvious and public opinion polling has shown that the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats already want to close that loophole.
Most Republicans and Democrats also favor laws banning people with mental illness from buying guns so when the ticker at the bottom of the fake home shopping network screen reads, “If you’re mentally ill, you’d be mentally ill not to give us a call,” Schumer is preaching to the choir once again. She moves on to observe that people on the no-fly list can still purchase guns but, even there, early polling on the topic has suggested there may be bipartisan support for that restriction as well.
The fundamental problem with the sketch is that Schumer doesn’t need to point out how ridiculous it is that guns can be purchased without background checks. We already know it’s outrageous. What needs skewering are the congressmen and women who make it impossible for common-sense reforms with widespread support to get off the ground in the legislature. Sure, Schumer throws their names up on the screen at the end of the sketch but that choice comes across more like a sophomoric invitation to call your local representative than it does a brutal blow to their moral culpability in America’s gun woes. That’s a missed opportunity for a comedian who has proven herself eminently capable of dressing down politicians.
Compare, for instance, this home shopping sketch with the brilliant one from last week’s premiere in which old congressmen surround Amy and ask her probing questions while she’s got her feet up in the stirrups at her OB/GYN. That was a sketch that took it as axiomatic that male lawmakers shouldn’t have the final say on women’s reproductive health and then went a step beyond that, exploring the weird mixture of moralism, voyeurism and repulsion at the heart of their seeming fixation on contraception and abortion. Like the gun control sketch, it punched up, but the punches landed in the gut of those responsible for the problem rather than on the face of the problem itself.
Schumer’s most memorable social and political comedy has this same quality. Her Bill Cosby sketch didn’t just lampoon the accused rapist, it dove into the weird truther-esque mindset of the people who defend him. And, in fact, her most brilliant gun-related sketch wasn’t even about guns at all—it was about contraception. In last year’s viral birth control commercial, Amy goes through a dozen layers of male approval before receiving her prescription and then, in the stinger, a young boy instantly buys a gun from a pharmacist, no questions asked. The exaggerated juxtaposition of the ease of gun purchasing and the difficulty of accessing contraceptive care says something about America’s priorities that is worthy of being called “scathing.”
Even the “Guns” commercial on Schumer’s episode of SNL was harder-hitting than last night’s Inside Amy Schumer sketch. In contrast to issues like mandatory background checks, Americans are, in fact, sharply divided on whether or not it’s more important to support gun control or gun rights. “Guns” hit right at the heart of that split, mocking the uniquely American sentimentality around gun ownership. It was a controversial sketch but, whether you agreed with its underlying critique or not, it at least took a bold stand. The no-fly list is low-hanging fruit for a comedian in pursuit of gun control. Interrogating the psychology behind America’s love for guns is much more challenging and, therefore, rewarding terrain.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Schumer’s critique of gun culture is best when couched in the feminist comedic territory that she has come to master over the years. Schumer has developed a finely-trained eye for the absurdities at the heart of twenty-first sexism. She loves to pull down the pants of misogyny and laugh at it. Her newfound attention to gun control is laudable—especially following the horrific shooting at a showing of Trainwreck last year—but it still needs polish to match up to the rest of her political commentary. Every episode of Inside Amy Schumer ends with an “Amy Goes Deep” interview. She will have to go deeper still to use her comedy as a political tool in the gun debate.
May Saunders is a professional dog walker living in Minneapolis and an occasional freelance writer. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her cat, who does not need to be walked. Follow her on Twitter.