I’ve been rewatching the first three seasons of Inside Amy Schumer for the same reason I sometimes look through old photos of me and my ex after I’ve been drinking as much white wine as Coach Thompson’s wife in “Football Town Nights”: to try and figure out where things went wrong. Did Schumer’s newfound fame contribute to this season’s now apparent drop in quality, as the critical hivemind suggested after watching the first two press screeners? Did the writers run out of ideas? Was the format simply played out?
What I’ve learned from my Hulu-fueled drive down memory lane is that the show isn’t deteriorating so much as it is wandering off course. Inside Amy Schumer isn’t getting bad, per se, it’s just doing less of what used to make it good.
Most of my favorite sketches from the earlier seasons of Inside Amy have three ingredients: Amy, a guy, and a bed. There’s “One Night Stand”, in which Amy tastes wedding cakes and buys burial plots after sleeping with a guy who doesn’t even remember her name the next day. There’s “Magic Man,” in which the excellent Kyle Dunnigan tricks his way into Amy’s pants. And there’s my absolute favorite, “Hiker Bones,”“Hiker Bones,” which somehow manages to work a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey into a sketch about cunnilingus.
There’s a reason these sketches work so well. For one, Schumer clearly has a keen insight into modern sex and dating. Those topics have always been her strong suit as a stand-up performer and as a writer. She was the comic voice we need to carry us through this uncertain era of Tinder, sexting, and dick pics. But these sketches are also examples of finding creativity within constraint. Their ingredients and their punchlines are simple—e.g. men don’t get attached as easily, magicians are awful, and eating pussy takes longer than most pizza delivery services—but they take their sweet time getting there. In a way, they’re classic sketch comedy: a core premise extruded into a flexible script and brought to life by gifted improvisers. There are no bells and whistles—maybe a few props, but nothing more.
When I scan through what we’ve seen so far in season four, I can count on one hand the handful of sketches that still feel like, well, sketches. The Lin-Manuel Miranda Hamilton bit was basically stunt casting with the barest framework of comedy wrapped around it. The gun control QVC parody felt more like a slightly better produced version of a Daily Show green-screen piece than it did an Inside Amy sketch. Hell, even the terrific ”Guyggles” bit leaned so hard on the special effects that some of the performances got lost. What happened to Amy and a guy in bed? Or Amy and her girlfriends having brunch together? Sure, we’ve seen a couple of those sketches here and there but they are drowned out by the often less-funny bits that steal headlines the next day because they touched on a hot social issue or landed a Lena Dunham guest appearance.
You can call it a function of Amy Schumer’s fame or you can chalk it up her team trying to live up to weird post-Trainwreck critical expectations for the show, but Inside Amy is running away from what made it popular in the first place. The constraints are gone but so, to an extent, is the creativity. We never watched Inside Amy for big-name guest stars, we watched it for Schumer and for the reliable assortment of comedians found in each episode—quieter comedy icons like Michael Showalter, Jon Glaser, and former staff writer Tig Notaro. We watched it for the sociopolitical commentary, sure, but we also laughed harder at Amy farting during a scary movie than we did at any of the sketches that we shared on Facebook the next day to piss off our conservative friends.
Simply put, Inside Amy Schumer used to feel like a playground; now, it feels like a platform. In season three, as the show was bursting into the cultural mainstream, it received well-deserved weekly applause. This season is starting to feel like it was made for the applause. I don’t begrudge Schumer for changing as a writer, performer, and showrunner. I’m happy to see her try her hand at new forms of political critique, too. But the bread and butter of the show is missing. Binge watching the first three seasons of Inside Amy reminded me that, for every incisive sketch about birth control laws, there was one about God helping Amy through a herpes scare. For every Tina Fey appearance, there were four appearances from up-and-coming comics who had never had their own sitcom. That balance is rapidly disappearing as the show morphs from a classic sketch show into an online media headline-producing machine.
In last night’s episode of Inside Amy Schumer, three classic ingredients came back: Amy, a guy—in this case, Dan Soder—and a bed. The sketch, “Madonna-Whore,” explored the expectations placed on women to be simultaneously slutty and virginal. Soder tells Amy to think of herself like “Dora the Explorer but your passport’s filled to the brim” or like “a combination of Hermione from the third movie and Nicki Minaj.” Soder and Schumer play off of each other effortlessly, earning big laughs with their body language alone. If you picked up this sketch and dropped it in season two, no one would know the difference. It’s a classic Inside Amy—modern but timeless, pointed but not quite preachy. But it’s also a taste of what this show could be again, if it can get back to basics. Inside Amy Schumer has already been renewed for a fifth season. Let’s hope it can find its soul again, and soon.
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.