The Apollo Theater in Harlem is not just a historic venue for African-American music, it is a symbol; the brick-and-mortar incarnation of a cultural movement that endured despite centuries of oppression. To paraphrase the New York Times, it’s a legacy that can be expressed just in list form: Winners of the Apollo’s amateur night include Ella Fitzgerald, the Jackson 5, Patti LaBelle, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, and the Isley Brothers. Performers on the stage include Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Dizzy Gillespie, and the Supremes. And comedians who have brought the house down on that stage include black comedians Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Wanda Sykes, and Katt Williams, as well as non-black comedians with marquee standing, such as Robin Williams, Louis C.K., Ellen Degeneres, and George Lopez.
And now, Amy Schumer. On Saturday HBO will premiere the comedian’s hourlong special at the Apollo, which serves as a capper, of sorts, to the Summer of Schumer. Apparently it took until season three for her show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” to get both really brilliant and really popular. After debuting in April to rave reviews (including my own), the show went on to snag seven Emmy nominations and eventually two statues. Schumer followed that up with the surprise hit “Trainwreck,” a summer R-rated comedy that swept the field to eventually rake in $110 million, over three times its $35 million budget. Now Schumer is on tour, returning to her stand-up roots after six months that have changed her life.
With extraordinary success has come extraordinary scrutiny. Schumer is smart, funny, and successful; she is also unabashedly political, centering feminism, equality, reproductive rights, and discrimination in her work. The result is that her media profile somewhat hovers in between successful comedian and outspoken activist. When one of America’s many mass murderers walked a screening of “Trainwreck” in Lafayette, Louisiana and killed two audience members because he “hated feminists,” it cast Schumer into even more of an activist-crusader role.
Which is difficult, because although Schumer’s comedy about gender is incisive and hilarious, her comedy on race is much less so. In June, shortly before “Trainwreck”’s debut, Schumer and her Twitter account were at the center of a seemingly never-ending cycle of discussion about whether or not Schumer is a racist. (She’s probably no more racist than any other white woman, for whatever that’s worth. Say what you will about the crack on Latino men, for example, but it wasn’t not racist.) It led to some important commentary on what comedy can and should get away with—my personal favorite example came from Silpa Kovvali in the New Republic—as well as a lot of less fulfilling handwringing about “political correctness” and “punching down.” (The Daily Beast went so far as to headline a piece “The Persecution Of Amy Schumer,” with the kicker “BACKLASH.”) Schumer, like Lena Dunham before her, has shifted from making jokes about hot-button issues to becoming a hot-button issue herself. Every time she opens her mouth, the thinkpieces seem to write themselves; this one you’re reading right now is no exception.
Given all of that, New York Times Magazine editor Jazmine Hughes’ joke on Twitter that “Amy Schumer: Live At The Apollo” “sounds like an Onion headline” makes a lot more sense (and is painfully accurate). Schumer’s struggled to be as nuanced on race as she is on gender, and now she’s going to walk the almost-sacred stage of the Apollo? What gives?
It seems to me that Schumer is in the middle of a rebranding project. Whether or not she really is racist, great pains are being taken to ensure that she no longer looks quite so clueless about racial issues. The HBO special is not just at the Apollo; it’s directed by Chris Rock. Before her stint guest-hosting “Saturday Night Live,” Schumer tweeted a long, joking text from friend and fellow comedian Kevin Hart. Look, the subtext reads; some of her best friends are black! The stand-up material is very good, and notably steers very clear of race-inflected humor, except when she ribs the mostly white audience for braving Harlem just for her show. And she emphasizes self-deprecation, assessing correctly that the more she mocks herself, the more she can push the envelope when her stand-up persona says selfish, racist or otherwise horrible things. (For example, the “Inside Amy Schumer” sketch about being unable to tell several black retail employees apart reflects entirely on her; likewise in “Trainwreck,” when her character tries and fails to produce a photo as evidence of allegedly having black friends.)
Indeed: A lot of “Amy Schumer: Live At The Apollo” pushes back against the notion that Schumer is a “good feminist”; like any comedian, she bristles at any label that prevents her from making a good joke. Schumer plays up her anxieties about her weight and her envy of beautiful women; she also describes the residue left in her underwear at the end of a day with lovely, filthy detail. “Warts And All” might as well be the motto of this special.
It is notable, then, that HBO—or Rock, or Schumer herself—decided to edit out one rather telling wart, in this otherwise race-free hour. The special filmed on May 29; on May 31 Melissa Castellanos at Latin Post wrote a very positive review of the event, that ends with “Keep bringing the hotness, Amy!” Included in her recap is a joke that does not make it to the HBO special: After “getting into her zone,” Schumer “scolded an Asian girl on the balcony, (who she referred to as Woody Allen's step-daughter-turned-wife, Soon-Yi ) who was munching too loudly on chips…”
I wasn’t there. I don’t know how this joke played. Considering we did not see a deluge of thinkpieces following the event, I’m assuming no one in that audience took it out of turn. Still, it’s kind of a stunner, in black-and-white. This was a good month before this summer’s discussion about Schumer’s race-inflected jokes; and even more time before “Trainwreck,” where Schumer’s character makes a different Soon-Yi joke. But I’m not surprised that it was edited out of the HBO special, to give the audience an hour of race-free Amy Schumer. Say what you will about the joke, but it wasn’t not racist.