Amy Schumer: ‘I’m not trying to be likable’

amy schumer

Amy Schumer has faced some tough crowds in her time and understands the value of getting in first and getting in funniest. In her new memoir, The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo, she refers to herself variously as “a blond Shrek”, a woman with a “Cabbage Patch head”, the “third hottest bartender” at a chain bar in Cincinnati, and someone who looks, at a distance, like Alfred Hitchcock. As in Trainwreck, the 2015 film that made her name, she catalogues her mishaps, prat falls and minor brushes with the law, as well as more serious attacks on her welfare, while navigating the tricky line between her comic persona and the more heartfelt demands of the memoirist. There is one requirement she feels no urge to fulfil. After reading the first draft of her book, Schumer’s publisher told her, “You come off as too unlikable”, to which she replied without hesitation, “I’m not trying to be likable.”

Likability is a big theme of Schumer’s, in both her comedy and life. On the morning we meet, in her favourite Manhattan teashop, she looks if not exactly unhappy, then profoundly ill at ease, someone for whom the business of talking about herself outside a performance presents certain constitutional problems. On stage, she is famously loud, brash, as she puts it, “that version of me that’s super-social at a party”. This morning, she is quiet, an “introvert” dressed in black, frequently glancing in the direction of Cayce Dumont, her sister-in-law, who helped Schumer write the book and who is sitting with her toddler several tables away. “Two people have taken photos of me,” murmurs Schumer at one point, scanning the far side of the restaurant, and when a woman comes over to tell her she’s a fan, Schumer flips a bright smile for the time it takes to pose for a photo, then snaps back to the blank stare of someone awaiting bad news.

Part of this is, I assume, Schumer’s anxiety about how the “super-revealing” aspects of her book will be received. It is sometimes overlooked that, at 35, she is fully 10 years younger than Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, both of whom had nothing like Schumer’s exposure when they were her age. After appearing on the US TV talent show Last Comic Standing in 2007, Schumer, in rapid succession, did a 42-city standup tour, made four seasons of Inside Amy Schumer, her sketch show for Comedy Central, and wrote Trainwreck with Judd Apatow, in which she also starred. She first won what felt to me like widespread approval with a sketch that, for a week in April 2015, was all anyone I knew talked about, in which Schumer joined Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Julia Louis-Dreyfus to celebrate the latter’s “last fuckable day”. (“In every actress’s life,” Louis-Dreyfus said, “the media decides when you finally reach the point when you’re not believably fuckable any more.”) Schumer played the ingénue and the sketch, in a style typical of her best work, was profane, self-aware, charming and politically on the nose. It was also very funny.

She has written several sketches in the same vein, the most memorable skewering not just bog-standard sexism, but destructive modes of female discourse, that competitive orgy of self-abasement – “I’m so bad”. “No, I’m so bad” – and inability to take compliments (“Look at your cute little dress.” “I paid, like, $2 for it. I look like a whore locked out of her apartment,” etc) via which women tyrannise each other and trivialise themselves, and that felt like something rarely seen on TV. When Trainwreck came along, and made $140m (£106m) at the box office, Schumer, who played a loosely autobiographical character, became the brightest new comedian on the block.

Against this backdrop, The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo is something of a departure. It is, like Schumer’s standup, raucously fun at times, explicit in a way that, as we’ve come to expect from her, has political bite (the first chapter is entitled An Open Letter To My Vagina, which may be too whimsical for some tastes, but is at least firmly in character). It is also painful to read. One chapter opens with the sentence, “When I was 14, my dad shit himself at an amusement park”, and there follows the story of her father’s alcoholism, general inadequacy as a parent and his multiple sclerosis. Another chapter charts her mother’s failures – boundary problems, oversharing, sexual incontinence – all of which contributed to Schumer’s own fluctuating sexual and emotional security. Like her comedy, a staple of Schumer’s subject matter is dating, but her feelings of inadequacy, shame and unlovability are often presented without edge or humour in the book. By the final page, the comic asides and flights of self-deprecation appear to come not, as one might once have assumed, from a place of supreme confidence, but from its opposite.

All of this is, needless to say, a brave performance, albeit one that gives rise to some awkward tonal transitions between the scattershot jokes and exclamatory one-liners and attempts to say something serious. “My parents lost it all,” she writes in an apparent parody of her own teenage self. “Which happened, incidentally, during the onset of my father’s multiple sclerosis. Cool timing, Universe!!!” Nonetheless, the very act of writing about her past is a reclamation of sorts. “That wouldn’t happen to me now,” Schumer says of an abusive relationship she got caught in in her 20s. “But my pattern, which I think was set up by my parents, [was] of ‘you’re this really flawed person who makes awful mistakes, that are clearly destructive to me, but I’m going to stick with you, and I’ll be the person to love you through this and I’ll be your support system and love you, even though you’re hurting me. And if I take care of you enough then you’ll be able to one day take care of me.’ That was my pattern.” She blinks, bleakly. “Yeah.”

My sister and I tried to navigate what the truth was. We moved so much: were we squatters?

Schumer’s father started out rich and lost all his money when she was nine, forcing them to move from a two-storey apartment in Manhattan to a series of less salubrious homes on Long Island. Without this reversal in fortune, Schumer would not be the performer she is now, with a demonstrably Long Island style. (For non-Americans, she explains, Long Island is a bit like “the MTV show Jersey Shore”.) Hers is not the genteel schtick of comic peers from stable middle-class families, but something altogether more visceral and angry. Although they were Jewish, she says, “where I grew up was very Irish Catholic, blue collar. My girlfriends from then are still my best friends now. They are just real girls, who drink as much or more than the guys. I’m proud of my friends in that part of Long Island; they’re not the prissy quiet girls. I’m the quietest one.”

Writing the book has, for Schumer and her younger sister Kim, “been interesting, as we’ve tried to navigate what the truth was. We moved so much. So many houses. We were like, were we squatters? We laugh about how dark those days were. But we’re pretty much always in agreement about what happened.”

In broad outline, it was this: her father’s business, which sold high-end baby furniture, went bust and overnight the private jets to the Bahamas and rental of entire zoos for Schumer’s birthday disappeared. She was, she says, just young enough for the impact of this life change to be largely irrelevant to her, but concedes it must have been hard for their mother. “Three kids, and your husband has just become literally, financially worthless.” Over the next five years, her parents’ marriage fell apart, her father’s drinking accelerated and her mother took up with the father of one of Schumer’s best friends, something for which, judging by the raw fury of the account in the book, she still hasn’t forgiven her.

At school, Schumer was a popular kid, vivacious, motivated, well-adjusted if you overlook the odd shoplifting spree, but at home it was a different story. For the entirety of her childhood and young adulthood, Schumer identified with her mother over her father, something she now sees as an indication of damage. “I mean, it’s so complicated,” she says. “If I thought I could do a good job of explaining my mother to you, we could talk for a week and it would still be… unless you have a mother exactly like that…” She trails off.

It was only five years ago, when she first began writing the memoir, that she started to see her experiences in a different light. She returned, for help with the details, to her teenage journals, excerpts of which appear in the book with a series of self-belittling footnotes from Schumer. (For example, the line “I have been living in a world mirroring reality but not quite a part of it” is accompanied by the footnote, “I would love to know what the fuck I am talking about here. I must have been reading a heavy-handed Oprah book club pick.”) Her mother, she writes, had inadequate filters. She talked explicitly about sex in a way that was wholly age-inappropriate. She bad-mouthed Schumer’s father to her eldest daughter as if she were an adult, telling Schumer she never loved him. “The level of brainwashing and realising that’s a lot to lay on a kid,” she says. “I’m not a parent but I can’t imagine doing that to your child.” Her account of these years is so unequivocally negative – at one point, she calls her mother’s behaviour “gross and creepy” – that I assume her mother hasn’t read the book.

“Oh, no,” Schumer says. “My mom read everything. I said if you want me not to put any of this in, I won’t. If there are any lines you want taken out; if you want to write a response. Her only thing was [to say that] Hebrew school was on Sunday not Saturday. I said OK.”

Clearly, this was not the first time Schumer and her mother had been over this ground and, while the first time Schumer brought it up, “I was really angry and upset, now it’s five years and our relationship is… fine. But I’m very withholding.” Does her mother acknowledge the validity of Schumer’s charges against her? There is a long pause. “Sometimes,” she says.

There was one uncomplicated moment of closeness between them, when Schumer’s mother told her to hold off for as long as possible before losing her virginity. “I love that advice,” Schumer says – and she took it, too, waiting until she was 17 and dating a boy whom she trusted. What happened next was about as far from her romantic fantasies as she could possibly get. While dozing one night in front of the TV at her house, her boyfriend, without preamble, discussion or any form of consent – without, as she puts it “even confirming I was awake” – penetrated her. Schumer writes: “When I startled and looked down, he immediately removed himself from me and yelled quickly, ‘I thought you knew!’” He abruptly left her house; Schumer cried; the next day, he came around to apologise and she comforted him.

Schumer does not in any way downplay this incident. It warped her sexual identity for her entire 20s and even now, she says, she is not free of a certain defensiveness and self-protection that she traces back to that night. She wishes she had gone to her mother, but she was in denial and instead, with fake brightness, approached her a few weeks later and told her she had just lost her virginity and it was all wonderful. “I wanted to pretend it was different,” she says.

In the book, Schumer follows up the story with a battery of sexual assault and rape statistics, but she describes her own experience thus: “He was inside of me in a way I hadn’t consented to.”

I’m so not racist. I used to make jokes like that, but you want to be sure people are laughing for the right reasons

I ask if this wording came at the behest of her publishers’ lawyers. No, she says. “Why didn’t I use the word rape? That wasn’t a decision. In my mind, when I think about that night, the word rape – there’s a definition; I wasn’t grabbed into an alley and brutally raped.”

You wanted accurately to represent what you felt at the time?

“I was so concerned for him. Which was the heartbreaking thing. I realised the next day I was angry, but he was still my boyfriend who I liked.”

This exchange, which is full of stops and starts, and what Schumer admits to be a fear of sensationalist headlines, is an indication of how hard it is to talk about sexual assault with any kind of nuance. In a jokier part of the narrative, she writes, “Damn, it’s hard to write a book and not get yelled at”, and the distinction she makes between her account and rape by a stranger will be deemed inadequate in some quarters, just as last week she was deemed by some to be insufficiently condemnatory of Kurt Metzger, a former writing colleague who sent a series of tweets mocking rape survivors.

In fact, Schumer does an admirable job of delineating the fallout from that night. In the years that followed, she made a series of bad relationship choices, including the decision at the age of 21 to move in with a man with a volatile temper, who she says threatened, pushed, pinched and belittled her. Part of the reason she didn’t walk out sooner, she says, is that, “I didn’t know that was something that happened to women who were strong”, but her strength is shot through with self-doubt. At every turn, both in the book and in conversation, Schumer is at pains to point out that she is a “kind” person, that she is generous (“Being able to help people, that makes me feel so good. Being able to give someone an amount of money that I know will be life-changing. Hearing people come up and say they appreciate what I’m doing. That I’ve made them feel better”) and that she has lots of good friends, as if these facts were somehow in doubt. She talks about her strength to a degree that makes it sound less like a statement of fact than of wish-fulfillment.

A main source of Schumer’s stability is her relationship with Kim, her younger sister, whom she persuaded to move to New York from Chicago a few years ago, and to whom she gave a job as a writer on her Comedy Central show. Kim has since moved back, but Schumer says they remain close. When I ask, jokingly, how to get my two daughters to have a relationship as good as Schumer and her sister’s, she shoots back, “They’ll bond over hating you”, and smiles widely for the only time in the interview.

The other constant during those years of emotional turmoil was work, and Schumer threw herself at the standup comedy circuit with a ferocious and admirable ambition. For this, she returns to the fact of her father losing his fortune. “The kids I know who grew up with money are the most fucked up. I worked from such an early age – the work ethic, the struggle – I appreciate it now. I appreciate having money now.”

She is good with money, has never lived beyond her means and is a shrewd enough operator to have changed publishers and resold her memoir for a reported $8m (£6m) – eight times its original value – after her stock rose dramatically some way into writing it. Schumer keeps a line in her head of where she will and won’t sell out for money. “I mean, I’ll do an Old Navy commercial or a Bud Light commercial, but I don’t want to do a movie where I’m doing some dumb shit that I’m not proud of, that isn’t going to be funny.” She just finished filming a mother/daughter comedy with Goldie Hawn in Hawaii, is co-writing a film with Jennifer Lawrence (Lawrence reportedly got in touch with Schumer and asked if she’d like to collaborate), and would love to work with Apatow again. Meanwhile, she is touring, hanging out with her friends, watching a lot of TV (she loves British crime dramas, specifically, Happy Valley) and dating Ben Hanisch, a furniture designer she met online last year. She remains cautiously optimistic about relationships, whether or not they last. “You try and you don’t give up hope, and then, out of nowhere, somebody comes along. And then you break up and think you’ll never meet anyone again. And somebody else comes along.”

Since two people were shot dead at a screening of Trainwreck in Louisiana two years ago, Schumer has also become an active campaigner for gun control, appearing with her cousin, the senator Chuck Schumer at a news conference and publicly campaigning for tighter gun laws.

In some ways, she is politically naive. During those early years of her career, Schumer made some jokes that have since come back to haunt her, most conspicuously her flippant use of a “dumb white girl” persona, in which guise she made a joke about all Hispanic men being rapists. When this, and other similar lines surfaced last year, she was roundly condemned. To her credit, Schumer will still engage with critics online, “because sometimes I learn”, she says. “They’ll explain why something offended them and I’ll say all right, thank you. Unless they’re a troll.”

In this case, she says, “I think I said something like I’m a comic, I’m going to say some things you’re going to like and some you aren’t, but I promise I have good intentions. People were like, that’s not good enough. And then I was like, OK. You’re right. I have more of a responsibility than that. But then, I don’t make jokes like that any more. At the time I was hustling, making my way.” She pauses and smiles. “I’m so not racist.

Does she think satirical “racist jokes” are problematic if actual racists still find them funny? “When I used to make jokes like that, you want to make sure people are laughing for the right reasons.” Which is a hard thing to do.

“Yeah. I mean, you can’t control it that much, but I think if I realised that enough people were thinking it was a call to arms, I would stop.”

Standup is still her main source of income, and now that she plays venues the size of Madison Square Garden, it dwarfs anything she can make in film and TV.

Trainwreck was satisfying not just for its critical success, but for the way in which it flushed out the double standard in the way men and women behaving badly are perceived. Given the title of the film, Schumer was bizarrely sensitive to the suggestion that the title character was a mess, but she was also justified in pointing out that men who get drunk and have sex are not disparaged in the same way that she was. No one called Seth Rogen a “skank” for his role in Knocked Up.

After the film came out, Schumer was offered a lot of unenticing follow-up roles – too much slapstick or losers. “I’m not going to be the woman who drives a moped through plate glass, or the girl at the wedding, who’s like I can’t meet [anyone].” She says, “It loses me money to go out and do a movie”, so it has to be good.

Schumer does not consider herself someone who plays the Hollywood game. It took her three years to persuade enough people to be involved in the Last Fuckable Day sketch because, she says, “actresses didn’t want to do it. Tina said if Julia does it, she’d do it. Patricia had won the Oscar and talked about equal pay, so she said, ‘I’ll do it’. It worked out.”

She doesn’t disparage their cautiousness. “Well, they’re smart. I’m naive, I don’t really know much. They’ve navigated it this long.” Still, for as long as she can get away with it – which is to say while she’s still considered “the cool thing; that’s what it’s all about. It’s all really gross” – Schumer will do precisely as she pleases. It’s the attitude that powers her life, as her humour. “I’m not going to play the games that they play.”

Amy Schumer’s UK tour starts on 30 August. For tickets, go to livenation.co.uk

‘He looked like a fake Greek sculpture of a man; he was so handsome, you couldn’t look at him for very long’

An exclusive extract from Amy Schumer’s new book

My sister Kim and I got really fat one summer. I’m not fat-shaming us. It was worth it. We both like to expand and contract like accordions. That summer, we were not wanting for anything.

I was blessed with a mother who made junk food completely contraband. Her restrictions did not have the desired effect. Instead of giving me a healthy in-moderation-only attitude towards shitty-for-you food, any time I was around soda or pizza at a birthday party, I went full-metal-jacket crazy eating it all. Once, when I was nine, I went to the circus with my friend Lauren. Her mom offered to grab me something from the concession stand, and I was like, “I can have whatever I want?” She said – get this – “Yes.” My vision blurred and I blinked maniacally, unable to respond. She must have thought I was waiting for her to read me the menu of options – which is what she did.

“Well, honey, they have peanuts, popcorn, cotton candy, pretzels, giant chocolate chip cookies, lollipops, soda and hot chocolate.”

To which I answered, “Yes.” Then I ate so much, it’s a miracle my little stomach didn’t explode all over a dancing elephant.

Even as a full-grown adult woman, I still have this habit. I curb it within reason. But there is no other way to describe that particular summer: Kim and I got fat. I was just about to start filming the second season of my TV show, so I panicked and asked her to lose some weight with me. There is no reason she should have said yes. She’s very married and is not on camera very much. Kim is one of those girls with a natural Playboy-model type of body – the kind that, if it were mine, I would have had so much fun with. I’d be carrying every disease known to man and monkey. Instead, I’m shaped like a cactus, and when I don’t shave for four hours, I feel like one, too. But Kim agreed to work out and eat well with me, because she is kind.

I can have low self-esteem, but I’m also always completely ready to believe that I am prettier than I ever realised

We signed up for this insane CrossFit-type workout. It’s one of those programmes that puts you through Navy Seal–style guerrilla warfare training that is completely over the top and unnecessary, unless you’re a runway model or about to compete in the Hunger Games.

There was one instructor who was so beautiful and charismatic that it was confusing. This instructor, whom I’ll call Neal, looked like a fake Greek sculpture of a man; he was so handsome, you couldn’t look at him for very long. He spread his attention evenly in the class, walking around and winking and squatting next to us as we did wall-sits and crunches.

Kim and I are annoyed by physically perfect people, because fuck you. They can’t also be funny. But even we were not immune to his charm.

Neal always made it very clear in class that he was available via the internet to provide extra personal training outside. One day, I said to my sister, “I kind of feel like he was saying that specifically to me… because he kind of likes me.”

I was fully ready for her to tell me I was an idiot. Kim has often messed with me when I have a crush on a guy and he has zero feelings for me. There was a guy who worked on my TV show whom I was crazy about. He wouldn’t give me the time of day, even though I was literally paying for his time of day. One afternoon while shooting, Kim said, “Oh my God, Aim, don’t turn around – he is looking at you!” “Really?!” I shrieked. I slowly turned around and he was sleeping on a pile of equipment. But after I asked her about Neal, she said, “Dude, me, too – I felt like he was saying it to you!” This was all I needed.

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I can have low self-esteem at times, but I’m also always completely ready to believe the fact that I am prettier than I ever realised. On the evolution chart, this guy and I were at opposite ends. I was dragging my knuckles, throwing my own faeces at tourists, and he was a Disney prince but with more sex appeal. I reached out and was all, “Can you help me with my diet?” and he was all, “Sure, let’s meet up at this healthy-eating place,” and I was all, “Here comes the bride.”

We wound up hooking up a couple times, always at my place, and I could tell that he hoped I was going to just blow him. But he didn’t realise how lazy homegirl is. To be honest, I never really enjoyed making out with him, because the whole time I was thinking, “Why would he do this with me? I saw all the actual real-life, young-as-fuck supermodels in class swooning over him. It makes no sense.” Until one night I found out about his secret bad habit.

We all have habits we don’t want people to know about. Some people only eat fast food in secret, and some people, like my sister-in-law, watch reality TV that is so trashy, it should be illegal. How do I know that? Because I watch it with her and make her watch even worse TV. The night I found out about Neal’s secret, we were progressing – he had enough confidence to actually confuse me into thinking we might even start dating for real. So we went to a fundraiser for a disease, Lyme or alcoholism or something, and it was embarrassing to be there with him, because everyone was looking at me like, “Give me a break, bitch.” You can be with someone kinda a li’l bit hotter or less hot than you, but if the levels are too off, people are furious. It’s sick and sad.

I got myself nice and drunk to deal with the humiliation. We left hand in hand. Walking to the car, I thought, is this my next boyfriend?

I said, “Let’s go to your place.” “OK,” he said, “but it’s kind of a mess.” I let him know I wasn’t the type of girl who would ever care.

That night, he opened his door – and there it was. What had probably once been a beautiful studio apartment had become an overstuffed locker. The kitchen and bathroom were black with mould, all porcelain surfaces coated in hair and grime, and there were unwashed dishes and towels covering every inch of the counters. It’s not that uncommon for a guy to have a disgusting apartment, especially if he’s single. I actually think it’s endearing. But Neal’s apartment went far beyond endearingly dirty. It was like Jumanji. Filled to the brim with unnatural things that didn’t belong in an apartment. Piles of books and clothes and sneakers and furniture sitting on top of other furniture. There were magazines and papers stacked in tall symmetrical towers. Big haphazard pyramids of exercise contraptions and unopened packages. Protein powders, healthfood products, junk mail and paperwork, CDs, rolled-up posters, jump ropes, empty grocery bags, knee pads… It was a filthy, stacked-to-the ceiling nightmare. You had to walk sideways through the narrow pathways he’d cleared. This boy was a hoarder.

“I told ou it was messy,” he said. “Is it bad?”

 “No!” I shrieked too loud and fast. “It’s a really nice apartment.”

I shut myself in the bathroom and noticed a bra hanging on the door. I’d previously been suspicious he had a girlfriend – some little model walking in Paris at fashion week, even though I don’t know when fashion week is. I don’t think this bra could have belonged to a recent girlfriend. Based on the expired time stamp of everything else in that apartment, that bra could have been hanging there for years. It could have been Amelia Earhart’s bra. I stalled in the bathroom, marvelling for a moment at the fact that a man so perfectly waxed and so expertly coiffed could emerge from this bottom-of-an-orangutan-cage bathroom every morning.

After I pulled myself away from the bathroom, he continued leading me through the pathways he’d cleared. It was like being led through a maze. It smelled dusty and like his dog, a sweet pitbull who followed us single file. He offered me a drink and I said no. That’s how bad it was. He led me to the only clear area – the love seat in front of the TV – and we watched TV. Rather, I pretended to watch TV, unsure of how to leave.

So what did I do? Well, Amy, you obviously left. No, that is what a normal person would do. What I did was let him lead me to his mattress that had no sheets on it. It was an out-of-body experience. I was looking around the room at the stacks of things he had accumulated over the years. The dog and I made eye contact. I felt like we were sending each other the same message: “HELP!” I got dressed. I remember making myself pause to feel what it felt like to be in my 30s and having a sexual encounter like this. Never again, I thought. I said good night and walked back out to the city street full of steaming trash where things were nice.

I went home and showered for eight years. I don’t know what caused his condition. My only guess is that maybe he grew up without a lot – and maybe material things and just having stuff makes him feel successful. This analysis is based on watching three episodes of Hoarders and asking no one.

All human beings have secret compulsions. But now, any time I see someone who is so physically beautiful they almost don’t look human, I remember there’s definitely something totally fucked about them that will bring them right back down to Earth

This is an edited extract from The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo, by Amy Schumer, published this week by HarperCollins, £20. To order a copy for £16.40, go to bookshop.theguardian.com, or call 0330 333 6846.

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