I was sitting in my car one day, listening to The Howard Stern Show, when Amy Schumer came on. I think I had seen her do a little stand-up on television once or twice before, or maybe just some jokes at a roast, but that’s about it. But sitting there in my car, listening to her talk to Howard, I was blown away by how funny and intimate and fresh she was. You could sense that she had stories to tell and was a lot more than just a comedian. I instantly thought: I need to make a movie with her.
So we did.
Amy and I spent the next few years working on Trainwreck, and I found that she was, indeed, so much more than just a comedian. She is someone who is willing to go emotionally deep, as well as work obsessively hard, and there’s a frankness to her work that I find inspiring. The stories tumble out of her. She is able to make important points about our culture and feminism and relationships and what it’s like to be a woman in America right now, and to do it in a way that is consistently insightful and hysterical. Here is someone at the beginning of a very exciting career.
Amy Schumer: I did an interview with Jerry Seinfeld the other day.
Judd Apatow: You did? Did you know him at all?
Amy: We met a bunch of times at the Cellar, but I didn’t know him well. He picked me up in a Ferrari, and then it broke down on [the] West Side Highway. It was a real piece of sh*t. It was smoking, it was real scary.
Judd: That’s awesome.
Amy: Yeah, that was awesome. It was the best time.
Judd: And how was the interview?
Amy: He completely changed my philosophy about stand-up. He was like, “This idea that your generation has about ‘you have to burn your material and start fresh every time’—it’s just so self-important. Not everybody’s watching everything you do, you know.” He said, “Focus on coming up with your best act for a live show. Remember: Seventy-five percent of the crowd has never seen you, and they’ll never see you again, so you should be working on the best possible show.”
Judd: He’s the main voice railing against the modern comic constantly turning over her act.
Amy: He changed my thinking. For TV, you always have to do new stuff, obviously. But for a live show, rather than trying to work out a whole new act, just do the stuff that’s pretty well worked out.
Judd: But he goes beyond that. He’s also saying that, at any time, half your act can be greatest hits. Like, who decided you couldn’t do that?
Amy: I don’t know why that became the thing. I don’t know why the idea of doing an older joke is supposed to make you feel embarrassed. It’s not about impressing the five comics in the back of the room. As Jerry said, if he sees someone, he wants to see their best jokes. Jokes are like works of art and they take years to figure out. He said you only get six closers in your whole life. Like six big jokes—
Judd: In your whole life.
Judd: I think the first person who turned over his material like that was George Carlin. He did a special every three years or so. Robert Klein put out a lot of specials, and I assume he was writing new material, too. But Seinfeld put out one special in his entire career. Leno has never put out a special. It’s a generational shift. The modern comic says, “Hey, this is what I’m going through right now.”
Amy: Yeah. “Check in with me, here’s where I am now.”
Judd: So maybe the secret is doing more specials than Seinfeld and less than Louis C.K.
Amy: I’m going to do one every couple of years, but I want it to be really great. Because the thing about specials is, they’re going to be there forever.
Judd: Do you think Seinfeld will ever do another special?
Amy: I don’t think so, no. He’s been doing Caesars for ten years, maybe fifteen, and the crowds are great. He gives them a great show and they leave happy. He asked me, “Do you want people to come and say, ‘Oh, she was good,’ or do you want them to come and say, ‘You have to go see that show’?”
Judd: But modern comedy fans will go see you again. That is something Jerry doesn’t understand. Young people will go see Marc Maron every year.
Amy: That’s a good point. I guess the question is, is it better to please the twenty percent of the crowd who comes to see you every time, or is it better to give a killer show, like an epic performance, for the rest?
Judd: This may not apply to anything, but I was watching a movie about women in comedy recently—I think it was called Women Aren’t Funny? And I noticed that you weren’t in it. Was that by choice?
Amy: I got cut out. Actually, I am in one scene. But I don’t talk.
Judd: Oh, I thought maybe it was a political choice, a way of saying, we shouldn’t even be debating this anymore.
Amy: No, that debate is insane to me. It doesn’t even make me mad. It’s like asking, “Do Jewish people smell like orange juice?” It’s just such a weird question. It’s not even a question. The thing that gets to me is the question “Isn’t this a great time to be a woman in comedy?” I mean, all the TV I watched growing up featured funny women.
Judd: People said the same thing when Bridesmaids came out. We never thought about that when we were making it. I just thought, Kristen Wiig is funny. It would be fun to make a movie with Kristen Wiig. And then she had this idea to make a movie about bridesmaids. We never thought of it as a female movie. At some point, in the middle of it, it occurred to us: Oh, it’s kind of cool to have so many funny women in one movie. But it wasn’t conscious or anything. At the end of the process, we realized that it meant something to people. But what is shocking to me was that, even after the movie did well, there was almost zero follow-up in the culture.
Amy: In terms of what?
Judd: In terms of funny movies that are dominated by women. The studio system didn’t embrace them. They don’t know how to do it.
Amy: In my experience, there will be a script and you’ll be like, This is funny, I think I’ll audition. And you’ll know other women, who are hilarious, are auditioning, too. And then they give it to, like, Jessica Biel. They’re great actresses and they’re really pretty, but they’re not funny. Nobody’s like, “Oh my God, you guys have to hear Jessica Biel tell this story.”
Judd: When we did Undeclared, the note from Fox was: You need more eye candy.
Amy: Do you think that’s true? Do people really need more eye candy?
Judd: I have thought about that a lot. I don’t know. But what if people do want it?
Amy: I’m not above that. I want to look at Jennifer Lawrence eating cereal.
Judd: I mean, it depends. People are pretty happy looking at James Gandolfini, or Bryan Cranston. They’re happy looking at Nurse Jackie and everyone on Parks and Rec. So I don’t know. There’s escapist television and soap opera–type television, but for the most part, you just want a hilarious person or an interesting person. Are you someone who believes that life is easier if you’re attractive?
Amy: I think that beautiful people are not any happier than people who are not as beautiful. Even with models—there’s always someone who is more beautiful or younger. So no matter what realm you’re operating in, it’s all relative. I didn’t develop my personality, or my sense of humor, because I felt unattractive. I thought I was attractive until I got older. It was probably a defense mechanism for whatever pain was going on around me. But I don’t think that people who feel beautiful feel like, I don’t need to do this other thing.
Judd: You’re in a weird area. I would describe it as: Everyone thinks you are beautiful, but maybe you don’t agree with their opinion.
Judd: I’ll talk about me for a second. I always thought I was right in the middle, looks-wise, and that if I had a good personality, it could put me over the top. But it wasn’t like, behind my back, everyone thought I was handsome. I get the sense that you feel like some days you’re looking great, some days you’re not, but the audience sees you in a certain way that maybe you don’t agree with. Does that make sense?
Amy: I think that’s probably true. I think that’s probably dead-on. I feel, like you just said, that some days I am like a real monster, completely unlovable and unf***able, and then there’s a moment, every now and then, when I’m more like Elaine on Seinfeld: “Is it possible that I’m not as attractive as I had thought?” Or maybe it’s the opposite of that. Anytime I start feeling better about myself, physically, someone will say something that pushes me right back down. I think every woman feels this way.
Judd: I ask about it because it is about who you think you’re speaking to.
Amy: That’s a really good point.
Judd: I was a year younger than everybody in school. I was the youngest kid in class, always. But I only realized, later in life, that I was much smaller than everybody.
Judd: Yeah. And by the time I caught up a little bit, in sixth or seventh grade, I had been defined. On some level, I guess it made me feel less masculine. And as a result, I always feel like a nerd. I have a beautiful wife, I’m successful. But I still feel like the kid who’s picked last in gym class. And that shaped my idea of comedy being about outsiders. It was a way for me to attack all of these systems that I thought were unfair to me.
Amy: I would say the same for me.
Judd: What was your version of that? What happened to you as a kid that made you think and defined your sense of humor? Just the darkness of your house, primarily?
Amy: Yeah, and one thing that’s too dark and private to even talk about. But I would say, with the physical stuff, that I was always pretty but not beautiful. And that was something that you were punished for. I was very aware of this stuff early on.
Judd: With girls, it’s weird because it changes dramatically. In high school, girls don’t look anything like they looked in third grade. Whereas guys, the handsome third-grade dude is still handsome in high school. Girls blossom and change. That was the kind of girl I always tried to date: the girl who, near the end of high school, got pretty but still acted insecure.
Amy: Well, that’s the jackpot. That’s my favorite kind of guy, too. The guy that blossoms but still sees himself as the fat kid.
Judd: Al Roker.
Amy: Al Roker is the perfect example.
Judd: He lost the weight but he’s still nice to you.
Amy: Because he remembers. But I had no perspective on myself physically. All I knew was that I was pretty enough to get by. I remember in fifth grade, a guy who I was friends with said something to me about being pretty. I got my period in fifth grade. I had, like, boobs. I had an ass.
Judd: Well, that changes everything. That’s just pollution on Long Island.
Amy: Only recently have I got any sort of ownership over my body as a woman.
Judd: What does it feel like, going through puberty so early? Are you getting hormones, like a teenager?
Amy: I was totally boy crazy, running around trying to kiss them. My parents were getting calls. But I wasn’t very sexual or anything. I remember growing pains, and my boobs hurt and I was just getting a body that no one else had yet. I remember being sexualized by gardeners—gardeners are the construction workers of Long Island, you know. I’d walk past a gardening truck and I remember feeling like, Wow, I’m way too young to be getting this kind of sexual energy from these guys. I only wanted that attention when I wanted it. I guess that’s what every woman wants. No one wants unwanted sexual attention. But I felt confused by it, and it’s why I talk about it onstage so much. It’s the confusion of trying to figure out how attractive I am and laughing at myself—I can be easily convinced that I’m gorgeous. Someone will be like, “You really are a beautiful girl.” And I’ll be like, “I know.” But then, an hour later, you’re in an environment where you feel like a troll.
Judd: How does that relate to wanting to be funny?
Amy: That was so interesting, when you asked me before about who I was talking to when I’m onstage. I just thought of that two nights ago. I was in Rochester and I was onstage and this is probably bad to admit, but I was like, I really am speaking to the women in the audience. I’m appreciative of the guys that can come along for the ride and not feel alienated because this isn’t some “pro-women, down with men” thing, but the reality is, I’m speaking to the women and trying to keep the guys interested enough that they still want to come to the shows.
Judd: And what are you saying to them?
Amy: “You’re doing the best you can and you’re good enough.” And that came from just sitting around with my girlfriends in high school and not having to pretend. You could just be like, “Well, I haven’t washed my hair in almost a full week, and do you want to hear what I ate last night?” You would feel so human—and, as a result, less apologetic.
Judd: Your act is like that now.
Amy: Well, I think it’s really comforting to people. It makes everyone feel better to acknowledge that no one has it together. I mean, I don’t know anyone that doesn’t have this big, dark cloud hovering over them. Just knowing that makes me feel better.
Judd: At what age did you become aware of comedians?
Amy: Really young, when we would watch the Muppets. And then I discovered stand-ups. I loved Gilda. I was so drawn to funny chicks. I remember watching Rita Rudner and George Carlin and Richard Pryor. My dad must’ve had it on. And Letterman.
Judd: How old were you?
Amy: Ten or younger. Stand-up trickled in over the years but it wasn’t until I was in college, early college, where I discovered Margaret Cho, and got really into it.
Judd: At what point did you think, Stand-up is something I can do?
Amy: After college. I was twenty-three.
Judd: What did it take for you to think, Okay, I’m going to try this? Because it’s a crazy leap. The need to show up at an open mic—to even write your first joke. I was a lunatic about it. I was trying to write those jokes at twelve.
Amy: How old were you when you got up for the first time?
Judd: Seventeen. I had wanted to do it really badly since age fourteen, but I was afraid to admit it to anybody.
Amy: My experience was like this: I was in an abusive improv troupe after college. This guy set it up to get fifty bucks a month from each of us, but it was not really improv—it was a crazy, schizophrenic, delusional situation. I went one night to see one of the girls do stand-up at Gotham. It was like at six p.m. and she was bombing. Everyone was bombing. I thought, I want to try this because I’m not digging the improv but I like it when I say something and I get a laugh.
Judd: That’s interesting. Because it’s not about being inspired by watching someone murder, it’s like, Oh, this is as bad as it gets. And I can do better.
Amy: I still think that all the time. It’s not that I feel like what I’m doing is so amazing, but it’s pretty good compared to what other people are doing. So that same week, I was walking past the club and it was my birthday and I was like, I’m from New York, so I can get people in the seats. I had three hours to prepare.
Judd: You wrote it in one day?
Amy: I wrote it in two hours.
Judd: How did you do?
Amy: Pretty good.
Judd: Do you remember any of it?
Amy: I have a tape of it. I remember it. I talked about how skywriting annoys me. Don’t you find that when you talk about your early jokes, even though you know they were bad, you’re still trying to sell them? Like, I still want you to think this is funny shit but I know it’s not. Anyway, I talked about skywriting, how it’s annoying and it fades and you can never read it. I was like, “If somebody proposed to me that way, I’d be like, ‘F*** you.’ And so, like, this summer, do me a favor: Keep it at eye level,” or whatever. So horrible. But it went okay, I think. People came up to me and asked how long I’d been doing it, which suggested that maybe I could do this if I wanted.
Judd: What were you doing for a living back then?
Amy: Waiting tables at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse.
Judd: Trying to get acting work?
Amy: Yeah, auditioning. But one day, this woman came into the restaurant and she really liked me. She was like, “I’m going to hook you up with my agent.” So I went in and I did a one-act play to audition for the agent and he was like, “You’re pretty mediocre and I have too many girls like you that are better than you.”
Judd: That happened to me and I never acted again.
Amy: Are you serious?
Amy: Well, it made me furious. At some point, I started doing open mics. They were the worst shows in the world.
Judd: So how long until you were okay at it?
Amy: Four years. It wasn’t until the end of the Last Comic Standing tour that I was okay. I could do five minutes, but to do a twenty-minute set and have it be okay? That took three or four years.
Judd: What was it like for you on Last Comic Standing?
Amy: It was a reality show, so people were basically pulling for you. I was young, and I was excited, and I hadn’t been at all hardened by the business or anything. I was just so happy about it all: “This is great, guys, we’re telling jokes!”
Judd: How far did you make it?
Amy: Fourth place. And the other guys had all been doing it for twenty years, but I had an advantage in that way because I was funny off the cuff and on my feet. The competitions were good for the people with fresh minds rather than the hardened road dogs.
Judd: And then you guys all toured the country and you hated everyone, right?
Amy: Five of us toured and I died onstage every night. I would cry on the tour bus, and then go out and do it again the next night—sometimes two shows a night. We had this mandatory meet and greet after each show, so I’d have to stand out there and talk to everyone who had just not laughed at me.
Judd: Did you get better over the course of the tour?
Amy: My material was good, but I got better at selling it. By the end, I was pretty desensitized. I’d just been in so much pain every night that I stopped caring—and once that happened, it became more about my experience onstage. I was worried that I was going to offend someone because I’d be in Fayetteville, North Carolina, making a joke about how I think all gay people have AIDS, and then I’d look out and wonder, Is that okay? And the crowd was like, Well, we weren’t even going to question it, but now we see that you are. And then I would say something way, way worse right after that, so if they thought they were uncomfortable then . . . That became my thing, tricking people into laughing. Like, the real joke would be a subliminal thing that came after what you thought was the punchline. It was comedy boot camp, and I feel like it gave me years of experience.