“I’m sick as fuck right now,” were practically the first words out of Amy Schumer’s mouth after she took the stage at the Riviera’s Starlite Theatre in Las Vegas, but she wasn’t talking about her comedic style. Schumer was actually ill, which she used to explain both why she was speaking a little huskily and why her outfit for the show was not exactly the most glamorous ensemble. Despite her illness, Schumer performed a strong set, part of the opening weekend of her new monthly residency at the Riviera (which runs through June). Her matter-of-fact approach to not having her shit together worked in her favor, helping build rapport with the audience and bolster her down-to-earth comic persona.
Schumer may have gained a lot of new fans with her performance on last September’s Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen, but unlike fellow female roast sensation Lisa Lampanelli, Schumer isn’t an insult comedian and isn’t looking to push the boundaries of tolerance with every joke she performs. She may have professed a “love” for racial humor, but she made only a few ethnic jokes (which were mostly about her own cluelessness as an upper-middle-class white girl) before moving on to more personal subjects.
She was plenty caustic on that front, though, and potentially shocking for people who weren’t familiar with her style. “Let me switch gears here—my mom’s a cunt,” was the way she segued into talking about family issues, and while not everyone in the audience was prepared for that, most kept laughing throughout the set. “A lot of these are jokes,” Schumer reminded the crowd late in the show, once the explicitness proved to be too much for some. But Schumer isn’t part of the Sarah Silverman-style “cute girl says inappropriate things” movement, either; every time she said something shocking or vulgar, it was in service of a larger idea and contributed to her overall point of view. Assuring “A lot of these are jokes,” was a way to defuse the tension around addressing uncomfortable subjects, but it also performed a slight disservice to Schumer’s sly social criticism.
Social criticism? Yes, chunks about bikini waxing and the difficulties of being a woman were actually pretty spot-on critiques of sexism and white privilege, even more so for how casual Schumer was about delivering her points. It’s not hard to mine humor out of the humiliating process of having a stranger rip the hair off your genitals, but Schumer didn’t just go for the easiest material. She managed to turn the bikini-wax bits into an examination of how Americans view immigrants as a sort of alien subspecies, how we allow service workers access to our most intimate areas because we view them as somehow not quite human.
Schumer’s jokes about the perils of being a woman – as well as a female comedian – were similarly pointed and incisive, even as she delivered them breezily in a completely non-confrontational way. She complained about being asked the same questions in every interview, and imagined a response that might actually get bored journalists to pay attention: “What’s the hardest part about being a female comic? The rape.” That kind of absurd overstatement was a hallmark of Schumer’s entre act, whether she was talking about a particularly unpleasant social gathering (“This party is AIDS.”) or her own shortcomings (“I’m the worst woman in the world.”)
Every exaggeration contained more than a kernel of truth, though; the party bit was especially insightful about a certain toxic form of female pseudo-friendship and was another stellar example of Schumer’s stealth feminism. Her many jokes about sexual misadventures managed to appeal to both men and women, but they added up to a narrative about valuing honesty and directness in relationships, with no tolerance for hypocrisy or deceit. Plus there was the hilarious visual of Schumer searching for the head of an uncircumcised penis like a magician pulling endless scarves out of his hand.
Thematic richness aside, Schumer was just funny, even running at less than full capacity and sometimes distracted by the Riviera’s low-rent stage setup (“This casino’s on the cutting edge…of closing,” Schumer joked with sad accuracy at the beginning of the show). She bantered well with audience members about such basic topics as their hometowns (“That’s not a real place!”) and birthdays, and managed to make the standard plug for post-show merchandise into a cute little bit of its own: “I’ll be selling CDs – not CDs of my stand-up, just some shit I have to get rid of.”
Through all the goofy digressions and the unexpected insights, Schumer came off as the smartest, most self-aware person in the room, someone to listen to because she never bullshits but also isn’t afraid to admit that she might be totally wrong. Sick as fuck or not, she always had the right thing to say.