The 48th season of Saturday Night Live has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first five episodes, caught — sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes intriguingly — between giving established cast members a stronger showcase and trying to introduce a new era of the show. So maybe it’s fitting that the best episode of the season so far was hosted by someone with plenty of SNL and sketch-comedy experience who nonetheless hadn’t hosted in more than four years: Amy Schumer, promoting the streaming return of her series Inside Amy Schumer — which has been absent from the airwaves even longer, since spring 2016.
Schumer’s episode wasn’t one of those blue-moon SNL triumphs, where nearly every sketch works and a couple become instant David Pumpkins-level classics. But it was strong in fundamentals: Weekend Update didn’t crowd out sketches by dragging on too long; the sketches themselves were tight, concise and plentiful without touching any stale recurring characters or even too many overfamiliar formats (game shows and talk shows were mercifully absent). Instead, the pieces struck a good balance between relatable and ridiculous: A woman played by Schumer agonizes over whether she can start eating her lunch as her friend relates a sob story; three jurors disrupt a trial with their weird impulses; a trio of recognizably insufferable ladies offer testimonials in favor of “big dumb hats.”
Many of the sketches also had Schumer’s imprint, even though the specific writing credits that circulated through the SNL online fandom (yes, it exists!) indicated that she didn’t write any of them. Outside of former staffers like John Mulaney, hosts typically don’t really write sketches for the show, but they can have a hand in selecting them; whether Schumer was just on the writers’ wavelength or adjusting them through her performance style, much of the episode felt infused with her sensibility. The fake ad for period-safe underwear, where Schumer’s character realizes with terror that her menstruation is attracting animals, could have fit easily on Inside Amy Schumer, with its ever-growing index of women’s lifestyle indignities. So, too, could a simple table-side sketch where a woman (Schumer) reveals that she’s finally convinced her husband (Andrew Dismukes) to enter therapy (and make other life changes) with the branding of “Big Penis Therapy.” Even a pretty simple sketch about football making innocuous small talk in between cruel trash-talk and harassment had an unspoken political edge.
It’s disappointing, then, if not especially surprising, that the live-audience, internet fandom and cultural-critic reaction to the episode was pretty muted, and in some cases (hint: the internet ones) actively hostile. Some of this is a byproduct of a natural inability for comedy fans to get on the same page, and some of it is the usual ongoing disappointment that SNL isn’t more progressive, cutting-edge and/or experimental, things it generally isn’t by design, mixed in with some more insightful critiques of the show.
But what’s striking about this most recent episode is that Schumer’s presence seemed to be treated as neutral at best, an eye-roller or nuisance at worst, in keeping with the general cultural backlash against her. Back in 2015, when she first appeared on SNL, Inside Amy Schumer was a beloved hit sketch comedy series, Trainwreck was a recent $100 million hit, and if anything, there was skepticism over whether SNL could do her work justice. In 2022, her career is more diverse than ever; in the past year, she’s made the personal Hulu dramedy series Life & Beth; co-hosted the Oscars; given a terrific performance in the eerie, little-seen Broadway adaptation The Humans; and brought back her sketch series, which is about to finish up an abbreviated five-episode season. And none of this stuff has been received with much fanfare.
The new episodes of Inside Amy Schumer help to encapsulate both how the culture around Schumer has shifted and how she’s attempted to keep up, with admittedly mixed results. Some of its segments feel desperate to capture understandably roiling political anger over campus assault, abortion and trans rights without always landing big laughs — while the show’s new behind-the-scenes micro-commentaries sometimes feel equally desperate to explain how correctly intentioned these sketches are. (On the most recent episode, one the writers actually leads with “Before you go to Twitter…” before explaining that a sketch that’s obviously making fun of rich people with aspirations toward wokeness is, in fact, making fun of rich people with aspirations toward wokeness.)
Other sketches, though, are as sharp and rueful as ever, casting Schumer in parts like a visitor to a sleep clinic who (like everyone else there) refuses simple advice involving screen time in bed; a woman who can’t stop issuing condescending “aww”s at every gay couple she sees; and part of a friend group that can’t stop extolling their supposed gratitude. Schumer has shifted away from the Sarah Silverman-style shock laughs she used to aim for in her stand-up, and more toward Larry David-style dissection of supposed social niceties, backed with a diverse writing staff. It’s not a cultural crime that the show’s best sketches aren’t being heavily circulated around social media (and Paramount+ not putting many of them on YouTube doesn’t help), but if there’s a hunger for sketch-comedy commentary — and the weekly attention SNL receives suggests there is — it’s a little odd that Inside Amy Schumer has become one more fans-only proposition, another tile for a company’s streaming menu.
Schumer has some eclectic and notable contemporaries in the area of stuff that seemed universally beloved in 2015 and 2016, only to become shorthand for cringeworthiness in certain corners: Think of how Star Wars: The Force Awakens flipped from delightful series revival to soulless Disneyfied nostalgia crap, or how the Broadway musical Hamilton went from triumphant and electrifying reinvention of the form to corny, insufficiently leftist propaganda for the status quo. This isn’t a lament that some relatively small slice of the culture has dismissed one of the biggest movies ever, a Pulitzer-winning Broadway smash, or a wealthy and successful comedian; of course, it’s healthy to re-evaluate pop-culture phenomena, especially work that’s near-instantly canonized. But there is an element of post-2016 despair, perhaps even self-flagellation, in these backlashes — an anger at an imagined audience who thought a girl Jedi, a feminist comic or infusing showtunes with rap would constitute sufficient defenses against racism, fascism, and so on. It’s the flip side to imposing moralistic standards on fictional characters, with a similar result: A sense that by disliking the right movies and shows, somehow politics are being done. In other words, it’s a bit performative — a condition Inside Amy Schumer has always understood, and satirizes more effectively without all of the explanations. Maybe that’s why her SNL episode was so much fun: That show is an old hand at not explaining itself, and shrugging off the fact that it sometimes sucks. In 2015, plenty of fans wondered if Schumer was too cool for SNL. In 2022, for better and worse, she’s uncool enough to be a perfect fit.
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