No woman in entertainment is having more of a moment right now than Amy Schumer. From the slow build of her brilliant TV show to the huge success of Trainwreck to her critically acclaimed Live at the Apollo set, Schumer is on the kind of roll that indicates true “it-ness” in the industry. Yet it’s not exactly a Taylor Swift “it-ness”. The brand of Schumer’s stardom traces its lineage less along the lines of Sandra Bullock than those of Tina Fey. It’s a lineage that contains not so much Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone so much as Kristin Wiig and Lena Dunham. It’s a comedic lineage certainly, but one that is also notable for the intelligence, engagement, and political awareness of its women — for, in short, its feminism.
Amy Schumer is currently occupying the space in the American consciousness that Fey herself carved out principally with her work on 30 Rock, where reliable hilarity could be wrung from the confrontation between modern feminism and the archaic masculinity of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). Just as Alec Baldwin helped to draw out the essence of Tina Fey’s comedy on the NBC sitcom, so does Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing podcast interview with Schumer throw into high relief the fundamental structure of Schumer’s own schtick.
Both Wiig and Dunham have also made appearances on Here’s the Thing, and while Wiig’s interview devolves into awkward non-sequiturs and Dunham is able to stir Baldwin’s more paternal feelings, Schumer and Baldwin trigger something so base and telling in one other that it leads me to wonder not only about Schumer’s comedy itself, but about the breadth of its appeal.
Alec Baldwin does something to people. A personality of well-chronicled, shall we say, intensity, Baldwin’s able to establish an untraditional yet fascinating rapport with many of his subjects on Here’s the Thing — a rapport understood principally through gender.
He sucks up to Carol Burnett, for instance, with such deep seriousness that you can practically hear her blush over your headphones, while he comments on magician David Blaine’s impressive physical conditioning like a gruff old football coach. Examples abound, but in short, on Here’s the Thing Alec Baldwin — be he aggressive, passive, questioning, demanding, fawning, or silly — is first and foremost, a “man”. Ira Glass certainly doesn’t play his gender like this, nor does Marc Maron. Many of the best interviewers work to vanish beside the subject; Baldwin, actor that he is, is always present, always there, and always pressing the moment.
Some of the more unintentionally hilarious bits on Here’s the Thing occur when Baldwin can’t help but dig into a less aggro male subject, cutting him off to get through tedious questions. Consider this exchange from Baldwin’s interview with the urbane Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for History Preservation:
Baldwin: You grew up where?
Berman: I grew up in the Bronx, but I’ve been working in the Village and on the west side of Manhattan since, for, over 20 years since —
Baldwin: And where’d you go to school?
Berman: I went to Bronx High School of Science where —
Berman: Um, so I’ve lived in New York my whole life, and —
Baldwin: What about college? Where’d you go?
Berman: Uh, I went to Wesleyan University and got my —
Baldwin: What’d you study?
Berman: Um, art history with a focus on architecture and urban planning.
Baldwin: Ok. Talk about, if you would…
In her interview, Schumer seems genuinely rattled by this macho pose (or strategy or unconscious formation or simply Baldwin-ness), and her natural response is both curious and revealing for a rising icon of modern feminism. Schumer talks about her breasts. She belches. She transparently tries to impress Baldwin while denying she’s doing so. After a while, you don’t think you’re listening to a professional interview so much as overhearing an embarrassing come-on during happy hour.
The tone is set early on when Schumer mispronounces the word “actress”, and Baldwin pounces.
Baldwin: Do you … consider yourself an actress more than a comic? Do you call yourself a comic, or —
Schumer: I call myself a comic.
Baldwin: You do.
Schumer: But I started as an actresst.
Baldwin: As an acTRESST?
Schumer: Actress! — (laughing, Schumer continues in a mocking drunk voice) — Is that not what it’s called, Alec?
Baldwin: It’s an actreest!
Schumer: (same voice) I’m an actresst!
Baldwin: So the first times you’re on stage, the first times you’re performing in public it’s standup?
Schumer: No, I did plays since I was 5.
Baldwin: Were you paid for the plays when you were 5? Were you on Broadway?
Schumer: I did one called, uh, Seeking, ah, Keeping Abreast, which was about me getting a mastectomy and it was like this whole heavy thing…
Of course we’re sure it was like, for real, no joke, seriously so heavy. But Schumer goes on:
Schumer: I always did plays, I got the comedic roles in college … or, uh, the ones that would get naked. I would get either of those, and then, I, uh, I tried improv —
Schumer: They were like, “This girl’s naked in the third act. Uh, Amy will do it!” And then uh,
Baldwin: Why did they say that?
Schumer: Because they knew that, like, I wasn’t raised with proper boundaries and like don’t hold enough connection to, like, privacy and stuff…
Listening to the interview, I feel like I’m reliving my twenties in slow motion. What’s worse is that throughout the interview, Schumer’s tone betrays a conscious resentment of her unconscious reactions to Baldwin, even as those reactions continue to occur. She even talks about a time when she hit on him at a health club. Baldwin doesn’t remember it. “Can you believe I did that?” Schumer laughs. “What a piece of garbage.”
Naturally for a comedian, Schumer tries to undercut these infantile responses with humor, but the particular humor that she brings to bear — her brand of self-deprecating abject physical comedy — stays firmly rooted in Baldwin’s gender-specific game, a game with which he’s only too happy to play along.
Baldwin: What is the, uh, biggest challenge for men who date you?
Schumer: Battling HPV.
Baldwin: It’s getting enough Valtrex.
Schumer: No, would you believe it I’m disease free? 34 years old?
Baldwin: I would believe it.
Schumer: It’s true.
Baldwin: Because you look like you just stepped out of The Sound of Music. Like Leisel.
Schumer: Oh, God.
Baldwin: Well, Leisel, like if she had a lot of STDs.
Schumer: True. Exactly.
Baldwin: Like if she had been with the entire, you know, Luftwaffe.
Schumer: That song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” is actually about syphilis.
Baldwin: But for guys you date, is it —
Schumer: “Climb Every Mountain” is about…
I can only conclude that the whole “slut-power” vibe Schumer puts off in her standup and her television show may be less of a conscious joke and more of an acting-out that Schumer’s not exactly in control of as she’d like to seem. Not that this is unusual among comics. Plenty of big names get a lot of mileage out of the “look at me I’m disgusting,” routine (Louis CK springs immediately to mind), but besides, isn’t it precisely the humiliating, needy, damaged core of Schumer’s comedy that makes it so good?
Baldwin: Is that still where you’re most comfortable, when you’re on stage in front of a mic doing standup?
Schumer: … I’m most comfortable when I’m having an orgasm … with a famous, famous athlete.
Isn’t it this razor-thin line between sarcasm and self-loathing that makes Schumer all the more relatable — a more honest and “real” woman than the prim Fey, the manic Wiig, or the academic Dunham?
Perhaps more interesting is the role played in all of this by Baldwin himself, not merely here but in the careers of these women at all. By extension, I think we also have to question Baldwin’s persistence as an important cultural figure in our increasingly thought-policed age, where Roger Sterling-esque behavior is assumed to have vanished with the martini lunch. I struggle to think of a more openly boorish public man outside of Donald Trump. Without question, Baldwin’s fervent leftism helps to insulate him to a degree from progressive media outlets, but it’s not enough to prevent him, for instance, from losing a major television deal after uttering homophobic remarks.
Who is this character, “Alec Baldwin”, and why do we turn to it in order to understand a particular brand of modern feminism? Perhaps better, why do these women repeatedly return to Baldwin in order to mark out the boundaries of their own careers?
In a fascinating moment during the Schumer interview, Baldwin asks Schumer about her effect on women. Schumer admits that many women don’t know quite what to make of her: “Women get confused about their feelings for me. I’m straight, but they’ll sometimes deal with me the way that they would a guy they’re attracted to…”
Schumer goes on to detail a story about how a model friend of hers once wrote her a provocative text, which Schumer found annoying because of the presumed masculine position it forced on her: “It’s what you would send to a guy, so that they would picture you in a cute environment.” But Schumer quickly becomes curious how Baldwin sensed this queering effect she has, since she’s never been asked about it before.
Baldwin: People who are young will talk to me about how people are on a spectrum…I’ve met men whom I love as much as anybody in my life —
Schumer: But you’ve never —
Baldwin…I’d rather be with a woman that I would want to set on fire and throw off a cliff, than be with a guy who was the greatest human being I’ve ever met.
A man, all the way down. What better yardstick against which to measure anything, and everything, else?