New York comic Liz Magee tweeted, “If you hate pussy, especially your own, you’ll love Amy Schumer’s new special,” after watching The Leather Special on Netflix.
This encapsulates much of the backlash against Amy Schumer’s The Leather Special, which was released last week on Netflix. Schumer opens with a joke about how her vagina smells and how she feels bad for the guys that encounter it, and how you respond to it likely determines both who you are and how you’ll feel about the rest of the special.
While the fanbase that Schumer has built since hitting it big with Inside Amy Schumer and Trainwreck will likely flock to The Leather Special, fans and young comedians who have followed her work have been left feeling let down. For evidence of that, look no further than the 710 one-star reviews of the special on Netflix; while some can be attributed to textbook misogyny, many are from self-professed Schumer fanatics who noticed the dissonance in this special.
“This special was lacking her trademark humorous observations about being a woman,” one read. “It was so slow and I kept waiting for a joke, and one never came.”
“I’ve always rooted for her, but she’s lost itself, it seems,” another said.
Schumer isn’t to entirely to blame for seeming off-putting, and a lot of it is systemic. She follows in a grand tradition of major female stand-up stars whose material prominently feature sex and promiscuity delivered like the club comedian she is — other examples in recent memory are Chelsea Handler and Iliza Shlesinger. Historically and with little exception, it’s the kind of stand-up from women that ends up making it big in the mainstream, and Schumer leans into it full force in The Leather Special. But the material here lacked the same level of thought that went into some of the best sketches on Inside Amy Schumer. Maybe it’s the time crunch for new material; definitely, it’s because she doesn’t have a team of writers to dial it in, but it feels like less thoughtful Cliffnotes of jokes we’ve already heard than new material, sometimes at the expense of her audience.
It’s a hard line to toe, and since her last special was released on HBO less than two years ago, it’s possible that Schumer has simply been too busy with her burgeoning movie career, writing a book, and defending a perceived gaffe every six hours to generate a tight, cohesive new hour of stand-up. The themes that Schumer explore in The Leather Special are the ones that made her career so huge: frank, raunchy discussion of sex, drinking, and bodily functions, all turned up to 11 for the duration of the Netflix hour.
“There comes a point in the career of many comics when they hit a level they think they can just do anything and it will be a hit,” one Netflix reviewer observed. “Amy’s at this point with this special. She’s reached a point where she needs something new and when she reaches back to find it, there’s nothing there.”
This is likely a challenging point for a comedian at Schumer’s level, where her fame reaches a point that it almost feels disingenuous to cling to the outsider perspective that many of her peers are able to. Andrew Dice Clay, the reigning comic of the 1980s, suffered a major blow when the dissonance in his The Day the Laughter Died special tanked largely due to his disconnect with the audience he’d spent years building. Aziz Ansari’s Live at Madison Square Garden, filmed in 2015, focused on his interactions with high-profile figures like Kanye West, just as Schumer tells an extended anecdote about Bradley Cooper in The Leather Special. It’s a trope of high-profile comedy that feels decidedly misplaced in a special that rarely wanders outside the realm of sex and shit, better suited to a dinner with friends from high school than a crowd of a thousand people.
Let’s get back to the joke about how, in short, pussies be stankin’. While there’s no denying that the special is structurally flawed, this isn’t the core of criticism from longtime fans. The problem with a joke like this isn’t the theme of the grosser side of the female body, but the context it’s presented in. She compares the smell of her pussy on its best day (“a small barnyard animal”) and its worst (“homeless”) in the same raunchy style that made her stand out in the first place. However, it’s framed by saying the men who are willing to go down on her and, by extension, any woman, as “brave,” making the female body the butt of the joke and the man the hero.
“Men deserve more credit when it comes to sex,” she says later in the special when talking about how she only assumes one of two positions during sex.
This type of sympathy is not just out of the line of where Schumer normally places her target, but a step backward that feels pandering to a men-in-a-polo audience who might try out the first ten minutes of her special before deciding to stick with it or start watching SVU reruns again. That is to say, it’s not the Amy Schumer that longtime fans admire.
“Other women might look at this and think, ‘this is what I have to do to get a career in comedy?’” another subscriber commented.
This doesn’t mean that The Leather Special is without its merits. Schumer’s explanation of her Catwoman-esque leather is great, “Every comic has one moment where they wear leather and they regret it. This is my moment.” She also takes the time to address her role in gun control advocacy after the two women were killed at a screening of Trainwreck in the summer of 2015. The points she makes to this end aren’t revolutionary, but blending it into the same special where there are two extended anecdotes about taking a dump is kind of impressive.
“What’s crazy is that you can catch a hot load all over your titties and still not want your loved ones to get shot in a theater,” she says.
It is worth stating that plenty of great comedians have put out disappointing specials, and that the type of criticism Schumer has received for The Leather Special is unquestionably different than how a prominent male comedian’s underwhelming hour would be received. It’s not her responsibility to represent all women or even all women in her industry, but her output for Netflix feels disjointed and not like a logical continuation of the body positivity that Trainwreck and Inside Amy Schumer represented.
Part of the reason that the impetus of representing women is placed so heavily on Schumer’s shoulders is because so few female comedians make it as big as her; she’s the only woman who made it into the top ten highest-paid comedians in 2016. It’s not a fair position to be put in, and it would be unfair to say that Schumer has to represent all women. That said, if you’re the only woman in the position a deeply biased industry is allowing to speak at that level, it’s a role about which you must be cognizant. Sympathizing with men because pussies be stankin’ is a lowball joke that feels like a wasted opportunity — after all, we’ve already got nine other high-paid male comedians to tell us that.