In one promotional portrait for “Growing,” Amy Schumer’s new Netflix special, the comedian is a Photoshopped giantess, too big for her stage, too big for our world. Physical excess is Schumer’s ethos. As our national bachelorette, she has drained a wine glass the size of a bucket and distributed digit-shaped snacks called “finger blasters” to teens, on her Comedy Central sketch show, “Inside Amy Schumer.” It does not suffice simply to inform an audience of the depth and size of her vagina; Schumer needs you to know its scent. (“On its best day,” she muses in “The Leather Special,” her first standup show for Netflix, “my pussy smells like a small barnyard animal.”) But, as the promotional poster’s visual metaphor unsubtly suggests, Schumer’s comedy of self-humiliation is going through changes. Her boyfriend, the chef Chris Fischer, who once nursed her through a bout of diarrhea in Paris, has graduated to husband. Schumer is pregnant with their first child, and also pregnant with an indistinct ruefulness. The dirtbag sexual nihilism of early Schumer thaws out in “Growing,” leaving her with little solid ground.
“Growing” has a sleepy volubility; the erstwhile bar hound is now reminiscing with girlfriends about her wilder days over a nice but very long brunch. “I used to do something a lot of comics do,” Schumer begins the show by saying. “I would blame my disgusting behavior on the city I was in. . . . ‘Denver, you made me fuck that stranger—no condom. You’re crazy, Denver!’ ” The joke’s rearview construction hints at some potential self-disclosure to come. The paradox of Schumer as an artist is that, though she does not think twice about showing us her pink parts, she is nearly conservative when it comes to exposing, or not exposing, her private mind. At the opening of “Growing,” Schumer perfectly tees up to challenge her own impersonal mode of heterosexual grievance. But then she closes the aperture, too busy now setting up the special’s single beat of non-doggy-style choreography: she lifts her dress to show her protruding stomach, her navel bandaged to protect the crowd from seeing how pregnancy has deformed it.
Before the audience has a chance to consecrate their entertainer, she tells them, “I’m contractually obligated to be out here, guys,” adding, “I’m not, like, ‘I don’t care. The show must go on.’ I’m, like, ‘I will be sued by Live Nation.’ ” The real talk is a toss-off; if it has a purpose, it is to rustle up briefly a trendy sense of worker solidarity, between the millionaire and those at home. But, intentionally or not, the comment braces because it conveys a raw annoyance. I hate to compare automatically Schumer in “Growing” to Ali Wong, who recorded her two Netflix standup specials while heavily pregnant. But their common use of gestation as comic body horror warrants a moment. (In a recent interview with the Times, Schumer, who has been accused of joke stealing, admits that she asked her friend John Mulaney to cross-check Wong’s specials for unintentional similarities.) The grand payoff to “Baby Cobra,” Wong’s début special, actually came two years later, in her follow-up, “Hard Knock Wife.” During the second go-around, Wong never comments on the fact that she’s pregnant again, elevating her torso to a gag both visual and philosophical. For Schumer, pregnancy is intrusive and foreign—she suffers from hyperemesis, meaning she vomits nearly every day. (During the Times interview, the reporter witnessed Schumer throw up twice.)
Schumer’s knee-jerk overshare here aspires to more than the quick, gross-out response. But her exhibitionism does not amount to real confession. Schumer talks of yeast infections and drinking while pregnant, and, in an extended musing on the topic of menstruation, raves about Thinx “period-proof” underwear. Much of her material angles away from her actor persona and her celebrity power, a decision that burdens the performance with a preposterous unreality. In recent years, Schumer has starred in as many network comedy specials as Hollywood films.
Toward the middle of “Growing,” Schumer does an am-I-right-ladies riff (perhaps women should respond to unsolicited dick pics with their own “favorite dick pics”!) that made me think of the faux-empowerment propaganda of her 2018 film “I Feel Pretty.” In it, Schumer, whose movies always turn on the trope of the unruly woman, is a cog at a makeup company who requires a head injury in order to think herself attractive and professionally capable. “I Feel Pretty” chastises those who consume images of female perfection for being vulnerable to the influence of advertisement; it ends with Schumer’s character preaching over a grid of multi-ethnic faces. The movie’s trailer, which basically gave away the entire treacly plot, did not receive a warm welcome when it was released online. Women do not need more content telling them that beauty standards are all in their heads, many pointed out. Schumer attempted to deëscalate, saying, “I don’t want anything keeping women from living up to their full potential, and this movie’s about that.” That’s an O.K. line on the red carpet, but, now that the millions have been made, I expected Schumer to address the backlash against the film, which she didn’t write, or her weird and furtive gender optimism—something. But, in “Growing,” there is nothing except a lingering friction between Schumer the comedian and Schumer the actor, the latter threatening to undermine the former’s jokes.
Reticence, and the unwillingness to acknowledge reticence, stunts “Growing,” but I think that I understand Schumer’s detachment. The comedian has earned some of the criticisms of her white-girl naïveté, which evidently still rankle her—“You look around,” she says, while miming how women stealthily solicit extra tampons, “like you’re gonna say something racist. And, whatever race you thought I meant, that’s your problem.” But the fair critiques have inadvertently sanctioned plain and simple misogyny. Reminding the audience that one in three women will be assaulted in her lifetime (and that the frequency is higher for trans women of color) and channelling the Margaret Atwood quotation about women fearing death and men fearing ridicule, Schumer seems to be seeking to armor herself against reflexive distrust. At one point in “Growing,” she says, “It’s tough to stay confident as a girl.” What transmits, as in “I Feel Pretty,” is a Hallmark ventriloquism, though one story she tells feels deeper than truism. Last October, she and three hundred others were detained at the Hart Senate Office Building, in D.C., during a protest of Brett Kavanaugh’s impending Supreme Court confirmation. In a subsequent riff, Schumer links concerned-citizen hope with frat-girl cynicism—a balance, that, if deeply developed, might be the key to the maturation of her standup. “I want to be able to tell this kid I did everything I could,” she says. “And D.C., I heard, has the best cocaine.”