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With her HBO stand-up special, Amy Schumer proves that sexual humor is sexual politics

Amy Schumer

Like most “overnight” sensations, Amy Schumer’s was years in the making.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Unless you are Jerry Seinfeld, an HBO stand-up special, especially one filmed at the Apollo Theater and directed by a Chris Rock, is a pretty big career milestone.

"Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo," which premieres Saturday, is like everything Schumer does — funny, smart and outrageous. But in the context of her career, it feels less "milestone" and more "cupcake sprinkles."

High-end cupcake sprinkles. Like the ones made from genuine gold shavings or custom designed to fit a personal theme. But cupcake sprinkles nonetheless, the final garnish to an extraordinary year.

Watching Amy Schumer bloom is surely one of the great pleasures of digital age.

In the last year, Schumer has vaulted from niche-audience favorite and critics' darling to genuine superstar. Mere months after her first film, "Trainwreck" became a summer hit, her Comedy Central series, "Inside Amy Schumer" won an Emmy in September for variety sketch series.

Like most "overnight" sensations, Schumer's was years in the making — at 34, she has spent her adult life working in stand-up and television comedy. Still, it is rare for a career to vault over its own milestones, and Schumer recently not only managed to buy out one book contract only to land another — for reportedly $8 million — she apparently passed on becoming the new host of "The Daily Show."

What? A Comedy Central performer eschewing even a last-minute brush with the Jon Stewart pixie dust?

Schumer doesn't need it, thanks. She's already everywhere, posing provocatively on magazine covers, killing on every talk show imaginable, hosting the MTV movie awards and pranking celebrities as diverse as Kim and Kanye (red carpet pratfall) and Katie Couric (used Couric's phone to text husband, obscenely, and then gave Jimmy Fallon a near-heart attack telling the story).

The evolution of a comedic performer is always a striking process. Comedy is personal, visceral, visual and often solitary; a performer matures, or doesn't, before our very eyes.

The library of video clips now available on YouTube and other platforms makes the arc even more obvious. With a few clicks, you can chart a performer's growth with the ease of a parent viewing their children's height marks scratched in a doorway.

Watching Amy Schumer bloom is surely one of the great pleasures of digital age. Fame is a drug that can induce many states, not all of them healthy, especially to the creative mind, but when it's working correctly, it can boost confidence and reveal new paths.

The performer who showed up on "Ellen" earlier this year, for example, wasn't essentially different from the Amy Schumer who joined DeGeneres last year. But she was noticeably more self-assured.

Gone are the dark clothes and "slimming jackets," gone is the posture that attempted to literally shrink her size, and the fake but real grateful and adorable insecurity. Schumer now bares her arms and claims her space on whatever show she's joining, sitting straight and tall in those horribly positioned guest chairs, easing up on the "I'm so thrilled you asked me" babble to give herself time to actually perform.

On this year's "Ellen," she almost immediately launched into some of the bits she uses in the show at the Apollo. Schumer hit her jokes with such relentless assurance and skill that DeGeneres, always a generous and selfless host, spent most of the segment in literal tears of laughter.

Fame has also brought Schumer a whole new sub-genre of material — Amy Goes to Hollywood, in which she plays the Everywoman suddenly thrust among the beautiful people. (Memo to Schumer, keep an eye on the expiration date on this; hard to get refills after when you're palling around with Jennifer Lawrence.) Most recently, she opened "Saturday Night Live" with a monologue in which she wondered whether she had accidentally become Bradley Cooper's girlfriend.

But the real miracle of Amy Schumer is not that she is suddenly getting her due and handling it well, but that she got it just as she turned her fun-house mirror away from herself and on to society. The real miracle of Amy Schumer is how she proved that sexual humor is sexual politics.

The woman who was no one's idea of a feminist comic has become a spokeswoman for the Millennial women's movement, taunting both those who still believe feminists can't be funny and those who think feminists ought not be drunk/raunchy/glamorous/self-deprecating/blond/sexy/whatever.

As if a modern Emma Goldman, Schumer would seem to have the motto, "If I can't drink, swear and [expletive] I don't want to be part of your revolution."

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Every female comedian is vaguely feminist if only because comedy remains, like Congress, almost completely dominated by men. Just by existing, by telling the truth as they see it, female comics remain revolutionary. Schumer, like Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler, remind us, again and again, how shocked we still are by frank and ribald women.

Then, in Season 3 of "Inside Amy Schumer," she and her writers began skewering the more institutionalized sexism in Hollywood and society. Instead of limiting herself with a more feminist perspective, she went viral in a near pandemic way.

In one sketch that went viral, Schumer "stumbled upon" Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Julia Louis Dreyfus, Schumer "celebrating" the arbitrary age at which women are considered, um, non-sexual. In "Twelve Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer," a jury of men argued whether Schumer was attractive enough to be on television.

Perhaps the most pointed skit of the season was "Football Town Lights," in which a football team struggles to find exceptions to a new "no raping" rule. All of these sketches, and many others, were breathtaking in their frankness, which was hilarious and heartbreaking, infuriating and, in the case of "Football Town Lights," horrifying.

In the digital universe, these moments reign eternal, are passed around with a fervor once reserved for Hers columns and Nora Ephron essays. A skit in which a panel of notable women continually apologize for everything is now finding new life in the wake of Jennifer Lawrence's essay about double-standards written for Lena Dunham's newly launched newsletter, Lenny.

As with her recent public appearances, it isn't just Schumer's material that's evolved. From Phyllis Diller to Tina Fey's Liz Lemon, much of female comedy is a study in the art of self-deprecation.

For years Schumer tempered even her most outrageous talk with an increasingly faux, but still requisite "what is wrong with me" attitude. Now she just throws down an "oh, right, like it's just me" gauntlet, not only forcing the audience to admit recognition but pointing out that the reason we are shocked by what she is saying is that we are still so unused to hearing women be honest about their experience as women.

Just by existing, by telling the truth as they see it, female comics remain revolutionary.

In "Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo," that progression occurs even within the hour. It opens with material familiar in tone and specifics. Many fans will recognize the initial jokes, having heard her note that her body type is out of place in Los Angeles; that she looked weird as a kid; how unfit she is, really, for her new-fangled Hollywood life.

It's all fine and funny, and if you wish she'd stop talking about herself as if she weighed 300 pounds and had a goiter, well, most women exaggerate their "defects," and that's part of the point.

In the second half of the show, however, things get real. Which means sexual, as in far too sexual to describe in much detail here, except to note that Amy Schumer is, possibly, the only person brave enough to imagine the Obamas' sex life in quite that much detail.

At one point, Schumer addresses the elephant in the room, admitting that she's tired of being described as a "sexual comic" when most male comics could, er, expose themselves on stage and people would still say, "Oh, he's a thinker."

It's an illuminating moment. While there is no denying that Schumer is a sexual comic, her brand of sexual comedy offers us the world in NuvaRing.

Her description of her dirty underwear or paean to the viscous aftermath of intercourse, her relentless breakdown and evaluation of graphic sex slang is, indeed, graphic in that it makes many things very clear.

Especially the fact that, after all these years of alleged equality, the most shocking thing any woman can do is say what she really thinks.

And Amy Schumer is more than happy to oblige.

Follow me on Twitter: @marymacTV

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'Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo'

Where: HBO

When: 10 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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