Comedy’s new oversharers make even Amy Schumer look coy

There was an outpouring of emotional candour from standups at the Edinburgh festival, but Schumer skilfully keeps her anxieties at a safe distance

Does Amy Schumers new tour justify the hype? I caught up with it at the O2 in London on Sunday night and one of the aspects that struck me most was the unresolved tension a creative tension, probably between Schumers Sarah Silverman-style faux-arrogance (Im a superstar, youre lucky to be near me) and her self-loathing (I am trash). The reason it struck me so forcibly was because Id just spent three weeks at the Edinburgh festival, watching comedians foreground their personal problems. Schumer is a comic with challenges of her own but in time-honoured comedian fashion she chooses to keep them at arms length rather than putting them centre-stage.

Thats not to say Schumer is evasive about her body-image issues. Theres the routine where she parts her legs ever further until she identifies the moment her thighs stop touching. There are multiple jokes about womens magazines, Hollywood and the pressure on women to be thin. She is by turns defiant of these pressures, and vulnerable to them. She knows shed be (only) the third best-looking bartender in the bar, she says. She shows us paparazzi shots of her and her sister, and tells us that (generally, not just in these pictures) she looks like garbage.

At that moment, the audience intervenes; there are cries of no! to rally Schumers self-confidence. Thats an odd moment, but also the moment Schumers show intersects with what weve just seen at Edinburgh: an outpouring of emotional candour from clowns no longer prepared to conceal their tears. For years, cynics have been caustic about the preponderance of dead dad shows at Edinburgh a catch-all complaint about the supposed obligation to make shows with an emotional or narrative arc thats anathema (some would say) to standup comedy. Until this year, that phenomenon was greatly, and tediously, exaggerated. But dead dads werent the half of it at the fringe in 2016: in the work of Sofie Hagen, Jayde Adams, Chris Gethard, Rachel Parris, Scott Agnew and more, dead siblings and brain haemorrhages, histories of abuse, bad breakups and lifetimes of depression were all fair game.

Chris Gethards Edinburgh show focused on his depression. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Is this the Oprah-fication of comedy? It sometimes felt like it. Or is it a valuable airing of feelings that society prefers us to deny or suppress? Well, its that too. It certainly enriches or complicates our expectations of what a comedy show can deliver. In that Schumer moment, when the audience collectively gave her a supportive hug, or the closing stages of Richard Gadds award-winning show, where he talks frankly about the sexual assault hes spent four years running from, the audience-performer relationship is more about emotional intimacy and support than it is about laughter.

The difference is, Schumer stumbled upon that connection seemingly by accident. Her show wasnt structured to foreground her distress or self-loathing which were present only as a subtext or low drumbeat beneath the sassier shtick about her sex life, schmoozing with Hillary Clinton, or indeed gun crime. Thats how comedians real-world problems traditionally operate in their work: as something occasionally alluded to (although youre never sure if theyre joking or not); as something to speculate about, or read about in interviews. Maybe the bottling-up of broiling feelings that couldnt be expressed, gives some acts their comic charge? Or maybe it denied us intimate, insightful comedy shows that those acts never felt it appropriate to make?

I really enjoyed Schumers show and shes perhaps a bad example to hang these thoughts on because, by any normal standards, shes an emotionally intelligent and candid comic. But Edinburgh imposed (however temporarily) abnormal new standards, by which Schumer might easily make a whole heart-on-sleeve show fronting up about her body-image anxieties or indeed (as per Emma Brockes recent interview with her) the difficult childhood that contributed to them. Instead, weve got this intriguing clash of swagger and self-disgust, these slightly awkward asides implying low self-esteem, that sit there unresolved. As an audience member, Im happy with that. I dont (always) need the full story: I think the hints, loose ends and contradictions add up to something complex and human, and funny too. But a new context has been established for emotional candour in comedy, and next to its oversharing figureheads, Schumer looks positively coy by comparison.

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