The first three words of Amy Schumer’s new Netflix special, Growing, are, “I used to.” They’re followed by a typical, exaggerated summary of the comedian’s drunken antics, a staple of her self-described “dumb white girl” persona from the start: blackouts, ill-advised hook-ups, armed robbery. What’s new is the past tense. After years in the public eye, Schumer is moving into a new phase of her life, and along with it, changing her public perception. She’s reconciling her well-established identity as a callous, self-deprecating party girl with her more recently acquired role as a wife and soon-to-be-mother—or, at least, she’s easing the transition between them.
For reasons both valid and not, Growing will inevitably be grouped with Baby Cobra, Ali Wong’s first hour-long special and one of two she recorded while heavily pregnant. At the time Growing was filmed, in December at the Chicago Theatre, Schumer was in her second trimester. (The comic canceled the remaining dates in her tour last month because of complications with her pregnancy.) Like Wong, Schumer leverages the gory details of her condition into laughs; like Wong’s jokes, Schumer’s intimate, often scatological stories will make their way into millions of living rooms via Netflix. There’s also the less palatable fact that comedy’s institutional biases keep the club of prominent female stand-ups small, its cadre of working mothers even smaller, and its performers who chose to develop, tape, and edit a special while pregnant a category of two.
But there’s a crucial distinction between the two hours. Baby Cobra effectively introduced Wong to a national audience, which came to know her as a firebrand willing to tell rude, messy truths about partnership in parenthood. Wong, in turn, has leaned in, coining catchphrases like “I have suffered enough” (available on a T-shirt!) and posting photos with her daughters on tour. On the other hand, the public already knows who Schumer is, thanks to several specials, a TV show, and a trio of studio comedies. Growing is acutely aware of the foundation it’s building on, while still attempting to push the idea of “Amy Schumer” forward. “You’re pregnant, but you don’t change who you are,” Schumer assures her audience. “You don’t stop being you. You don’t stop working. Or drinking.”
The pivot is well timed. While 2015—the year of Trainwreck, the most acclaimed season of Inside Amy Schumer, and her special Live at the Apollo—marked the zenith of Schumer’s mind meld with the zeitgeist, the years since have seen her brand of cheery cluelessness reach diminishing returns. Snatched and I Feel Pretty, Schumer’s two post-Trainwreck starring vehicles, did fine, if not spectacularly, at the box office; along with The Leather Special, the 2017 stand-up release that netted her eight figures, they did considerably less fine with critics. Partly, this shift in reception was the natural result of viewers’ reconciling the mythos of Schumer, as a gender satirist ascending alongside a wave of female auteurs, with the substance of her work, a mixed grab bag of the shrewd and the broad. Even on Schumer’s own terms, however, The Leather Special marked a low point of relative stasis, adding little to her raunchy, abrasive stage act even as so much had changed in her actual life.
Which isn’t to say that Schumer fell in love or decided to start a family because it would be good for her career. But it’s also fair to observe that her marriage, to James Beard–winning chef Chris Fischer, and pregnancy have provided a trove of new material just when Schumer arguably needed one most. There’s a genuine, disarming sweetness to how she talks about Fischer, a neuroatypical person whose quirks she’s come to appreciate, that stands in contrast to the jaded cynicism she typically affects. “All of the reasons he’s on the spectrum are all of the reasons I fell madly in love with him,” she declares. Pregnancy offers Schumer a chance to hone her observational powers in on a new, more specific target—from how our culture treats women as a group to how it treats expectant mothers in particular. “What are you having?” Schumer intones in a nasal sing-song, recounting the familiar ritual. “Hemorrhoids,” she replies. The comedian has been a vocal advocate for gun control since a deadly shooting at a Trainwreck screening in 2015, but several years into the Trump administration, politics has become more of an explicit focus for Schumer than ever before; in Growing, she recounts her arrest last October while protesting the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
These subjects may be new, but they fit with surprising ease into Schumer’s sensibility. Pregnancy, in particular, is a natural extension of her gloriously explicit diatribes on sex and female anatomy. It’s but a hop, skip, and a jump from the inspired “we are all cum” riff from Live at the Apollo—a routine that included Schumer’s pantomime of Michelle Obama waddling to the bathroom after intercourse—to graphic descriptions of hyperemesis, the nausea-on-steroids condition that’s led Schumer to vomit multiple times a day for the duration of her pregnancy. Bits about harassing men with used tampons and the indignities of getting penetrated from behind would feel at home in any Schumer special, though as with Wong’s bluer material, they get an additional subversive charge coming from a woman with a visible baby bump. Schumer even bares hers, complete with multiple Band-Aids over her belly button, early on, an act of pointed exhibitionism that recalls Tig Notaro going shirtless in Boyish Girl Interrupted.
Growing is enough of an adjustment to win back some disillusioned former fans. Still, Schumer has retained as much of what can make her comedy so frustrating as what can make it an occasional breath of fresh, if boozy, air. The relentless cracks at the expense of her own, utterly normal body continue: Schumer notes the lack of pregnancy rumors surrounding her, then attributes it to the press seeing nothing unusual about her looking bloated; a joke about making her arms look small in bridesmaid group photos doesn’t play much better in Growing than it did in her SNL monologue last spring. Schumer is reliably at her best when she separates herself enough from social strictures to comment on them, and at her weakest when she becomes an unwitting cautionary tale about their influence. Meanwhile, a jibe about elaborate proposals signaling a woman’s fiancé is gay is just mean-spirited, not to mention dated.
Over the past few years, Schumer has largely stayed the same, with the changing response to her work saying less about her than us. With Growing, Schumer finally, consciously evolves. It remains to be seen whether the special will lead to some substantive shift in her celebrity. But for now, Growing marks the point where Schumer has been under fame’s magnifying glass long enough to have undergone real change—and to try to reflect that change in something as durable and digestible as a comedy special. Amy Schumer has grown past some things and toward some others. The point, as the title suggests, is to capture the process in motion.