Amy Schumer is the penultimate American-Jewish success story. Born into the lap of luxury, she succeeded despite the loss of her family’s wealth and place in society, as well as her parents’ divorce and her father’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Her journey into comedy began with her Bat Mitzvah and has not stopped, making her one of this country’s most successful creative artists, following in the trail-blazing footsteps of Joan Rivers and Goldie Hawn. From her ground-breaking “Inside Amy Schumer” series on Comedy Central to her starring role in “Trainwreck,” directed by Judd Apatow, she has delighted audiences with her cutting-edge humor. Despite criticism for a less-than-reverent take on the Holocaust and comments on social media about antisemitic comments, she identifies strongly with Jewish identity.
In the genre known as American Jewish humor, the range is as diverse as the population, from Borscht Belt to high-brow and everything in between. When a 2013 Pew Research study asked a sampling of Jewish Americans about their identity, four in ten stated that “having a good sense of humor” (42%) is essential to their Jewish identity.
Scholar Jeremy Dauber, the author of Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, writes that what is known as “Jewish humor” is a reflection of the survival skills needed to withstand thousands of years of persecution and antisemitism. For American Jews, that sometimes hard-edged sense of humor also embodies a strong sense of ambition, as well as the tension associated with assimilation, gender roles, and body politics. Today, Amy Schumer stands out as a unique voice in the world of modern American Jewish comedy.
Family and Early Life
Born on June 1, 1981, Amy Schumer could be the poster child for the modern American Jewish family. She came into the world as “a precious little half-Jew in Lennox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side of New York City and sailed the five blocks home in a huge limo (Dad’s idea),” oldest of two daughters of Sandra, who taught deaf children, and Gordon Schumer (Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo). Amy’s father was Jewish and her mother converted to Judaism before their marriage; Amy and her sister were raised in the Jewish faith. Schumer was born into wealth and privilege from her father’s Gordon’s highly successful imported baby furniture business, Lewis of London. She recollects her parents traveling on private jets, lavish birthday parties, and a “textbook new money lifestyle,” until it turned to the “no-money lifestyle” right as she entered adolescence and her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of thirty-nine.
After Gordon Schumer’s financial ruin, the family moved into “smaller and smaller houses until it felt like we were all sleeping in a pile...a sad, poor pile,” Schumer later recalled (Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo). Her parents divorced in the early 1990s, and while the family’s lifestyle became more modest, Schumer remembers that she was well-cared for and had what she and her younger sister Kim needed. In a 2016 interview with Vogue Magazine’s Anna Wintour, Schumer said that her childhood fueled her already strong sense of humor: “I was funny before the bad stuff started happening. Then funny became my defense mechanism.... It’s like this superpower that I developed over time, but for really sad reasons.”
Education and Early Career
Schumer attended Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland, where she majored in theater and graduated in 2003. After college, she moved to New York City, working as a waitress and bartender and studying at the William Esper Studio. After appearing off-off-Broadway, she made the move to stand-up comedy in 2004, performing at the Gotham Comedy Club. Schumer got her “big break” in 2007 on the televised show “Last Comic Standing,” coming in fourth place and leading to her appearing in such shows as “Reality Bites” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” In 2011, she released her first comedy album, “Cutting,” and was a guest on Marc Maron’s podcast, where she opened up about her early life.
Schumer’s style of comedy was beginning to take shape. Her unique voice and blend of honesty and humor caught the attention of influential people, including writer and director Judd Apatow, who later recalled: “She was telling stories about her relationships and also stories about her dad, who has multiple sclerosis...and the stories were very dark and sad, but...they were really funny and warm at the same time, I remember sitting in the car thinking, 'This is a hilarious stand-up comedian'" (“Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow Talk Storytelling, Commitment, and Spooning).
Schumer’s career began to take off with her ground-breaking “Inside Amy Schumer” series, which premiered on Comedy Central in 2013 and ran for four successful series. She wrote and starred in “Trainwreck” (2015, directed by Apatow), again relying on a comic turn to her own life and her complicated relationship with her father, on whom she based the character played by actor Collin Quinn.
While Schumer’s life can be described as an open book, the source of her cutting-edge humor, she is surprisingly protective of her family. In her “tell-all” New York Times best-seller, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Schumer writes that she “sent her mother every word that’s written about her in the book.” She holds the same policy for her jokes: “For me, everything’s copy if friends and family approve” (“Amy Schumer Doesn’t Care If You Like Her”) Her bold approach has paid off, with Schumer receiving an Emmy, as well Critics Choice Awards in Film and TV, a Peabody, Writer Guild Awards, and a Tony nomination for her performance in Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower.
Jewish Identity and Influences
Schumer’s relationship to Judaism is clearly woven into her humor, beginning with her Lit. "daughter of the commandment." A girl who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbat mitzvah, which she saw as her opportunity to make her “stage debut.” Her big break didn’t turn out exactly as she planned when her voice cracked as she chanted from the Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah. The congregation burst out in laughter and Schumer was hooked. Her Jewish identity is also deeply rooted in her love of all things related to Jewish food: “I like that I’m Jewish and I enjoy the grossest Jewish food like whitefish salad and gefilte fish” (Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo). While Schumer grew up identifying as Jewish, she only recently discovered how deep her Jewish roots go on the PBS show, “Finding Your Roots,” turning emotional upon learning of her paternal ancestors who left the Ukraine in 1912. She also shared her struggles with antisemitism as a child, being taunted and called “Amy Jew-mer,” experiences that shaped her life and her humor.
Schumer’s Jewish identity is also linked to those she credits as among her comedic heroes, Goldie Hawn and Joan Rivers; she’s followed in their footsteps in being bold and willing to poke fun at any subject, especially sex. Schumer said, “I didn’t really remember seeing that many women talk about sex in stand-up. Of course they have. Joan was doing it before anyone else on television. But I was like, I’ll be that” (“Amy Schumer Doesn’t Care If You Like Her”).
Hawn returns Schumer’s admiration: “I did have ideas and social commentary that I thought were important to put forth, in a way that people could laugh at, but also think about. I think that’s sort of the nature of Amy...Through her comedy she talks very deeply about society, about relationships; she really looks at the absurdity of it all and the obstacles that we face” (“Amy Schumer Doesn’t Care If You Like Her”).
Schumer’s Jewish comedy has not been without controversy. She was widely criticized for a less-than-reverent take on the Holocaust and social media comments on antisemitic symbols. In her memoir, she jokingly shares that while having sex with a “well-endowed lover, I lay back and tried to think of a more relaxing environment, like Guantanamo Bay or the shoe display at the Holocaust museum” (Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo). In 2015, she tweeted a picture of herself holding a clarinet with the caption, A Jew with a Horn, for which she later humorously apologized, tweeting “My bad. I meant to say a Jew with 2 horns” (@amyschumer, Twitter, March 2, 2016). Schumer takes all of this in stride and balances the criticisms with her devotion to family and renowned acts of Lit. "righteousness" or "justice." Charityzedakah, returning the majority of her salary for the last season of “Inside Amy Schumer” to the crew and donating her entire salary for the film “Thank You For Your Service” to families dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and to military families. She has been known to write six-figure checks to those close to her and she is grateful to be able to pay for the best care for her father. Giving back is not for public relations, but rather stems from Schumer knowing first-hand what it is like to go without. Schumer remembers where she comes from and how something like a “30 percent tip could change my day or my week” (Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo).
Beyond her financial generosity, Schumer is outspoken for several causes, from challenging norms regarding women’s bodies to stronger gun legislation, a cause for which she joined forces with her father’s second cousin, Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer.
Marriage and Motherhood
Schumer was long known for her frank takes on one-night stands and sexual empowerment and for writing that she wasn’t sure whether she would ever be a wife or mother. Despite her earlier misgivings, however, she married chef Chris Fischer in 2018 and gave birth to their son, Gene David, in May 2019. Consistent with her no-holds-barred approach, Schumer candidly chronicled the realities of her pregnancy, including bringing attention to hyperemesis gravidarum. Schumer reflected on the real-life role of motherhood in a recent interview on NPR: “It's been, I would say, a complete joy. It's like, you know, people say when you have a baby, it's like your heart is walking around outside your body. And that is completely true...It makes you just kind of love everybody more in general.”
Schumer is enjoying a more domestic take on life, including filming “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook,” which she and her husband Chris started filming the show in June 2020 from their home in Martha’s Vineyard during the early part of COVID-19.
Schumer is likely to continue to be a comic force to reckon with, defining and shaping twenty-first-century comedy, as described by writer Rachel Shukert in Tablet Magazine: “funny, gutsy Jewish women who can mock them mercilessly without ever having to keep telling you how smart they are.”
Selected Works by Amy Schumer
Cutting, Comedy Central Records. 2011; DVD/Download/Streaming
Live at the Apollo Maverick Records. 2016; Download/Streaming
The Leather Special Netflix. 2017; LP
The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, read by the author, Gallery Books. 2016; CD/Download/Streaming; 8 hours and 1 minute.
Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow (2015); Austin, Texax; Apatow Productions; Universal Pictures.
Snatched, directed by Jonathan Levie, (2017); New York City; Chernin Entertainment Feigco Entertainment TSG Entertainment; 20th Century Fox.
Thank You For Your Service, directed by Jason Hall, (2017); Indianapolis, Indiana; Universal Pictures.
I Feel Pretty, directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, (2018); STX Entertainment.
Growing, Directed by Raboy, Marcus, Schumer, Amy. 2019; Netflix.
Inside Amy Schumer, Created by Powell, Daniel, Schumer, Amy. 2013-2016; Comedy Central.
Funny As Hell, Directed by Baer, Mathieu, Brodie, Adam, Derewlany, Dave; 2011-2012; HBO Canada.
Comedy Central Presents. 2010; DVD/Download/Streaming
Mostly Sex Stuff, Comedy Central. 2012; DVD/Download/Streaming
Live at the Apollo, HBO Home Video. 2015; DVD/Download/Streaming
The Leather Special, Netflix. 2017; Streaming
Growing, Netflix. 2019; Streaming
“Borscht Belt.” n.d. Borscht Belt. Accessed February 28, 2021. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BorschtBelt.
Dauber, Jeremy. Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
Glasberg, Eve. “Professor Jeremy Dauber Gets Serious About Jewish Comedy.” Columbia News, October 2017. https://news.columbia.edu/news/professor-jeremy-dauber-gets-serious-abo….
Kim, Eun K. “Amy Schumer Opens Up About How Her Complicated Pregnancy was 'Worth It.'” N.p.: Today.com. https://www.today.com/parents/amy-schumer-opens-about-how-her-complicat….
National Public Radio. “Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow Talk Storytelling, Commitment, and Spooning.” https://www.npr.org/2015/07/16/423480828/amy-schumer-and-judd-apatow-ta….
Pew Research and Pew Research Center. “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” Pew Research Forum, October 2013. https://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-c….
Schumer, Amy. The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo. New York: Gallery Books, 2016.
Simon, Scott. “Amy Schumer Takes Viewers Behind the Scenes in New Docu-series.” NPR, July 11, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/07/11/890000814/amy-schumer-takes-viewers-behi….
Wintour, Anna. “Amy Schumer Doesn’t Care If You Like Her—She’s Changing the Game.” Vogue, July 2016. www.vogue.com. https://www.vogue.com/article/amy-schumer-july-2016-cover-memoir-girl-w….