Amy Schumer can tell a story. Knowing how to craft a short narrative and make it pay off with a laugh has, after all, helped make her one of the hottest comedians on TV and the concert circuit these days.
So, let the star of Comedy Central's "Inside Amy Schumer" explain how it came to be that she finished her work for a bachelor's degree in theater at Towson University in 2003 but didn't receive her diploma until 2007 — in the lobby of Baltimore's Lyric Opera House.
"I say I graduated in 2003 from Towson, but that's not actually true," the 31-year-old New-York-born performer says in a recent interview. "I went to Towson and had the credits to graduate on time, but then I found out I needed to pay $200 to post these credits. And I was like, 'What?' And I was so enraged that you had to pay to post credits that I was like, 'What an arbitrary, made-up thing.' So, I didn't pay the money."
In 2007, Schumer, who left Towson and moved to New York, had just finished a season as one of the final contestants on NBC's "Last Comic Standing" reality competition. A show tour was headed for a stop at the Lyric when Schumer got a call from Jay Herzog, then chair of the school's theater department. Herzog and faculty colleague Robyn Quick had been following Schumer on TV and read an interview in which she mentioned graduating from Towson in 2003.
"So I'm coming to Baltimore, and the chair of the theater department calls and he's like, 'Amy, bring $200 and we'll give you your diploma,'" she says, laughing at the memory. "So I didn't actually get my diploma until 2007 in the lobby of the Lyric — just out of stubbornness."
Stubbornness, or the almost genetic resistance to rules and authority that seems to feed the work of our best stand-up comedians?
"I think it's like things you're not willing to accept that are part of society and you want to speak out about them," she says in answer to the question. "That's a big part of stand-up — for me, anyway."
Make no mistake, there's no problem with Amy Schumer when it comes to speaking out about things.
"You know Amy's been compared to Sarah Silverman," Herzog says. "And I think the point of comparison is that Amy's a risk taker. You know, she steps over the line. And she's willing to go there, and I think that's been her success. She's not afraid to say what's on her mind. She's willing to be dirty. She's willing to be hip."
Her humor, he says, is in keeping with a sensibility that's also evident on Lena Dunham's series "Girls" — on which Schumer has been cast.
"She knows what's going on in her generation really, really well," he says. "When I saw her cast this year in HBO's 'Girls,' I thought, 'How perfect, because that's where her generation's at — and Amy's right there.'"
There's an aggression, an edge and a willingness to cross over sexual boundaries in Schumer's humor.
"I'm celebrating because I finally just slept with my high school crush," she begins in one joke. (Pause as the audience applauds.) "But, I swear, he like now expects me to go to his graduation. [Pause.] Like I know where I'm going to be in three years? [Expletive] kids, right?"
And that's one of the few punchlines or even topics from her stand-up act that can be quoted in this or any other newspaper.
But she can also play the vulnerable and hopelessly needy fool in love.
One sketch on the premiere of "Inside Amy Schumer" begins with her waking up in a bed with a young man she just met the night before. The camera follows her as she fantasizes about their life together and then starts acting on it — from opening a joint checking account to marriage to having graves dug side by side.
Meanwhile, the object of her romantic obsession has a hard time remembering who she is when she calls. And the camera shows him masturbating while looking at the heavy-set, make-believe "mama" figure on a jar of pasta sauce.
That contradiction is at the core of her onstage persona. She uses a sweet, friendly, nice-girl look to make her raunchier, nasty and politically incorrect punchlines all the more laugh-out-loud shocking.
For the record, Herzog remembers the dollar amount that Schumer owed Towson as being $90 — not $200 — and believes it was a fee for a test she took to post out of certain curricular requirements — like Advanced Placement.
But no real matter. It's all love and kisses between Schumer and Towson today.
"We've all agreed to refer to the thing that kept Amy from getting her diploma in 2003 as a minor administrative matter,'" says Quick, the current chair of Towson's theater department, who adds how proud Schumer's former professors are of their one-time student.
The theater department's pride is easy to understand. Her climb from a college grad in 2003 who had never tried stand-up comedy, to concert headliner and TV show star is anything but an overnight success story. It included waiting tables and bartending in New York and then working her way up from the bottom of the bill in comedy clubs often populated by hecklers and drunks.
In addition to "Last Comic Standing" in 2007, she got some excellent TV exposure on Comedy Central roasts of Roseanne and Charlie Sheen. One joke she made at the Sheen roast in 2011 about Steve-O of "Jackass" went viral, resulting in death threats, she says. Stand-up is a rough business, if you didn't know. And Schumer, who can dish with the best of them onstage, can take the blowback.
But in the last year or so, she has been on one of those blessed pop-culture rolls where one success seems to feed another, and she can now look up in Times Square and see herself on a billboard 30 feet high in a famous Marilyn Monroe pose. Schumer is this season's buzz in TV comedy. No one on any network sitcom comes close.
Her weekly show debuted at 10:30 p.m. April 30 on Comedy Central to some of the highest ratings the basic-cable channel has ever enjoyed for a new series, drawing 3 million viewers. The show was No. 1 in its time period with men 18 to 34, a notoriously elusive demographic coveted by advertisers. And that was for cable and network TV.
Meanwhile, on a 30-city "Inside Amy Schumer" comedy tour, she's selling out concert halls four and five nights a week.
"There's a new energy around me, and I am definitely getting recognized more," Schumer says.
"Tonight, I'm a doing a 1,600-seat theater that's sold out," she adds. "And, yeah, that's the most people that have ever come out to see just me. On 'The Last Comic' tour, we did a couple 3,000-seaters or whatever. But this is completely amazing. … I can feel the energy and the buzz, and people are really responding to the show. It's only aired for a few weeks now, but, God, I can just feel it."
While she's happy about being such a strong TV draw with young men, Schumer says the crowds she sees at her concerts are "50-50 men and women" — a fact supported by her TV show also finishing first among cable channels in its time period with all viewers 18 to 49.
But, she adds, "I really want women to watch the show. And I'm noticing women are saying stuff on Twitter like, 'Oh, my gosh, Amy Schumer's writing my story.' Or, 'That has happened to me so many times.' And that's the stuff that feels really good. And, you know, I'm trying to sneak in some lessons I learned or some injustice about society. But, hopefully, people are laughing hysterically and they don't even realize it."
Schumer goes for the laughs rather than lessons in explaining how a Long Island girl wound up at Towson University.
"I wanted to play volleyball in college," she says. "I played real competitively in high school. But then I realized they recruited these chicks from Stockholm who were, like, towering over me. I'm 5-7 and an outside hitter, and they were like, 'You could maybe try and play back row.'"
So, she says, she decided maybe college volleyball wasn't in the cards. And since she had been a "performer" in high school, maybe she should look for a school with a "great drama department like Towson."
While she never tried stand-up at Towson, Schumer did in her senior year co-star in a production of Diana Son's drama, "Stop Kiss," on the school's Main Stage. Baltimore's City Paper described the performances of Schumer and her co-star as the "strong suit" of the production.
But, Schumer says, in the end, the theater department wasn't the ultimate reason she chose the school.
"Truthfully, when I visited the campus, I had a great run at a beer pong tournament,' she says. "And I made out with a boy. And if you make out with a boy and you win at beer pong, I'm like, 'I'm going to school here. I belong here.' "
There have been lessons learned along the way as well — powerful ones.
"I think comedians all value control," she says. "That's a big chunk of why we get into it, which isn't the sexiest of thoughts. But I think what I've learned is that ultimately you have no control. I can't control what the crowd is experiencing or thinking."
And that insight, Schumer says, has been liberating.
"People have thrown things at me. They've come at me. They've yelled things that are mean. I just don't have any fears left," she says. "And letting go of things I don't ultimately have control over — there's a real freedom in that. That's the biggest lesson. You want to control life and not be hurt and not feel pain. But that's not possible. You do the best you can, and then it's out of your hands."