“I’m just going to need you to go with me on this one,” the new high school football coach says to his team as he turns around to write something on the whiteboard.
“No raping?” one player asks, astonished. “But Coach, we play football!”
The coach is unmoved. “My team, my rules. You don’t like it? Don’t let the door rape you on the way out.”
The boys’ objections go on and on: “What if it’s Halloween, and she’s dressed like a sexy secretary?” “What if my mom is the D.A. and won’t prosecute, can I rape?” “What if she’s drunk, and has a slight reputation, and no one’s going to believe her?”
We’re less than four minutes into the third season premiere of Inside Amy Schumer when this sketch, “Football Night Lights,” a deconstruction of sexual violence in sports-obsessed small towns, wrapped up in Friday Night Lights packaging, begins. This is Schumer and her team in their wheelhouse: filling familiar environments with third rail topics, honing in on the absurdity in everyday life.
Inside Amy Schumer writer Christine Nangle got the idea for the sketch years ago when she was reading about the Steubenville rape case. It wasn’t just the brutality of the rape itself — a teenage girl was assaulted by multiple football players while she was too drunk to consent — but the aftershocks of that earthquake that intensified Nangle’s horror: how the picture of the victim’s unconscious body circulated among classmates and neighbors; later, how the high school football coach, Reno Saccoccia, allowed convicted rapist Ma’lik Richmond to rejoin the team.
“I just remember getting so sickened by it that, and by the fact that it wasn’t a bigger story,” Nangle said by phone. “I just remember sitting there thinking: there’s got to be a way into this, sketch-wise.”
The incident seemed to take place in some heightened reality; it was almost too outrageous to be real. “You know that laugh you do when you cannot believe that people are this ridiculous and cruel?” she said. “It was that kind of laugh. And if there’s that laugh in this story, there’s likely a sketch there.”
She ran through a bunch of possibilities in her head. Is the sketch about those boys? Is it about the kid who took the picture? Maybe something with the phone company, like a commercial parody about the phone plan? Eventually, Nangle landed on her focus: “It’s the adults who deserve our ridicule.” The element of the Steubenville case that lingered with her was “how permissive the town and the school were. So what’s a way I can get into the town? And I came up with the idea of setting it in Friday Night Lights.”
“The sketch has nothing to do with Friday Night Lights,” Nangle clarified. “It’s just putting it in an environment that people understand.”
Nangle isn’t an FNL superfan. But head writer Jessi Klein is; she’s watched the entire series twice and owns a men’s XXL “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” t-shirt “that I sleep in every night,” she said by phone. “I’m actually thinking of wearing it while I deliver my baby.”
“Football Town Nights” is “a fun, light, funny way to go at this very intense, heavy subject,” said Klein. “I did not want, in any way, for people to walk away from the sketch feeling like we were besmirching the show.” Amy is a big fan, too, and “we were really careful to make sure there was no conflating anything about the show, which I think is incredibly progressive and liberal and amazing, with the point the sketch is making.”
The sketch alludes to Steubenville in a pointed way only once, when a player asks the coach, “What if my friend is raping her and I take a picture?” But for the most part, Nangle thought “it was also important that we didn’t tie it too closely to Steubenville, so you could see a lot of different stories in it.”
And the most surprising suckerpunch comes in sketch’s closer, when the coach tells his team that football isn’t about rape: “It’s about violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want! You gotta get yourself into the mindset that you are gods, and you are entitled to this!”
The target of the sketch isn’t football, but it isn’t exactly not football, either. “Obviously, it wasn’t lost on me that these guys are trained to knock each other over while half-dressed girls jump up and down on the sidelines,” said Nangle. “The history of it is all there, and it just says something.”
For Nangle, what mattered most was that the focus stayed on the town, so every character is responsible, in some way, for the (in this case, comically) pervasive rape culture within the community. “The two old ladies that kind of walk by, we were kind of playing with the idea of what they would say and who it would be,” Nangle said. “And I remember being adamant that it was people who live in the town who say, ‘You’re the coach who don’t like rapin’.’ I wanted to make sure we were showing the town as complicit and also just looking ridiculous.”
“It was conscious choice not to put any girls in it,” Nangle said, partly “to not necessarily show the boys as malicious monsters” but really to make the story about “trying to figure out the messages that they’re getting. I don’t want that to say that any of these guys who do terrible things aren’t in charge of their actions, but in this particular sense, I wanted it to be about their surroundings.”
Nangle also wrote last season’s “A Very Realistic Military Game” sketch — when Amy tries to play a military video game as a “girl soldier,” her character is immediately raped, then dissuaded from reporting the assault — and this season’s commercial parody that takes the “ask your doctor is birth control is right for you” tagline and sends Amy around to ask everyone about birth control: her boss, her coworkers, strangers on the street.
To Nangle, these sketches are all part of the same bonkers, infuriating reality that women are expected to tolerate objectively intolerable circumstances. Whether you’re reading a news story about Steubenville or the latest legislative effort to deny women access to birth control or rampant sexual violence in the military, you could easily “find yourself laughing out loud and your arms extended being like, ‘Is anyone else seeing how fucking ridiculous this is?'” said Nangle.
Inside Amy Schumer is an unabashedly feminist show and an undeniably successful one: the series just nabbed a Peabody Award and was renewed for a fourth season before the third season even premiered. Schumer just hosted the MTV Movie Awards and, this summer, she’ll make her feature film debut as a screenwriter and a star in the Judd Apatow-directed Trainwreck. Audiences want Schumer’s voice wherever they can get it.
“I think there’s definitely a feeling that now that just because a man didn’t experience this doesn’t mean it’s not valid to talk about,” said Klein. “And it doesn’t mean that men won’t laugh at it.”
Maybe one of the reasons Schumer and the overtly feminist humor she does so well is resonating right now is because the raw material available to people who view the world through a feminist lens is inherently absurd. Women are fighting for rights so obvious they shouldn’t even be up for debate.
“The things that we’re talking about — ‘Football Town Nights,’ the birth control commercial, and ‘Realistic Military Game’ — those things are so ridiculous that people let such bullshit happen, and it’s so enraging that it can make people speechless,” said Nangle. “People who care about it are so angry and astonished that you’re speechless, or the only thing that comes out is anger. I think that’s part of where the reputation comes from of [feminists] just being humorless or enraged, but it’s because it’s just so insane. And I think that’s one of the great things about Amy; she’s so good at taking a step back and finding a way to infuse humor into these things that affect our everyday lives.”
This “Football Night Lights” and “A Very Realistic Military Game” sketch call to mind the conversation whirling around a few years ago in the aftermath of an ill-conceived rape joke Daniel Tosh told during a standup set. Backlash was loud, but so was backlash-to-the-backlash, as comedians and critics argued over whether or not it is ever okay to joke about rape.
Rape culture controls female behavior even when rape isn’t literally happening: it’s the method by which a constant fear of harassment and violence restricts what women can wear and say and do and be all the time. Rape takes so many fundamental things away from victims and from those who have every right to fear they could become a victim: safety, autonomy, freedom. So isn’t taking away this last, vital defense mechanism — humor — one thing too many? Telling a joke means owning the narrative, which is why it’s so easy to do it badly (tone-deaf victim-blaming abounds). But the fact that it’s difficult to do this well doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. Comedy is supposed to be about real life; are we just supposed to pretend rape isn’t a part of so many people’s real lives?
“I took that as a challenge,” Nangle said. “I really did. Because I followed that debate, and I feel like I really understood a lot of the different aspects of it. I understood where people were coming from. But I also was of the opinion that there’s a way to do it right, and I’m 100 percent glad we did it.”
“Comedy is a way of talking about things, and you should be able to talk about anything,” said Klein. “And as with any art, like a painting or a book, you can fuck it up and inadvertently say the opposite of what you mean to say, or in the cases of some comedians I won’t name, maybe they’re saying exactly what they mean to say, and it is offensive. But using comedy to talk about heavy subjects does not automatically mean that you’re making light of the subject.”
Schumer brought up the show’s approach to rape-inspired humor during a talk at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, saying that “rape is good fodder for comedy because it’s the worst thing in the whole world, so it’s untouchable… We’re not just like, ‘rape’s hilarious.’ It’s always a risk.”
“I think laughing and comedy are the greatest gift that we have in terms of being able to cope with the very shitty fact that life is often really fucking horrible,” said Klein. “To make people laugh about something in a way that maybe they wouldn’t have thought about before, it means you’ve made a point that you might not be able to make as easily if you just wrote your opinion letter to the New York Times.
“No one’s opinion letter to the New York Times forces anybody to laugh. But a funny sketch does.”