Amy Schumer, the 39-year-old comedian and actor, spends much of Expecting Amy, the three-part docu-series on her turbo-charged first year of marriage, pregnancy and the development of her 2019 Netflix special Growing, hunched over and vomiting. Afflicted by hyperemesis, or acute morning sickness, Schumer braced against unrelenting nausea and a good thousand or so hurls, many of them filmed by her husband, sister or friends. There’s the comic, hours before a show, puking into a plastic bag, out the door of a car, into the toilet bowl at 3am; a day before she’s to tape Growing at a comedy club in New York, she’s in the back of another car on the way to the ER, dehydrated and retching. “Oh shit, what about the taping?” her husband, the chef Chris Fischer, whom she married on Valentines Day 2018, asks from the front seat. “That’s seeming a little unlikely,” she manages, as she hasn’t kept down food or water for days.
The HBO Max series, directed by Alexander Hammer and Ryan Cunningham, is, like much of Schumer’s comedy, a record of excess – in this case, of sickness, a body in revolt and, less prominent but richer, the demands of forwarding a highly public career throughout. Filmed from the fall of 2018 through 2019, the series is billed, in name and in structure (the first two episodes, available for critics, are titled “Conception” and “Gestation”) as a pregnancy series, one channeling Schumer’s longstanding brand of fearlessness, carnal humor and dicing of post-feminism’s hypocrisy and obfuscation into behind the scenes documentary. (Schumer and Fischer’s son, Gene, was born in May 2019).
But like her recent comedy, the raunchier or more bodily transgressive things get, the less she seems to say. Expecting Amy works best as an exploration of comedy’s messy boundaries – what personal interactions get filtered, streamlined and edited into a set, what off-stage moments of wryness and levity form a stage persona, what shame or fear performance can excise or exploit. The series eschews any talking heads or much formality at all, instead relying on on-the-fly footage of Schumer and often Fischer, sister Kim Caramele, and friends Rachel Feinstein and Bridget Everett in cars, bathrooms, trains, splayed on backstage couches, on stage.
Watching Expecting Amy, you get the sense that being “on” is not so much an act as who Schumer is; bedridden in the ER for dehydration after days of vomiting, she’s still joking to her sister, disarmingly straightforward with the nurses. If she ever had a conscious on/off performance switch, she long ago lost track of it. But while Schumer’s brand of exposure and flouting taboos is boundless – one episode intro finds her sitting on the toilet in her hospital gown, half-asleep, struggling to pee – Expecting Amy stops short of revealing much about her clearly dauntless ambition, or grappling with the scrutiny of millions; like Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana, Schumer’s series is most interesting not in the bulk of what is revealed, but what moments are hinted, seemingly off-hand, or left out.
Expecting Amy convincingly portrays her as an Everywoman – stars puking through pregnancy, they’re just like us! – except Everywomen don’t get emails from Netflix greenlighting their proposed special while eating takeout. When celebrity and critique do encroach the frame – when she smiles and spars with a man taking photos of her on the train to Long Island, for example – the friction with Schumer’s roll-with-it disposition is palpable, fascinating, jarring.
There are moments which seem to lead to a whole other series, tension aired but tantalizingly under-explored, particularly in regards to Fischer’s diagnosis with autism spectrum disorder (formerly known as Asperger’s), which occurs over the course of filming and is movingly embraced by the couple. Schumer, used to mining her personal life for jokes, frequently brings up Fischer’s sweetness, his as she calls it “different” brain, in her sets. But after one bit in which a gift intended to make her feel better is played to audience laughs, late in the second episode he broaches the subject, seemingly uncomfortable but not expressing so in as many words. “It’s not a normal circumstance, the circumstances that we have,” he says. “We’ve also talked about the separation between the performance and your art and your act with reality, too.”
Schumer reacts defensively, more so to her marriage’s strained communication than her comedy. “Are we celebrating how strong you are, or are you telling me that you have a problem with me saying something on stage?” she says, adding “My stand-up is not more important than our marriage.” The argument loops over, its threads picked up and put down, and feels raw and treacherously vulnerable in a way the many shots of Schumer’s nausea do not; one wonders what those conversations of the line between reality and performance looked like.
In press for Growing last year, Schumer seemed to embrace a life in evolution, in the potential for comedy’s thorny expansion. “I’m ecstatic and furious,” she told the New York Times. “And pleased and peaceful and manic and hopeless and so hopeful it’s crazy.” In its best moments, Expecting Amy embraces this kind of mess, of contradictions, blurred lines between reality and performance and self-awareness – “I know how I am, no one else can deal with it, I know that,” she tells Fischer through tears. But as her special hinted at the strains of work, fame and motherhood and then punted to familiar terrain of bodily excess, too often Expecting Amy reels back into what, for Schumer, is familiar, profane terrain: raw, under-seen and unsparing, often frankly funny – an on-brand expansion of genre covering for growth left out of the frame.