Three years ago American comedienne and actress Amy Schumer made a little history with Dan Powell, one of the producers of her successful television comedy show, “Inside Amy Schumer.” The two made the Comedy Central network change its policy, which until then had banned the use of the word “pussy” in its shows.
Since then it seems to be Schumer’s favorite word. It’s hard to find an episode in her show in which there is not an explicit reference to pussy, whether it’s in an imaginary yogurt commercial that promises to eliminate unpleasant odors (and includes an unexpected tasting to prove the point) or in a group interview in the style of “Real Housewives” in which she’s accused by members of the panel of being obsessed with the word.
But ever since the word became associated with U.S. President Donald Trump during the election campaign — after the Washington Post uncovered a covert recording of him from 2005 in which he explains where he likes to grab women — can we ever talk about pussy the same way?
“It’s definitely been politicized,” says Tami Sagher, one of the regular writers on Schumer’s show, who is coming to Israel next week to attend the Innovative TV Conference (INTV) in Jerusalem, sponsored by Israel’s Keshet Media Group. “I think it would [otherwise] have a different tinge. There is something oddly empowering about such a silly word, [but] it feels different now. Amy Schumer has such a distinct voice, that it might still very well sound empowering coming from her.”
Sagher knows about words and their power. Her lengthy resume includes writing for shows like “MADtv,” “30 Rock,” "Broad City," “Girls” and “How I Met Your Mother,” as well as producing the latter two shows. She has also acted in improv theater, sitcoms and films, and was nominated for three scriptwriting Emmys.
She says that from the moment she watched the first episode of “Girls” she knew she wanted to work for the series.
“First of all, [series creator and actress] Lena Dunham is a genius. She is just an amazing writer and people can forget that because they confuse her with the character that she plays, who is self-obsessed and has all these faults,” Sagher says.
“The very first episode of ‘Girls,’ there was a sex scene that was so raw and vulnerable and awkward and ugly and funny, and I remember thinking I wouldn’t have the guts to write this in my diary, let alone write it for other people to read, let alone to act in it. The fact that I was watching it kind of blew my mind.”
That’s a boldness that Sagher admits is beyond her, personally. “I have a hard time writing emails because the tone can be misinterpreted. And to me it feels like the younger generation, the millennials, [are subject to] a lot of maligning, but there is a gutsiness in them,” says Sagher, who is 43.
A recent much talked about episode of “Girls” garnered Dunham considerable praise for its original and surprising take on sexual harassment — and provided Sagher with some insights about herself. In the episode, titled “American Bitch,” Hannah Horvath, played by Dunham, comes to the home of a successful author who invited her after she wrote a blog post in which she supported women who accused him of sexual assault. It portrays how she deals with his sophisticated manipulation.
“It’s a really interesting episode,” notes Sagher, who joined “Girls” in its fifth season. “Lena wrote it in one night. She then rewrote it and we all talked about it and all that, but she wrote it in one night.
“When she brought it in, I realized that I hadn’t loved material like that in the past. I don’t think it had ever been taken on like that … [Dunham] tackled it in a way that I realized how much of this guy’s point of view I have internalized in myself.
“We had a joke in the writers’ room, where there are definitely straight white guys, that I was more the voice for the straight white guys,” she adds, laughing. “Again, it’s one of those times that you realize all of the things that you internalize because you don’t want to be the victim. You are willing to accept shitty things.”
Too depressing to laugh
During the INTV conference, Sagher will participate – together with writer Max Pross ("The Simpsons," "Seinfeld") and Israeli actor, screenwriter and comedian Adir Miller – in a comedy writing panel that will be moderated by Omri Marcus, CEO of the Comic Genome project.
Her visit to Israel is really a homeland visit. She was born in Rehovot and grew up on the songs of Naomi Shemer and the sketches of Hagashash Hahiver. Etty Ankri’s first album is one of her favorites. When she was 3, her parents moved to Chicago to further their academic careers, but since Hebrew was spoken at home she remains fluent in it. Her mother is a scientist and her father is a math professor; she herself has a BA in math.
In recent weeks Sagher’s Twitter feed has been filled with posts critical of Trump, but she still hasn’t found a comic angle to the new administration’s reality. It’s connected to her unique writing style, which is characterized by finding the amusing angle to humiliating or depressing situations or feelings that she’s experienced.
Thus, for example, she came up with the idea for the “Plain Jane” sketch for Schumer’s show, about a policewoman from Pittsburgh who is forced to move to Miami. Since everyone in Miami is slim and gorgeous, she is simply invisible, and can easily solve a “hot on hot” crime because all everyone sees when they look at her is a bag of wet leaves, if they see anything at all.
The idea for the sketch came to Sagher after she spent time behind the scenes at a music awards ceremony with singer Jennifer Lopez as part of her research for writing the character of a pop star for a screenplay. “I didn’t feel ugly, I just disappeared next to all those people,” she says.
Another sketch, “Doggy Daycare,” emerged from the fact that she loves animals and will never buy a dog, only adopt one. Three women bring their dogs to a daycare center, and compare how miserable the dogs were before they adopted them. The high point, which was suggested by Schumer during the group writing session, is when another woman comes to leave her dead dog at the center.
But she’s still trying to figure out how to be funny about Trump.
“I appreciate comedians who have figured out how to do that, like Aziz Ansari and Dave Chapelle, who have done great stuff,” she says. “My friend Anthony Atamanuik does the best Trump impression I’ve seen and his work is inspiring and dark. I’ve gone to marches, I’ve called senators and congresspeople and sent letters, but I haven’t figured out how to tell a joke about it.”
She says she doesn’t think someone can be funny if they’re trying to prove something or preach. She prefers to laugh at herself.
“Maybe that’s why it’s hard for me to touch any of the Trump stuff because I don’t feel secure enough right now to laugh at the left-wing point of view about it; certainly when we are having media shut out and lies being said to our faces. [Trump] literally said ‘it stopped raining when I talked’ [at his inauguration] and it had started raining. He just lied about it.
“I approach my comedy from taking my feelings and how ridiculous they are or the stupid things I do,” she adds. “I don’t know how to make fun of how scared I am and how dismissed I feel.”
You see a lot of hatred towards female comedians – “The Ghostbusters” reboot got a record nunlike votes on YouTube, and Amy Schumer’ new film with GoIdie Hawn, ‘Snatched,’ seems to be getting the same treatment on social media. Why do you think that happens?
“I think the internet is an easy place for anonymous vitriol and I have to say I’m not particularly interested in the reasons for trolling. I find hateful comments on strangers’ work pointless and boring, and I imagine they’re bored too, or else why would they bother? But I try not to get caught up in it. If someone is treating the Youtube comment space like their emotional toilet then I’d rather put my attention somewhere else.”
As a regular writer on “Inside Amy Schumer,” Sagher works with a team of other writers who prepare the material for the show through a very defined process of collaboration. She and every one of the other writers is expected to bring three to five new ideas to their regular Monday meeting. The way it works, she explains, is that you have to approve someone else’s idea – and then add to it. The best writing groups, she notes, are the ones in which everyone supports each other and there is creative freedom and mutual trust. After that stage, Schumer notes which parts she particularly liked and then the writing and rewriting of the specific scenes begin.
Sagher, who can come up with ideas just from riding the subway and watching the people around her, says the development process is what she likes the most, since a lot of it is spent laughing with other people. She adds that her improvisation skills come in handy at these meetings.
Sagher’s Israeli background is very important to her and over the years she has often wondered what it would have been like to grow up in Rehovot instead of Chicago.
“I definitely grew up fantasizing about my ‘other life,’” she says. “Growing up I would get to go to Israel for a few weeks every two years with my mother and sister. Speaking Hebrew at home (and nowhere else), it felt amazing to land in a country where everyone spoke the same way that I only heard at home back in Chicago.
“I missed being near family, since all my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents were in Israel. But as I grew older, I let go of those daydreams, and wasn’t able to visit Israel as regularly. I adjusted to my life as it is.”
But even as Sagher disengaged from Israel, her Israeli identity never totally left her.
“My background as a writer comes from performing improvisation, and when you improvise you bring everything you have, everything you know to the table,” she says. “You’re on stage without a script and in front of an audience. I sometimes speak Hebrew in a scene, just as I will sometimes tap into my mathematics background. It’s all part of tapping into the mind and the subconscious for material.”
When she imagines her dream TV project, it’s connected to her biography. She visited Israel last year as well and says there was something about that visit, “that was very raw. I haven’t figured out yet how to incorporate the feeling of two worlds, or of a life unlived, but it is something that I would like to write about.”
So does that dream project involve Israel?
“Yeah, I think it does,” she says.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now