Cast your mind back to 21st April 2016. It was on this day that Comedy Central premiered the fourth season of Inside Amy Schumer. It was the customary Schumer mix of sketches about sex, candid conversations about vaginas, and social commentary.
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Schumer is celebrated (and celebrated, and then celebrated some more) for redefining the way women live in comedy, embracing more honest (and sometimes unsavoury) depictions of the female experience. For many of us, Bynes was our first introduction to this idea.
Today, it's hard to think about the young Amanda Bynes without confronting her sad downfall. In 2012, two years after she announced her retirement from acting, Bynes was charged with a DUI after side-swiping a police car in Los Angeles. More worrisome behaviour followed, including at least one more arrest, for tossing a bong out of her car window. In 2013, she underwent forced hospitalisation for psychiatric treatment. Her most recent public appearance was at a fashion event in L.A. last summer. Her tweets have gotten her into major trouble, something she addressed — along with discussing a past Adderall addiction — in a November 2018 Paper magazine profile.
Troubling as they may be, Bynes’ personal struggles don’t diminish the fact that professionally, she was a teen trailblazer. After standing out on All That when she was just 10, at age 13, Bynes got her own variety show in 1999. Through her outlandish humour that thumbed its nose at “good taste” with unapologetically gross, crass characters, she planted a seed in our formative brains. Bynes gave us the wild idea that young ladies didn’t have to be ladylike at all. She was a young, DGAF performer before it was cool to be a DGAF performer — years before Broad City, Girls, and yes, Inside Amy Schumer.
A scene from the pilot of The Amanda Show could almost be a sketch from Inside Amy Schumer. Playing a character named Cynthia Worthington, Bynes is on a first date at an upscale restaurant. Things are all very, very proper. She talks about how she spent her day at a ballet recital, followed by the purchase of a Mozart CD. But when the waiter brings her and her date their ginger ales, she belches, then mentions that she’s quite itchy. She lifts up her right arm to reveal a forest of armpit hair and borrows the boy’s fork to scratch it. She shows him the calluses on her feet, shoves her face into a plate of pasta that’s too delicious to eat any other way, and pees her pants.
Christy Stratton, who wrote for the show, says she and her colleagues tailored material like this to fit Bynes’ bold sensibility. “She was always very game to just take it to a 10,” Stratton says. “We knew that, and we’d try to write things that would play to the bigness that she was willing to offer up. Maybe that was the youth part of her, but she certainly was fearless. A lot of the greats today — Amy Schumer and Kristen Wiig — are willing to take it to another level and be unashamed. I think that she certainly put that out there, too.”
“So many actors don’t want to look stupid,” says another Amanda Show writer, John Hoberg. “She was so game to do all that. She could see it was funny, so she didn’t have this fear of looking ridiculous.” Hoberg also credits Bynes for exploding the gender stereotypes of the ’80s and ’90s. “It was more acceptable for guys to be clowns, and girls were expected to be more together,” he says. “It takes bravery — even as a kid — to clip giant armpit hair under your arms and be on television.”
Her fearlessness was obvious from the beginning. Hoberg remembers watching Bynes on the All That set, doing her “Ask Ashley” routine, a biting Dear Abby parody in which she played a young girl who sits on her bed and dispenses withering criticism instead of advice. (Sample: A reader, Claudia, writes that her bedroom is on the second floor of her house, and to save time she simply jumps out the window every day, but has broken her leg 17 times doing so. Ashley's advice? "Use the stinkin' stairs, Einstein!”)
Equally gutsy was the show's staff, who managed to get away with naming one of Bynes' characters after a slang term for female genitalia: Penelope Taynt, Amanda's number one fan who often went to absurd lengths to catch a glimpse of the actress.
Few of us back then knew that the character's last name was a homonym for "taint," a not-so-nice word for lady parts. But we certainly get the joke today — and yes, it was intentional, according to a former Amanda Show staffer. "Dan [Schneider], the showrunner, thought that it was funny. The network was like, 'Is that the slang for….?'" Schneider simply told them it wasn’t. "It wasn’t trying to make her gross," the ex-staffer explains. "It was Dan trying to have fun at the expense of the network." For the record, the former employee thinks Bynes, like the majority of her young audience, was unaware of the double entendre. (The actress, who no longer employs a publicist, did not respond to our request via Twitter to participate in this story. Her attorney also did not respond.)
Whether Bynes knew the word or not, she was so comfortable performing — "Her instincts were really, really good,” says Hoberg — that the producers encouraged her to put personal flourishes on the characters. For instance, in the “Hillbilly Moment” segments (in which she would tell knock-knock jokes as a stereotypical hillbilly), all anyone had to say was, “Now do a crazy dance,” and she created her signature, elbows-out jig.
“She would always take the material and make more of it than we could have even thought,” says Stratton. Even at table reads, where Stratton says writers would cross their fingers and just hope the actors got all the jokes on the page, Bynes always hit the funny mark with impeccable timing. “We’d throw things at her and she would make a meal of it.”
Any ‘90s kid can tell you that Nickelodeon was never shy about testing the comedy waters. (See: Kenan & Kel.) But as Stratton points out, with The Amanda Show, “What was special was that they were filtering it through a young female’s perspective.” Today, in the age of iCarly and Liv and Maddie and Girl Meets World, the idea of a network handing over an edgy show to a 13-year-old girl doesn’t feel all that revolutionary. But it was unprecedented in the early-'90s. “At the time, I don’t know if I thought it was groundbreaking,” Hoberg says. “But looking back, I think it might have been.”
This story has been updated.