Painfully good times with Louis C.K.
I wasn’t going to like Louis C.K. In all my infinite wisdom, I had him pegged without ever having heard a word from his act. Angry New York (male) comedian. Blah blah blah, Fuck this, Fuck that, I hate the world, woman as butt of joke, “foreigner” as butt of joke, fuck fuck hate, fuck fuck fuck, end of set. But then, there was Louis on Parks and Recreation playing a loveably lackluster cop with the cutest crush on Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler). Cognitive dissonance set in. I love Amy, Amy works with good people, Amy don’t take no shit (see moment where she takes Jimmy Fallon down a peg in Tina Fey’s memoir) and Amy appears to like Louis C.K. Hmm… Rather than relying on my well-wrought prejudice, I decided an investigation was in order. Instant Netflix, stream me the F/X show Louie post-haste!
Now, picture me nestled into the butt-shaped dent in my couch, slack-jawed in awe. I’m generating fantasies of trips to New York doughnut shops in which I casually meet the man. Daydreams of shared depression and little tubs of cookie dough ice cream. Louie is amazing.
So, he is an angry New York (male) comedian. But his rants turn inward, deconstructing white male privilege rather than projecting outward like so many comics do. Beyond this, the depth, character and simple honesty of his work clearly sets him apart from the rest.
C.K.’s Louie so reminds me of modernist absurdist literature, specifically Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Is that an assholey academic thing to say? Maybe, but hear me out. Both the novel and the program are situated in episodic vignettes, compellingly-crafted peepholes into the sickly funny drama of daily life. Anderson’s genre, along with C.K.’s, in my opinion, is deemed “grotesque” because their texts aesthetically produce a confusing jumble of emotional responses. Like, being turned on by a cartoon character or laughing at your mother’s funeral — the affective output is real, genuine, but simultaneously shameful, wrong, disgusting.
In Louie, the camera settles on the ugliest, most personal, abject and/or just weirdest moments in Louie’s life and juxtaposes them with his stand-up. The audience gets to experience the resonant pain and awkwardness of reality before and after it is channeled into art, comedy, a 5-minute set. The comedy bits offer texture, little bursts of a confident persona, the man at work doing his job well. We hear a bitter unwavering voice capable of breaking down the sum of a day into bizarrely shitty minutiae; this is the comedian with whom we’re familiar. The meat of the show, however, offers the hard stuff, the dark stinky sewer that comedy rises out from — the actuality of feeling the feelings attached to the strangeness of being alive. Jokes by definition tend to remove us from this plane, yet Louis C.K.’s work remains tightly anchored here. He doesn’t want us to forget, he wants us to go there with him, to smell the stench while laughing.
He achieves this goal by insuring that his jokes are emotionally complicated, never easy.
In one quiet domestic scene, his sweet 5-year-old daughter reports that she loves her mother more, prefers being at her place, eating her food. All the while, Louie is tenderly brushing his little girl’s teeth. He listens politely, clearly dying inside with each barbed testimonial. She spits and rinses and trots away. He flips her off.
In another vignette, Louie, desperately lonely, hard up for sex and human contact meets another loner parent for no-strings-attached play. But the woman wants him to fulfill the most banal roles of a husband — picking up odd items from the drug store, scouring the city blocks for a carton of blueberries — in addition to, if not in lieu of his sexual employ. Once he can actually get close to her (she in her ankle-grazing granny nightie, Noxema-scrubbed face, hair in a ponytail), his embrace and kiss seem pathetically ardent while the woman remains stony, distracted. She awakens a bit to request a spanking and upon receiving it calls out “Daddy” (you shudder with Louis) and then it happens again. And again and again. She bursts into tears clearly remembering some unimaginable incest or instance of rape. Sobbing and silence. Both characters share a room, a bed, but are inconsolably, distressingly alone. The straight punchline: Sex shouldn’t be this hard. But the queer subtleties of the experience scream so much more.
Jokes naturally want to deflect. They pour anger and hatred and repulsion into the shapes of laughter. I admire and enjoy watching Louis C.K.’s stand-up, but especially his show Louie, because it has the guts to get naked, sorry, hopeless, wrong. It’s brave enough to skirt the laughs for a bit. Sure, this can be sick sad and depressing, but so is the world and so are humans. The genius behind this comic’s craft is that ultimately his truth, though acerbic, becomes touching, even comforting. My darkest secrets become a little less dark after a bout of his storytelling. Therein lies the comic relief.A lover of words and sick of meaningless and overused hyperbole, Louis C.K. would probably hate that I call him and his work “amazing.” I hear him in my ear: “is it? Is it really amazing? You’re dazzled to the brink of insanity over my bald freckled head and my fuckin’ black t-shirts?” And I respond, “Yes.” Anyone who can make me feel feelings and wrote the movie Pootie Tang deserves my utmost freaking respect. After all, literary fancypants Sherwood Anderson could only do one of those things.