Will the real Louis CK please stand up?

Hosting Saturday Night Live was a big deal for Louis C.K. Sure, anyone who hosts at least seems to realize the import of their insertion soundly into popular culture through this practice, but I still imagine this experience was a little more stirring for someone like Louis. Unlike a trendy young starlet, quirky pro athlete, or multi-talented musician, C.K. is a comedian; when he walks into Studio H8 he’s entering the hallowed halls of the comedians that came before him. There’s a precedent. There’s history. There’s awe. At the New York Public Library’s memorial for George Carlin, C.K. remembers his first aware, intense, and moving fit of laughter as brought forth by Carlin on SNL. “What do dogs do on their day off? They can’t lie around — that’s their job…” In relating this story of a joyful first, he makes a personal connection to that man and that show, through laughter, as the point in which he knew he wanted to be a comedian. This link to Saturday Night Live alone is huge, then add on top of that the disastrous effects of Sandy on New York and boy does the ante get upped.

In an email to his fans, Louis writes:

Its pretty impossible to describe walking through these city streets in total darkness. It can’t even be called a trip through time, because as long as new york has lived, its been lit. By electricity, gas lamps, candlelight, kerosene. But this was pitch black, street after street, corner round corner. And for me, the village being the very place that made me into a comedian and a man, to walk through the heart of it and feel like, in a way, it was dead. I can’t tell you how that felt.

He goes on in his letter to relate that when he walks on for his monologue he’ll be thinking about the people of New York, the people from SNL who worked so hard to put together a show amidst chaos, and his place as a comedian and New Yorker in relation to these various communities of public and fans. A huge C.K. fan myself, I must say I was incredibly moved by his writing to us in his alone moments before the show started. I could picture him nervous, a little sweaty, and gracious. This is the comedian I love.

On a personal level, it also meant a lot to me that he did his monologue old school, and in typical comedian-style, he just performed some stuff from his most recent shows — material I was lucky enough to hear at the Masonic Temple in Detroit in early October. Not only did he share work I’d heard live, but he shared my favorite story.

The story entails Louis making his way through the airport and this little old lady falls down. Inveterate misanthrope that he is, he pantomimes watching the lady tumble as he looks appropriately shocked, but clearly hopes someone else will help her. Well, no one does. The onus falls on our anti-hero and he’s like, “great, now I have an old lady.” He ends up schlepping this ancient broad and her bags and her onion paper travel documents through the busy airport. Many jokes are cracked at her expense. Poor put-upon Louis! He just wants to be anti-social and this happens to him! And the extended story culminates with C.K. sitting and talking with the woman all day and he finishes his telling in a bratty rushed/hushed and disinterested manner with, “and it was so beautiful to meet her, and she changed my life or whatever, *eyeroll*.”

I like this joke because it has heart. It’s not super mushy sweetness, in fact it’s mostly girded by Louis’ discomfort with people, especially people who are different from him (old, from another country, or at least culture), and his unease when circumstances push him into intimate moments with this other. It’s truthful, it’s personal, it’s not the kind of joke you’ve heard over and over. It explores everyday life and emotion closely and carefully and ultimately it peels back superficial layers of stalwart masculinity and the coldness of the modern urban citizen and finds more. It opens up a space for Louis and for men and for people in general to understand themselves beyond the labels that keep us safe and comfortable. This is exactly the kind of revelatory work I love to see Louis do.

It was important to me to watch C.K. pluck this piece, from a show of really strong and probably more easily digestible material, for this super important spotlight moment because it showed me that C.K. is still interested in what’s difficult, what’s hard and what’s weird and that he’s going to keep growing. His most recent show was great, really strong, up there with some of the best comedians in terms of laughability, pacing, content, but there’s a “But.” As good as it was, it felt a little bland, a little vanilla. . . from Louis. From anyone else, just fine, but from Louis I expect more. More darkness, more anger, more gurgling pit of stomach, kid hating, shameful, edgy moments, or at least risk, vulnerability. Instead there was a bit of ease. Is it because he’s getting older? Is he running out of ideas? Or is the Louis of old gone now that he’s incredibly renowned and Emmy-winning, SNL-hosting, famous? I think Ricky Gervais hits it on the nose when he pinpoints Louis’ precise draw as, “this is a man falling apart for my pleasure!” What’s left when our man is fairly put together?

The show I witnessed was about men and women (Louis’ getting “a lot of pussy,” or going on a lot of “nice dates” depending on which of his friends you talk to), how awesome boobs feel, and how young thin white guys are the worst and pretty much get whatever they want while the rest of us are fucked, and not in the fun way. There were some strong humorous hypotheticals — what if it were legal for everyone to kill just one person? And there was a pretty great story about C.K. moving on up to a fancier apartment community and how one of the richies came over to question his presence on the property. This allowed us some moments of that gruff C.K. we know, he’s angry and he’s just hoping this asshat comes over and tells him something, tries to kick him out. The audience digs in and thrills at the thought. . . ooooh, it’s gonna be good when Louis gets pissed! And he does! And it’s awesome, but then the disclaimer: none of this actually happened. The dude came up and said hi to Louis like he belonged there. Good story and all, but I think it also highlights his easier life and further separates us from him. Louis was the guy who was always getting shit on and we could commiserate with that, now he’s the guy in tuxedos, on the TV, in the fancy apartment. His fantasy of not belonging makes a lot of sense as a way of clinging to who he was and feeling a little unsure of how to deal with who he’s becoming.

I was starting to think maybe this was the case. Maybe Louis is fattening up on the good life and leaving me and all the other lonely ones behind with all our weirdness. I comforted myself with the idea that maybe his absurdist show provides him enough of an outlet for mining the abject and that leaves his stand-up room to take on a new shape (which is fine, even if it’s not as challenging or interesting to me). But then, he went on SNL and he didn’t talk about boobs, or dating, or dudes, or wanting to kill people. He talked about little old ladies, and that made me think that maybe everything with me and Louis is going to be all right. And by all right I mean strange, uncomfortable, and difficult ever after.

Ana Holguin writes PopHeart for The Idler.

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