Absurdity

05.02.14

Why Is Louis C.K. So Funny? He Uses Humor as a Moral Compass.

Every generation gets the comedian it deserves. For us, this is Louis C.K. and his crabby, melancholic, and profanely funny half-hour comedy.

We can’t agree on anything anymore. Not politics. Not pop music. Not even pizza, for chrissake. And yet somehow we all seem to agree on Louis C.K.

Case in point: the cover of the latest issue of GQ—“The 15 Funniest People Alive” edition. When the GQ editors had to choose a cover model—the single Funniest Person Alive, presumably—they didn’t just choose a guy who is noticeably fatter, balder, and redder-headed than, say, every other person who has ever appeared on the cover on GQ. They put him on the cover with the word “Duh” right next to his face. And then called him “America’s Undisputed King of Comedy.”

Because, you know, obviously.

This is the kind of unanimity Louis C.K. inspires. At this point, everyone who cares about comedy—or even just pop culture—considers him the best comedian going. The voice of his generation. What Richard Pryor was to the 1970s, what Chris Rock was to the 1990s—that’s what Louis C.K. is now.

Except bigger, in a way. More pervasive and penetrating. Because while Pryor and Rock were genius stand-ups (and fairly successful film stars), neither of them ever produced a truly great television series—the most intimate form of American entertainment. Neither of them ever established that kind of connection with viewers.

But Louis C.K. has. Stand-up made him great. Louie has made him iconic.

Which is why we’re here today. On Monday, May 5, C.K.’s crabby, melancholic, profanely hilarious half-hour comedy—which he writes, directs, stars in, and distills from his own lifewill return to FX for its fourth season.

This piece was supposed to be review of the first four episodes. But as I watched them in quick succession this week, it occurred to me that a standard review would be kind of pointless.

Season 4 is just as brilliant as the seasons that preceded it. More specifically, it’s just the same. The same extended, often surreal vignettes. The same stand-up interludes. The same loose vérité style. The same occasional—but only occasional—serialized story arcs. The same Louie, shuffling around Manhattan and caring for his daughters and winding up as the butt of one big existential joke after another. 

In short, what other reviewers have written in the past still sums it up: “a hybrid of [Woody] Allen’s pre–Annie Hall movies and Philip Roth’s self-lacerating autobiographical fiction” that has become “the gold standard of contemporary TV comedy”  because it “takes risks rare for television, including the risk of not being perfect.”

So instead of trying to gin up a hyperbolic way to differentiate Season 4 from its predecessors, I started to ponder C.K.’s recent rise to cultural preeminence—and to search his show for an explanation. If every generation gets the comedian it deserves, why is Louis C.K. ours? What makes him so right for us, right now?

Season 4 provides some clues. There’s fantastic stuff in each of the first four episodes—particularly Episode 3, which culminates in a heartrending monologue delivered by a fat woman (who has a unrequited crush on Louie) that’s so honest and uncomfortable and protracted, it feels like you’re being castigated right there alongside him.

But of all of them, the episode I keep returning to is the Season 4 premiere.  To me it illustrates C.K.’s particular postmillennial appeal more clearly than anything else he’s ever done. It’s not the flashiest or funniest episode of Louie. It’s just the most emblematic.

Stand-up made him great. Louie has made him iconic.

The reason, I think, is that it’s C.K. at his most moral.

“Louie has a typical day”—that's the log line, sardonic and perfect. Basically what happens is this. Louie wakes up (I’m not allowed to tell you how, but it's a great observational gag—a quotidian annoyance exaggerated well past the point of absurdity, in classic C.K. fashion). Louie encounters a blue-collar maintenance worker who tells him a joke about Pinocchio—incorrectly. Louie has a conversation about fatherhood with a friend. Louie picks up his daughters from school, cooks them dinner, helps with their homework, and puts them to bed. Louie plays poker with a bunch of other comics. One reveals that he masturbates with a vibrator. Louie tries to buy a vibrator of his own—but injures his back before he can. Louie sees a doctor. Louie buys his vibrator. The end.

The vibrator stuff is predictably raunchy and predictably uproarious. But the soul of the episode (and of C.K.’s comedy) is in the quieter moments, because that’s when he uses humor as a kind of contemporary moral compass: a way of orienting us wherever we need it most... right now, in 2014.

Fatherhood, for example. The old roles are increasingly mixed up these days; the rules are being rewritten. Single parenthood, dual-income families, female breadwinners, stay-at-home dads—the whole thing is a lot more confusing than before. “Why don’t you just leave your kids?” Louie’s friend teases him over coffee. “No one cares about dads.” But of course Louie stays. On the walk home from school, his younger daughter Jane whines about her heavy backpack and asks her dad to carry it for her. “I would never do that,” he snaps, launching into a lecture on the virtues of self-reliance. “I would never take away your burden. Struggling is how you get stronger.” His elder daughter Lily winds up carrying the backpack just so Jane will shut up. Parenting in theory and parenting in practice—they’re two different things.

But parenting—muddling through however you can—is the point. At home, Louie and his daughters reenact a “typical” evening. There's no real purpose or punchlines in these scenes. They’re not particularly hilarious or anything. But it’s their aimlessness that makes them so resonant. When Jane “ews!” the broccoli he’s making, Louie tells her to “get far away from” him. When Lily has to write a letter to AIDS for class, Louie offers some suggestions. “Dear AIDS,” he suggests. “Why don’t you cut it out?” And when the girls demand at bedtime that he “do the Beatles,” at first he resists—then finally relents. His adenoidal impersonations—“I’m John; I’m Paul” and so on—don’t put the kids instantly to sleep. They’re not even particularly good. They’re just Louie being there, doing the best he can. We should care about dads. That’s the punchline.

It’s this moral perceptiveness—and in a certain sense, prescriptiveness—that have made C.K. such a “duh" proposition. One of his favorite targets is the narcissism (and loss of perspective) enabled by modern conveniences like cell phones and air travel. “Now we live in an amazing, amazing world and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of just spoiled idiots that don’t care because this is what people are like now,” he once said. “They got their phone and they’re like, ‘Eeaagh, it won’t...’ Give it a second! It’s going to space. Would you give it a second to get back from space? It’s the speed of light.”

C.K. tackles this problem in the Season 4 premiere, too. When Louie hurts his back, he expects the doctor—played with maximum disinterest by a pitch-perfect Charles Grodin—to fix him. No can do, Grodin says.

“Problem is, you’re using it wrong,” Grodin explains. He takes a bite of his sandwich. “The back isn’t done evolving yet. You see, the spine is a row of vertebrae that was designed to be horizontal. Then people came along and used it vertical. It wasn’t meant for that. So the discs get all floppy, swollen, pop out left, pop out right. It’ll take another...I’d say 20,000 years to get straightened out. Until then it’ll keep hurting.”

“So that’s it?” Louie asks.

“It’s an engineering design problem,” Grodin says. “It’s a misallocation. We were given a clothesline and we’re using it as a flagpole.”

“So what sh...what should I do?”

“Use your back as it was intended. Walk around on your hands and feet. Or accept the fact that your back is going to hurt sometimes. Be very grateful for the moments that it doesn’t. Every second spent without back pain is a lucky second. String enough of those lucky seconds together, you have a lucky minute.”

Louie lets out a big sigh. “OK.”

At first this plays like some sort of bizarre SNL sketch: the wacko physician. But then you (like Louie) realize that what Grodin is saying makes a certain, deeper kind of sense. Progress can’t alleviate every last ounce of our pain; we should feel fortunate—constantly—that we aren’t experiencing more of it. Also: Our pain (or pleasure) isn’t the most important thing in the world, as much as our Facebook feeds might encourage us to believe otherwise.

Or as Louie himself puts during one of his stand-up segments, “People are always asking what happens after you die. Lots of things happen after you die—they just don’t involve you. There’s a Super Bowl every year...A dog catching a frisbee ...”

A lot of comedians can make you laugh. The difference with C.K. is that his best jokes—the ones in which you recognize your own absurdity or confusion; the ones you remember whenever your own life gets absurd or confusing—have the power to make you a little bit more human, and a little bit less of whatever else it is we’re becoming. That’s exactly the kind thing we should be agreeing on—especially when we can’t agree on anything else.