At this point, it's really impossible to overstate Louis C.K.'s cultural relevance as a comic. His imagery is as edgy as Lenny Bruce, his material as universal as Bill Cosby, and the doors of creative freedom he's kicked open within the industry (self-produced show; self-distributed specials) will forever alter how young comics shape their careers. While the lack of puppets, cute dimples and a conservative Christian audience will continue to keep him off the Forbes Top Earning Comedians list, the premiere of his HBO standup special, Oh My God, last Saturday will surely rank as one of the most anticipated moments in comedy this year.
Last month C.K. released a hilarious parody of the typically bombastic hype that comes with comedy specials in the form of his trailer for Oh My God, which concludes with, "Really it's just going to be telling jokes. It's not a big deal." This sentiment was reinforced by the undramatic open of his special, which followed a characteristically nervous C.K. backstage before he walked out into the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix. It was the mere-mortal Louis (ugly, divorced, self-loathing) that is half the crux of his popularity -- while the other 50 percent comes from his frightening imagination, which often reaches a vivid level of discomfort that would make Marilyn Manson blush.
"If murder was legal, children would behave a lot differently, because it would mostly be parents killing their own kids," he says from the 360 stage, looking average-joe pudgy in a royal blue polo shirt. "You'd be stepping over dead kids; it would be the new problem." Adopting a nannying, bureaucrat voice, he continues: "'You have to clean up your kids when you kill them, because it's gross. It's bad for the environment. If you murder your child in a public place, please use one of the red bags that are in the dispensers within three feet of anywhere in America.'"
Keep in mind, this joke was delivered around two months after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. But there were no gasps or ooooohs coming from the audience, because this joke was delivered fifty minutes into his set, and by that time C.K. had rooted himself in the dark zones of logic within your mind where no matter how disconcerting his sentiments are, they still ring true within your own rationale. A number of comics can reach an audience on this level while commenting on things like politics, movies or hating hipsters, but this ginger jester often goes right for the P.C. panic-button, saying fucked-up things about race that disquiet you with their sound reasoning.
"Of course, slavery is the worst thing that ever happened. Black people in America, Jews in Egypt, it's a horrible thing. But every incredible achievement in human history was done with slaves. Things that make you go, 'How did they build those pyramids?' They just threw human death and suffering at them until they were finished. 'How did we traverse the nation with a railroad so quickly?' We just threw Chinese people in caves, blew them up and didn't give a shit what happened to them. There's no end to what you can do when you don't give a fuck about a particular people. That's where human greatness comes from -- fucking others over.
"Even today, how do we have this amazing micro-technology?" he continues, holding up an iPhone. "Because the factories where they make these people jump off the fucking roof because it's a nightmare in there. You really have a choice: You can have candles and horses and be a little kinder to each other, or let someone very far away suffer immeasurably just so you can leave a mean comment on YouTube while you're taking a shit."
Typically, if a comic is going to venture into this kind of territory, he or she has already created a villain stage-character that you're allowed to laugh at. But C.K.'s everyman-ness means that if you bust up over one of his jokes, you most likely relate to them (which can take you down some dark roads of ethical self-examination). When we laugh at Tig Notaro, it's not because we know what it's like to have breast cancer (though, obviously, some people do); and while most of us don't know what it's like to sociopathically stalk our chubby Indian nephew on Facebook, we still adore Aziz Ansari for relating his anecdotes. Yet C.K.'s subject matter of dating, bodily failure and unwanted impotence is as old and inclusive as the medium of standup comedy itself (which, second to cave-painting, was probably the first form of human entertainment).
Standup comedy is full of "relatable" comics like Brian Regan or John Caparulo, though few have the incisive wisdom of Louis C.K., or the courage to venture down the muddy terrain he's so fond of.
"I've been divorced for five years, and it's easily been the best part of my life," he says with unrestrained glee. "I'm not saying don't get married. If you meet someone, fall in love, then get married. AND THEN GET DIVORCED BECAUSE IT'S THE BEST PART! Marriage is just a larva stage for true happiness, which is divorce. Divorce is forever. Marriage is just for how long you can hack it. But divorce just gets stronger like a piece of oak. Nobody ever complains 'oh, my divorce is falling apart. It's over, I can't take it.' If you're in the perfect marriage, stay in it -- I'm just saying that if you got out, it would be better."
It's true that if you're a member of the LGBT community, you're one of the few social groups left out of C.K.'s hetero, gender-binary commentary. (Though he's dropped enough pro-gay one-liners to keep his face popping up in Facebook memes whenever gay marriage is in the news.) Yet so long as Louis C.K. keeps riffing on idiot parents filming children's plays with iPads, humans climbing out of the food-chain, or why a forty-year-old garbage man is smarter than a twenty-eight-year-old Ph.D. grad, he will continue to cement his reputation as the most important comic (so far) of the twenty-first century.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.