What hasn’t been said about Louis C.K.? The New York Times called him a “comedic Quentin Tarantino.” Writing for the Los Angeles Book Review Adam Wilson said he was “television’s most honest man.” GQ suggested that he is the “funniest comic alive.” Then there’s C.K. himself who in stand up routines and on his self-produced and self-direction show, Louie, brazenly identifies as “fat,” “pathetic,” and a “frequent masturbator.”
C.K.’s approach is not new. His humor emerges from close dissections of everyday life. Comics call this “observational comedy.” Dave Allen pioneered it in the 1970s and Jerry Seinfeld made a career out of it on Seinfeld. My favorite C.K. example comes from several years ago when he was on Conan making fun of frustrated flyers. “People think there are delays in flying. Delays?” he asks. “New York to California in five hours. That used to take 30 years and a bunch of you would die on the way there… Now you watch a movie and take a dump and your home.” A bit about being broke likewise turns the ordinary into the hilarious. “Do you ever get so broke that your bank starts charging you money for not having enough money?” a depressed sounding C.K. polls the audience. “Negative $10, that’s how much I have now. That means I don’t even have no money… I have to raise $10 just to be broke.”
C.K. curses frequently and talks openly about, among other sexual impulses, masturbation. But his vulgarity isn’t novel either. George Carlin explored taboo topics. Carlin’s bit about the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” is still discussed today.
“Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, CockSucker, MotherFucker, and Tits” Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war. “Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, CockSucker, MotherFucker, and Tits”
C.K. might be exceptionally risqué with his words. In the span of a few minutes in his 2008 album, Chewed Up, he tells the audience he misses using the word “faggot,” he argues that “cunt” is a beautiful word (he says “It’s chocolatey and round. I don’t use it as an insult… I just like saying it”), and he vents about white newscasters who say the “n” word because it “puts the word nigger in the listeners head without them actually saying it.”
A study published by Robert Lynch of Rutgers University in 2009 helps explain why vulgarity brings out the biggest laughs. Lynch gathered 60 undergrads from Rutgers and had them watch the comedian Bill Burr do a 30-minute routine. Lynch monitored his subjects’ laughter and facial expressions and found that the biggest laughs came from white students during racial jokes (Burr tells a joke about being afraid of black neighborhoods) and male students during gender jokes (Burr jokes that men should make more money than women). Lynch concludes that what’s faux pas is funny because it brings out unconscious, or at least unspoken, beliefs we all hold. In this light the role of the comedian is to give us an excuse to laugh about what we’re not suppose to laugh about, and that’s the funny part.
One talent viewers overlook is C.K.’s writing. He is the sole writer of Louie and it’s one of the best shows on TV. (It appears on numerous top ten lists and it received an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.) There’s a vignette in the second season of Louie that captures his skills well. A group of writers gather around a table to “inject some funny” back into an over-edited script. C.K. awkwardly stands around the table eating a jelly croissant when the head writer reads the first page. It goes something like this: An alarm clock switches from 6:59am to 7am. A veteran cop in his 30s hits the snooze button. “Oh, not another one of these,” the cop says as he goes back to sleep. His dog licks his face. “Come on boy, gimme a break.”
“That’s page one. Any suggestions?” the head writer asks. A variety of attempts come up short. A snob remarks, “Do we really need another movie with the alarm clock close up and the dog licking the guy. Come on everybody. This is like every bad cop movie I’ve ever seen.” The writers grumble and C.K. steps in. “What if the dogs stops the alarm?”
Louie is scattered with gems like these. It’s the small ingenious surprises and plots twist that makes C.K.’s writing great. We’re expecting X but we get Y. Many times these surprises are exceptionally sad or serious. Yet, it’s the sentimental moments that leave us with new perspectives on life.
Consider the second episode of season one, “Poker/Divorce.” C.K. and a group of friends are playing poker. One turns to a gay friend and asks him what it feels like to have a “dick in the ass.” The gay friend diverges into a description of “City Jerks,” a club where gay men get together to masturbate each other. Another friend responds, “I have to be honest, what you guys do is sick. Not at a political or Bible level either. Just picturing you touching another guy’s dick is gross.” There’s an awkward tension when C.K. steps in with a question, “Is that how you feel about what we do? Do you think vaginas are gross?”
The conversation diverges once again into a discussion about the word “faggot.” The gay friend explains how bundles of sticks – faggots – were used to burn homosexuals at the stake during the middle ages. Then he reminds the group that every gay man in American has been called faggot while he was being beaten up. The mood gets very serious for a moment. “Ok thanks, faggot. We will keep that in mind.” The friends burst into laughter and somehow you’re left with an honest and new perspective on homosexuality. Within the vulgarity was sincerity.
C.K. is a creative genius because he reverse engineers the everyday to exploit its humor. Sometimes this means a conversation amongst friends about gay sex. Other times it means examining in depth one of Carlin’s seven words. What hasn’t been said about Louis C.K.? His creativity is in his penmanship.