Louis C.K. The Writer

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. 

Image via Flickr/David_shankbone

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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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