The American stand-up comedy pantheon is a club of legends. There are greats, great greats and true tentpole icons – real artists who pushed the envelope, broke barriers and dared to go where others fell shy, to places we needed to go in order to see life’s absurdities and to see ourselves for who we truly are. You see, comics aren’t just joke tellers. The best ones are soothsayers and philosophers who see through our euphemisms and shatter our illusions, drilling through the protective walls we build for ourselves in order to stay comfortable. They tell the truth.
When we moved from safe “country club” comedy to more subversive comedy in the 1960s, we entered the era of more interesting, provocative thinking person’s work from the likes of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock – the Mount Rushmore of great American stand-up comedy. Another face that belongs there is Louis C.K.’s.
Louis hit another one out of the park in his latest comedy special 2017, released on Netflix on April 4th. Ever the master craftsman poking at our most ridiculous proscriptions, Louis goes into tricky territory right out of the gate. No toe dipping or wading. He dives right in, head first, with abortion. There are few who can pull off this kind of high-wire act with such skill, and Louis is one of them.
With his needle and thread, Louis weaves tapestries about taboos in everyday life in his signature pattern, then uses that needle to puncture the uptight sacredness that is arbitrarily assigned to those taboos, pulling the absurdity into direct sunlight. His gift is the exploration of some of our most universal experiences with such a kid-like wonder that seems so simplistic and obvious. It may be obvious, but his message is never simplistic.
After starting out with abortion, Louis goes into suicide, fatherhood and children, religion and Christianity, a hilarious twist on 9/11 deniers, marriage, unreasonable expectations around life and love, self-importance, self-identity and self-doubt. In his closing segment, he goes places few heterosexual men would ever go publicly – or even privately – by admitting how he was aroused by Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum in Magic Mike. It was so exquisitely spun that I nearly choked on my own snot from laughing so hard.
Louis’s delivery style makes it seem like he’s just casually telling us things as they occur to him, making it superficially understandable and accessible to just about anyone willing to listen. But his artfully crafted subtext cuts deep – perhaps deeper than many people realize. In a review of 2017 for Vogue.com, writer Julia Felsenthal argued that Louis’s opening bit about abortion fell flat and that his simplistic musings about the issue were murky. I disagree. I watched the opening twice and was left with the distinct impression that Louis’s deliberately confusing take (as a man) was that the issue belongs to women and that they should have control of their own bodies. Pretty pro-choice and not murky at all. His is the perspective of a feminist, filtered through his unsophisticated faux idiot caveman personna, yielding a point of view that is probably more pro-woman than many who think of themselves as feminist. (This is a man who was very clear in his support for Hillary Clinton, declaring that after a series of idiot dads in the Oval Office, the time for a mom was long overdue.)
Does he piss people off? Sure. But that’s a natural byproduct of the comic provocateur’s work. (And as Fran Lebowitz once said: “Being offended is the natural consequence of leaving one’s home.”) The comic’s job is to push the envelope, to provoke people to see the absurdity of things from an angle they hadn’t considered and to make us laugh in the process. It’s a role that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. We watch to laugh at the comic, to laugh at the stories and to laugh at ourselves. Ask any good stand-up comic if any subject is taboo, off-limits or “too soon.” I promise you that the unanimous and immediate response would be No. Once we start wrapping ourselves in blankets of precious hypersensitivity, taking life and ourselves too seriously and losing our ability to find the humor in life’s cruelties, we’re fucked. When tragically unfunny people start presuming to censure and socially legislate humor, we should all vomit – right on any taste nanny’s shoes. In terms of what is or is not funny, I’ll leave it to the professionals who make a living by making a lot of people laugh, especially when we need laughter most. (And if it’s not your cup of tea, you simply leave or stop watching.)
One of my favorite quotes about comedy comes from Winston Churchill by way of Joan Rivers, who said “When you make someone laugh, you give them a little vacation.” Louis C.K’s 2017 is more than just a 75 minute vacation. It’s truth about life, about Louis and about ourselves, delivered in a way that only Louis can deliver it.
From a lineage that started from Bruce and continued through Carlin, Rivers, Pryor, Murphy and other subversive geniuses who dared to challenge comfortable thought, Louis C.K. is one of the brilliant philosopher comics of our time. It’s uncomfortable, thrilling and hilarious to watch.
Fans of Louis C.K. will notice that he’s ditched the dumpy dad t-shirt look for his stage performances and borrowed a sartorial tip from Jerry Seinfeld and Lewis Black by opting for the decidedly more grown-up suit and tie. His suit choice in this show is a bit shiny, flashy and ill-tailored (I kinda see Louis as more of a no-nonsense solid navy Brooks Brother myself), but I really appreciate the effort. He’s been doing the suit and tie thing on the late night talk show circuit, too. He looks handsome, and it’s nice to see.