“I have a lot of beliefs… And I live by none of them. That’s just the way I am. They’re just my beliefs. I just like believing them – I like that part. They’re my little believies. They make me feel good about who I am. But if they get in the way of a thing I want, I [sure as heckfire] do that.”
This is just one of many priceless lines in Louis C.K.’s new comedy special, At the Beacon Theater. I can personally think of no one in pop-culture right now championing such a realistic, and, yes, New Testament view of human nature than Louis. And he’s not doing it in a strictly nihilistic way – there’s a genuinely humane sensibility lurking behind the jokes. The flipside of his refusal to exalt himself is an undeniably compassionate understanding of others, even at their worst. Take, for instance, the controversy from a few years ago about fellow comic Dane Cook stealing his material. Louis used the incident as fodder for a recent episode of his sitcom, but did so in a remarkably non-exonerating/-justifying way. He discussed the situation in a recent interview on NPR:
“People would post [Dane Cook's] joke and my joke, and then they would comment who they thought stole what, and I always had very ambivalent feelings … because he’s a human being — and I felt a little weird about the whole thing,” [Louis] says. “So I started to think about him while writing Season 2, and I thought it would be interesting to have us talk about it.”
In the episode, Cook plays a fictional version of himself. C.K. calls Cook in for a meeting so that the two men can discuss the controversy and air their grievances — and so C.K. can ask Cook for a favor: to get Lady Gaga tickets for his teenage daughter. Cook explodes, calling C.K. a fraud for staying silent while letting his fans attack him.
“I thought, ‘If I can make [Cook] the winner of the debate or at least an even match, then it’s worth doing,” he says. “Letting him call me a fraud was so much more interesting. I could have had him be a straw dog or had somebody else play him and gotten off on myself. But it was way more fun to go into something [with someone] who stole from me — supposedly — and have him call me a fraud. It’s just so interesting.”
For C.K., the episode worked exactly the way he had intended it to. “You felt like you were in a really private and stressful and intense place with two people,” he says. “It worked perfectly for me. … Dane, I think, was seen as a human being. [Previously,] I was seen as a victim and he was seen as this monster. And neither were true. I wanted us both to become human. He’s not a terrible guy. He’s a human being. He might have made some mistakes — but he’s a person. … Dane’s success was so massive. I think it’s really hard to go through something like that. There’s no way people lift you that high without tearing you down.”
Now, let’s be clear: we can’t recommend Louis C.K. His material is simply too dirty. And that’s not some pious Christian judgement, it’s simply the truth. I don’t know anyone, religious or not, that could watch his stuff with their older sister, let alone their grandmother. But that doesn’t stop me from loving and admiring the guy. Predictably, Louis himself is aware of the dynamic, as he admitted in the same interview:
“I get a lot of email from people saying, ‘I saw something you did on TV that was clean.’ Like I did this clip on Conan that went viral that everything is amazing and no one is happy, and it just was about appreciating what the world is like and not grousing about it. And it got really popular with Christian groups [ed note: guilty!]. And I heard that a lot of pastors would play it before their services and stuff. So a lot of people that saw it would go to my website and be horrified by everything else that I say.
So I got a lot of emails from people saying, ‘Why can’t you just keep it clean? Because I am now shut off from your act by the horrible things you said, and that’s such a shame.’ And I would not usually respond to them because I don’t return emails, but in my head and to a few of them I said, ‘Well, you’re the one putting the limit. Not me. I’m saying a bunch of stuff, and you’re the one saying I should only say one facet of it.’ That’s a limit. But at the same time, when these people would write to me I’d kind of like them. Whenever I’ve encountered a Christian saying, ‘Why don’t you stop talking like that so I can hear you?’ I think, ‘Well you’re the one putting the earmuffs on, but I wish you could hear me because I like you.’
He’s got a point. And while you could certainly use similar reasoning to rationalize any number of things, when Louis comes clean, for the most part, it’s not out of a sense of indulgence. Good lapsed Catholic boy that he is, there’s a confessional element, a dare-I-say repentant feeling to it. Because here’s the deal with his raunchiness: it is part and parcel of his honesty. If you were to subtract the profligate masturbation jokes and the general foulness, you would be putting his entire thing in jeopardy. Louis’ schtick is that he has no schtick. He is completely and totally unfiltered, and because of that, we all recognize ourselves in his act.
Plenty of comics are unflinching in their self-deprecation, though. What’s different about Louis?! Well, first of all, he digs a little deeper than most comedians. He’s existentially oriented, always using the small story to talk about/illustrate the bigger one. But more importantly, he’s neither indifferent to his depravity nor blaming someone else for it (women, Republicans, white people, etc). In fact, he’s constantly talking about how he wishes he were a better person, how the depths to which he sinks surprise even him, how the world would be a better place if it weren’t populated by people like him. It’s this unspoken acknowledgement of the Law – of there being some basic standard of decency of which he’s falling short – which produces something in his manner resembling contrition. It’s actually a key part of his likability. And the lack of scapegoating is a refreshing contrast to stand-up comedy norms; in Louis’ view, the problems of the world are not external or circumstantial but internal and universal. “I wish I weren’t this way, but it’s how I am. I know what the right thing to do is, and I love to think of myself as being able to do it, but I don’t, and to act otherwise would be a sham”. Sounds a bit like a certain passage in Romans to me! Listen to his riff on sitting in first class on an airplane, which starts just before the 2 minute mark:
So I admire Louis C.K.’s bravery and think his show on FX, while fundamentally unrecommendable in its adult-ness, has moments of serious insight, all based in a view of himself as the chief of sinners. He likely wouldn’t agree, but I see him as functioning similarly to a (good) preacher, exploring every crevice of human experience in a way that gives his audience the permission to lower their defenses and connect with the non-earmuffed truth about themselves, without necessarily condoning that truth – simply bringing it to light. It’s a rare gift and one which sacrifices the dignity of the performer for the sake of the audience. Some might call it narcissistic, I call it prophetic. Well, sort of.