3.33 Louis CK Revisited

This is an entry I posted last year after Louis CK's Toronto show and I have included some new bits at the end. I have never reposted something, but it is connected to what I've been writing about lately. I'll explain later. “When you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs, then what do you have left? You can only dig deeper. Start talking about your feelings and who you are. And then you do those jokes and they’re gone. You got to dig deeper. Then you start thinking about your fears and your nightmares and doing jokes about that and then they’re gone. And then you start getting into the weird shit. I started to think: what is it I really want to say that I’m afraid to say?”

This quotation was taken from a speech by writer, actor and comedian Louis CK in a tribute to George Carlin. I don’t normally use this space to talk about stuff like this because who cares if I saw some movie or show? Does it matter what I have to say about such things? But I went to see Louis CK perform live last weekend and I finally felt the need to over share that permeates the blogosphere.

It annoys me to no end when someone says, “You have to see this movie.” Just because you like something doesn’t mean I will as well. Whatever happened to a polite suggestion? I’m glad that people feel their opinions matter, but there’s no need to be rude about it. That being said, you have to see Louis CK.

My call up into the cloud of the internet is not because I think he’s really funny and you need to check out his act. Louis CK is not to everyone’s taste. He talks about topics such as fears, anxieties, relationships between men and women, fatherhood, race, the use or misuse of words – difficult subject matter. He is standing on the shoulders of giants, comedians before him like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin, who gave voice to the unmentionable.

I am no comedy expert, this is the first real show I have seen live. I probably won’t see any more – it’s hard to move down the ladder once you’ve seen the best. So, in a way, Louis CK has ruined everything for me.

You could dismiss him as another observational comic who talks about masturbation, taking a dump and sex. As he said in an interview with Jon Stewart, “To me, a fart is funny. It comes out of your ass, it smells like poop because it’s been hanging out next to it for a time and it makes a little trumpet noise when it comes out. You don’t have to be smart to laugh at farts but you have to be stupid not to.” But inside these jokes is someone talking about humanity, human behaviour and the reality – or sometimes surreality – of day-to-day existence.

This clip from his appearance on David Letterman encompasses the major aspects of his style: personal reflection on his life and human behaviour, infused with a surreal concept.


Talking with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast, Maron referred to the young Louis CK as someone who was building his own brain. What I think he meant was that Louis CK opened his mind to the experiences around him. In my opinion, any artist that has a cultural effect trains himself or herself to see the world from a different perspective. To point out what is wrong, point right at it and talk about the issues that are important. George Carlin did this with his Seven Dirty Words, Lenny Bruce did this with his discussions surrounding race.

Louis CK told Maron that he never wanted to exist in a vacuum. The point is to bring it out into the open and have people laugh. There are two key learning points here. First, artists are prone to say that they create for themselves. What is art without an audience? What is art without it having some type of impact on people’s lives? Second, when I walked out of the show last week, everyone had a huge grin on his or her face. We collectively shared an hour and half of pure laughter. He entertained us, he made us laugh, but he also made us think.

I discussed in an earlier entry that I believe comedians are clowns. Not birthday clowns or circus clowns. They are the clowns of Shakespeare, the characters that make fun of the king and expose hypocrisies, most of the time without anyone realizing. To me, the comedic clowns are the ones that keep us all in check, encourage us to see ourselves from different perspectives.

There were two moments during the show where Louis CK said, “Wow, that was the worst thing I’ve ever said.” He was really giving voice to the thoughts that the audience was thinking. By making us laugh at these subjects we are afraid of talking about, he was inviting us to discuss them, to acknowledge them, break them apart and move beyond them. In a way, isn’t this what we all aspire to as individuals? The ability to access the different layers of our psyche, explore the deep dark parts of our collective unconscious.

In my own work, I want to dig deeper. Louis CK has described how he performed the same act for fifteen years until he hit rock bottom. Louis CK looked to George Carlin who wrote new material every year and he wondered if that was possible. Something broke in Louis CK and he started down a road to, as he said, explore what he was afraid to say. Words contain power, but once they are spoken, sometimes that power can be evaporated and you can move towards a higher ground of self-awareness. Louis CK is not only an inspired comedian and writer, he displays that these parts of us are accessible and in order to create work that connects to an audience – to become better people – we must ask the question: what is it I really want to say that I'm afraid to say?

In an addendum to this article, I also want to mention two other elements of Louis CK's work. The first is his desire to continually push the limits of how entertainment is distributed. By now, his innovative way of distributing his last comedy special, and also, selling tickets to live shows, has already become legendary. He took the power out of the hands of gatekeepers and performed an economic experiment. By selling his comedy special for five dollars, Louis CK was able to not only maintain creative freedom, but deliver the content directly to consumers and more or less stop pirating. He single-handedly solved the problem of pirating and provided a platform for artists to profit more directly from their work. Two major problems that many high paid executives and giant corporations in the entertainment industry couldn't figure out.

The second is his television show Louie. I just finished watching the third season and it continues to get better with each episode. Louis CK writes, edits, directs and stars in the show, and I've read some crisitism that he does this only to have his name in the credits multiple times. I usually find it funny when someone has to put their name in the credits as much as possible, but with Louis CK, it's not ego. He actually is performing all these roles. I know it's not ego because he has such tremendous respect and loyalty to the people he works with, many of these relationships going back twenty years. He is an experienced filmmaker and showrunner, and this is exactly the show he wanted to make.

As the show has progressed through the seasons, Louis CK's confidence has grown. Sometimes it's not only about the funny joke, but also about the sad parts of life. Don't get me wrong, the third season is still funny, but it has taken on an almost existential exploration of a man in middle-age. The show is at times meloncolic, looking at life from a very specific lens, but a lens that is also universal and one we can all relate.

Last week, Louis CK started selling a standup show by his friend Tig Notaro. In the past few months, Notaro was diagnosed with cancer and her mother died in an accident. Being a standup comedian, Notaro took to the stage to talk about what has been happening to her. She started with a very cheery, "Hello, I have cancer!" The following set was incredibly thrilling as the audience listened to a person talking out some pretty horrible experiences, trudging through them in a serious but very funny way. As she said during the set, she couldn't tell her old jokes anymore, they just didn't mean the same thing. Louis CK happened to be in the audience and said it was one of the best standup sets he had ever seen and felt people should hear it. The show was taped and Louis CK made it available on his site, one dollar out of every download goes to logistical expenses and the remaining four dollars goes to Notaro. Louis CK developed this delivery system where the artist is not only in control of the product, but also is more directly rewarded financially. He realized this method could be used to promote not only himself, but to help others get their work to the larger audience it deserves.

Louis CK has really conquered everything: standup comedy, the business side of entertainment, television and even taking on the gatekeepers and their hold on distribution. What's next?

The Tig Notaro show is quite incredible, you can hear the This American Life episode about it HERE.

You can download the show here: louisck.net.