Louis C.K. Is America’s Undisputed King of Comedy (GQ Magazine)
The greatest jokes, Louis C.K. tells me, never register as jokes. Not quite. The punch line of a great joke may punctuate it and make people laugh, “but it doesn’t solve the joke, doesn’t stop it, so the joke keeps going and going and going…” And the more it keeps going, he explains, the more it tends to “point.”
“Toward what?” I ask.
“Well…nothing.” C.K. shrugs. By which, it turns out, he actually means: nothingness.
“I’ll give you the perfect example,” he offers, “but… Wait, is your oatmeal hot enough?” C.K. is an attentive conversationalist, lots of eye contact, asking as many questions as he answers. Oatmeal’s fine, I tell him. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I gotta get my oatmeal hot first!”
Fair enough. It’s a brittle February morning, the streets around this SoHo café glazed with black ice. He arrived on foot—his walk pegged him a block away, that crouched, duck-foot shuffle, a man wary of his own senses—and needs his porridge just right. Once it is, he continues. “There was this comedian named Fred Greenlee, who got hot in the ’80s. He had a couple of jokes about suicide that all comedians love. One was ‘You know that thing when you put the gun in your mouth and the barrel touches a filling and you get that [whole-body shiver] uuughhhhh feeling? Don’t you hate that?’ ”
After I finish laughing, C.K. continues. “I’ve been trapped in that joke for thirty years. Happily so. First, there’s the hilarious notion of having an annoying little twinge at that terrible moment. But then there’s a—what is it, an epistemological problem?—that keeps me in that joke forever. ‘Cause he’s taking you down a road. You have a gun in your mouth. Okay…what’s happened? You’re sharing this peeve about the dental filling—does that mean you didn’t do it? Did this irritation cause you to remove the gun from your mouth? Did it jar you out of your despair?” He’s getting a little excited. “Or are you a dead person commiserating with everybody who’s ever shot themselves in the mouth? I love jokes that don’t answer themselves completely, because you think about them forever.”
When it comes to his own jokes, C.K. is proudest of those for which he must commit with Method-actor rigor to some rhetorical or moral absurdity—and then take his argument several parsecs beyond its “logical” conclusion. He’s always striking through the mask, Louis C.K. It’s not just a matter of braying aloud what the rest of us only dare to think; he says things we aren’t even aware we’re thinking until we hear them from C.K. That’s his genius.
Yeah, that word. I hesitate to use it. First because overuse has cheapened it into a kind of aerosolized cheese, and second because C.K. himself is ruthlessly precise in the way he uses and talks about language. (From his 2010 special, Hilarious: “We don’t think about how we talk…. ‘Dude, it was amazing.‘ Really? You were amazed by a basket of chicken wings? What if Jesus comes down from the sky and makes love to you all night long and leaves the new Living Lord in your belly? What are you going to call that? You used ‘amazing’ on a basket of chicken wings! You’ve limited yourself verbally to a shit life!”) If Louis C.K., né Szekely, were “merely” the greatest comic talent of his generation, which he is, he’d merit…well, “the most electrifying comedian since Richard Pryor.” But not “genius.”
The G-word applies because Louis C.K. is, like Pryor, so much more than, and more vital than, a comedian. I’m not referring here to the quantitative “more than” of C.K.’s extra-stand-up professional life, mind-boggling as that is (writing/producing/directing/starring in his semi-auto-biographical FX series, Louie, starting its fourth season this month, large roles in David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, et cetera). I’m pretty sure I’m not even referring to content—that is, to the endless shocks of self-recognition C.K. delivers, about how we Americans are and aren’t thinking, feeling, fucking, connecting in the second decade of the twenty-first century. No, C.K.’s genius is all about how he forcefully accesses that psychic marrow of ours, “going there” in an era in which it’s gotten all but impossible to shock. There is nothing he can’t and won’t demystify or de-sentimentalize. “[My 4-year-old daughter] is a fuckin’ asshole,” he rails in 2007’s Shameless, thereby pimp-slapping everything decent everyone in his audience hopes they stand for. “‘You think I actually give a shit about the dog you saw?… I’ve got better stories than you. I have an interesting life. I’m on TV. I won an Emmy. You don’t ask what happened to me today in my life, you little bitch!'”
Forget demystifying. This is an obliterating genius, an absurd, self-disgusted, generous, horny, inquisitive, belligerent, deep-felt, smart-stupid, bare-naked, vulgar, deeply ruminative, face-fuckingly frank genius.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and C.K.’s crew has taken over a school in the Bronx for a series of flashback scenes. Junior-high Louie, played by an orange-headed stick of a boy, is being strafed by an even littler buddy named Brad with tall tales about another friend’s mother.
“I saw her tits!” he squeaks.
“No, you didn’t,” Louie mumbles into his lunch tray.
A beat as the camera pans to the blehhh of the mashed potatoes.
“But what if I did?”
A question of metaphysical import, but C.K. lets it hang. He’s less interested in the period than in the ellipsis, that blehhh—“The pause before the question is more important than the question itself,” he tells me later—and keeps reshooting in order to get it, imploring his younger self to act…less.
“Let there be more drudgery,” he tells the boy. “We don’t need to see you process your own adolescent depression. That’s on the inside. On the outside, you’re numb, okay?” The kid nods. C.K. isn’t daunting, but he is imposing, physically and psychically close, as he directs. In no small part, this is because he’s gotten kind of in shape, enough so that the first thing you notice is that he’s taller than you expect, a solid six feet.
C.K. returns to his spot for a tenth take. “Why am I being so anal?” he asks Steven Wright, the veteran comic he’s brought on as a producer. C.K. dons earphones before there can be a response, so Wright explains to me that C.K. wants a more hapless, less-is-more portrayal of his teenage self.
“That’s what those years are like, right?” says Wright. The voice—the same sidling deadpan of his stage act. “It’s not like nothin’s going on. Everything’s going on. It’s too much—you gotta sit absolutely still or you’ll get dizzy. It’s hard to get that contrast on-camera, but that’s where the discomfort is, and that’s what Louis is interested in.”
Discomfort underlies all of C.K.’s work—it’s often both medium and message—and he seems to regard it as a moral imperative. “You’ve got to embrace discomfort,” he tells me at one point. “It’s the only way you can put yourself in situations where you can learn, and the only way you can keep your senses fresh once you’re there.”
Black kids were bused in to C.K.’s otherwise all-white junior high school. Szekely, an incurably curious boy who grew up to be what Chris Rock has called “the blackest white guy I know,” wanted to know them. Had to. So he began sitting at their table at lunchtime. “It was awkward and scary, but I made a lot of black friends, and that was the only way to do it. It had to be uncomfortable. It was actually racist, ‘cause I was sitting down with these kids only because they were black. Sometimes discomfort is the only way through.”
Now a great whimsical moment follows: Little Louie agrees to amortize his own ass-kicking from a bully—one punch today, another next week. “Good job,” the bully says encouragingly after Louie takes his lick. “I’ll see you on the twenty-first.” After several unsatisfactory takes, C.K. bids his actors to rid their brains of all “forward memory,” i.e., their knowledge of what comes next in the scene. “You know what’s happening, but your character can’t. You need to discover your own feelings as you speak. It’s tricky, like playing Scrabble with yourself.”
Trickier still, because C.K. doesn’t want his actors improvising. “No vamping!” he barks. It’s clear that he composes his dialogue as much as he writes it—his eyes are often closed when the camera’s running—and that he has an idealized execution of every line playing in his inner ear. After a disquisition on the properties of stoned laughter—”less giggly, more evil”—he gives up and lets the camera roll.
“How do you teach a 13-year-old who’s never gotten high to act high?” C.K. asks. Wright gives a doleful kids-these-days shake of the head and says, “You just can’t teach that.”
“You just gotta take him outside!” C.K. says. “You gotta get ’em high!”
As much as anything, C.K.’s musical ear, his ability to perfectly pitch, inflect, and layer a line, justifies the G-word. His description, at a 2010 Carnegie Hall gig, of being rudely woken at dawn by his children, is downright symphonic:
At six in the morning, I am sleeping…a beautiful, deep African sleep. I am fathoms deep in a river of warm chocolate, just…aughaugh. And Sleep is an ancient whore with twenty tongues just blowing me purrrrfectly and speaking a dead language…. OOOH la-shala ka-TOONZA salah ka-TAH! [lubricious schlong-schlurping sound] And she’s feeding syrupy heroin into my dick while she’s sucking. Lai-SOOR! MOON ta-ka-tah! Oh that’s so good… DADDY! No. Fuckin’ nonononono… DADDY!
Even so, there’s one respect in which the music C.K. chooses for a given moment doesn’t matter. Whether it’s a detonation (“I’m not an atheist. I think God is there and that He is watching and He made us. I just don’t give a shit”) or a meditation on the alienating power of cell phones that stays funny even as it takes on the convicting power of a sermon (“The phones are taking away the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that forever-empty thing…that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone…. The thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or a jack-off…. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, just kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die”) or one of the odder, funny-unfunny episodes of Louie that leave you discomfited yet vaguely grateful, one strand is always present. It’s not a specific thing or theme but a vibe, a kind of undiscovered, in situ quality that C.K.’s mind imparts to whatever it beholds, making whatever it is—sex, a Cinnabon, an airplane—seem like something you’ve never previously encountered. This is partly due to his X-Ray Spex: You and I are traumatized by the young girl in Schindler’s List who jeers the Jewish families being marched out of Kraków; Louis C.K. sees through—to the casting director’s tape on which fifty bright-eyed 8-year-olds read for the role of the “GOOD-BYE, JEWS!” girl.
It’s all that inspired obliteration—of his own ego, first and foremost. And also of our unexamined notions about things so elemental—what it means to be a person, death, the need for sadness, how the human brain processes and empowers words like faggot, cunt, and nigger—that we can’t afford not to examine them. That’s C.K.’s gift, his ability to eliminate governors, defaults, presets, any sort of separation from a moment, so that nothing stands between you and what he wants you to see. He sells his shows off his website for just $5 a pop, cutting out middlemen like Amazon and iTunes. Louie’s actors often perform in their own clothes and rarely wear makeup. Even the way he entered for his Beacon Theater special—no musical or lighting cues, just Louis C.K. walking onstage, grabbing the mike, saying, “Go ahead, sit down, we’re just starting,” catching the audience before they were “set”—worked to erase any distinction between performance and reality, him and us.
Usually you pay to see comedians because you want to laugh and escape yourself for a while. You go to see Louis C.K. to laugh, but also to connect to yourself in a way that’s both alarming and reassuring. There’s a certain moral clarity to his ebullient self-disgust, to the way he looks at himself from a distance, with all of us there beside him, asking, What the fuck? Even his mopey interstitial mumbles—”I don’t know…. I don’t care…. I’m all sweaty…. I don’t feel good…. I ate too much and masturbated too recently”—connect you to your own dilapidated humanity.
Is it beyond comedy? Or the whole-life immersion, one man’s body and soul, in a brine of comedy? Either way, this scatological 46-year-old, who admits with a shrug to having once “let” his dog eat cottage cheese off his balls (“something you now can’t un-know”), has more heartfelt, heartening things to say about family values than any politician in the country.
“No, I’ve never been suicidal,” he says. “But I’ve wanted to be.”
I misconstrue this as a punch line—as if suicidal “mopiness” were something all the cool kids were doing. But he means it straight up.
The first collapse came in the early ’90s. He was gigging ten times a night, fifty bucks a pop, motorcycling up and down Manhattan from club to club. He remembers parking his bike in the Village one night and daring to think, I have the greatest life in the world. The next night, he was racing up Second Avenue at 70 mph and nailed a car running a red light. His whole body was a bruise. In the morning, he noticed for the first time that he was balding. Even then, the New York comedy scene had begun to implode. Big venues like the Improv and Catch a Rising Star folded; others cut back on their open-mike nights. Louis, who’d bought a BMW with an AmEx card, struggled, couldn’t pay his rent, and went broke.
“This went on for four years,“he says. “I thought a lot about another one of Fred Greenlee’s suicide jokes. He said if you’re going to jump, you have to pick a building that’s high enough but also one that you can handle. You’re like, What? Then he explains that you don’t want to be going, AHHHHHhhhhhhh… [the descending Doppler fade of a man falling from a great height, running out of breath, inhaling another lungful of air…] AHHHHHhhhhhhh…”
Then there was Pootie Tang, the 2001 comedy C.K. directed, based on a skit from The Chris Rock Show, where he’d been a writer. The studio put him through hell—before firing him and recutting his footage into a puree.
“It never stopped getting worse. I remember thinking, This is too much for me to handle. I wanted to give up. I knew it was my right to. But then a few minutes would go by and I’d realize, I’m still here. In other words, there was no escape from it. And I’d be a little disappointed at not being truly suicidal. I hated being ‘all right.’ ”
People make a lot of C.K.’s endless energy and commitment to forward motion. It is astonishing: Many marquee comics spend up to five years perfecting a sixty-minute set. C.K. averaged one per year between 2007 and 2013, each acclaimed as among the greatest hours in the history of the art. (And it’s “painful labor” getting his material note-perfect: “Once I start up, I’ve got about 150 bad shows between me and my first great show.”) But his commitment is as much a product of temperament as energy—a clear-eyed appreciation of what it is to fail, fall, and not die.
“All of that”—the death of the New York club scene in the early ’90s, the Pootie Tang debacle—”has helped me form what I call my 70 Percent Rule for decision-making.” C.K. then describes a practical application of a worldview laced into many of his best routines—that “everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” If we just wrest our eyes, literally and figuratively, from our digital gizmos and the shitty, spoiling impatience they instill, we’ll see that this life, this planet, is amazing. That it is something just to be in the world, seeing and hearing and smelling. That for trillions of miles in every direction from earth, life really is blood-boilingly, eye-explodingly horrific.
“These situations where I can’t make a choice because I’m too busy trying to envision the perfect one—that false perfectionism traps you in this painful ambivalence: If I do this, then that other thing I could have done becomes attractive. But if I go and choose the other one, the same thing happens again. It’s part of our consumer culture. People do this trying to get a DVD player or a service provider, but it also bleeds into big decisions. So my rule is that if you have someone or something that gets 70 percent approval, you just do it. ‘Cause here’s what happens. The fact that other options go away immediately brings your choice to 80. Because the pain of deciding is over.
“And,” he continues, “when you get to 80 percent, you work. You apply your knowledge, and that gets you to 85 percent! And the thing itself, especially if it’s a human being, will always reveal itself—100 percent of the time!—to be more than you thought. And that will get you to 90 percent. After that, you’re stuck at 90, but who the fuck do you think you are, a god? You got to 90 percent? It’s incredible!”
C.K. stops, looks off into some nether space, stays there for a spell.
“Are you thinking about your daughters right now?” I ask.
“Ha! I am!” C.K. says. “They do surprise you. When my older daughter was about 8, I showed her the routine where I get explosively angry because she sucks at hide-and-seek. She thought it was hilarious. My girls and I make a lot of dark jokes together. In the upcoming season [of Louie], there’s a line from a conversation I had with my older girl. She was saying how whenever she sees a three-legged dog, it lifts her spirits, because three-legged dogs are wonderfully unaware that they have a malady. They just walk around, and they don’t give a shit. And I said, ‘You know, honey, they are lucky. But do you know the only thing luckier than a three-legged dog? A four-legged dog.’ And she really laughed. Whenever she laughs that hard at something dark? I know it’s good.”