It takes something really special for me to break my pop culture celibacy. I don’t mean to be that much of a snob, but I just am almost always deeply uninspired by what is offered. I’ve always been picky about music and even literature too, and I guess I come off as pretentious most of the time, but to me, pretention suggests some kind of disingenuousness, and I promise: I am genuinely bored by pop culture. But it also makes me genuinely happy to see Louis C.K. become popular and successful. I first became fully aware of his genius back in 2005 when his HBO One Night Stand special premiered as part of a handful of new entries in the long-running series. In the 10 years since, I have been paying close attention to his career and vision, and sometimes certain artists just really hit home, and surprisingly enough, he’s one of them for me. The reasons why make it a story worth telling in this column.
I have always loved stand-up comedy. It’s obviously incredibly entertaining, but as I grew up, I started to understand how vital comedy can be. Sometimes, like in the case of George Carlin or Bill Hicks, comedians can project a certain kind of ideology that runs counter to the current status quo. This, of course, is part of what I find valuable about it. My recent column about the gatekeepers of information (media or educational institutions) is relevant here. Comedians have a way of circumventing the gatekeepers. Slipping beneath the radar in a sense as they dress up heavy ideas in clown clothes making it seem more harmless to the establishment but also more digestible to the masses. But this is only true to some comedians and mostly untrue of the nature of Louie’s work. Comedy in and of itself is something more. There’s also the element of pontification, the oratory dialectic nature of comedy where the comic must make sense and lay out his or her argument clearly. Jokes need to have a logical setup in order to pay off. That payoff though, or how the payoff is achieved is what I think is most important.
Louie has one joke along the lines of how it’s never OK to rape anyone unless of course you want to have sex with them and they won’t let you. Why is that funny? Part of what good comedians do is talk about subjects that make us uncomfortable, and those spaces they go are certainly part of the larger picture, but too many comedians (and audiences) stop there. Rape is not what’s funny here. Rape is never funny. What actually makes that line (hysterically) funny is the deadpan way Louie sets up a rule and then formulates an exception to that rule that profoundly undermines the logic of the rule in the first place. And that’s what lies at the heart of comedy that makes it so incredibly vital. Comedians undermine the symbolic order of our culture. They prove to us that reality is malleable and that when we stretch the boundaries of what we know to be true, it’s actually exhilarating.
So much anxiety is wrapped up in whatever it is that lies beyond the borders of our readymade reality. Daily, we feel the corrosive force of the unknown eat away at us internally. What can we do about our bills and our children’s futures, and our impending deaths? And that’s just the personal bubble we live in. Never mind finally breaking the chains of consumer capitalism, ending wage slavery, and producing a global utopia of free energy and abundance. But comedy is about undermining our expectations. It walks us to the edge of the abyss and shows us it’s just a painted backdrop in front of infinity. It holds the gun of the void to our head and pulls the trigger to release the flag that says “BANG!” Comedy reminds us that it’s all kind of ridiculous. Your identity is ridiculous. Your fears are ridiculous. No one knows anything and it’s all terrifying and hilarious and OK. And stand-up in particular digs into our collective solitude and shows us we aren’t really alone at all as the audience communally laughs together.
This is particularly true of Louie’s material because of his vision/perception and that’s what always attracted me to his work. He has the ability to cut through so many of our preconceived notions about our reality and identity and he does it with both form and content. He reminds us of how much we take for granted and his lucidity is very welcome in this time of watered-down rhetoric spewing from all our rudderless institutions. But, it’s really this season of his TV show that has elevated him beyond just comedian into the levels of genius and artist. This particular season hasn’t even really been all that funny, and in that sense it seems like a great practical joke. Like, “Ha, ha! I made you think and feel and I did it gracefully and masterfully both in rich character development and cinematic finesse.” The two episodes that followed the “In The Woods” storyline were particularly powerful and with them I experienced something so rare.
I can name certain bands that I have obsessed over and I remain convinced that the well they draw from is a well I have access to, which is not to say as a fellow musician (because for a long time I was not such a thing) but as a human being. Sometimes art, especially when coupled with success and fame, can create a barrier between the audience and the artist. We sit totally inspired by the work, but totally removed from the source, the artist. How is it possible? Not only to communicate so profoundly but to achieve such levels of success and skill. The artist can show us new ways of seeing the world or ourselves, but ironically the artist himself remains hidden and then therefore removed from the world he is evoking.
But sometimes, in the most profound pieces of art, I have felt that barrier broken. Terrence Malick would be my go-to example of how and when this can happen. I had always been a huge fan of his work and the themes therein have always spoken directly to me. No matter the movie I hear him discussing the same themes over and over: nature vs civilization; love vs duty; etc. So when I finally sat in a theater to watch The Tree Of Life I was enraptured. As the movie unfolded something totally unexpected happened. The details of the childhood portrayed in the movie were eerily parallel to my own. The movie stands as a monumental achievement in terms of just capturing any childhood in the medium of cinema, but strange minute details blew me away. I began to wonder if this is why his work always spoke to me. I wondered if that common well was a well of experience and somehow that artist/audience barrier was broken and the humanity of both harmonized on a whole new level.
This is the same sense I felt when watching the “In The Woods” episode. The details of Louie’s life don’t parallel my own at all, but the deep sense of pain and fear and loss and joy and reverence for lessons learned all did and that transcendent harmonic level of art was there again. This person’s work always struck a chord in me and here he revealed why in his best work to date.