Louis C.K. is the everyman of comedy. He exists in an easily recognizable space, as far as comics go: he appears, at surface value, to be the t-shirt wearing, sweating, crass, self-loathing, self-deprecating dad comedian, offering up his body and life as fodder for his own jokes. It’s hard not to speculate, when watching early footage of C.K. as a handsome young comedian, as to whether this transition was intentional; in order for Louis C.K.’s specific flavour of comedy to work, he had to turn himself into the punchline.
But what, exactly, is that flavour? To place his comedy in context, it’s helpful to compare him to his predecessors and contemporaries. Robin Williams was a physical comedian; Sarah Silverman a ‘blue comedian’, a category composed of those who aim for raunch and the risqué; Bob Newhart was a deadpan comedian; Ricky Gervais cooks up cringe comedy. At the surface, C.K.’s methods and style place him in the realm of anecdotal black comedy. But with each passing year, C.K.’s material becomes increasingly derived from minute observations about the world and our place in it. While his anecdotes might, in theory, take on some similarities to Seinfeld’s comedy of observation, the waters run a little deeper here.
Louis C.K. isn’t a comedian. He’s just a really, really funny philosopher — so much so that Charlie Rose has declared him the “philosopher-king of comedy,” and his works have even been the subject of a 2016 book titled Louis C.K. and Philosophy: You Don’t Get To Be Bored, in which twenty-five philosophers compare his material to works by the likes of Epictetus and Kierkegaard.
Here we take a look at the times when C.K.’s nihilistic, existential jokes and riffs were exactly the contemplative mirror we needed.
In a 2013 interview with Conan O’Brien, Louis C.K. cited cell phones as the crutch that deadens society from feeling. “Underneath everything in life, there’s that thing,” he tells Conan. “That empty, forever empty. You know what I’m talking about? There’s that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone.” He goes on to blame texting as the temporary placation for deeply profound longing — and the proof, he says, is in those who drive and text. “People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second.” C.K. went on to explain how he experienced a revelation about what happens when you don’t numb the loneliness and futility with a phone fix, and it’s hilarious.
On The Complexities Of Existence
Louis C.K. has gotten a lot of mileage from the highs and lows—many, many lows—of parenting. And while some of that comedy stems from ordinary parental woes, it’s clear that C.K.’s young daughters are highly inquisitive and creative (one of his daughters has even received a story credit on her father’s television show Louie).
In C.K.’s 2005 HBO special One Night Stand, he closes the set with a bit about his daughter’s habit of questioning everything, and how a simple “Daddy, why is it raining?” can snowball into C.K. struggling to explain why we’re fundamentally alone in the universe — and the tricky consequence of asking ‘why’ at all.
In this Conan interview, Louis C.K. reflects on the problems of the modern era with a simple diagnosis: “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” He pokes fun at our seemingly asinine frustrations with modern technology, and places this in perspective with rotary phones, in-person banking, and life before air travel.
Louis C.K. might be something of a cynic, but there’s a recurring theme of finding shreds of hope and beauty in the mire. “We live in an amazing, amazing world,” he jokes, “and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots.”
Louis C.K. states in this set that he wants to be a better person for his daughters, but he struggles with selfishness as does, it seems, the bulk of humanity. Here he jokes that this selfishness is inherent in drivers and those who don’t care about the environment, even arguing that human beings must be from another planet, the proof being that we simply don’t like it here. “If we belong on Earth,” he says, “why aren’t we comfortable on Earth at all?”
On Hypocrisy and Civilization
Later in the clip above, C.K. goes on to criticize the hypocrisy of Christian opposition to environmentalist concerns. “If you believe that God gave you the Earth—if you believe that God created the Earth for you—why would you not have to look after it?” he cries. “Why would you not think that when he came back he would go, ‘What the [expletive] did you do!? I gave this to you!’” He rounds out the set with a painfully funny examination on the arbitrary mechanics of civilization, jokingly imagining how we would explain things like jobs and oil spills to God.
C.K.’s television show, the comedy-drama Louie, premiered on FX in 2010. To say that it’s C.K.’s brainchild is an understatement; he writes, directs, produces, edits, and stars in the series.
In this beautifully simple clip, C.K. is on a road trip with his daughters, one of whom complains at length of being bored. C.K. is silent as they wind their way out of the city, but by the time they’re in the countryside, he silences her with a funny, beautiful, and painfully simple observation. “‘I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say,” he argues. “You live in a great big vast world that you have seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless. It goes on forever, inwardly— you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing. So you don’t get to be bored.”
On The Rule Of Law
Louis C.K. isn’t afraid to toe the line. Nothing is sacred, and subjects ranging from abortion to child molesters have made it into his sets. He also clearly mines a lot of his comedy from baser desires, and in the clip below, he speculates about would become of the human race if murder was legal — would we do it? The question of what exactly separates humans from animals is a tangly philosophical debate, and C.K. has a hunch that our instincts aren’t exactly…well, good. “I love to think, oh, I would never do that. But we really need the law against murder for one simple reason: the law against murder is the number one thing preventing murder.”