Louis CK and the universal problem of particularity

“I fly first class,” Louis CK notes near the beginning of Live At the Beacon Theater. “It’s only for another year at the most. Believe me, it’s not gonna last.” It’s funny because it’s true and, as an associate used to say, it’s true because it’s sad. You could argue—by you I again mean me—that here is Louis CK’s métier: things that are funny because they go unacknowledged, paradoxically because they are depressing. It is a project of recovering funny from the dumb and brutal world, the way the early naturalists used to talk about beauty. I submit that this process of reclamation offers a decent working definition of art.


Here’s Louis CK on Conan explaining how he had to punch his dog several times to make it drink hydrogen peroxide. Watching this clip helps you understand why he is probably not going to fly first class for long. Louis CK is widely regarded as a comic’s comic, which is a nice way of saying that he does what everyone would laugh at if they weren’t so stupid and lazy. Anyone who has thought about comedy or even narrative recognizes in this bit a golden premise: the conflict between what we do for others and what others believe we’re doing to them. That’s the tragedy of life, right there.

Call it the universal problem of particularity. Much of Louis CK’s material has to do with morality, and he takes a Kantian view of the subject. He is acutely conscious of how his behavior should follow the categorical imperative—would the world be better if everybody did this?—and obsessed with the ways in which it does not. He knows what everyone should do, and he knows that he is part of the everyone not doing it. He even knows that he could do what he knows he should do, yet still he doesn’t. This obsession—this anxiety, in his own assessments of himself, about the tension between “cannot” and “do not”—is maybe the central theme of his work.

Consider the episode of Louie in which a forgotten friend plans to commit suicide. Eddie, played by Doug Stanhope, makes a convincing case against his own life: drinking vodka, complaining about internet pornography and delivering jokes that are as funny as a talented peson could come up with on the first try, he is a sympathetic indictment of what life is always on the verge of becoming. He is also unpleasant, particularly once he starts talking about killing himself. Listening to Eddie’s plan at dawn in Long Island City after a night of forced drinking, Louie becomes enraged. He has to take his kids to school in a few hours. It is a problem that pales in comparison to Eddie’s suicide, and yet it is necessarily much more important to him.

It’s worth noting how that scene ends: Eddie and Louie are shouting at each other with the industrial city in the background, and then a couple walks past them, also arguing viciously. That’s it; Eddie and Louie are done. They have seen themselves from the outside, and from the outside anyone’s concerns look ridiculous. They cannot help but laugh, and after they do Louie goes home to his kids and Eddie goes back to his horrible car, presumably to kill himself later.

It’s a clean example of how Louis CK’s comedy works: how life feels from within is made ridiculous by how it looks from without, and then we laugh and some of us die earlier than others. For my money, it’s the last part that makes it. What makes Louis CK better than standard “sick” comics like Dennis Leary is that what he’s saying is true. It’s not a rhetoric put forward for shock value; it’s a description of conditions on the ground, the problem of making your dog take medicine when you’re the only one who knows that she needs to. Leary gives us a fantasy world whose terms are derived from his humor. The terms of Louis CK’s humor are derived from the world.

In comedy terms, it’s the difference between silly and funny. We need funny, because without funny all the true statements about life would be sad. Silly is more popular on Saturday night, as the amazing “Tickets” episode with Dane Cook reminds us. If you are feeling lazy or guilty or dishonest, though, I defy you to pull yourself to the surface again by watching Dane Cook. That guy is doing jokes, and what we really need is catharsis. Mel Brooks famously remarked that comedy equals tragedy plus time. Really it’s that comedy is tragedy, and it just takes a while to see it.

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  1. 1. Halfway through this I felt the urge to say thanks. Not because this particular post was heads above the rest, but because so consistently you provide well-written and interesting commentary equally on things I care about and things I don’t yet. Based on the amount of comments, I feel pretty lucky to be here. It’s like finding a secret garden in your backyard and some weird hobbyist maintaining it on weekdays.

    2. “Louis CK is widely regarded as a comic’s comic, which is a nice way of saying that he does what everyone would laugh at if they weren’t so stupid and lazy.” Tom Waits is a musician’s musician. I’ve never been able to access his music but (pretentious?) people who know more about it than I have always vouched he’s good, so as far as my stupidity doesn’t retard me, I know what you’re talking about. But I’ve never invested any time into understanding comedy either, and find Louis CK pretty hilarious. I have a soft spot for making children and babies the object of humor. I think it was seeded by Bill Maher pointing out how much of our society revolves around children and later I studied the industrial revolution and the history of poverty which both helped create the concept of “childhood” we’re familiar with today, i.e., it didn’t really exist before the 19th century. The prospect that Louis CK has an ongoing theme in his material is interesting, but I appreciate him just for blaspheming.

  2. This is an excellent piece. I think Louis C.K. would agree with a great deal of this, as he seems to be aware of this aspect of his style. I remember in a special from years back he sets up a joke then says, “it doesn’t matter where because I’m lying”. Hell most people don’t realize that he’s Mexican. I believe his family moved here when he was six. His name “C.K.” simply sounds like his real surname.

    I think his most recent special is a complete acknowledgement what Dan wrote about Louis, his comedy and his fans. He wanted to do his comedy for his fans that get it and wanted to make it easy and cheap for them to get. It worked out pretty well: http://money.cnn.com/2011/12/22/technology/louis_ck_million/index.htm

  3. Think it was Woody Allen (Crimes & Misdemeanors) who wrote “comedy = tragedy + time.” But as Louis would say, that’s a faggy thing to point out …

    The difference between silly and funny also explains the difference between The Daily Show and The Colbert Report — a helpful distinction. SNL, Dane Cook, Denis Leary offer “attitudinal” humor and very few actual jokes when you listen again. Louis C.K., Chris Rock and the late Bill Hicks offer a whole worldview, as you point out here.

    No more deadly or dreary subject than Humor Theory, so thank you for handling it with grace in another solid essay …

  4. I agree with everything here. I also think that humor is a response to something deeply true that we didn’t quite realize before. For some, the world is dark, boring, frustrating and complex, and Louis C.K. hits that truth; for others life really is simple and kinda vulgar, like SNL or Leary.

  5. I do love it when you analyze humor, and Louis CK is perhaps the most deserving subject today.

    “He is acutely conscious of how his behavior should follow the categorical imperative—would the world be better if everybody did this?”

    That seems a little more Sartre than Kant, doesn’t it? Or, maybe that’s just because I don’t really know Kant.

  6. Kant is the guy who named his rules “categorical imperatives,” but certainly wasn’t the first to consider individual moral decisions from the perspective of the universal.

    It’s a totally undergraduate point to make, but it’s really difficult to argue against the proposition that most moral philosophy (western and eastern) is a reformulation of the golden rule–do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Sometimes it’s reversed–do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you–but the idea can be found in more writing on morality than not.

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