“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.