Louis C.K. is miserable. In his HBO stand-up comedy special, Shameless, he complains relentlessly about everything with ire: indie coffee houses, man boobs, waiting in line. But amid the grumbling, Louis C.K. flashes an occasional smile—authentic glee visible against his bright red goatee—and it offers relief, cueing his audience that it’s okay to laugh. Even when he calls his four-year-old daughter an “asshole.”
Okay, so he’s salty. But Louis C.K.‘s brand of observational humor, however mean-spirited, is almost always funny, even when it’s off-the-charts offensive. Early in his performance, C.K. describes a man he saw while he was jogging on Venice Beach. The guy came rollerblading towards him, wearing only a too-small thong and long Kenny G hair. In Boston, where C.K. grew up, he says a guy like that would have been beaten up, for “quality control,” but in California, such characters go unchecked. As the rollerblading guy sashays past Louis C.K., it causes him to stop jogging, because “I needed my whole body to fucking hate this guy with.” C.K. is riled by the rollerblader’s complete lack of inhibitions: “Now, I have to know that you exist, you piece of shit.” He follows the joke with “Go skate into an AIDS tree,” is where his comedy unabashedly swerves into the subversive.
Soon, he’s joking about jerking off on a corpse. Then he’s contemplating the ecological implications of a barrel full of edible duck vaginas he spotted in front of a Chinatown market. Or analyzing exactly what it means when a driver instructs him to “Suck a bag of dicks,” after he cuts him off in traffic. Is he to suck the corner, bagged like chicken parts, or suck them individually, tossing each one, when finished, into a separate bowl like edamame shells?
As successful as such observational non sequiturs are, C.K. is near brilliant when he mines his own personal life for material. A highlight is “The Saddest Hand Job in the World,” during which his wife, in her bathrobe, attempts to gratify him manually—only she’s bored and exhausted and visibly inconvenienced. He explains, “That hand job was probably the saddest thing that ever happened in America… There should be a monument to that hand job, with a reflecting pool, where you just sit and think, ‘God that was fucking sad.’” What keeps C.K. from seeming like an absolute pig is that his sadness is self-deprecating. He eventually had to take his wife’s hand in his, which he suggests has to be the lowest form of sex possible: “Me, jerking myself off with my tired wife’s hand.” Since having kids, he says, their sex life has been about maintenance—“Open the valve once in a while”—so, he doesn’t murder someone. When he mentions passports and hair dye, it’s appears that he’s not entirely joking.
But from beneath the gruff persona emerges a loving father. When he describes bringing his brood to the grocery store and loading them all into the car, he says he parks his youngest in her stroller directly in front of the exhaust pipe while the car is running. He explains that he turns the car on first to give the air conditioning a head start so that his girls won’t be too hot, and so nearly kills her. Moments like these resonate when he then submits that he could never tell his wife what happened, and would have to toss his baby into traffic before admitting that he killed her in “the stupidest way possible.”
His focus on family life isn’t surprising, considering that C.K.‘s 2005 Emmy-winning HBO sitcom, Lucky Louie, was promoted as a brutally honest look at working-class domesticity, where parents say “fuck” in front of their kids and households live paycheck to paycheck. This DVD’s lone extra, a half-hour comedy special from 1996, shows a promising enough young comedian without enough life experience to stand out, as his humor lapses into the standard dating and workplace woes. His inspiration by his wife and children serves him well.
C.K.‘s other experience, most notably with frequent collaborator Chris Rock, seems to have vanished almost entirely from his act as displayed in Shameless. After writing and directing Pootie Tang, cowriting I Think I Love My Wife, and working on The Chris Rock Show, Louis C.K. looks like he understands more about crossover comedy than the average white guy. But in Shameless, his material is just very, very blue, and better for it.