I first encountered Louis C. K. in a room at the Westin Hotel in Portland, Maine in November of 2007. My wife and I had just gotten married that summer. We were attending an academic conference down the street from the Westin. I was a graduate student and about to give my very first paper at the conference the next morning, so I was pretty amped up. We cozied into bed with room service and prepared to enjoy a rare treat, HBO. There we serendipitously discovered Louie in one of his standup specials—this balding ginger bear with sad eyes and a wry chuckle.
He was funny. Gut-bustingly funny. We both cackled uncontrollably as he riffed on subjects dear to our hearts—marriage and parenting—with a reckless abandon that felt truly liberating.
The paper I was giving the next day was on string theory, of all things. Though I’m not a physicist. I was doing a Ph.D. in English and my thesis was on the cultural currency of string theory—a “theory of everything” that attempts to explain the fundamental workings of the universe in one cohesive mathematical framework. The paper was entitled, “Substantiating Strings: String theory popularizations and the domestication of the Planck Scale”. I was going to talk about how physicists make sense of the entities they encounter at incredibly remote scales, ultra-subatomic scales way beyond the familiar look and feel of the objects that come to hand around us. The answer, I was keen to share with anyone who’d listen, was that they adapted human-scale images to the purpose. A prime example: the string of string theory.
Louie’s material doesn’t focus on remote scales. He’s interested in the intimate, the domestic. If anything, his comedy attempts the opposite of string theory—to take the familiar and make it strange. His favored technique is the defamiliarization of the quotidian—marriage, parenting, friendship, day-to-day city life, the travails of an aging, imperfect body—using a comedic style than can be aptly called “radical honesty”. Of course, the willingness to “go there” is the stock and trade of all good comedians, but Louis CK—as an avatar of white, male American middle-class privilege—takes it to excruciating and exhilarating extremes.
I call Louie’s style “radical honesty” in a nod to a book that was a best-seller back in 1995, written by a contrarian therapist named Brad Blanton. I had the dubious fortune to stumble across this book at a rough time in my life, when I had recently learned that my estranged mother, who had struggled her entire life with severe depression, had committed suicide. At the time, I was desperate for a way to make sense of her death.
In the book, Blanton’s diagnosis for what ails us is that “many adults remain in a perpetual adolescence, locked in the protective confinement of a limited set of roles and rules.” His prescription for this epidemic is to confront what “one has previously avoided” through a radical “willingness to tell the truth”—to others in your life, but most crucially, to yourself. He cautions that this commitment to radical truth-telling first results in “intense emotion”, but then gives way to “a breakthrough into overflowing creativity” which ultimately “creates the possibility of using your mind to make a future as an artist rather than as a victim.”
Doesn’t that sound exactly like what Mr. Louis CK is up to? His show on FX, Louie, features the comedian at the height of his creative powers in the medium of the 22-minute sitcom, a medium he subverts with postmodern relish.
Given the circumstances, my own first attempt at practicing radical honesty didn’t go so well. I fixated on something that, up to that point, had only been a minor concern—that my girlfriend at the time hadn’t ever had an orgasm. Spurred on by Blanton’s bold prescriptions, one afternoon in my bedroom, I suggested—no demanded—that, in order to liberate herself from her sexual repression, she should masturbate in front of me while I watched. As you can guess, this did not go over well. As I tried to process the shock of my mother’s death, my overly aggressive interpretation of radical honesty only served to push my girlfriend further away. We broke up a few months later.
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Using powerful new telescopes, astrophysicists have been discovering with increasing frequency planets that resemble the earth orbiting distant stars in our galaxy. Given the preponderance of planets that are hospitable to life, a recent scientific consensus has converged on the realization that intelligent alien life is highly likely. Experts in the know are now debating whether it’s in our interest to seek out contact with our galactic neighbors. The debate divides roughly into two camps, which I’ll call the Panglossian and the doomsayer. The Panglossians think it’s a splendid idea to send the aliens tchotchke from the annals of our beloved globalized Eurocentric culture—stenciled knockoffs of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vesuvian man, a recording of John Lennon’s New Age trifle, “Across the Universe”.
In contrast, the most prominent member of the doomsayer camp, Stephen Hawking, recently made a splash when he warned that “if aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”
Tuned into the astronomical zeitgeist, Louie opens the first episode of the latest season with a lay person’s take on the debate. He recounts listening to a radio program in which experts were discussing the certainty of intelligent life on other planets. He mocks the tone of this all-too-common pop science evangelizing. “The wonders,” Louie marvels in a silly voice, “The wonders of the universe. What are the origins of the univ—” he interrupts himself, “I don’t care!”
He then warns the audience:
I don’t think there’s a good version of the “we found another planet of people” story. There’s very few good versions, cause it’s a whole planet. It’s not like it’s us and just one alien. We found one guy. There’s us and there’s this one guy. So it’s going to be a whole planet of another kind of people and it’s not going to be good. Cause they got their own, cause we’re very, like, egocentric. We think that if there’s aliens they’re going to come and they’re going to be like, “hey you guys, we’re the aliens. We’re totally… you’re, like, people, but we’re just aliens. Like, we’re part of your experience, so whatever we can do to make this enjoyable for you.” I mean, either they’re way ahead of us. There’s no way they’re perfectly, exactly the same. So they’re way ahead of us, which means we’re automatically someone else’s South America. Like, immediately, we’re going to be the South America planet of some America planet.
Louis astutely observes that much, if not all, of the discussion surrounding the possibility of contact with alien life tends to couch it in what he calls “egocentric” terms. We assume that if and when we do encounter aliens, they’ll bend over backwards to accommodate our point of view.
But he also contradicts himself in that he calls the aliens “people”. In many respects, “egocentric” is too weak a way of describing our affliction when it comes to imaging alien life. Whatever we seem to come up with is hopelessly anthropomorphic. Say, green Martians with bug eyes and antennae. Or even the nasty double-jawed lacertians drooling battery acid in Ridley Scott’s B-movie masterpiece.
When contemplating the truly remote, we cobble together images that come ready to hand. We domesticate the alien with an all-too-familiar hodgepodge of geckos, beetles, and battery acid. The scariest realization is that we’re utterly incapable of imagining the truly alien. In all likelihood, extraterrestrial life, were we to encounter it, would be so off the radar that we wouldn’t even recognize it. Kind of like that scene in Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line where an aborigine of Papua New Guinea looks right past the American soldiers traversing the island during WWII, we’d unconsciously ignore the aliens poking around in our own back yard. That’s what’s so farcical about much of the discussion surrounding extraterrestrial life. Even among the experts, it remains ludicrously “egocentric”.
I’m guessing that this is, in part, what makes Louie so weary of popular physics when it exhorts the “wonders of the universe”. On the surface, it seems that Louie has joined Hawking in the doomsayers camp. But notice how Louis tempers Hawking’s analogy of European conqueror and Native American to a more palatable North and South America. The threat of genocidal annihilation becomes muted to the shame of demotion from First to Third World status.
Louie isn’t interested in what’s way out there. He cares about the people around him. So what Louie’s really talking about here is not some abstract academic debate about the rapaciousness of insectoids from Antari 7. He’s talking about empathy—the capacity to step outside our own warped points of view and experience the world as another. He wants to shock himself and us out of our collective arrested-adolescence.
Louie does so by exploring the thin line between victim and artist. In the first half of season five, he gets beat up by a girl, over which his daughters openly laugh at him. He gets sodomized in drag, before being unceremoniously dumped. He loses control of his bowels in the street and takes a dump in his pants. A young woman won’t sell him some fancy copper pots and tells him, as he graciously concedes, that he and his generation are irrelevant. Another comedian brazenly pilfers his material. He suffers guilt-riddled insomnia. And what makes this art and not kitsch is the comic distance he brings to this series of radically honest self-immolations.
That comic distance, which transmutes self-pity into compassion, is brilliantly illustrated by an encounter Louie has in the second episode with a novice standup comic named Bart Folding (played by Nate Fernald). Louie hosts an open-mic night at the Comedy Cellar. Bart—a demure, bespectacled nebbish—gets up on stage and, in a plaintive voice, intones:
I’d like to tell you about my childhood, even though it was very painful. I used to urinate in my bed, and my mother would beat me for urinating in my bed. And so from then on, I would urinate in it more. I don’t think my mother loved me.
Offstage, Louie looks upon this dud rocket in astonishment. Afterward, Bart corners Louie and begs him for career advice. Once again, Louie risks vulnerability by telling the radical truth: Bart will never be a comic. Bart importunes. Finally, Louie says: “Talk in a funny voice maybe.”
Bart: A funny voice?
Louie: Yeah, you know, like a squeaky, funny, high voice or something.
At the end of the episode, Louie is watching TV in bed as his “friend with benefits” Pamela (played by Pamela Adlon) sleeps with her body draped around him. Off screen, we hear a familiar lilting melody—the kind of music that plays as the credits roll on a made-for-TV tragic romance. The melody perfectly captures Louie’s unrequited longing for Pamela. He changes the channel. Jimmy Fallon introduces a “young comedian who’s made a huge splash on the scene in the last week”—Bart Folding. In a dapper black suit, Brad shuffles up to the mic stand in front of the famous velvety stage curtains:
I’d like to tell you about my childhood, even though it was very painful. I used to urinate in my bed, and my mother would beat me for urinating in my bed. And then so from then on, I would urinate in it more. I don’t think my mother loved me.
The audience cackles, then breaks out into applause. The key difference in Folding’s performance this time around? You guessed it. Reminiscent of the egg-headed Professor Frink from the Simpsons, he’s talking in a squeaky, high voice.