Whenever Chuck Klosterman gets tired of writing the New York Times’ “Ethicist” column, the editors there should consider throwing out a feeler to Louis C.K. They might have to put up with a few gags about the Holocaust and child murder, but he’s actually a good fit for the position. His media profile is that of the controversial shock-comic who leaps into territory that might daunt Sarah Silverman. But what’s always been most interesting about C.K. is his quaintly earnest examination of morality and life’s purpose, with the occasional joke about cannibalism.
His newest special, Louis C.K.: Oh My God, will likely be the funniest single hour of comedy to hit the small screen in 2013. That is no surprise, however, since C.K. is probably the single most consistently innovative and thoughtful comic working the scene today. But that lack of surprise is almost a surprise in itself. We all know that C.K. is one of those long-struggling comics who scraped up the ladder of a bruising industry writing for The Dana Carvey Show and other short-lived projects. Along the way, he gained a reputation for bringing the unexpected. Here, he does less of that.
This is not to say that comics need to be breaking trails with every new bit of material. Where would Cosby be without show after show about his family, or Carlin have done if he had given up tinkering with semantics? Just so, a Louis C.K. show is bound to touch on several of the following topics: the idiocy of children, the joys and terrors of being a divorced dad, and the hell that is other humans. Oh My God hits on just about all of those, effectively. In a matter of minutes, he has the audience eating out of his hand.
Still, Oh My God doesn’t compare well to the likes of C.K.’s 2010 special Hilarious, which worked many of the same themes, only in greater depth. C.K.’s persona, well known by now, comments too regularly now on his soft and slightly rounded physique, while pointing out the hazards of being a schlub of schlubs barely able to rouse himself from bed in the morning, much less function in the world with sentient adults. He gives the impression that he’s one or two checks away from being a homeless guy, and one of his jokes here involves trying to make a fellow resident of his new, higher tax bracket apartment building think just that.
But he’s not close to losing everything. As Oh My God makes clear, C.K., a great fan of boxing, is a craftsman who practices and edits and workshops until his material is fighting lean. The show might feel disappointingly slight, but it’s well honed, with next to no fat. Thus he reminds us that people are awful and annoying, material that is de rigueur for the modern standup comic. C.K. counts himself among these people when the moment warrants it.
A bit about road rage turns into a tight examination of his own morality, as he wonders why he would feel it was acceptable to bellow death threats at another driver who came into his lane, but would never consider screaming at the same person if they just happened to be standing too close to him in an elevator. He doesn’t pander, either. After setting up a joke about slavery, he responds to the audience’s ready-to-hiss intake of breath with the reminder, “Look, you were just clapping for kids dying from nut allergies.”
As in Hilarious, C.K.’s dyspeptic view of himself and his fellow humans becomes an avenue to explicating the wonders of daily life. In between the gags about what animals in the zoo are actually saying (“I’m a slave”) and the miseries of aging (he compares with dead-on specificity the act of getting out of the chair to rocking an old Honda out of a snow bank), he offers precise observations that border on the philosophical.
While C.K. might dwell on frustrations and embarrassments as much as the average comic, only with fewer insults and zero celebrity references, he almost always remembers this: he and most of his gainfully employed and well-fed audience have little if anything to complain about. His three-point proof for why life is amazing is as follows: you get to eat, have sex, and read To Kill a Mockingbird. It might not solve every problem for the naval-gazing existentialist, but it’s a proof that’s full of hope.