I’ve been thinking about Louis CK lately. I’m a fan of his show on FX, and I’m so happy his recent adventure in distributing his newest comedy special himself has been a rousing success. But my thoughts are going elsewhere to wonder why he has blown up in popularity in the past couple years, and why his comedy seems to resonate with these times. It always feels like there’s a comedian willing to address contemporary concerns with insight and honesty for each moment in time. All the greats had their focus: Richard Pryor and Chris Rock had race, George Carlin had absurdity, and I think Louis has hit on some sort of subterranean undercurrent of emotion that I didn’t realize might be swelling until I listened more closely: shame.
It’s a pretty shallow insight to say that a comedian who has a special named Shameless creates his comedy about shame, but I never noticed. Louis CK has jokes because he is ashamed of his body, ashamed of his thoughts, his culture, his whiteness, whatever. Every joke seems to be about shame in some way. Ashamed of the things he doesn’t do that he knows he should. Ashamed of the things that he does do that he knows he shouldn’t. Ashamed of his privilege, and ashamed of how he doesn’t do anything to help others who don’t have it. All of these things are about the way Louis lives his life (or the stories he tells about how he does), but they’re also about the lines we draw, the tension of those meeting points of acceptable, common, and desirable behavior, and when our thoughts or actions only meet a couple of those qualifications. For instance, in his newest special, Louis talks about how mind-numbingly boring it is to play board games with his daughter and how much he wants to yell at her for it. Common impulse? Yes. Desirable? Probably, on a very base level to diffuse frustration. Acceptable? Nope. So, we’re ashamed by the those dark thoughts, and Louis is there to give the shameful inclinations credence through his routine. We laugh because we know, and we hear others laugh, so we can hear how we are not alone. The thought gets aired, so there’s less shame to feel.
There’s been a lot written about Louis’ ability to pinpoint specific concerns and emotions of contemporary life in a way that others haven’t been able to articulate. Call me an overly zealous fan, but I think I understand my own impulses better by hearing these jokes. I think we all felt that way the first time we encountered Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy. We begin thinking that joke is about how everyone else is to blame, and then it sinks in and we realize that that them is us. Later on, CK confessed that the story was about him complaining on a flight, and I think that’s why it’s so believable. He exposes those thoughts by having them himself. CK’s gone on record to document the transformation of his early absurdist comedy versus his new disposition discussing his own life, and how that was the key to his success.
Someone once asked Allen Ginsberg how one becomes a prophet, and he simply replied, “Tell your secrets.” Lewis Hyde’s done a bit of writing on shame in his book Trickster Makes This World, and he says that “Uncovering secrets is apocalyptic in the simple sense (the Greek root means ‘an uncovering’). In this case, it lifts the shame covers. It allows articulation to enter where silence once ruled.” CK’s comedy does the job of finger-placing our dirty, shameful thoughts. It doesn’t validate them, but it does recognize and identify them, and in their airing, we have to consider and deal with the lines that separate how we are expected to behave and think, and the shameful dirt of this world.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas has a nice definition for dirt, saying it is “matter out of place.” A fried egg on the plate is fine, but a fried egg all over my hands is dirty. Hyde continues to say that dirt is always a byproduct of creating order: to create a place for things means that there will be situations where things will be out of place. And this is why Louis CK’s comedy is dirty: the thoughts, as dark and natural as they may be, are put out of place. The secrets are told on stage in front of others, but it’s through that vocalization that we begin to understand ourselves and our relationship to the world we live in. Shame is diffused through its publication and distribution. Shame is reduced through its sharing. By pointing out the dirt, and realizing that the things themselves aren’t dirty but just out of place, we begin to see that the lines can be redrawn and order rethought. By voicing that shame, it allows one to assess if his or her thoughts or actions are worthy of that judgement, or if it is merely a casualty—dirt created by an ill-fitting standard. Articulating our impulses is dirty business, and maybe this is why Louis’ been able to tread in a territory others haven’t been able to navigate. As Fran Lebowitz said, “If you’re going to tell the truth, you better be funny. Otherwise, they will kill you.”
Correction: The “you better be funny” quote is credited to Lebowitz because of this video, but I can’t pin down the original source. I’ve seen it attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Billy Wilder, and Oscar Wilde (of course).