Spoiler alert for Louis CK’s next special, probably.
I had the pleasure of seeing Louis CK perform in Portland, Oregon on January 19th, 2017– the day before Donald J. Trump’s inauguration. I am extremely grateful for the experience, especially on the precipice of an ominous historical event.
CK’s set was dark. The first subject was abortion. His second was suicide. He later talked about Christianity’s domination of history and the futile ways we attempt to mend broken relationships. He spoke of racism, incest, of the foibles of political correctness, the strange courting rituals we enact as teenagers, killing dogs, masturbating during Christ’s crucifixion, the nightmare of motherhood, what it would be like to fellate the most perfect penis in the world as a straight man, and the sad lives of those who drive tan cars.
My throat feels like it is made out of razor blades because I laughed hard enough shake my soul loose.
Comedy exists as the parallel to tragedy. That’s why it’s most effective material comes from delving directly into the most taboo topics available, foiling its counterpart. For the audience, the experience is cathartic. The weight of the world has a tendency to bear down on us and laughter provides the exhaust valve for that anxiety– laughter is closely related to the fear response, after all.
But the content of the set, while very dark in subject matter, was delivered in a mode of subtle empathy. As much as CK drives home the point that owning a tan car is a badge of poverty, he wants you to understand that particularly sad life, as well as mock the significance– because the people laughing the hardest, own tan cars. As much as he disparages marriages and all of the petty baggage that accompanies it, he still offers a message of believing in love, despite its inevitable deterioration. Even when discussing suicide, after listing off a long list of benefits, he notes how amazing it is that human beings actually have the choice to be, or not to be, and the overwhelming choice is life with all of its caveats– otherwise, nobody would be here.
Taboo and empathy are nothing new to the comedy world. Or to the Psychological; laughing at inappropriate things is a symptom of a neurological disorder called PseudoBulbar Affect. I bring that up, not to diminish those who suffer with PBA, and also because it’s interesting, but to bring attention to when– and with a skilled comedian, along with a crowd of similarly anxious people– inappropriate and depressing topics can be utilized with a comedic element to create a transcendent experience, which is a mentally healthy exercise and an increasingly necessary one.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you probably believe this to be true: that either we need to make America great again (implying that it is currently not), or that America has just fallen to the rocky bottom of a well in a hell-bound hand basket, the pervasive theme of America’s psyche is modern cynicism.
Which is why Louis CK’s set hit me so hard. Because it wasn’t cynical (not in modern terms, although, perhaps in its classical sense). It wasn’t even necessarily pessimistic, despite the tone. The overall message was one of classical realism. To quote the wiki page:
Human reshaping puts forth that the world can become a ‘better’ place through incremental changes made by humans through enlightened self interest. Humans can change their environments only through much difficulty and slowly.
The difficulty is on stage. The slowness is the digestion of the joke within the audience.
Louis CK jabs around a concept and lets you sink in the squalor of it, really let’s you stew in it, before moving on. The concepts he throws at you are dark and difficult to wrap your head around, but he isn’t asking you to solve them. These are just concepts. Then he brings things into himself, notably an example of white privilege overreach in a hotel, and puts the audience there with him, knowing that there’s sympathy for the customer service people he describes, as well as guilt for the similar behavior he tells of. It’s in the laughter, the release. The effect becomes empathy via self-interest, as the audience makes CK himself the pariah, and the audience becomes ashamed of how he’s portraying himself in the vignette. All the while fascinated with the dangling carrot of being better people dangling in its golden self-righteousness.
The audience doesn’t get to reach it.
And that’s when Louis expends it out on the audience, telling a different, more aggressive and antagonistic joke, this time against the audience, forcing us to acknowledge our own racist, sexist, and homophobic reactions, and bringing us to his level. And we do so, willingly, laughingly.
He gives us a window into our dark reality and delves into the psychology of experiencing that reality, never asking why, poking at how, but not definitely– and it’s funny.
Part of me wants to say that “If you can laugh at the darkest parts of life, then the rest will come easy,” but that’d be a copout, because I know that isn’t true. A further point is this: don’t view comedy as an escape, because there is no escape. What comedy provides is a subconscious means to touch the darkness of the world (and within ourselves) and walk away changed, but unharmed. It’s not unlike all narrative structure. Comedy ingratiates us into misery in a way that we can understand. It’s a gateway to reality, personal, social, environmental, whathaveyou.
And in that reality, there’s some laughter to be had, despite everything else.