PAYING CLOSE ATTENTION to what you watch, read, and listen to is an important practice to cultivate. You can learn a lot about yourself and what you enjoy by doing more than passively consuming. Thinking seriously about how you stay informed and entertained usually leads to finding better sources of information and entertainment and can show you how and why you react to your favorite things the way you do.
The comedy of Louis CK is one of my favorite personal examples—my initial impression of Louis was very different from what I found underneath. His comedy feels like the spontaneous thoughts of a hopeless & depraved middle-aged man, ‘he fills in the latest details in the downward trajectory of his mortal existence…’And maybe that’s all his jokes are on one level. But once I started paying attention and listening to him talk about his process I found that what seems like spontaneity is actually grueling practice and intentional refinement. (Evan Puschak’s video How Louis CK Tells a Joke is powerfully demonstrative of this.)
But Louis CK’s content has always been more interesting to me than his methodology. One key I found to his content was hiding in plain sight the whole time—in an online interview at the Paley Center for Media he was talked about his show Louie and about the content of his creative process:
“[My comedy] isn’t trying to shine a light on other people who I think are bad. That’s boring to me. I’d rather take on the bad behavior and show it that way.”
This is why Louis gets away with what he gets away with—it’s refreshing in a world of finger pointers. He uses himself as the conduit and medium of expression, and in being the absolute butt of his own jokes he can explore topics other comics might avoid. This is where the real power in his jokes comes from. His self-deprecation isn’t a proxy critique of culture or a method to accrue pity points to get away with saying something bad about somebody else. It’s genuine. His self-criticism is relentless, his comedy is disturbingly confessional, and it seems like within this method, for Louis CK, there are basically no boundaries.
A QUICK LOOK AT Louis’ bit on road rage from his 2013 special Oh My God demonstrates this. It’s a short piece, about 3 minutes, and is one of my favorite examples of classic Louis CK self-flagellation:
There is so much to say about this bit. It’s true on the surface but is also a kind of obvious metaphor. He analyzes his own insufficiencies as a human being but also switches strategically from the first person singular ‘I’ and ‘me,’ to the first person plural ‘we,’ and even to the second person ‘you,’ when appropriate, to invite the audience into his critique:
I’ve wasted a lot of time being angry at people I don’t know. It’s amazing how nasty we can get as people, depending on the situation.
He uses ‘we’ as a non-threatening way to implicate the audience because he is still at the abstract level of his premise. It’s a generalization most people can go along with. But notice how the audience is dead silent during this portion of the joke. When the audience laughs—which almost sounds like a laughter of relief—at about 22 seconds in, it’s because the joke is going from abstract to tangible: When I’m in my car I have a different set of values. Immediately the audience can relate and begins to warm up to the concept.
Louis’ biggest laugh comes from the punchline which he reuses three times in the joke for variable effect. He delivers the punchline after the premise has been set on two levels—1) people are nasty in certain contexts 2) like in cars—when he introduces his own real life story of a guy who ‘sort of drifted into [his] lane for a second.’ This is when everything in the joke works to its greatest effect, when Louis transforms his premise into self-deprecation:
One time I was driving and there was a guy ahead of me and he kind of, I don’t know, he sort of drifted into my lane for a second and this came out of my mouth, I said, “Worthless piece of shit.”
Why is this punchline so effective? It’s easy to miss but notice how Louis genuinely downplays the role of the guy who drifted into his lane. This is the key to the joke. He does this because his punchline depends on it. He uses “kind of” and “sort of” to diffuse any real infringement made against him, and facial expressions and body language (shrugging, etc.) to show he is taking on the perspective of the guy who drifted into his lane so you sympathize with him instead of sympathizing with Louis.
The structure of Louis’ entire narrative and punchline completely hinges on effectively throwing himself under the bus. If he tried to defend himself at all, the joke wouldn’t work. This is what makes Louis’ comedy unique. He doesn’t just make fun of himself. Lots of comedians do that. He directly links the effectiveness of his punchlines to the dramatic tension his bad behavior causes so that the more effectively he critiques himself, the funnier he is.
LOUIS GOES FURTHER to concretize his point. He doubles down on the punchline by continuing to reach outside his own perspective, making himself look more and more ridiculous:
Worthless piece of shit? That’s somebody’s son
Louis pivots to make the bigger point, switching to the second person, and gets another big laugh.
If you were in an elevator…
He does this for a specific reason. He’s already told his own story. To make the broader point he paints a hypothetical and immediately the ridiculousness of saying horrible things to people in our cars becomes even more real. Then Louis does a subtle callback to get another laugh. He plugs in his real life story into his hypothetical, calling back his punchline, and balancing the general implication with his own personal guilt:
If you were in an elevator and you were like right next to a person’s body and, whatever, he liked leaned into you a little bit, would you ever turn right to their face and be like “Hey, fuck you!”? … “Worthless piece of shit.”
The last piece of the joke is the overall & sober takeaway:
I mean what am I capable of? I’d like to think that I’m a nice person. But I don’t know, man.
THE JOKE IMPLIES more than it says. Louis’ questioning his own goodness harks back to an old philosophical question: the problem of the self vs. civilization. Are people basically good or bad? And is society as a whole good or bad? This is the Hobbes vs. Rousseau problem. Thomas Hobbes, the most influential thinker of his time, thought that mankind in the state of nature is basically bad and it’s only because of society that we appear to act with decency—we would be savage if left to our own devices. Later on in the Enlightenment Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, no, people are good and Nature is the Idyllic Paradise that we gave up for collective societies, which, through mechanistic coercion and oppression, put undue pressure on the individual and cause bad behavior.
Louis CK doesn’t explicitly bring these problems up but is able to imply their significance via a 3-minute calculated self-scrutiny. Not every joke in his arsenal follows this formula but it is one of his most common: Embody a problem and then diagnose the problem in yourself instead of blaming another person or group. With regards to the problem of humanity, Louis seems to side with Hobbes. Modern times, with all its technological innovation, has created spaces where the state of nature is replicated, where we are isolated, and we tend to lash out at other people over the smallest infractions so long as we can remain anonymous. In our cars is one example. Social media is another. Imagining a similarly small infraction done in person, i.e., in society at large, and how different our reaction to it would be raises the question: What causes this difference? And who is the real you? The ‘you’ in the car? Or the ‘you’ in the elevator?
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