If you’ve never seen Louie, it’s still more than likely that you know who Louis C.K. is. The guy’s everywhere. His exposure to American audiences is reminiscent of a different age of stand-up comedy, where stage comedians like George Carlin, Steve Martin, or Richard Pryor were just as recognizable as their comedic cousins on television. Somehow, since that time, things seem to have changed. By the nineties, stand-up comedy had been reduced to a stepping stone, hopefully a brief stop on the way to bigger and better things. Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Adam Sandler, and Eddie Murphy may have all started out doing stand-up, they may have continued to do stand-up, they may have even become relatively well-known as stand-up comedians, but they didn’t become super stars until they had made the jump to another medium, whether it was film or television. It’s very telling about the state of American stand-up comedy when the last “super star” we’ve had in the genre is someone like Dane Cook. That is until Louis C.K. arrived and took on his role as the messiah of stand-up, and he did it, ironically enough, by moving over to TV.
Louis C.K. has been around much longer than Louie, his show on FX which premiered in 2010. But it wasn’t until Louie that the comedian, writer, show creator achieved the kind of fame usually reserved for film comedians like Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen. So how does this career path qualify him as a messiah of stand-up? The answer lies in the show’s structure. Louie isn’t a show about its eponymous and largely autobiographical main character. It’s a show that, at its very core, is about the nature of stand-up comedy. Louie is constantly cutting back and forth between Louie’s stand-up act in various comedy clubs and vignettes depicting Louie’s day to day activities. Between these two sides of the show there’s a very noticeable difference. In the vignettes, Louie is victimized, depressed, and lost in the sea of surreal absurdity that is modern day New York for a forty year old, divorced man. The world seems broken and he can’t understand it. It’s still funny to the audience, but Louie himself is very much not in on the joke. Then you have the parallel scenes from the comedy clubs, where Louie monologues about the very same absurdity and philosophical turmoil his alter ego has been battling in the episode’s vignettes. The difference is when Louie’s on the stage, when the audience is laughing, when the comic is doing his job and doing it well, there is no exclusion. There is still pain and confusion and absurdity and all of the dirty, hilarious aspects of mortal life, but Louie is now bringing them with him and using them to his own ends. He uses them to unite people in the shared ridiculousness of their own exisitence, and just for a little while, there seems to be some purpose to all of the madness in our daily human life. It’s a powerful contrast and one which highlights the importance of live stand-up comedy. It’s communal laughter.
There’s a reason so many stand-up comedians experience depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, and the like. It’s a tough role to fill in society. Keep them laughing. That’s the only rule in stand-up, but it must get exhausting. I believe the best comics are the ones who can’t help but laugh because they’ve discovered that there really isn’t any alternative, like mathematicians faced with impossible equations. They present their absurd findings to everyone they can, and everyone laughs because they don’t have the answers either, because all of us are living on the same absurd planet. That’s why the stand-up comedian is such an important niche in the world of entertainment. We don’t laugh at them, we laugh with them. And when we leave the comedy club or we turn off the TV, we don’t feel quite so alone, and we don’t have to think as much about the horrible things our bodies do as they age, or the way human relationships will always end in some kind of goodbye, all because we now know that we won’t be facing those things alone and that it’s okay to laugh at them. But the comic does have to think about these things. They have to seek these things out. They have to dwell on them and tease them out in their minds–all because it’s their job, it’s their purpose. Louie is one of the first shows to portray the rough background world of the stand-up comedian, and it’s doing it right. For that we owe it a debt of gratitude–or at least a couple more Emmys.