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By Thomas Zachary Toles
The Film Corner's
Tea Time Columnist
Louis C.K. struck comic gold by combining [George] Carlin-esque condemnation of Western society with unfailing self-deprecation. Louie argued that society is horrible precisely because of the things that he and all of us privileged assholes love so dearly:
Because we wait in line for a Cinnabon at the airport we arrived at.
Because we congratulate ourselves for thinking of doing nice things without ever doing them.
Because immense suffering far away can be easily justified so long as we get to write YouTube comments while we shit.
Louie didn’t place himself above these depraved aspects of American life; he participated in them. Louis C.K. was not better than America; he was a true American asshole.
In Louie’s newest special, Live at the Comedy Store, he argues that self-awareness is more important than self-love. Good advice. Hard to follow when you’re America’s comic sage. Glowing with inconceivable success, Louie is slowly becoming the wrong kind of asshole.
In Louie’s best routines he remains entrenched in the very problems he decries. In Chewed Up (2008), Louie revels in his whiteness in order to confess his complicity in oppression. “If [race] was an option, I would re-up every year. Oh yeah, I’ll take white again, absolutely.” Rather than attacking white privilege directly, he celebrated it, revealing how fiercely attached all white people are to their racial advantage. Through Louie’s admission, white listeners were given some self-awareness about all that they have to be thankful for, and all they owe.
Louie’s technique of identifying with the oppressor to bring light to the oppressed is also found in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s book is written so as not to clash with a racist reader’s sensibility while delicately inviting the reader, along with Huck, to see the escaped slave Jim as a complex human being. This is somewhat ironic because, in Live at the Comedy Store, Louie mocks the excessive use of “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn. The bit has an element of condescension to it that rarely appears in his earlier work.
In the past, Louie has been rightly suspicious of white people’s hypocritical tendency to falsely censor “nigger” with "the n-word.”
“That’s just white people getting away with saying ‘nigger,’” he proclaims in Chewed Up. In his latest special, however, Louie more conservatively encourages the audience to jeer at Huckleberry Finn's careful use of such bold language. The bit's dismissiveness is atypically shallow and simplistic, edging towards the biggest threat to Louie’s enormous talent: self-righteousness.
Perhaps pride is inevitable for the most successful and beloved comedian imaginable. Certainly there was no way Louie could pretend to still be broke, to never get laid, and to live a lousy life. He has inventively worked around the handicap of success for a time: in one segment he admits that the only reason he can resist being as deplorable as a parent who hits their kids is because he has money. Nevertheless, a troubling awareness of his own eminence has quietly seeped into his work.
Louie, a show that long wowed me with its Lynchian weirdness, has recently fallen victim to this very issue. Louie writes, directs, edits, and stars in the show and what once seemed like thrilling individualism has begun to feel moralistic. After five seasons one wonders why Louie must have total control over this show.
“So Did the Fat Lady” from Season 4 is a perfect example of the problem. In an extended monologue, Vanessa (Sarah Baker) voices all the bullshit that overweight women have to deal with in daily life. Louie’s character awkwardly transitions from naivety to empathy by the speech’s end, and the episode concludes with him compassionately taking Vanessa’s hand (as per her meagre request). But we know that Louie wrote this monologue, that he directed himself to feign naivety only to be converted by his own words, to be commended for having the generosity to make such an episode at all. Louie empowers himself more than Vanessa. The old Louis C.K. would never have had the motivation to take Vanessa’s hand. He would have mumbled an excuse and walked away like the asshole he is.
There was something more human, funny, and frightening in that old asshole, in the person who vividly saw the world’s atrocities but was powerless to resist his self-serving urges. Through Louie’s flaws, we became a little more disturbed by our own selfishness and a little more sympathetic to the people we so frequently reject.
Louie was Dostoevsky’s Undergound Man, an intelligent screw up with agonizing self-awareness. Success has lifted him from clumsy indulgence towards knowing wisdom, robbing him of his brutal edge.
Louis C.K. is still a terrific comedian. He still makes me laugh.
He used to make me hurt.
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