May 28, 2013

In praise of Louis C.K.

Like most comedians, Louis C.K. is at his best when he follows a cultural logic to a point of absurdity. In the video below, he ridicules Christian conservatives for their laissez-faire stance on the environment and their fixation on the economy. It's not a mind-blowing observation. For most of us who've given the issue any thought, the absurdity is there in plain sight, unfolding all the time, and C.K.'s irreverent delivery prevents us from downplaying our own part in the joke. The harder we laugh, the more we're laughing at ourselves.

Watching Louis C.K.'s stand-up comedy (or his HBO series) can be an awkward, often shame-inducing experience, even when you're alone. In fact, it's rare when it doesn't make you feel terrible. C.K. is probably the most popular comic in America right now, and for good reason. He's up front about his love for obscene words and he loves to stir his perverse fantasies into America's sacred mixture of family, morality, religion, and class. Get a few minutes into any of his routines and you'll realize that what's really on display is C.K.'s well-considered misery: this is self-loathing disguised as comedy.

A few months ago, a blog post at The New Yorker compared Louis C.K. to Gogol, after the comedian named him as his favourite author in a Vanity Fair questionnaire. Realism, dark humour, frequent absurdity, and a love for melancholy losers seem to unite the comedian and his nineteenth-century Russian counterpart. But what I love most about C.K., and, why I think he deserves such esteemed comparisons, is that his comedy is structured in a way that makes him complicit with the worst of what he describes, no matter how disagreeable it is. So, when ridicules the baseless ideologies of American culture, he's keenly aware that he's not doing so in a vacuum, and neither are we.

For this reason, Louis C.K. contrasts with another (perhaps more) popular American comedian, also known for his off-colour humour, his politically incorrect one-liners, and for a crappy show called "Family Guy." There's no need to point out the obvious about comics like Seth MacFarlane: since February's Oscar ceremony, plenty of smart writers have laid into him for turning a night of pathetic self-congratulation into a night of misogyny, racism, and pathetic self-congratulation. Cheap jokes about boobs, pedophilia, and jewish hollywood types weren't unexpected (by now, most of us are familiar enough with Family Guy), nor were the arguments offered in MacFarlane's defence. If we found the jokes distasteful, we were told, that was simply our opinion. If we went so far as to say that this kind of humour is inappropriate, then, we were told, it's because we're close-minded, thin-skinned, and so on. When accusations of misogyny and racism get thrown around in comedy, the same rhetoric is almost always deployed by conservative viewers. Look at the comments section for any hot-button issue and more often than not you'll see defenders touting free speech as though it justifies lazy bigotry.

What we often forget in these arguments over sombody's right to say this or that is that our conception of free speech is essentially a conservative tendency, which almost always plays into the hand of the powerful. So it's not surprising that condemning censorship has become the rhetorical strategy of wealthy fundamentalist groups and corporate lobbyists. If we're going to talk about free speech in the same breath as equality, then we have to acknowledge that the freedom to say whatever the hell you want to say depends first on whether you have a voice, an audience, and whether you're lucky enough to have a platform from which to speak. 

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