Thursday, November 8, 2012

800 Words: The Age of Louis CK (part 1)

About a month ago, people in my band (Orchester Prazevica) and I were discussing scheduling over email and bandying about youtube clips when one of our drummers said ‘I’ll be Huck Finn to your Tom Sawyer’ in response to a call for a gig that only he and the bandleader could do. When he sent that email, I was sitting on the toilet and watching Patton Oswalt clips (you'd be surprised how often that happens...). One of the side links to the clip I was watching called ‘Louis CK - Tom Sawyer vs. Huck Finn.’ Now I had never heard this clip, but it was Louis CK, and he was discussing precisely the matter at hand. So I sent the clip - figuring that it couldn’t possibly be anything but a home run. After I send the clip, I listen to it....

(Tom Sawyer vs. Huck Finn)

Now my band’s other drummer is black - a great musician and a nice guy who’s always a delight to work with. I should have absolutely figured what ‘word’ would be said over and over again in this clip, but for reasons passing my understanding, it never occurred to me before I sent it out. I quickly emailed what amounted to a self-deprecating non-apology apology to the band, it said ‘ sent that without listening to the content first. So....I’m a total idiot...not that you didn’t know that already. I should have known much, much better.’ Of course, there were many problems with this apology. Firstly, the fact that I didn’t actually apologize - not only because I was irresponsible, but because by not stating the offense outright I thought maybe he wouldn’t see it and I could sweep it under the rug. I’m not just a coward, I’m a manipulative coward. I still don’t know if he saw it or what he thought of it, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be a little nervous about it for the next few years. Secondly, whom among people who know me is ever going to believe that I sent this clip without looking at it first? Anybody who’s gotten to know me in the last year-and-a-half knows that I can’t get through a ten-minute conversation without bringing up Louis CK.

The next day I saw some (white) bandmates, I mentioned the apology and the clip. They didn’t understand why I sent the apology - they thought the clip was hilarious and clearly takes an anti-racism stand. If they were in my position, I probably would have said the same thing to them. Not because I believed it, but because it’s not something worth making any more of a fuss over. What clearly bothered me about this clip is not the use of the word ‘nigger,’ but the fact that I managed to bring up racism at all and all the taboos associated with it. I managed to remind this guy that he’s black, and the rest of us are white. I don’t like being reminded in a room full of goyim that I’m Jewish, so I can only imagine what that’s like for black people. And even by recounting this incident, I worry that I run still more risk of making this person feel more of an ‘other’ than perhaps I’ve already made him feel. And so it goes with the idiotically neurotic conundrums of white privilege...

(Louie on the N-word)

But Louis CK is a far braver, more heroic, person than I. And the irony is that neurotic entanglements like the one I’ve gotten myself into with this Louis CK clip illustrate precisely why comedy like Louis CK’s is so absolutely necessary. Louis CK has managed to take all the issues that delineate our society into separate, unmergeable groups, and by discussing these issues so honestly, he brings us together in appreciation of the problems’ messiness, their intractability, and precisely why they cut so deeply to the core of our society’s hurt. And whether or not it’s his intention (probably not), he’s doing more than nearly any figure in America in any line of work to drain us of our sepsis. What Louie is doing is so absolutely necessary and effective for America that I would go as far as to make this sweeping declaration:

The two people in Contemporary America who are the greatest forces for progress are Barack Obama and Louis CK.

(Or maybe not...Louie on the word ‘Faggot’)

For the moment, let’s leave aside that he may be the greatest standup comic since Carlin and Pryor, and let’s leave aside that he might be making the greatest TV show since The Simpsons and Seinfeld; let’s leave aside that in 2005 he was only #98 in Comedy Central’s top 100 standup comics, and let’s leave aside that as late as November 2009, the Onion AV felt the need to warn potential listeners that “he isn’t for everyone.” Let’s just focus on how this heretofore marginal standup comic has completely revolutionized the way we think and talk about one another.

(Louis CK on ‘backlash’ - ...and Aaron Sorkin.)

The parallels between Louis CK and Obama are actually rather striking. Until five years ago, they were both rather obscure figures in their respective fields. They were both born to multi-ethnic, multi-religious families and partially raised in foreign countries to speak foreign languages that they’ve since forgotten (Obama in Indonesia, Louis CK in Mexico). Both’s parents were divorced intellectuals who met at university and whose fathers left them at an early age. Both of them seemed to fall ‘off the rails’ as teenagers with burgeoning drug problems and street-tough attitudes. Both of them spent their early twenties embracing in the radical avant-garde of their respective fields before age made them realize that more mainstream approaches would be more effective. Both of them can rivet the attention span for an hour at a time, using a virtuoso command of language to deftly couch brutal, cold truths within a velvet glove; and both do so to a greater purpose. In the work of both President Obama and Louis CK, we see a burning desire to bridge different worlds and fuse them together with greater understanding. In the same way which Barack Obama has became the greatest unifying force in American politics in generations, Louis CK is causing the same earthquake in American culture.  

Just like President Obama, Louis CK is not for everybody - but he should be. The formula for Louis CK’s success is all the more devastatingly effective for being deceptively simple: go into those uncomfortable spaces of our lives which none of us want to talk about - the words we’re not supposed to say, the thoughts we’re not supposed to utter, the situations we’re not supposed to discuss publicly, the humiliations we don’t want anybody to know about. And bring those dark crevasses of human experience into the blinding noonday light. Suddenly, all of those terrible fears we have as people, as social groups, as a society no longer seem all that threatening because we’ve found a way to talk about them - and people are still listening.

(Louis CK on rape)

George Carlin used to talk about dragging an audience by the scruff of their collective neck to those fearful places they least wanted to go, and by doing so, making the audience glad he took them there. Carlin was a man of the 1970’s, and the 70’s were a golden age (perhaps THE golden age) of comedy. The idealism of the 60’s had shattered and in its wake lay the dark, angry realities of the Nixon era and the oil crisis. The idealism of the 1960’s was expressed through music. The anger of the 1970’s was expressed through comedy.

All great music is a kind of hypnosis which takes us out of our own minds. In order to receptive to great music, we need to be willing to divorce ourselves from control of our own mental state. The 1960’s, with both its idealism and its experimentation, was the perfect time for music to inflame America. But comedy has no such hypnosis - the very process of comedy is a primitive reflex that takes us back to cavemen’s expression of superiority and submission. Yet at the same time, comedy appeals to reason in the same way that music appeals to the heart. Music takes us out of ourselves, but comedy makes us more ourselves than ever. Comedy brings all of our anxieties to the forefront, and by making them ridiculous, it shows us that we need not be so anxious. Most great music makes us forget our worries, but most great comedy shows us why we should calm the fuck down.

The 1970s was the era of the Comedy Club. Comics were no longer received as borscht belt entertainers who owed it to their audience to charm them, the great comics weren’t even thought of as artists; they were thought of as old testament prophets, received by their audiences with fear and awe amid increasingly uncomfortable laughter. The comics owed us nothing, it was we who owed them. And our parents happily gave them their attention and allegiance. Beginning with Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trials in the late 60’s, comedy took on all the danger, the meaning, and the similarity to religious rites which Rock Music possessed just five years earlier. By the mid-70’s, comedy had fully replaced music as America’s engine of liberation. The old guard was still there, but it was comedy, not music, which best represented the generation gap. It was Richard Pryor, not Marvin Gaye or Red Foxx, who forced a discussion of American racism’s obscene hypocrisy into modern discourse. It was Joan Rivers, not Joni Mitchell or Phyllis Diller, who made women’s issues something which men could not ignore. It was Andy Kauffman and Steve Martin, not Lou Reed and Frank Zappa or Ernie Kovacs and Sid Caesar, who delivered the most avant-garde conceptual performances to the largest imaginable audience. Mel Brooks was making movies that skewered the prejudices of every American. Woody Allen made movies which demonstrated that comedy and intellect could go hand-in-hand. Monty Python and Fawlty Towers showed that English were just as willing to breach good taste. And it was a decade dominated by Saturday Night Live, not the Smothers Brothers.

And it was during this period that virtually every comic whom we’ve fed on for the last thirty years got his start: Jay Leno, David Letterman, Robin Williams, Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, Richard Lewis, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Paul Reiser, Robert Klein, Stephen Wright, Lewis Black (though technically a comic playwright then), Richard Belzer, Garry Shandling, Tim Allen, Whoopi Goldberg, Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay, and Eddie Murphy were all beginners during the 70’s. This was the era when the most powerful man in America was whichever comedian last got invited to sit on Johnny Carson’s couch.

But the righteous anger of the 70’s gave way to the complacent denial of the 80’s. Standup comedy had once again become something domesticated. Sure, Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay and Eddie Murphy could sell out stadiums. But in order to retain the visceral thrill of Carlin and Pryor in their primes, they needed to reach so far into anti-social rhetoric that their comedy was drained of any humanity. The shocks of ‘Seven Dirty Words’ still feel liberating, but the shocks of ‘Dice Man Cometh’ simply feel mean and pathetic. True comic greats of the 80’s like Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks were only able to do so on a relatively small scale, and for a brief period before early deaths brought on by fast living. The only ‘80s comedian who came close to that level of edgy humanity while still maintaining a large audience was Robin Williams. And Robin Williams paid for that ability by killing his comic genius in dozens of movies that are completely unworthy of his talent. The defining comedian of the 80’s was probably Billy Crystal, who turned the experience of the Comedy Club back into something resembling a borscht belt vaudeville house.

Were things really so dire in America that we were scared of speaking honestly to one another? In the Reagan presidency we were lead for eight years by a consummate actor ready to show up to work for every carefully scripted public occasion. As the Cold War drew to its close, America began to be fed a daily diet of policy propaganda worthy of anything issued by the Politburo. We had the ‘Reagan Revolution’, the ‘Reagan Doctrine,’ ‘Reaganomics,’ the ‘War on Drugs,’ ‘Peace Through Strength,’ ‘Star Wars,’ and ‘START-I.’

The 1980’s was a time when we embraced false comforts, feared the truth, and feared people who might tell it to us. The incomes of the upper-class among us grew ever richer, while the incomes of the middle and lower classes stayed the same - at best. The suburbs were thriving, yet the inner cities fell into ever-increasing disrepair. Black celebrities like Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby were allowed into the mainstream of American life, yet they were allowed because they watered down their original talents to sell themselves to Middle America. In so many ways, White America turned a blind eye to Black America, and white comedy turned a blind eye to black comedy.

The 1980’s was no more or less despairing a decade than the 70’s. It was not an American golden era, it was a gold-spray-can on rusty tin. Even to rebel, you had to sell a piece of your humanity. Kids could once shock their parents with Beatles and Ray Charles - and by listening to such spiritually meaningful music, kids knew that they were on the side of enlightenment. But if you wanted to rebel against the manufactured pop of the 80’s, you generally had to retreat to bands in the Heavy Metal or Punk or Hip-Hop scenes who (at the time) were too interested in shock and disturbance to be bothered with writing something that could heal and soothe their listeners. In academia, the culture-wars were in full swing. It was no longer sufficient to do research for its own sake, it had to subscribe to an overarching theory. And any statement, even an off-handed one made in good intentions, that could offend one of the many special interest groups who took refuge on college campuses, was a potential career killer. The great movies of the 70's were character studies based around genuine actors and writers which managed to take on the entire American experience within them. But Jaws and Star Wars showed movies that greater money could be made without worrying about the movie's character development. And thus Hollywood producers had the only reason it needed to back away from projects which told the uncomfortable 
truths about our country. Thanks to Star Wars, Hollywood will never again make movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Network, Chinatown, M*A*S*H, Nashville, Taxi Driver, Blazing Saddles, Serpico, Deliverance, The Godfather, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter, which tell truths all too unpleasant about the country and era which made them. Instead, viewers can be treated special-effects ladden entertainment whose story can hopefully be told with some wit and charm, but not enough of either to distract from the machines that run our movies. Meanwhile, American-funded dictators were squeezing every political freedom out of Latin America and the Middle East, and civil wars were fought around the African continent with either side backed by the US or the USSR. The US lived in perpetual fear of the USSR overtaking them as the #1 military powerhouse, and lived in fear no less grand that Japan would eventually defeat America as the world's #1 economic powerhouse.

The 1980’s was an era when people were afraid of telling the truth. The 80’s managed to cover up the broken limbs of the past two decades with a band-aid. Anybody with enough money and privilege could ignore all the social decay around them without fear of retribution.

No wonder their comedy sucked...

(Louie on why it’s ok to hate your children)

1 comment:

  1. Great article. I came across it looking up the CK clip about Huck Finn. I was trying to find a way to talk about the clip appropriately for my English class.