St. Louis

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The comedian Louis C.K. is a pudgy, 40-year-old white guy. He doesn’t have a gimmick. He just stands there in corduroys and talks about exactly what you’d expect: his wife, his kids, the difference between men and women.

He also might be the best stand-up comic on the planet. I don’t really know how to explain it, but I will try.

Louis C.K. has been in comedy for more 20 years. He has written for Conan, Letterman and Chris Rock. But, like a great athlete, he makes it look easy. His everymanesque delivery dupes you into thinking he’s just a guy who’s telling you a story. His material is not topical or incisive. He simply says one funny thing, and then another, and then another. His bits are the opposite of one-liners: He picks a mundane topic, burrows in and drags everything funny out of it.

Not that his act is tame. He uses every taboo word you can think of. He tells jokes about rape, AIDS and 9/11. He talks about exposing himself to a retarded girl. He does a ten-minute bit about how much he hates deer. (One snippet: “I cold shoot a baby deer in the mouth and feel nothing. Just, Oh, now it’s dead. That’s interesting. Maybe it’s because I shot it in the mouth.")

Here is another bit (again, just an excerpt) about walking through Manhattan with his two kids:

So I’ve got my two-year-old daughter in one hand, and—she can walk, but she fucking won’t, just to be an asshole—so I’m carrying her, and she weighs, like, as much as 20 babies. She’s tiny, but she has the density of a dying sun. It’s like carrying a fat raccoon who’s holding a bowling ball. And so I’m carrying her and my shoulder is sending these terrible pain signals to my brain, like, Drop her, you don’t love her that much, just drop her. And with my other hand I’m dragging my other daughter through the streets. At least I think it’s her; I haven’t looked back in about an hour. I’m just dragging her through people’s thighs, corners of briefcases are hitting her in the forehead, I don’t give a shit.

The story is not even halfway done, but you get the idea.

If Louis C.K. has a shtick, it is the oldest shtick in the book: frustration. But frustration is not bile or hatred. Hatred is alienating; frustration is universal. Just like Henny Youngman did not really hate his wife, Louis does not really think his two-year-old daughter is an asshole. You can tell that beneath the act, he’s a good guy.

The above story has the cadence of a normal anecdote, but it is really fine-tuned prose (“density of a dying sun”?). Any one of the sentences would be a passable punch line. But there is no punch line. He just says one funny thing after another, and you keep laughing, until the lights come up and well over an hour has passed.

An hour and change is a very long time in comedy, especially considering that last night’s material was all new, and that C.K.’s last HBO special debuted earlier this year. Yesterday I complained that Sarah Silverman isn’t prolific enough. Well, if having a successful TV show makes you complacent, then thank God Louis C.K.’s sitcom was canceled. The stand-up community needs him.

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