Louis C.K. And What Happens When Comedians Go Too Far

I was kind of hard on GQ earlier in the summer, so I want to give credit where credit is due and encourage everyone to read the great Louis C.K. profile they have in this issue. It’s not so much that the piece is about C.K. — in fact, I wish there was more information about his divorce, and the failure of his friendship with Marc Maron, or what he’s like as a father other than extremely attentive. But it is a very good look at what makes comedy work, particularly the kind of comedy that C.K. excels at, that makes people uncomfortable, and occasionally crosses way over the line (usually by failing to be funny):

It’s dumb to speculate on why anyone’s relationship falls apart—what seem like the obvious factors aren’t always the truest ones—but you wonder what it must have been like to be married to a guy who makes his living doing jokes about his wife’s disdain at giving him a hand job or his daughter’s vaginal rashes or, more broadly, to someone who’s just so compulsively driven to talk about our darkest impulses. “It’s a positive thing to talk about terrible things and make people laugh about them,” he said during one of our conversations. “The problem is, the more famous you get, the more people see you who didn’t choose to. And that’s when you start pissing people off.” This led to a discussion about the one joke that he worried was too much—a bit about how, if we were all “somehow okay with kid-fucking,” pedophiles wouldn’t kill kids after they raped them. “It’s a hard thing to hear,” he said. “But it’s true. If we were less hating of kid-fucking, less kids would die. That’s true. I don’t know what to do with that information. But it’s true.”

There’s not even a joke there, I don’t think. And yet I found myself laughing—not so much at the shock of it as the way he was taking the “Aren’t humans dopes?” aspect of so many comic bits and applying it to the grimmest act imaginable. There’s a deep anti–moral-hypocrisy vein running through C.K.’s work, which is organized as much as anything around the idea that to not speak openly about our capacity for ugliness is to further enable it. This, I think, is part of what other comics are talking about when they describe him as being “brave” and “fearless” onstage. Or it’s this combined with what we know about his life, that he has two young daughters, and—when he’s not traveling for a gig or shooting his show or going on the radio, as he did a few months back, to ask Donald Rumsfeld over the phone if he was a lizard who eats Mexican babies—he’s making the girls breakfast and taking them to school and otherwise operating in full domestic-dad mode. It’s something about the completely permeable membrane between those two versions of himself, the loving dad and the guy whose life appears to be an ongoing piece of performance art devoted to expressing every twisted thought that surfaces in his brain, that makes him either the most honest comedian in the world or kind of a disturbing freak. (As one comic who’s worked with C.K. said to me, “I like Louis. And I appreciate his brilliance. But the idea that he’s expressing thoughts that we all think doesn’t seem totally right to me. I don’t actually think those things.”)

It’s true, I don’t think that every twisted thing that comedians come up with is something that secretly, a lot of people are thinking. But it’s also partial self-protection to convince ourselves that our neighbors are sane and decent people who don’t think crazy nonsense because we live in a functioning society, if they don’t think those things, surely we wouldn’t think those things. People really love humor that acknowledges a little bit of our secret badnesses and excuses them, like the number “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” from the musical Avenue Q, which is based on the idea that we can think bad things about people of other races without contributing to institutionalized racism. Louis trafficks in something darker and more pointed. And I think even if he gets uncomfortable, or inappropriate, or unfunny — as I think much of his Sarah Palin stuff was — C.K., unlike a lot of comedians, does enough good with that darkness to excuse his missteps.