Dollar for laugh, Louis C.K.’s show in Baltimore on Friday night was some of the best money I’ve ever spent on entertainment. But his set was also a great illustration of what a performer can do when he invests the time and energy to build the credibility that lets him take an audience to difficult places about gender, parenthood, race, and class.
Take his divorce. It could be incredibly easy for a lesser comedian to head directly for a bitter, ex-and-all-women-blaming place. And there’s no question that a deep well of loneliness runs through Louis’ jokes about being single. “There are things you get to do when you’re divorced,” he told us on Friday, “like put your feet up on the bed, and die alone.” That resignation is very funny, and very sympathetic. It’s not a Nice Guy shtick about how he deserves to be loved. Instead, it’s an acknowledgment of the truth that it can be devastatingly hard to get back out there, about the alternative priority systems we set up when the world seems too hard.
Similarly, I think a bit he did about how men think about sex is a bit of a broad brush — I don’t think that all men are more sexual than all women, or as he put it: “You’re a tourist in the land of sexual perversion. I’m a prisoner. You’re Jane Fonda on the tank. I’m John McCain.” But I trust that he knows that, and that his thinking on sex is biased in favor of respect towards women. So if he’s going overboard, he’s doing so out of a tendency to give women credit, rather than to suggest we’re frigid prudes.
In the same way, going into the act knowing C.K. is crazy about his daughters and being a father makes his gripes about the process much funnier and more creative. In a story about a kid who disrupts his daughter’s first grade class, you can kind of believe that he would seduce the kid’s gay father, move in with the guy, and then inexplicably break his heart in an elaborate scheme of revenge. And he’s totally right about the monotony of Clifford the Big Red Dog books and their insistence on dwelling on the size of said fictional canine. “Make Clifford do something,” C.K. suggested, “like he steps on a policeman and the community is devastated.” He’s the opposite of a stereotypical detached dad: he’s so attached it’s in danger of driving him a little crazy.
And in the most explicitly political bit of the night, C.K. took on the idea that destroying the environment is fine because God put it there for us to exploit, rather than find sustainable ways to support ourselves. “What the fuck did you do to my duck?” he cried in a parody of an appalled deity catching up on the work of his creation (Louis’ God voice is the same as his gay guy voice, which I think is fascinating). “It had a green head and it was so awesome and you fucking killed it!” For a guy who is divorced; insecure enough about his success to tell us of his first class flights that “this has only been for one year, and it’s only going to be for one more”; and alone out there on stage, there’s something particularly sad about the idea that we’ve lost our sense of interconnectedness, and moving about his insistence that everything has value.