BOSTON — Why is Louis C.K. the greatest comedian performing today?
First of all, standup comedy is inherently a democratic art. Whether you’re a movie star or a nobody, what matters is whether you make people laugh. The crowd laughs, you’re funny. The crowd is silent, you’re a hack. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Jerry Seinfeld or Joe from the open mic. But Louis C.K. (Louis Szekely) is the biggest name in comedy today because he does more than just make people laugh. Make no mistake: the man entertains. If you go to one of his six shows at Symphony Hall Thursday through Saturday (there are very few tickets left), you will laugh. That’s a given. He goes above and beyond though.
In a field notorious for compromise, where comedians routinely change personas and water down material to get sitcom deals, C.K. has managed to maintain his voice. Popular comedians are often distinguished from “comic’s comics.” There are performers you see on television who have broad appeal and there are performers who push the boundaries. The Newton North High School graduate is the rare comic who has managed to straddle both worlds.
There’s a scene in “Louie,” the critically acclaimed show on FX, where Louie meets with a movie executive. She tells him she’s ready to green light any of his ideas, to make his dreams come true. Louie nods, and pitches her his idea for a feature film:
I always wanted to make a movie where a guy’s life is really bad, and then something happens and it makes it worse. But instead of resolving it, he just makes bad choices, and then it goes from worse to really bad. And things keep happening to him, and he keeps doing dumb things, so his life just gets worse and worse, and darker. He lives in a one-room apartment, he’s not a very good-looking guy, has no real friends, and he works in a factory where they… like a sewage disposal plant. And then he gets fired, so now he doesn’t even have his job at the shit factory anymore, and he’s going broke and takes a trip and it rains. But then he meets a girl and she’s beautiful and he falls in love, so you think that’s going to be the thing, the happy thing, but then she turns out to be a crook and she robs him. She takes his wallet, and he’s stuck in the middle of nowhere and he’s got no wallet, no credit card. Like, what do you do? How do you even get home?”
That’s what makes “Louie”incredible. C.K. goes to even darker places than HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Girls.” He refuses to give us Hollywood endings. His daughters tell him they love their mother more than him. At every turn, C.K. takes a risk and exposes the least appealing aspects of his personality. He makes us nervous, but we also connect with him.
Beyond its entertainment value, C.K.’s comedy is astounding on a technical level. He singlehandedly writes, directs, edits, produces, and stars in his television show. As a standup, C.K. famously throws out his material each year and starts from scratch. Most comedians take years, if not decades, to build an hour-long performance.
Here’s his reaction to children asking “Why.” As with most of his comedy it contains strong language:
C.K. pioneered a new system of distribution for his last comedy special, selling the video online directly to fans for $5 with no strings attached. For this tour, C.K. is taking on Ticketmaster by selling tickets via the same method, at a flat rate of $45 with no fees. Unhappy with the exorbitant rates scalpers resell tickets for, C.K. has also vowed not to honor any ticket resold above face value. If you can find a ticket, see this show. You’ll almost be able to forget that the least impressive part is that Louie C.K. is hilarious.
Chris Duffy is the editor of Paperweight Magazine, a new humor magazine for the iPad. He also produces and hosts “You’re the Expert,” a monthly show at Oberon that uses comedy to make academic research more accessible and exciting.