Sep 162013

Louis C.K. and Me

A number of my friends are really into Louis C.K., possibly the nation’s hottest comedian right now. So I’ve extensively surfed his youtube clips.

I use profanity myself, and I’m no purist. But the man’s sentences are so prolifically seasoned with what’s commonly known as “filthy language” (“fuck” “shit” “asshole” “dick” “pussy” etc.) and so much of what he talks about is so outrageous (shitting in dead people’s mouths, for example) that apart from whether or not he’s even funny, the sheer aggression in his overall routine creates (in me at least) a kind of constant, “what’s-he-gonna-come-out-with-next,” low-level adrenaline buzz, like the after-effect of consuming too much sugary junk food. Even when he is expressing some arguably socially redeeming message—such as the idiocy of road rage or homophobia—he weaves in countless “fuck you’s” and his tone seethes with something like imminent cruelty.

I suggested to a friend that Louis C.K. succeeds by tapping into his audience’s repressed anger and hostility, and that people experience through him some kind of release. She responded that, yes, he addresses what’s repressed, but not only anger and aggression; it’s all the inadmissible emotions, such as disgust for one’s own children, that he blows the cover off of.

Humor Exposes Secrets

This brought to mind Dostoevsky’s protagonist from Notes from the Underground, who asserts that there are three types of secrets. The most superficial secrets are those you share only with your one or two most trusted people in the world. The next level of secrets are those you admit only to yourself. The deepest secrets are the ones you keep even from yourself. Dostoevsky’s character goes on to say that the more “respectable” an individual is, the larger their store of this third category of secrets.

I keep this in mind when I feel disturbed or grossed out by comedians like Louis C.K. Is he abrasive to my heart or merely my propriety? I’m not sure. Sometimes (though rarely) I do laugh at him. Bill Maher once said that laughter is an involuntary response; we don’t laugh because we judge something to be funny; we laugh because it makes us laugh. There is an unimpeachable authenticity about laughter.

On the other hand, I think we become conditioned to find certain things funny, and this is culture-dependent. A few years ago, I played a tape of an interview with a folksinger to a twenty-something friend. At the end, the interviewer says, “Unfortunately, a few days after this interview was taped, David died unexpectedly . . .” and my friend burst out laughing. He found this hilarious. And he insisted it was simply very funny.

My friend has a sensibility—a “funny receptor” if you will—that I lack. He is of a generation weaned on dark humor.

Looking Deeper into Darkness

Another striking example: I once saw a clip of comedienne Sarah Silverman saying she thought it was cool that one of her female Jewish ancestors had been raped by Cossacks, because the Cossack blood in her gave her a kind of “street cred.” Some in her audience were offended; she didn’t care. I wasn’t sure what I thought (though obviously I didn’t find it funny, because I was not moved to laugh).

In the novel The Gates of the Forest by Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor goes on a journey looking for some peace of mind after all the horror he’s seen. He stumbles upon a gathering of Jews, and a rebbe who has them dance and sing devotional, celebratory songs. They are unsuccessful in conjuring any real joy, until the rebbe tells them to do the unthinkable—start singing a filthy Nazi song. At first they are horrified but then they follow the rebbe’s instructions, and lo! after their initial resistance and revulsion, they do actually wind up laughing and singing with gusto, and their dancing becomes wild and spirited. The rebbe’s eyes sparkle as he sees the miracle he has wrought.

So dark humor can offer authenticity, vitality, and even healing. Today’s most popular humor is outrageous; it busts boundaries and violates taboos. This is probably a necessary thing. What remains repressed gathers power. Repression leads to personal rigidity and political/religious fascism.

All the Same . . .

Yet repression’s opposite—an “all is permitted” disregard for mores and conventions of decency—can lead to chaos, moral relativism, and cynicism.

Personally, I cannot and honestly do not judge what others find funny, but I won’t deny that much of today’s “hip” humor strikes me as pessimistic, nihilistic, and unpleasant. If I were to deny my own visceral response, that would be a form of repression too.

And it feels important to be honest about what I really find funny and what offends or disturbs me. Otherwise, oddly, an ethic of blanket permissiveness can turn into its own force of political correctness.