Watching an academic explain how a gifted entertainer connects with a crowd is like watching a 40-year-old virgin teach Sex Ed. If poetry explained is banal, charisma explained is absurd.
Though I find the thought of dissecting a frog repulsive, I’m willing to concede that dissection has made significant contributions to the science of herpetology. That being said, it’s important for every budding biologist to bear in mind that the frog corpse you’re staring down at in your Bio Lab is no substitute for the real thing. A dead frog isn’t a frog. So if you really want to get to know these fascinating 250-million-year-old amphibians, get out of that stuffy lab and into the fragrant swamp in the middle of Île-Bizard, where you can listen to the sweet song of the spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer), marvel at the Cirque-de-Soleil acrobatics of the grey tree frog (Hyla versicolor), and watch bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) as big as kittens chase after dragonflies as big as crochet hooks.
Like the frogs of Île-Bizard, Louis CK cannot be reduced by a scalpel-wielding PhD. So, before attempting a quixotic dissection of his work, I think it’s important for theory-tainted know-it-alls (like me) to bear in mind that a critique of Louis CK’s comedy is no substitute for the real thing. Just as a dead frog isn’t a frog, an analysis of Louis CK isn’t Louis CK. The man is a comic genius. And that’s an unavoidable fact, like gravity or global warming, which we need to acknowledge before we brandish the blade. Louis CK makes millions laugh, and he does so with effortless Castiglione cool—viz., he makes it look easy. Of course nothing could be further from the truth: being really funny is really hard.
Like the medieval Catholic Church at its best, Louis CK has something for pretty much everyone. His comedy isn’t one-size-fits-all. Quite to the contrary, he appeals to diverse groups of people precisely because his message is complex. Everyone in the room is laughing, but they’re laughing for profoundly different reasons. I realized this for the first time after watching Live at the Beacon Theater (2011) with a room full of friends. Some were laughing at him, and some were laughing with him. Still others believed that they were in the presence of a modern-day Diogenes, a radically honest man who tells the unvarnished truth, come what will. It’s this last group that worries me—not, I hasten to add, because there’s anything wrong with telling the truth, but because there’s something wrong with thinking that your truth is The Truth.
In Plato’s Symposium we learn that many of the ancient Greeks thought philosophy was impossible without privacy and alcohol. So long as people are sober, they won’t tell you how they really feel, what they really think. Hence the phrase: in vino veritas. Likewise, when people are in a public place, they invariably say that which is politically correct, that which is appropriate. They don’t tell you the truth about how they see things. For these reasons, and others, philosophical discussions happened in ancient Athens only among friends, behind closed doors, and after a fair amount of drinking. The veritas that comes out because of the vino isn’t necessarily The Truth, but at least it’s a good starting point from which to begin moving dialectically towards the truth.
We all have a tendency to believe that our experience is somehow universal. This is a human, all-too-human tendency. That said, people with a great deal of privilege—people like me (i.e., white men of a certain class)—seem to get a double-portion of this tendency. Louis CK’s comedy is a case in point. Part of what makes it so effective is a complicated cocktail of awareness to privilege and blindness to privilege. He sees his own privilege with astounding accuracy, and yet—at one and the same time—he speaks about his inner life as a dad and a husband with a naïve presumptuousness which is—in and of itself—a hallmark of privilege.
The assumption behind much of Louis CK’s comedy—sometimes stated, sometimes implied—is that his own experience with parenthood and heterosexual marriage is normative. His message to men is more or less as follows: Come on guys, we’re among friends now, quit the bullshit. The chicks aren’t listening now, so stop trying to be politically correct. You know, and I know, that you’re feeling and thinking and doing exactly the same things I’m thinking and feeling and doing.
Eddie Murphy’s stand-up comedy has always relied heavily upon this technique. For instance, in Raw (1987), he asks all of the men in the audience “that are loyal to their women” to clap. Though it seems like a perfectly innocent question, we soon realize that it was posed in bad faith. A moment or two after the crowd bursts into applause, Murphy interrupts them loudly, shouting: “Stop! You lying motherfuckers, stop. Stop, stop, stop. Kiss my ass. Fuck, there ain’t no such thing as a loyal man, you lying motherfuckers. Stop it. Yeah, the only reason you’re clapping is because your woman’s sitting next to you right now when I asked you. . . . Get the fuck out. . . . All men fuck other women. We are low by nature and have to do it. . . . All men do it. We have to do it. . . . It is a man thing. . . . It is a dick thing. Do not try to understand it. You have to have a dick to understand this.”
Were some of the men in Eddie Murphy’s audience lying? Sure. Were all of them lying? I highly doubt it. Be that as it may, what’s key to note here is that Murphy categorically refuses to entertain some entirely plausible possibilities, such as the existence of loyal men, and the existence of women who truly get men (“You have to have a dick to understand this.”). It’s also interesting to note that Murphy is making some pretty categorical claims about what it means to be a man (“All men do it. We have to do it. . . . It is a man thing.”). Regardless, I call bullshit. Why? Because I know plenty of guys who don’t fit into Murphy’s straitjacket, just as I know plenty of guys who don’t fit into Louis CK’s straitjacket.
I know plenty of guys who love fatherhood and find married life delightful. Sure, they have bad days, even bad weeks—but, on balance, they really enjoy the life of the householder. What’s more, I know plenty of grown men who aren’t tormented—as Louis CK and Eddie Murphy seem to be—by a never-ending torrent of pornographic thoughts. I know plenty of grown men who really don’t picture every woman they know naked, who really don’t fantasize about fucking every woman they know.
Are these guys an unrepresentative sample of Dude Nation? Perhaps. But I doubt it. Because I’ve got male friends from all walks of life: from the ultra-conservative to the ultra-liberal. Are these guys lying to me? Perhaps. But I doubt it. Because I’m always sure to bring up these sorts of questions in the wee hours of the morning, at the end of a long night, when we’re all fairly drunk (or high), speaking in confidence among friends, and inclined towards the kind of brutal honesty that makes these conversations so memorable.
These guys aren’t laughing with Louis CK; they’re laughing at him. To my mind, the great genius of Louis CK is that he shows us how much of a living hell it must be to be a teenage boy stuck in a grown man’s life. That being said, the fact that so many husbands and fathers sympathize with Louis CK should give us pause. It ought to make us think long and hard about how we raise our sons in this culture.
Are we raising a generation of brave knights that will defend the weak, stand up to the strong, and believe—in their heart of hearts—that to whom much is given, much is required? Or are we raising a generation of whiny half-men who go through life resenting their wives, their children, their ageing parents, the poor, the weak, the needy, and anyone else who dares to make legitimate demands upon them?
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)