Often Brits have a perception of American stand-ups as being more crude, degenerate and less sophisticated than our own comedians. While it’s hard to deny that such low brow comics exist across the Atlantic (Cars 2 star Larry the Cable Guy for one), given that the USA has a larger population and a greater amount of cultural diversity, their comedians display a much greater variety of different approaches and styles than reruns of Friends might have you belief.
One of the most glaring exceptions to this stereotype of US comedians is without a doubt Louis C.K. Though technically a Mexican, he migrated at the age of seven and has been performing comedy since the 80s. The last decade has seen his rise to prevalence, partly down to his creation of the internet meme ‘everything is amazing and no one is happy’. That’s not to say that he didn’t have a solid body of work beforehand, having written for David Letterman and Chris Rock and directing the bizarrely hilarious mess that is Pootie Tang.
His first major TV vehicle was HBO’s Lucky Louie (2006), a conventionally filmed live audience sitcom revolving around his fractious family and neighbours, though more subversive and clever than standard fare. Currently running on FX is his second series, this time titled just Louie. Bookended by footage of C.K.’s stand-up at NYC’s Comedy Cellar, each episode consists of vignettes of the comedian going about his daily business, whether it’s playing poker and discussing the etymology of the word ‘faggot’, acting hopelessly bad in a remake of The Godfather, or binging on Häagen-Dazs and pizza.
While ‘biographical’ sitcoms centred around the life of a comedian have existed since Seinfeld and before, this is really not like any other. Each episode is independent of one another, and there are no real consistent characters or settings. At times, it’s not even strictly a comedy show: parts of it veer close to drama, and its unsettling bleak atmosphere has more the look and feel of an art house film or latter day Woody Allen, with an appropriate Charles Mingus-esque soundtrack. That’s not to say that it isn’t staggeringly funny, and it stands as a testament to what can be achieved with total creative control on a small budget.
As a stand-up, C.K. is exceptional. What is central to his comedy is his brutal honesty and likable stage persona. In the hands of a lesser comedian, topics such as eating duck vaginas or traveling back in time to rape Adolf Hitler may come across as gratuitous attempts to shock, and calling your daughter an asshole on stage would just seem cruel. With Louis it’s clear to the audience where he’s coming from, and he remains endearing. He also has the ability to express intelligent ideas by using the most concise language, and still adds humour to them. He does not so much state ‘what everyone is thinking’, as he says things that are seemingly from a whole new perspective, one that is grounded in twisted logic. So far he has released three filmed stand-up shows: Shameless (2006), Chewed Up (2008) and Hilarious (2010), the latter being notable for being the first stand-up film to be accepted into the Sundance film festival.
What’s particularly exciting about Louis C.K. is that he doesn’t seem content to rest on his laurels and continues to grow as an artist and performer. His work on Louie seems to point towards expanding to more feature films or drama, although there’s nothing to suggest that he’s quitting stand up at anytime soon. As much of his material revolves around his relationship with his children (currently aged eleven and five) he should have plenty of comic gold to mine as they get older. Perhaps their teenage years will be a highlight.