The Underdog

How comedian Louis C.K. has transformed futility into a winning career

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Illustration: André Carrilho

Contradiction lies between Louis C.K.’s comedy and his persona. Not unlike Woody Allen and Larry David, he is a curmudgeon and a crank, and not unlike Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, he’s a comedic outlaw, stating what others barely allow themselves to access in their subconscious, not just slipping but crashing heedlessly into the socially outrageous. Louis doesn’t cross lines; he kicks through them like someone booting open a locked door in a gangster picture. Yet where there was a kind of violence about a Bruce routine, a clear intent to abuse the N-word until nothing was left of it but empty sound, and where there’s misanthropy in David’s crusade to induce every cringe known to human discomfort, Louis rarely conveys nastiness let alone a mean streak.

Rather, in his varied riffs—most of which can’t be reproduced here and all of which would lose something in translation anyway—about sex and class and parenthood, as well as his use of the F-word (the one that’s a derogatory term for gay people) and the marvels of the modern age about which we’ve become so jaded, he speaks from a place of weary perplexity. As seen on his FX series, Louie, the fourth season of which premieres this month, Louis is a middle-aged schlub, a worn-around-the-ears teddy bear who can feel his stitching coming apart.

The appeal of the Jewish-Irish-Hungarian-Mexican-American Louis Szekely is universal enough that he can be my favorite comedian while also being my 16-year-old son’s, his audience ever widening while remaining exclusively hip. He has sneaked up on his moment, and as with a lot of performers whose track to stardom slowly inches up a long hill instead of rocketing skyward, by the time Louis became a phenomenon, he had acquired a self-awareness that plumbs an identity you realize only later must be less precarious than the jokes suggest. As subversive as Bruce or Carlin, and certainly more than Allen or David, nonetheless he forges a bond rather than constitutes a threat; in some ways his most potent weapon isn’t his wit or even his eye for the absurdity of people so jaundiced by existence that they grow impatient over a flight delay even as they completely take for granted the preposterousness of flying (“You’re sitting in a chair in the sky!”). Instead Louis’s real weapon is his smile, sweet and childlike and appearing when his humor is deepest in the red zone, as if to say, “I know, can you believe I’m saying this? Can you believe you’re laughing? Crazy, huh?” It’s the same smile of the kid who resolved to become a comedian so his single mother would have better TV to watch when she came home at night, exhausted from work. More recently, appalled by a television executive who praised a TV show for “[going] down easy,” Louis has countered that one should always “be trying to be unbelievably great.”

By most accounts Louis was in his teens when he did his first stand-up, an experience discouraging enough that it was a couple of years before he attempted his second. Success came fitfully over the course of three decades that entailed botched films, aborted writing gigs, and a failed sitcom interrupting a two-steps-forward, one-step-back progression that eventually translated into HBO specials; Louis’s recurring themes of defeat and futility are at odds with a tenacity he may be hoping we don’t notice, since such perseverance is less the stuff of hilarity than a stealth heroism. That persistence makes him an underdog we root for. Six or seven years ago the comedian was at a low point, coming off a 13-year marriage that had crashed to earth and a show called Lucky Louie that didn’t get far or high enough to be called a crash. Then, in 2010, the enormously successful concert film Hilarious was both the Grammy winner for Best Comedy Album (the only category the Grammy Awards ever get right) and the first such movie to be accepted by the Sundance Film Festival. In the last couple of years Louis’s success—an Emmy, roles in Oscar-nominated movies, the cover of Rolling Stone, one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world—has become such that he better figure out pretty quickly how to replace defeat and futility with triumph and fulfillment and still get laughs.

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Winning, smart, and watchable, Louie debuted as a more fractured Seinfeld crossed with a Greenwich Village Curb Your Enthusiasm with a little of Godard’s Contempt tossed in. So the writer-director’s willingness to up the stakes and mess with a hit formula is startling: When the show returned for its second season, the ruptured videographs that replaced conventional narrative focused on race, homelessness, and trying to get it on with Joan Rivers. Coming two-thirds of the way through the second season, the series’ pivot was episode 22, when the star runs into Eddie, an old stand-up buddy who gives whole new meanings to defeat and futility that Louis hasn’t dreamed in his worst nightmares; living out of his car, Eddie spends the night hanging with Louis and raiding open mics in this club and that, before calmly announcing a considered decision to kill himself. Not played for laughs, this half hour of Louie stole from Modern Family and Parks and Recreation any claim to currently being television’s best comedy. The third season raised the show to another level, as the lonely death of a club manager whom Louis detested, an estranged relationship with Louis’s father, Louis’s campaign to replace David Letterman, and a romance (if that’s what it is) with Parker Posey—not to mention the usual guerrilla warfare between the sexes—unfold in ways unsettling, enigmatic, and haunting but never predictable. The final episode, with Louis in self-imposed exile searching for the Yangtze River, may be the single most audacious and surreal of all 39.

That Louis C.K. now is called a “genius” with some regularity isn’t a big deal; these days almost everyone is. The big deal is that there may be something to it: In the vein of that basic contradiction between his insecurity and his rampaging comedic vision, Louis locates the private in the social, the anxiety in the wonder, the familiar in the strange, the humor in the horrific, the classic in the innovative, the dadaist in the middle-brow working class; he makes what we’ve not seen before seem like déjà vu and what we see every day revelatory. When he jokes about some of the terrible things that happen to children in today’s world, we still feel the underlying fury of a single father who has two small daughters as well as the anarchist’s rejection of an entitled self-help culture that believes no one should ever have to feel bad. “Looking at how random and punishing life can be,” he has said, “[is] a privilege.” Maybe surprising himself as much as anyone, he has emerged as comedy’s philosopher prince, and like anyone who’s as deserving as anyone else of the appellation “genius,” he lives in the past, present, and future all at once—including that time when his reign will be over and he’ll still be trying to be unbelievably great.

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