Louis C.K. is a moralist, with a knack for simplifying concepts mistaken for complex. I started watching him around my final year as a philosophy undergrad, and it was like discovering a hole at the base of a tall fence. Here is Kant:
"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
And here is Louis:
"You should act in a way that, if everyone acted that way, things would work out."
Last week, Louis released his sixth hour-long special, Live at the Comedy Store, on his website, where you can buy it for $5. As he said in an e-mail blast to his followers: He has been doing comedy for almost 30 years, most of them spent bouncing around clubs – he reached the theatre, and now arena, leg of his career less than a decade ago, long after he'd lost his hair.
Like most of his fans, I think, I relate most to Louis as a person full of evil but trying to be decent. I love him at his most obscene, when he wrestles with the worst features of his inner life (his hatred for the people he loves, his relentless perversions), showing the difference between a thought and a belief, an opinion and a demented, knee-jerk feeling hitched to a line of reasoning. His actual opinions are almost always right, but he understands that knowing what's right often makes no difference.
Louis works best with actual shame, which is what you feel when you aren't the person you want to be. It means understanding that you might be the bad guy, and that you may not deserve any sympathy. Self-deprecation, on the other hand, is an easy device for when you want to avoid being the bad guy – just present yourself as the underdog instead. It's a bid for sympathy instead of contempt. (I do it all the time. I might be doing it right now.)
When Louis owns up to his success, he shines. "I fly first class, who cares, just, that's the way it is," he says, as an aside, in 2011's Live at the Beacon Theater. "I don't – I'm not like you." He's at his worst when he forgets that his underdog status has expired. In his 2013 stand-up special, Oh My God, he talks about sitting in the courtyard of his luxury building, looking dirty and antagonizing a tenant who'd assumed he was a vagrant. It comes off as self-righteous, a play for workaday-guy appeal in the least relatable context.
The pathetic-schlub routine is a safe default for anyone who feels less than alpha; a way to enlarge your accomplishments, while deflecting anyone who might jab at you now that you're accomplished.
What redeems Louis is the fact that self-reflexivity is the soul of his act, rather than any mutable characteristic, like his gut. In the third episode of the brilliant fourth season of his comedy series Louie, which aired last year, his character, Louie, is asked out by a funny, charismatic woman who works at the club he performs in. She is fat, and despite his own physique, and the fact that she's far more attractive than he is, Louie turns her down more than once. They end up going for a coffee, followed by a walk, which ends with her taking him down in a sharp monologue about hypocrisy and double standards.
Louis still plays the schlub, but he doesn't pretend the schlub is innocent. In another, more difficult episode of the show, Louie performs a stand-up act about violence against women, a riff on the adage that men are afraid women will laugh at them and women are afraid men might kill them. It's a thoughtful routine, which stands in stark contrast to a scene later in the episode, in which he attacks Pamela – his funny but mean friend and reluctant love interest – and tries to hold her down while she yells at him to stop. It's hard to watch, but it makes an important point about the difference between principles and behaviour. Shame is what happens when the two don't align.
You don't need to be a good person to make good art, but both require insight. I have no idea what Louis C.K. is like in real life, but the work shows his willingness to confront himself, at least. "Self-love is a good thing," he says in Live at the Comedy Store, which is less whiny, and more pro, than any stand-up special he's done so far. "Self-awareness is more important… It's not up to you if you're an asshole or not."