Stephen Michell insists that comedy is like a spell, cast by a philosopher whose self-awareness exposes the world.
I am a fan of comedy. Sketch comedy, improv, stand-up, Rom-coms—you name it. Laughter is one of my top three favourite parts of life. If it’s funny, then I am sold.
Of current professional comedians, Louis C.K. really seems to have something going these days. I know nothing of his story, his career, and I am sure there are hundreds of people who loved his comedy long before he ever became famous, but I hesitate to believe that his particular ability to pinch my funny bone has anything to do with his present popularity. Rather, I think the cause of Louis C.K’s hilarity is his honesty and insightfulness. His social acuity is sharp and poignant, and even bittersweet, as one reflects upon the shards of truth in what he says, even as you reel with laughter. Louis C. K. is, I think, a contemporary social philosopher.
Comedians seem to possess the unchallenged right to criticize. A comedian can attack anything: people, society, race, gender, politics, themselves, their friends, their family, and the list goes on. A comedian can use profane language and get away with saying offensive, culturally shunned words. And it seems that the repercussions are slight, if at all. On occasion, a comedian may be discredited for the content of his or her routine, but hardly to a ruinous degree. It probably even helps comedic careers to receive a touch of negative publicity. Comedians reserve the authority to ‘tell it how it is.’ Why?
Perhaps comedians have power because their medium is entertainment—arguably the highest authority in western society. They make us laugh. They offer up a product to be consumed, and we like it, so we let them say whatever they want. Or maybe comedians are still considered to be the sideline jesters, the fools, and who ever listened to the fool anyway—Lear never did. But in the 16th century, comedy was still at an early stage of containing insightful, critical, thought-provoking views. Shakespeare’s great impact on the development entertainment was to create work that appealed to all levels and variations of society. It was such a blend of commonality and enlightenment, an active consideration of his age.
Today, and largely among younger people, the entertainment-culture is inescapable. Comedy is quite possibly the widest spread method of association, challenged only by music. What you find funny says much about your character. It is a constant social consideration. What shows do you like? What actors are you following? Oh, you like that band? Please tell us about your personal level of engagement with the entertainment-culture! But be careful, your answers may have serious social consequences.
I find when meeting someone new for the first time, the early ‘getting to know you’ questions often pertain to our habits of entertainment. What kind of music do you like? Have you seen any of the latest films? (All we need now is Soma). It was my wonderful girlfriend who noted that ours is indeed an entertainment-generation, organized within a social map marked by television shows, films, bands, and celebrity landmarks. Shared views and interests in entertainment largely influence our relationships and customs.
The other night I was out with some friends, and the majority of our conversation consisted of recalling old television shows we had watched as children. A good friend of mine remarked upon this custom of ours and caused us to think. We were hardly having a discussion. Our connection, which was undeniably intimate, familiar, and friendly, involved nothing more than naming the titles of past entertainments. It may be allowable to propose that entertainment is the single most influential authority over our thinking in current North American culture—besides sex, of course, who could forget the power of sex? Yes, I am sure this is nothing unique to our generation, except that it may be more pronounced, but it is nevertheless important to recognize what shapes one’s thinking!
Following this bold (perhaps too bold) premise of the primacy of entertainment as the authority that governs our culture, it would seem accurate to place stand-up comedians in a role akin to philosophers. Comedians observe and critique, they notice trends, they are aware of changes in cultural attitudes, and they pay attention to society’s emotional and psychological currents in order to remain topical, applicable, and funny.
Imagine Louis C. K. standing in the middle of the agora, expounding his ideas to a throng of young Athenian men, ‘corrupting’ their minds away from the traditional aristocratic values. Or see him lounging in a bathtub in the sun, living like a dog, masturbating in the public street. He’s a little mix of both. Either way, I think he shares in the same spirit of the philosopher.
Who today would stand in a crowded street to listen to an academic ‘philosopher’? Who would gladly pay money to hear a comedy hour? I listen to Louis C. K. because he is funny, certainly. But I listen to him a second time because he presents ideas that are applicable to the common, current condition of life. Ideas that offer an entirely new perspective on the norm, or ideas that extend far outside my patterns of thinking. He questions the universal through the examining of the particular, the personal. He exposes himself (honestly, it seems), and in so doing he causes his audience to reflect inwards. Through the active consideration of his own life, Louis C. K. articulates the anxieties of our culture. His thoughtful, self-awareness is enlightening, inspiring—and hilarious!
Louis C.K assumes an attitude that the world is a shitty place. And yet, through comedy, he is able to imbue the shittiness of life with a kind of magic. Laughter is a spell. It is cast on you with a word, a phrase, and then it gets inside you, shakes you up, makes you crack and explode with strange noises and motions, you start crying—laughter makes you pee when it’s really good! Louis C. K.’s comedy reminds us that the whole world, in all its shitty variations, is full of this magic.
I have no idea if Louis C.K. is genuine or honest, his personal life remains, as Russian sportsmen like to say, “obscured by profound mists of uncertainty.” I like to think, however, that he is a good person, and I would be interest to hear his thoughts regarding our ‘entertainment-culture’. I bet I would laugh.
I count myself lucky, and therefore thankful, each day for a million reasons, one now being that I happened to be thrown into this spinning cosmic mix during the same moment as Louis. C. K. Here’s to a (hopefully) good man, and a social philosopher for generation-E.