It seems like I’ve always come to the music and books and comedy that I’ve loved after it was made. My favorite Led Zepplin albums were made before I was born. I started listening to Pavement and A Tribe Called Quest in the early oughts. My cousins once told me that I couldn’t really appreciate the movie Across The Universe because The Beatles weren’t a part of my childhood like it was part of theirs. And they were right. The way we consume media now is so vastly different that there will never be something as seminal as The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I won’t know what it’s like to wait for one of their records, then go to the store and buy it because you had to have it, race home, put it on the record player, and listen to it from start to finish just because it’s The Beatles.
Seeing Louis CK at a sold out Madison Square Garden is probably the closest I’ll come to that experience. (Full disclosure: a close second is when I went to a record store during lunch in high school to buy Under The Table and Dreaming by Dave Matthews band.)
I’m reluctant to make this comparison given that I truly feel that no one needs to heap any more praise on Louis CK. Reading recaps of episodes of Louie on blogs is like reading a doctoral dissertation on the French New Wave. He also seems to have been granted certain exemptions. Most articles I’ve read decrying some idiot’s latest racist or sexist gaff usually involve the phrase “except when Louis CK does it.” He uses language that has people marveling at the heights of his satiric voice when it would have them calling for the head of Daniel Tosh. He sold his special Live at the Beacon Theater for five dollars though his website. He then asked anonymous people on the internet, the most hateful virtual space on earth, not to steal it and (for the most part) they agreed! Other comedians followed suit and offered their latest specials for download for only five dollars. The passion for this trend seems to have died down with much more modest sales. There is, after all, only one Louis CK.
During my stand up comedy obsessed youth, I didn’t quite get Louis. I gravitated toward Short Attention Span Theater and Stand-up Stand-up. Each clip had a title at the beginning just like a music video and I memorized the bits just like I would memorize the chorus of MTV songs. Tom Rhodes, Marc Maron, John Mendoza, Caroline Rhea, Judy Gold, Bill Hicks, Dave Attell… I loved every clip. But for some reason, I was a little lukewarm on Louis CK. I was intrigued by his name. Why CK? There were no periods: not C.K., CK. And his jokes were weird. His “I have a peach” bit is funny but also odd. In retrospect, it’s just because he was trying to turn something he found truly unique and odd into a joke for an audience. It’s a difficult thing to do, especially given that, during that time, there was so much success to be had relying on the same cadence and subject matter (and sometimes jokes) that everyone else was using.
He would go on to be on the first writing staff for Late Night With Conan O’Brien. (In his Howard Stern interview, he revealed that he got that job only after being passed over for any kind of SNL job.) He would write for The Dana Carvey Show, The Chris Rock Show, probably a million others that I don’t even know about. (And somewhere in there he managed to direct Pootie Tang.)
Later, Lucky Louie – a three camera sitcom with a laugh track – came on HBO. I had heard that it was an homage to The Honeymooners, which made the style of the show more comprehensible but not more watchable. I heard about his new stand-up and how he spoke so frankly about family life, talking about what assholes his young children were and how much he, quite frankly, hated his wife. The beleaguered family man is a trope of comedy that I hate. I hated it when it was on Everybody Loves Raymond. I hate it today. So, I didn’t care to check it out.
But he crept into my comedic field of vision anyway. My friend quoted one of his bits to me. It was the one about how you could tell how bad a person you are by how soon after 9/11 you masturbated and for Louis, it was between the towers going down. And then his “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” bit went viral. That’s when I started really watching him. I had finally caught up to his slow burn of a career and I’ve listened to his specials countless times. I can quote them like I could any Stand-Up Stand-Up bit from high school.
So, when a third show was announced for MSG, I knew I had to go. I bought tickets that I couldn’t really afford just so I could say I had that experience of seeing a master at work in his prime.
The show was good. Other’s can attest to that. But it didn’t live up to my sky high expectations. I may have been trying too hard to be present and enjoy it. It was great to see Greer Barnes – another Stand-Up Stand-Up favorite – open the show. Honestly, there’s a reason that the opening bits of Louie are filmed in The Comedy Cellar and Caroline’s. Comedy is best experienced up close in more intimate clubs (and Caroline’s certainly stretches that criterion).
The following week, I got the email that his latest special was made available on his site, again for five dollars. I’ve listened to it and I’m glad that it features most of the material from the MSG show. I’m warming up to it. Like any album, I need to listen to it over and over again to truly get into it, though, frankly, Hilarious and Live at the Beacon Theater only took one or two listens.
From 1963 to 1970, The Beatles put out at least one album a year, sometimes two (leaving out the early, cover-y stuff), and that was with two primary song writers universally regarded as geniuses. Including his One Night Stand in 2005 (the one that contains Why?, one of my favorite comedy bits of all time), Louis has put out seven specials. Granted, his Hamburg apprenticeship phase was roughly twenty years of working in television, but still. And yeah, we pretty much know what material to expect: his children, his horrible body, sexual frustration, sexual perversion, and material meant to shock just for fun. But it’s still Louis, so, you get the album.
In Live at the Beacon Theater, he said of his fame “it’ll only last for a few more years and then it’ll be done but for now, yeah, it’s good.” That was in 2011 and today, in 2015, he’s still Louis with a capital CK. He’s on pace to be more prolific than one of his idols, George Carlin. Leaving the show at MSG, I thought maybe his life isn’t inspiring him the way it used to. His daughters are getting older. He’s not in a bad marriage anymore. Maybe he’s less frustrated which leads to less inspired comedy. But I’ve listened to the album and it’s pretty damn good. So, maybe he’s not at the peak of his powers, but he’s at the plateau of his powers and that’s still pretty damn high.