We mentioned Louie CK on the episode in the context of his body image bits, but since he’s not a paradigm case of that (meaning it’s not his only shtick), we didn’t pursue it. So here’s a piece from I chose semi-randomly for us to discuss, having to do with kid naming and in general dealing with your offspring:
Watch on YouTube.
So he has this core insight about naming related to this overall weird power differential between parents and kids. Unlike the old timey folks with servants and all that, we modern Americans are very uncomfortable with inequality, and this is a frequent topic for Louie. With kids, the inequality is built in, and even beneficial, of course, but since being a dad requires taking on a role that is to some degree inauthentic, meaning you can’t act exactly around your kids how you would act around, say, your best friends with whom you are totally comfortable, this is another topic he’s keen on. So in Bergson’s terms, you’ve got this clash between being your true self and having to act this somewhat rigid role. Once you’re acting “unnaturally,” then it’s like you’re on the brink of spiraling into madness, in that the “true self” is no longer guiding you, making your actions sensible. (Of course, parental instincts are fully natural, but part of the art of humor is ignoring aspects of your experience that would cancel out the incongruity that you’ve set up, i.e. responding to an ironic statement or exaggeration with an explanation of why the statement is not literally true is to not get the joke.)
Given that premise and background (which I cooked up after seeing only the first 30 seconds of the clip based on what I know of his act from his great TV show), the actual laughs come using pretty traditional methods: silly noises, the use of evident non-names of various sorts in name settings, sentimental call-backs to shared childhood experience, mean name-calling (i.e. talking about it: mention not use, for philosophers), setting up a premise and using the unexpected and shocking to deliver the punch (the “Eric” joke at 1:20), inappropriately judging child actions by harsh adult standards (a la my “kids are stupid” comment on our episode; I’m sure Louie was responsible for that being in my head that way), more generally describing loving dad activities by swearing, about how marital conflicts can insert themselves in accomplishing just about anything.
Around 4:30 the kid-parent power relation shifts (or rather doesn’t shift, but he’s focusing on the other side of this complex and weird relation), leading to a play on parental power as power (i.e. physical power), power relations in the marriage, and a world-weary comment on letting relationships continue through sheer inertia (again, if you’re already pulled into an uncomfortable, unnatural-feeling situation, it can seem like anything goes; you’re already screwed).
What makes both Louie and Sacha Baron Cohen work for me is the combination of the strong character premise, i.e. Louie’s point of view, and then of course a lot of individual skilled jokes. He also provides a good example of what you might call deflated harshness: you’re not going to like him if you have a hard time with swearing, and in particularly swearing about people you love, but there’s nothing actually mean in the act… swearing is just swearing, part of the fun, or a coping mechanism for kvetching about our daily problems.
Having put myself through this exercise, I’m not sure of its value. …Maybe to deflate the notion of genius, in that a strong comic like Louie can seem to be coming from a higher creative plane, and I’m not saying he hasn’t earned his persona, but much like analyzing the riffs of a whiz guitarist that you might be tempted to call a god, actually looking at and categorizing the tools Louie uses humanizes him a bit. There are no geniuses, only skilled craftsmen with well digested ideas.