In one of the most talked-about scenes from Louie, the cable show from the comedian known as Louis C.K., a group of comics playing poker segue from a particularly raunchy conversation about male genitalia to one about gay sex. The only gay man in the group, a comedian named Rick Crom, points out that he talks about sex more with this group of straight comedians than he does with his gay friends. He targets Louis, who he says is obsessed with the word faggot. In a re-enactment of a real conversation the two comedians had years before, Louis asks, "Rick, does it offend you when I say that word?"
What follows is a dissertation, a lengthy one in the context of television, on the word's etymology and what it might mean to gay men. Crom tells us that, in times when witches were regularly burned at the stake, gay men were considered too low to merit even a vertical pole and were thrown directly onto the blaze. (In the late 13th century, a "faggot" was a bundle of wood.) He goes on to say that nearly every gay man in America has probably been called the word as he was physically attacked, and so its use brings up painful memories. "By all means, use it. Get your laughs," Crom says. "But now you know what it means." An uncomfortable silence hangs in the air before someone breaks the tension with another joke.
Louis, whose real last name, Szekely, is pronounced "C.K.," talked about that scene with Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio's Fresh Air, in July. He said he wasn't trying to tell people not to use the word but was simply trying to show that comedians reflect on the language they use. "We do wonder about this stuff," he said. "There are times I go, 'Is this OK really? What does that mean that I'm hurting people that I don't know who are watching me on TV?'" The popular gay blog Queerty quoted The Washington Post's review, which called the scene deplorable yet oddly poetic, and declared, "Louis C.K.'s New FX Series Will Try to Make You Laugh at 'Faggot.'" Whether or not the episode succeeded, the consensus was: At least he went there.
And that's why Louie, which just finished its first season, has been subject to the same word-of-mouth buzz that led liberals to hail The Wire, the five-season HBO drama set in Baltimore, as television's best show ever and convinced a bunch of 20- and 30-somethings to watch a Nickelodeon cartoon called Avatar: The Last Airbender. Like those two shows, Louie's first season got ratings that were not terrible but not spectacular. Viewers grew to 2.5 million, which was enough to ensure a second 13-episode season.
Louis turned down another sitcom opportunity to produce the show for FX, where he has more freedom with language and style. The result is an experimental format that seems designed to make the viewer slightly uncomfortable. Bits of his stand-up, as sharp as ever, are interspersed with scenes of his melancholy life as a 42-year-old divorcee and father of two who isn't so smooth with his peers. Unlike most other shows on television, in almost every episode Louie deals with a deep moral quandary -- whether it's ever OK to use the word faggot, for instance -- which is addressed from a fundamentally liberal point of view. In the first episode, Louis responds to a bus malfunction on a school field trip he is chaperoning by sending every kid home in a limousine. In the stand-up section that follows, he says, "There are people who are starving in the world, and I'm driving an Infiniti." In the third episode, a fellow comedian complains that white people don't stand a chance in the age of Obama, and Louis asks, "What is 10,000 years of unchecked prosperity? That's not enough for you?"
This is new. For the most part, people of color are the ones who initiate serious discussions about race and privilege in the public sphere -- and in the world of comedy. We expect Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, like Richard Pryor before them, to talk about race. Some white comedians, like Sarah Silverman, tend to joke about racism, making fun of white people and their ignorance in ways that shock and offend. Likewise, we expect female comics to tackle gender, and male comics to make jokes about how they don't understand women. But Louis' comedy is about being a white man -- and about how others view white men. He doesn't accept ignorance as a point of view. Moreover, this isn't the occasional stand-up bit; a significant number of his jokes are about race, class, and gender.
Louis started doing stand-up in the 1980s and began writing for late-night television in the 1990s, including Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Chris Rock Show, for which he won an Emmy. In 2006, Louis ventured into traditional male-comedian stomping grounds: a sitcom for HBO called Lucky Louie that was dark and somewhat depressing but also tried to mimic the dad-and-husband high jinks of shows like Everybody Loves Raymond and Mad About You. It was canceled after one season.
His stand-up came to center on ever more biting social commentary. Two recent specials, Chewed Up and Shameless, delve into much of the material that forms the basis of his current show: racism, white privilege, wealth and poverty, and his own success in the face of homelessness. In one of his regular bits, Louis pulls himself out of his malaise over his failing marriage by saying, "I'm a lucky guy, I'm healthy, I'm relatively young, I'm white -- which, thank god for that shit, boy. That's a huge leg up." But he makes clear he's not saying that white people are better. Simply put, being white is better: "Here's how great it is being white: I could get in a time machine, and go to any time, and it would be fucking awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege. ... A black guy in a time machine is like, hey, anything before 1980, no thank you, I don't want to go."
In his conversation with Gross on Fresh Air, he acknowledged this was a terrible thing to say but that he's done his research. "I think if you're using nitroglycerin, you've got to read the label, and you've got to be responsible and know what the dangers are," he said. "To take hurtful speech that's running around the country, and take it in and then regurgitate it back out in the form of comedy in order to take people to these dark places; my instinct is that that's a good idea."
The notion that white people carry an inherent privilege is, of course, a lefty one. But few popular comics -- besides Louis and Rock, who is one of Louis' good friends -- spend time talking about race in such a realistic and engaging way. Even fewer of those comics look like Louis: a suburban, schlubby, white middle-class man. "He could even be Joe the Plumber himself," wrote Katrina Richardson, a blogger at Loop 21, a black news and culture site. "He looks like a man usually associated with a certain insensitivity when regarding race, gender, or sexuality."
Louie's only-in-a-city situations, as well as the general inability of his character to adapt, lead to a lot of comparisons to Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But neither Jerry Seinfeld nor Larry David played the role of a breadwinner for laughs or really put much stock in what motivates humans or concerns them. When those characters made mistakes, it was because they were jerks, clueless, or just didn't care. When Louis does something wrong, it's partly because society itself is wrong. Louis implicates his audience as well as himself.
In a long stand-up bit from an early episode, he tells the story of a friend's cousin from New Hampshire who visits the city. Louis and his friend pick her up from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where they pass a homeless man. "She's the only one who actually saw him," Louis says. He then goes on for some time describing the man's appearance in ways that should not be funny but are incredibly familiar to any New Yorker. The cousin is concerned and wants to help. "Oh my God, sir, are you OK? What happened?" she asks.
Louis jokes, "What happened? America happened. What do you mean what happened?" That's not humor most conservatives, for whom America means nothing but opportunity, would appreciate. That's humor for liberals concerned about policies that don't alleviate suffering -- and also an implicit dig at those who can relate to the relative callousness of Louis and his friend. "Though he lacks the smugness of a moralist, his jokes about the privileges he's lucked into have a moral core," writes Troy Patterson in Slate.
The show doesn't always strike the right tone. In an episode from August, Louis follows a black cashier home from the supermarket, despite her repeated attempts to reject his advances. When they reach her door, she confronts him: "So what. You never been with a black girl before? You want to see what it's like to do it with a black girl? ... Well guess what? You don't get what you want. Not all the time." If the episode had ended there, it would have been profound. But another woman comes through the door. She is heavier, she flirts with Louis, and a sex scene with them is played for laughs.
Still, some would say, at least he went there.