During his monologue a couple of weeks ago as the host of “Saturday Night Live,” comedian Louis C.K. described an experience helping an old lady who had fallen down at the airport. He ended the story by saying, “I connect with old ladies. They’re my favorite demographic! I wish that I desired them … sexually. I really do wish that I could get a boner from an old lady, because then, I’d be set. I could find an old lady and spend the rest of her life with her.”
C.K. is coming off a very successful couple of years after winning two Emmy awards for his FX comedy “Louie,” a show that he directs, writes and edits himself and in which he plays the title role. He also made over $1 million last year selling his stand-up special “Live at the Beacon Theater” on his own website at a cost of five dollars, inspiring other comedians to use a similar idea with their own specials.
Although his level of success is somewhat unusual for a stand-up comedian, C.K. is only one in a group of comedians who have become famous for often relying on shock value in their humor. Other examples include comedians Chris Rock, Daniel Tosh of Tosh.0 and Sarah Silverman.
Their success brings up the question of whether being successful in the world of stand-up comedy depends on one’s willingness to cross into sensitive territory such as issues of race, gender and class. It also puts into perspective how much their audiences take away from watching these acts and to what degree their comedy plays a role in the public’s perception of these issues.
To some degree, if a comedian’s act does not include any truly shocking jokes, it will not be as memorable. C.K.’s stand-up is given so much attention precisely because he so often crosses the line into such territory and makes bold statements about topics such as white privilege, women’s issues and sexuality.
Using stand-up comedy as a medium, it somehow becomes more acceptable to bring up these issues because the dialogue takes place in a light-hearted environment. The laughter of the audience comes from the fact that they are glad that someone is saying what they have been thinking and grateful that they do not have to talk about it themselves. Their laughter could also be prompted by nervousness – they are too uncomfortable to react any other way, seeing the humor in the situation, but still finding it shocking.
Is the fact that we can laugh at all indicative of a greater problem? It could mean that these issues are ubiquitous enough that everyone is able to knowingly laugh about them, but that they are ultimately too difficult to actually be dealt with. Then, what does it say about the state of our country that we are indeed able to consciously laugh about such serious topics?
In a way, stand-up comedy is a mode of escapism. At a comedy show, we do not have to actually confront our problems and instead are able to laugh them off. Finding the humor in difficult social issues is one way of dealing with them in that it makes them somehow less intimidating. C.K. is aware – and often acknowledges – that his stand-up material can be touchy. But his success comes from the fact that he is able to mix so well the touchy and sensitive issues with the harmless and make them all equally funny.
It is truly the mark of a good comedian when he or she has the ability to make every issue, no matter how sensitive, seem humorous. However, the best comedians should be able to do more than spout a string of jokes whose sole purpose is to shock their fans. Louis C.K. stands out in that sense: While his stand-up is often crude, it is relatively avant-garde in that it successfully mixes the crude with the meaningful and sincere. Similarly, his show “Louie” mixes in many surreal elements and at the same time is very true to life and occasionally even profound.
Hopefully comedians emulating C.K. will follow his lead and move away from depending solely on the shock factor for laughs.
Nina Hagen ’15 firstname.lastname@example.org is from St. Paul, Minn. Her major is currently undecided.