Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

The Philosophy of Louis CK

The opening music to FX's Louie starts off innocuously enough; in fact, it’s a verbatim rendition of a song called "Brother Louie":

"Louie-Louie-Louieeee, Louie-Louie-Lou-iiii…"

The last line, however, is altered from the original lyrics.

"Louie Louie you’re gonna die."

Wait, what?

Aurally blink and you might miss it, but it exists as a subtle nod towards the pervasive themes of death and the "big questions" that loom over the entire CK oeuvre. Although his work is often described in passing as philosophical, it’s worth taking a deeper look, so that we might position Louie in his proper place in pantheon of history’s contemplative curmudgeons.

A brief warning: I’m going to be talking about existentialism. Wait, come back! Yeah, I tend to avoid people who use that word too (also, “oeuvre,”) but let’s not allow them to ruin the whole school of thought for the rest of us. And besides, they usually don’t even know what they’re talking about. The word “existential” has been so over-used by brooding bloggers and awful bands that it has come to be associated merely with anything morose or overly intellectual, and although that’s perhaps not unfair, it’s also not very accurate. Defined as briefly as possible (philosophy profs please look away,) an existentialist is someone who is prepared for the conclusion that life may have no meaning, and whose thoughts on all the standard subjects of philosophy (action, morality, self-hood, etc) spring from their anxiety about that open question.

Louis’s work is shot through with this kind of anxiety. One of his most famous bits, in which he is subjected by his daughter to an endless regression of “why?”, takes him through his own stupidity and bad morals, up though those of his parents, and their parents, and ends with him concluding “Because we’re alone in the universe and no one gives a shit about us!” (After that point, existence itself begins to break down: “Because things that are not, can’t be!”)

And he has an equally bleak long-view of relationships. As he says onstage in Louie about the prospect of a happy life with someone: “That’s the best-case scenario. You’re going to lose your best friend, and then just walk home from D’Agostino’s with heavy bags every day, and wait for your turn to be nothing also.” Cheery stuff.

Soren Kieregaard, the surly Dane generally considered the father of existentialism, spent most of his life writing about how humans should deal with the anxiety that comes along with knowing that life was finite, and although his books contain a strong Christian element that I wouldn’t deign for one second to ascribe to Louis (“If there is a God, then that dude is an asshole,”) the two men actually share a similar methodology. Simply put, Kierkegaard thought that the only way to rid oneself of death-anxiety was to accept it in full, to go through it and out the other side. Only then can you truly appreciate life, as juxtaposed with death. Clearly, Louis doesn’t shirk from this issue, and if he has uncomfortable thoughts about his own degenerating body or self-destructive habits, you can count on him to share them with brutal honesty, without even affording himself the comfort of ironic distance. He has said in multiple interviews that he enjoys taking audiences to awkward, sometimes awful places (q.v. his bit about how to ensure that more abducted children get returned alive) and still making them laugh when they get there, because there’s something to be learned in facing the issue. In very Kierkegaardian manner (a term I try to work into cocktail conversation as much as possible), he takes his audiences through their discomfort, and displays it to them from another, less scary angle.

Important though, and a big explanation as to how he can actually make these things funny, is that he’s not wallowing; he merely observes the ridiculous aspects of mortality, and chuckles at them. He stays grounded in the arbitrary and unfair nature of things, like how he can have a great time driving around in his Infiniti while thousands of people starve to death, and he doesn’t allow his act to degenerate into despair or nihilism. Although he can’t rid himself of his constant perception of absurdity, he chooses to be amused by it rather than incapacitated. This absurdity in turn fuels his creativity; besides the absurdist strain in his comedy, he also cut his filmmaking teeth producing shorts in which babies appear moments after sex and hijackers try to take the Staten Island Ferry to Bolivia. And then, of course, there’s Pootie Tang, which he wrote and directed.

This sensitivity for the absurd is another element that Louis shares with the existentialists. In his seminal essay entitled The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus cites absurdity as a symptom of modern spiritual discomfort, and wonders if suicide is the only rational response to the dissonance that occurs when man attempts to impose his need for rationality on the random structure of reality. (Turns out that it’s not. Phew!) Camus thought that following the absurd through to its logical conclusion is the only way to liberate oneself from existential worry. In other words, learn to embrace, or at least tolerate, the sheer weirdness of your existence, and you will have a much easier go of things.

Camus uses the story of Sisyphus, a mythological troublemaker doomed by the Gods to push a boulder to the top of a hill over and over for eternity, to illustrate the struggles of the absurd hero, but Louis makes a fine modern stand-in. Each time Sisyphus gets the boulder to the top, he watches it roll back down to the bottom. Each time Louis wakes up in the morning, as he says, “My eyes open and I reload the program of misery.” But Camus famously decided that we must imagine Sisyphus happy, content and even joyous to accept rock-pushing as simultaneously the method and meaning of his existence, and indeed Louis seems the same way; dedicated father, motivated artist, and still not a suicide after 43 years of being beaten down by life. In fact, the shittier his life, the funnier his material. Wrote Kierkegaard, “The more one suffers, the more, I believe, one has a sense for the comic.”

One could go on and on finding Louis’s roots in existential thought. Jean-Paul Sartre: “Hell is other people.” Friedrich Nietzsche: well actually let’s not even start with Nietzsche. The important thing to remember is that the existentialists didn’t use their misgivings about the meaninglessness of life as a free pass to act however they wanted. Though they may have been super bummed that they couldn’t look with confidence to God to give their lives significance, they (for the most part) still found their own ways to make life worth living. Louis CK, it seems, is as assured of life’s meaninglessness as he is of its value, and it’s good to know that he’s out there, pushing his boulder for all of us.

Nicholas Mancusi is a writer living in New York.

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  • Evan Whom@twitter

    You know "Hell is other people" is a line of dialogue from a play, not a philosophical statement.

    • Kevin Church@twitter

      @Evan Whom@twitter
      You know, drama and comedy can both offer philosophical statements without being explicit in their intent.

    • invisible_hand

      @Evan Whom@twitter i mean, it's from "no exit," a philosophical play by the philosopher jean paul sartre, so…

  • James Kass@twitter

    I always took "you're gonna die" to be a reference to when a comedian does poorly on stage.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @James Kass@twitter the fact that it works both ways makes it all the better, I think.

  • Mary Blakemore@twitter

    I'm in complete awe of Louis

  • theBULL

    The writer forgot an extra "Louie" in the song. It's said a total 8 times, not 6.

    And yes it's importnat! Otherwise, it ruins the whole meaning of the show!!!!

  • Patrick Gough@facebook

    I really like the Kierkegaard comparison – existentialists generally worry about striving to find or create meaning in life but Kierkegaard, due to his religious faith, is able to kinda take some things for granted. Louie is, I guess, pessimistic about 'striving' in life – he talks about how having a baby destroys your aspirations, but who cares about your aspirations anyways?

    He posted a deleted scene from his TV show on youtube that I think shows how he thinks – in it, he rants to his waitress about how feeding people is a 'sacred' thing, and then has a fantasy about the life of a busboy being filled with muted wonder. We don't need to go on a grand artistic or philosophical journey to deal with the lack of ultimate meaning: when it comes down to it, we can have faith that all the meaning we need is already in our lives.

    woooooo overthinking dick jokes. Quick, think of something more appropriate for Louis CK's ouevre…

    pussy diarrhea.

  • EXP +1

    This is exactly the type of discussion I have with myself when I think of Louis CK. The show really deals with morality and challenges the viewer frequently.

  • Three Stacks

    I loved this article. Great job.

  • Three Stacks
  • Megh Wright

    Great stuff.

  • The Plumber is Dead

    This reads like a bad undergraduate essay to me. Maybe I'm just a dick.

    • Edward Goggin@twitter

      @The Plumber is Dead – Yes, you got it right. You are.

  • Undergrad Phil Major

    You know nothing of Kierkegaard. Please, this entire article hurts me. It's philosophy 101 at its worst.

  • dude

    Watching season 3 now and wondered if one clould classify Louie as a nihilist. Not in the pejorative sense used here (which is common amongst journalists) but in the proactive sense. Louie rejects givens, hierarchy, arbitrariness, common-sense, etc. Furthermore, he would probably never say etcetera either. Anyways, google Louie and nihilsm lead me here. Btw, he's always wearing black. But then again he is a New Yorker. My two cents.

    • JohannesDeAdipos

      He wears black because he's fat.

  • Karl Kristiansen

    Anyone know of other tv-series or comedians who has the same existentialist approach? I'm all out of Louie, and I love the funny-view on existentialism.