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My mother once found me laughing hysterically in my bedroom. It was past midnight and I had school the next day, so this wasn’t as benign an activity as you might think. She attempted putting on her sternest face, her “you know better than this” face, but the sight of me rolling around in bed and pointing at the television was too much for her. “Well, you’ve officially gone crazy,” she said and started laughing herself.
Her confusion was only multiplied by the fact that I couldn’t speak. I tried getting out the words “David Letterman” over and over again, but it would only prompt another laughing fit. You see, The Late Show had long become a bad habit of mine. I’d stay up to watch the opening monologue and a few skits, patting myself on the back for understanding most of the esoteric puns. Usually, I’d catch half an interview before getting bored and falling asleep. However, on this particular night, Letterman had on a comedian I’d never heard of before: Louis CK.
As a young boy, it didn’t take much to catch my attention; put a man in front of a camera and I’d probably watch for a minute. It was keeping my attention that was the real challenge, but that wasn’t a problem with CK. His act was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was stuffed to the gills with self-deprecation. CK was too ugly, too stupid, too pale. The last point even prompted an apology: “It’s not like I do this on purpose,” he said. “It’s not like I hide from the sun. It’s just a genetic thing, you know? Redhead don’t tan, they burst into flames.”
I couldn’t tell you why I found that joke so funny, but damn it if I didn’t almost crack a rib laughing. It must have triggered a mental spasm of some kind, because I could never forget the name Louis CK after that night. Every talk show appearance, comedy special, or writing credit would immediately come up on my radar. I had officially become a fan.
What I liked best about CK was his honesty. He was a ball of insecurity wrapped in confusion and wonderment. He was fat and he knew he was fat, but he wasn’t about to smile about it and call it “fluffy.” He hated parts of his personality, but knew that he would probably never change them. He loved his children, but sometimes wished they would burst into flames. In short, he was a person.
After many years of dedicated fandom, I heard that CK was starting a new TV show. This made me nervous, because I knew how well a paycheck could dilute the best parts of a person. I prepared myself for a more palatable form of the same banal dreck that always washes up on screen: some snappy collection of funny situations, complete with laugh track. Essentially, I was expecting a better kind of sitcom. What I got was humor immersed within the most horrifically awkward situations I’d ever seen acted out on screen. What I got was reality on tap: no forced happy endings, no cheerful resolutions to wrap up an awful day; just an imperfect man making mistakes and dealing with the consequences.
The first episode left me confused, to say the least. I sat in my chair, wondering what it meant that I’d hardly laughed. Was that a good thing? Was CK just not funny to me anymore? I kept watching, part of me hoping that it would get funnier, part of me thinking that I “got” it. Week after week, a man gets run over by a truck in front of CK, a teenager humiliates him during a date, a realtor presents him with a home that CK is certain will “fix” his family. Every episode would prompt a long period of self-reflection, parsing out the segments that seemed so familiar, as if I’d lived the episode myself.
That echo of familiarity was what eventually made me love the show. In a sense, I had lived through most of those horrible situations CK writes about. We’ve all felt lonely or angry or confused. We’ve all gone for something and failed. We’ve all achieved something, only to realize that it didn’t actually mean all that much. Each of us has probably thought ourselves incapable of something, only to produce something beyond what we expected.
CK was speaking about my experience. He was writing about the goddamn human condition! Maybe, that’s why I liked him so much. He’s been a champion for all the fuck ups that couldn’t quite put their experience in words, a voice for all the wretched souls that couldn’t find the humor in their lives. In this way, I suppose that a victory for Louie is a victory for all of us. An indisputable victory for the self-deprecating man.