Before I begin this post, I must confess how totally biased I am when it comes to Louis CK. He is by far my favourite comedian – so if I sound too complimentary, keep this in mind. Oh and I love George Carlin as well.
Anyway, watching Louis’ latest stand up special, Oh My God, I noticed a slight deviation from his normal act. While employing the same dark observational humor he always does, it seemed he was using it to provide a critical commentary on society and human nature more than he usually does. It’s not as if he hasn’t made such reflections before – it can be argued that his whole shtick of complaining about life, divorce, children and other people in general, while continuously reminding us about how good we have it, is a critique of the modern problems of middle class white people in general – but it seemed there were more jokes in Oh My God specifically related to culture and society than in his previous acts.
Here are a few examples:
In the first two segments, Louis paints a picture in our minds of how modern technology is alienating us from each other – even our children. If this allusion to George Carlin hasn’t already smacked you in the face, the next video surely will; in it, Louis ponders over the nature of human morality. He shrewdly asks the audience whether our morals are universal and absolute or merely constructed relative to the social context we find ourselves in (George Carlin eat your heart out).
A brilliant observational humorist, Louis has the ability to take a simple observation that everyone can relate to and turn it into a morbid, visually intense truth-bomb about the sometimes dark reality of our everyday lives. He turns this darkness around and makes fun of it, and allows us to escape those realities for one moment. In Oh My God, it is as if he has become so comfortable in this technique – and his fans have become so receptive of it as well – that he is able to actually turn it around and use it on the fans themselves, with successful results.
He makes reflections on society that in any context outside of a stand-up comedy act would make the audience feel uncomfortable (imagine telling a group of parents that they should be ashamed of filming their kids’ dance recitals and posting them on Facebook to watch later instead of actually watching them in the moment; what reaction would you get?). By turning the situation into a joke, he invites people to withdraw their egos and senses of pride to critically reflect on their behaviour. That is the art of turning comedy into social commentary, an art which – lo and behold – George Carlin was a master of.
But Louis CK puts his own spin on it, which I love. It’s as if it’s his own personal homage to George Carlin. Take the final bit of the whole act:
Watch as Louis leads the audience into accepting the premises behind the morbid, twisted thoughts he makes about people with allergies and soldiers who get shot while at war (a technique he consciously performs, as he discusses in HBO’s Talking Funny). Then, as he brings up the socially awkward and uncomfortable notion of slavery, he rightfully explains that the crowd is in on the joke as well – you can’t pick and choose which social issues you’re willing to laugh at. In this way, he has smashed open the taboo topic of slavery in a creative and thought-provoking way (ala George Carlin), yet has done so in an idiosyncratically Louis CK style. (
I mean, nothing screams out George Carlin more than when he quips, “there’s no end to what you can do when you don’t give a fuck about particular people!” or when he argues you can’t complain about slavery when you’re letting “someone suffer immeasurably, far away, just so you can leave a mean comment on Facebook when you’re taking a shit!”
The comparisons with Carlin didn’t actually hit me until this particular skit, and it was fitting that it was the last bit of the whole act. So it was a huge surprise to me to see George Carlin mentioned at the very beginning of the credits in the section where he thanks his friends and associates (and Barack Obama):
George Carlin, Chris Rock, Vernon Chatman, David Wain, Pamela Adlon, Robert Smigel, Todd Glass, Todd Barry, Gary Gulman, William Stephenson, Keith Robinson, Micky Ward, John Landgraf, Joe Namath, Barack Obama.
This immediately struck my interest, so I found a SplitSider article discussing the George Carlin mention, as well as an email Louis sent his fans after the Oh My God tour. In it, he explained why he chose the particular venue for the DVD special:
Toward the end of the tour I recorded 4 shows at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix Arizona, which became my next stand-up special “Louis CK: Oh My God”
I picked the Celebrity theater because George Carlin shot one in that same place, which hasn’t changed a bit since he did his in 1977. I got very intrigued by the idea of shooting a special “in the round”.
Perhaps, or so I thought, Oh My God was Louis CK’s attempt at reviving the style of one of the men who inspired him to become the great comedian he is today. Then, having watched the following commemoration that Louis gave at this 2010 tribute to George Carlin at the New York Public Library, it seems that, by following Carlin’s advice as to how he became so successful as a stand-up comic, Louis has been channeling Carlin’s method for a long while now: