Louis C.K., America's (New) Dad

Why the comedian should inherit Bill Cosby's mantle

Chris Pizzello/AP Images

My kids and I love Bill Cosby, the man who, for a long time was called, by NBC or Jell-O Pudding (I forget which), America's Dad. We particularly dig his famed "Chocolate Cake for Breakfast" bit, in which Cosby's wife kicks him out of bed and charges him with feeding the children breakfast. Cosby sees chocolate cake and reasons: "Eggs! Eggs are in chocolate cake. And milk! Oh, goodie! And wheat! That's nutrition!" Soon everyone is munching on cake, and the kids sing: "Dad is great/ He gives us the chocolate cake." And then his wife walks in.

My wife's face... split. My wife's face split, and the skin and hair split and came off of her face so that there was nothing except the skull. And orange light came out of her hair and there was glitter all around. And fire shot from her eye sockets and began to burn my stomach and she said, "Where did they get chocolate cake from?" And I said, "They asked for it!" And the children who had been singing praises to me... lied on me and said, "Uh-uh! We asked for eggs and milk... And dad made us eat this!" And my wife sent me to my room... which is where I wanted to go in the first place.

Easy to see the appeal here: Cosby presents himself as the amazingly moronic dad, in cahoots with the forces of childishness, laziness, and confectionary delight; the enemy of mom's notion of work, nutrition, and self-restraint. Over the years in fact, I have watched this clip with my elementary-school-age kids, on weekends as my own wife slept in her own bed.

And yet, despite my admiration for "Chocolate Cake for Breakfast," I have to conclude that Cosby is no longer America's Dad. Not just because Cosby should have aged into America's Grandfather—but didn't. Or because the The Cosby Show, which was a U.S. hit long before DVRs and the Internet fragmented our attention, went off the air in 1992. It's because his kind of father-as-simple-idiot-who-is-really-ruled-by-his-wife—a staple of Cosby Show scripts—no longer hits home the way it did when I was a kid. More is expected of today's dads and today's comedians. If you want a picture of America's Dad in 2012, look at the bald, bearded, befuddled figure of Louis CK: comedian, writer, actor, aspiring misanthrope, and endlessly earnest single dad.

Louis presents as full and honest account of contemporary fatherhood that I've seen. He's certainly the most realistic one on broadcast TV. He is no Bill Cosby. Cosby's laughs are soft. His domesticity is assured. We see his angst only in his non-performing life, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic. But Louis hides nothing. To hide for the sake of preserving one's dignity is to skip out on a laugh and a truth. He's about testing how much truth he can share with an audience, how un-heroic he can allow himself to appear onscreen in the redemptive act of being a good parent. We live in an age when authenticity has come to the fore, and it's Louis' insistence on finding humor in our flawed parental selves straining to do, to be, something better that makes him, in my mind, America's new dad.

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Ken Gordon is a freelance writer and the social media manager at the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.

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