The Filthy Moralist

How the comedian Louis C.K. became America’s unlikely conscience

Try this, Hollywood. A middle-class American man, a husband, a father—you know, that guy—is addicted to Internet pornography. Night after night, while the house sleeps, he’s out there, browsing the cyber-fleshpots, trolling the tides of electronic lust. His vice deepens; his kinks get connoisseurial. Until one night he has an Experience. An Epiphany. He sees it all so clearly: the loss, the deadness, the degradation, the entire tragic panorama of porn. He must give it up—and more than that, he must seek absolution. He must quit his job (insurance? sales?), travel like a post-porn pilgrim to the San Fernando Valley, find the women in whose debasement he has most assiduously, if remotely, participated, get down on his knees, and beg for their forgiveness. And then, from there … I dunno. Could be a sort of weirdo rom-com, as our hero falls for a scornful porn queen. Or maybe one of the girls is caught up in a gangster subplot and he rescues her, Liam Neeson–style. I leave this to the writers. The leading man, however, is nonnegotiable: he has to be Louis C.K.

Louis—I’ll call him Louis, because I can’t keep typing C.K.—is America’s current masturbator in chief and our most topsy-turvy moralist. “You can figure out how bad a person you are by how soon after September 11 you masturbated,” he riffs. “For me, it was between the two buildings’ going down.” Louis used to be a comic’s comic—hip, the toast of his more successful peers—but now he belongs to the nation. His comedy special Hilarious was nominated for two Emmys last year, and the resulting album won a Grammy. His subsequent special, Live at the Beacon Theater, which he financed, directed, and then distributed online, cleared sales of $1 million within 10 days of its December release. Louis used to write for Dana Carvey, Conan O’Brien, Chris Rock; now he is writer/director/star of his own fever-dream semiautobiographical sitcom, Louie, also nominated for two Emmys last year and soon to begin its third season on FX.

All of which suggests that Louis—born Louis Szekely on September 12, 1967—has struck a nerve. Or located an absence. “I stick my finger in existence,” wrote Kierkegaard. “It smells of nothing.” Louis sticks his finger in existence and it smells of sad sweats and crispy tissues. It smells of dead spots and quelled rage, the funk of unaccommodated maleness. Here he comes again, with the jokes about jacking off, lurching through his loops of arousal and discharge. Look at him. Check out the pallor, the pudge, the eye-bags. He plods onstage like a diffident bouncer, a small ginger goatee the sole accent on his face. But then he tucks the mic under his chin and it seems to cast a lurid upward glow, refining his features, picking out the Mephistophelian arc of his eyebrows. In Season Two of Louie he is confronted by an anti-masturbation campaigner, an angelic young Christian woman. He argues with her bitterly—argues for his right to masturbate in peace. “That’s what’s so sad,” she says. “That you don’t know the darkness that you live in.” “Oh no,” Louis assures her, “I know the darkness.”

If masturbation is the great sacrament of his comedy, its religion is dualism. Louis is a champion dualist: flesh/spirit, man/woman, gross/lovely, the inner life and the outer. “You know, it’s really sad about men,” he tells us from the stage, with that strange articulation of his, as if his lips have been slightly numbed by the cold, “that we can’t have a beautiful thought about a woman that isn’t followed by a disgusting thought about that same woman … If you’re a woman and a guy’s ever said anything romantic to you, he just left off the second part that would have made you sick if you could have heard it.” Another episode of Louie finds him in a New York subway station, propped against a metal pillar, blown away by the music of a dinner-jacketed violinist. The music soars unbearably; Louis looks almost tearful. Then a hefty, multilayered homeless man comes flapping down the platform, stands right behind the still-playing violinist, strips, and begins to lavishly rinse his naked torso with bottled water. What’s going on? A duet, that’s what: a cosmic fugue of glistening butt crack and inconsolable violin. It’s life, ugly and beautiful, in permanent exile, and Louis is transfixed.

This, 2012, is Louis’ moment. Rewind a couple of years and his voice was higher, his face narrower and more worried. He was connecting, but only just. Now he’s expansive, authoritative, with bags of rough-edged charm. After years of roadwork, of small clubs and refractory crowds, Louis has experience. Middle age, fatherhood, divorce—he has that kind of experience too. He’ll talk about how annihilatingly boring it is to play with his young daughters. Louis means this, but he means it in the context of a nearly disabling love. During a podcast interview with the comedian Marc Maron, he remembers the birth of his first child: “She seemed angry to me. And upset. I was expecting, like, when the kid’s crying in the delivery room, everyone’s smiling …” It sounds like he’s doing a bit; Maron is chuckling. “But I was really upset for her. They put her on this little table, and they’re putting stuff around her …” And then, to everyone’s surprise, he chokes up. He can’t go on. “It’s all right, man,” says Maron. Louis takes a sip of water. “Water’s good,” he says at last. “It washes away your love for your children, so you can talk without a shaking voice.”

So he’s dark and dualistic and violent and sentimental and very American—because it is very American to be continually straddling a post-Puritan either/or, wherein either you’re a virtuous citizen, walking around wearing clean clothes and an expression of polite curiosity, or you’re in your hotel room with the curtains drawn, snarling and bingeing on self-abuse. Louis will say truly offensive things from time to time—rape jokes, real curdled meanness—less to be funny, one feels, than to be free, to scorch out another hectare of terrain for his art. But how long can we continue to be offended? Won’t we soon be numb? They lose their grip, the taboos and totems, the power words and holy places. This is—if you’ll pardon the glibness of the formulation—the tragedy of comedy. Or at least the sort of comedy that Louis practices. Romping through the no-go zones, it inevitably exhausts their comic potential. In a world desacralized from top to bottom, there’s no profanity, no obscenity—no material, for God’s sake.

But we’re not there yet. Louis can still poke us and we’ll flinch. And what if, sinking darkly through his veils of shame, jabbing at us with his aggressions and his ejaculations, he is showing us a better way to live? “Perhaps,” suggested Marshall McLuhan, “the world has been given to us as an anti-environment to make us aware of [God’s] word.” There’s Louis’ comedy for you—or for me, at least: an anti-environment through which we might discern, brokenly, the gleamings of the Kingdom. Grace strews its hints through Season Two of Louie: the startling charity of a neighbor when Louis’ sister falls ill, or the duckling that Louis’ daughter smuggles into his luggage before he takes off for a USO tour in Afghanistan—the fluffy, ridiculous duckling that eventually saves his life.

And then there’s Eddie. Eddie (magnificently played by Doug Stanhope) shows up like the Ghost of Comedy Past, cursing and picking fights, hacking with burned-out laughter. Twenty years ago, he and Louis were fellow soldiers in the comedy wars. Now Louis has a career, and Eddie, it gradually emerges, is going to do one last no-hope gig in Maine and then kill himself. Vodka bottle in one hand, cig in the other, he rasps out his challenge to Louis: “Give me one good reason to live.” The lights of the Williamsburg Bridge tremble behind them like a tambourine. “See?” wheezes Eddie, “you got nothin’.” Louis puffs up, furious: “Fuck you, man! … If you wanna tap out ’cause your life is shit—you know what? It’s not your life. It’s life … Life isn’t something you possess. It’s something you take part in, and you witness.” Eddie crackles sourly: “You are so excited right now that you get to give the Big Speech!” But this is the Big Speech. And we’re all listening.