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

Why the comedian should inherit Bill Cosby's mantle

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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.

My kids don't know from Louis CK. (Though we all laughed our way through this great Lincoln-themed parody of his TV show. The kids now run around the house singing "Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln!") I generally don't share my favorite Louis clips with the children, chiefly because they just contain too much adult material. Too much cursing. Too much sex. Too much emphasis on the bleak side of human nature. Louis has a very good idea of how absurd we all are, and that's not something my elementary-school-aged kids need to know right now.

However, I take great solace from Louis' shtick. His complaints and frustrations and failures are stored up and doled out so that we can recognize laugh at every parental duty and pleasure and pain that we untelevised dads go through.

Like us, Louis—as evidenced in his standup and on his wonderfully odd FX show Louie—takes his role as father as perhaps the most serious thing in this life. Onstage and off-, he's a divorced dad with two young girls. The majority of his social life revolves around feeding the girls, taking them to school, etc. It ain't always pretty.

"When am I going to go to momma's again?" Louis' daughter asks as they do their pre-bedtime routine. "I like momma's better. I like momma's better because she makes good food. And I love her more so I like being there, too. I like being here, too. It's just not as great." Louis takes it in with great equanimity and, as she turns away to go to sleep, he gives his little daughter the finger.

Louis gets into an insanely immature fistfight with one of his friends. He ruins a school trip. He sleeps with all kinds of unsavory women (including one who is way too young for him as well as senior citizen Joan Rivers!). He gets bullied by a weird pair of creeps on Halloween and by a high school jock while on a date, only to, in his own strange way, deal with these jerks.

He messes up, continually, but he knows that being a dad is the central driving force of his life and that without it he is nothing. "What the hell is an adult without kids?" he asks in a Father's Day video essay. "What's the point?" He advises men not to be "mom's assistant," and exhorts them to "spend time with your kids and have your own ideas about what they need. Get into it. It won't take away your manhood, it'll give it to you." And then the punch line: after telling us all this he admits: "I found out that I'm a pretty bad father. I make a lot of mistakes. I don't know what I'm doing. But my kids love me. Go figure."

Of course, to earn the title of America's Dad (from someone other than me, I mean) Louis probably has to have a higher Nielsen share than what he currently pulls in. In fact, he spends several episodes preparing for the possibility of becoming David Letterman's replacement, with, of all people, comedy coach David Lynch!—a plan which, of course, fails. And fails hilariously.