For a stand-up comedian there is, it turns out, a fate worse than bombing. Though enduring the heckles and hostile silences of a belligerent audience while a sickening flop sweat shivers over your entire body is never a pleasant prospect, it must seem like somewhat mild torture when compared to the crushing futility of performing to no audience at all. And yet on many a hopeless night during the lean years of the early ‘90s, after the stand-up boom finally crashed, that’s exactly what Louis C.K. did. “There would literally be nobody in the audience and they’d make you do the show,” remembered the comedian about his time at the Comedy Cellar during that bleak era, “so you’d literally be on stage in an empty room and you had to do the jokes.” But it was this painful education in preparation and perseverance that Louis C.K. would draw from a decade later when his career hit the skids and he was once again forced to deliver the goods for a phantom audience.
Being a great comedian used to be an honorable thing. But ironically, what happened with the Boom is that it took the focus away from stand-up itself. People have always said to me thousands of time, whenever I had a success in stand-up, people say, ‘That’s great, you did the Letterman show, you killed, that means that soon you’ll get your own show and you won’t have to do this shit anymore.’
So steeped are we now in the Age of Louie that it’s difficult to comprehend the fact of anyone, let alone whole audiences, snubbing his shows. Almost as strange is the idea that, not so long ago, many people didn’t think of Louis C.K. foremost as a stand-up — if, that is, they even thought about him much at all. Though he never abandoned his stand-up roots, by the mid-90s Louie was drifting away from the ethos of the yeoman club comic sweating it out in front of rowdy crowds in Boston and New York toward other ventures as a television writer, show-runner, and filmmaker. Like many of his contemporaries he was using his time on stage, somewhat paradoxically, as a means of getting off it. A 1995 article in New York Magazine lamenting the sorry state of post-boom comedy introduces us to a twenty-seven year old Louis C.K. bluntly acknowledging the eroding enthusiasm for stand-up shared by the industry, audiences, and even the comics themselves:
While Louie’s endeavors outside of stand-up solidified his reputation as a gifted and unique comic mind, a string of well-publicized failures — including the abruptly canceled The Dana Carvey Show, the much maligned Pootie Tang, and a scuttled pilot for CBS — served to hurl his value in the eyes of network and studio executives into a freefall. A few years into the new millennium Louie felt the walls closing in. “I had kind of fired every bullet in my gun,” he recalled, “and all I had left — which always saves my ass — was stand-up.”
With nowhere left to turn he rededicated himself to the craft and hit the road, getting down to fighting weight by grinding it out at the lousiest clubs in every grimy nook and cranny of the country. He studied film of Cosby and Pryor, and took tutelage from his friend Chris Rock. Perhaps most importantly, he wrenched his attitude toward stand-up back into focus. It was no longer simply a gateway to other opportunities but a cherished lifeline. Though there were no offers in sight, he set his mind on having his own hour special on HBO. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna build an hour of material about this shit that I’m doing, and I’m gonna be great,’” he said of that tour of reinvention, “‘and I’m gonna get in shape, and if nobody asks me to do it, I’ll make a DVD of it and then kill myself.’” And so, just as he did before going on in front of empty rooms at the Comedy Cellar, Louis C.K. began steeling himself for an audience that did not yet exist.
The exercise in self-actualization did in fact bear fruit, and when in 2006 HBO gave Louie his first hour special he was chomping at the bit for the opportunity to burn down the stage in front of a nation-wide audience. Though his subsequent specials would garner more acclaim and establish him unequivocally as a force in the culture, Shameless marks the origin of the Louis C.K. ascendance, the beginning of his transformation from a cult figure into perhaps the most influential voice in stand-up today.
Louie’s early career had been characterized by an alternative, absurdist sensibility that had thrived in egghead writers rooms on shows like Late Night With Conan O’Brien. But as he worked toward this first hour special he found himself embracing a more self-revealing everyman approach to his material that reflected the sensibilities of the proletariat journeyman rather than the Harvard Lampoon wunderkind. He began to “realize that it’s not just coming up with crafting clever, ‘I’m smarter than you’ jokes, it’s being somebody onstage and tapping into a feeling that everybody shares.” The deliberately stripped down aesthetic of Shameless mirrors that new ethos. Dressed down and with no distracting set looming behind him, Louie commands the stage with nothing but his unwavering focus on drilling down into what is out front and messy in contemporary American life, filtering it all through his own peculiar brain and experience.
As he set about building the special, not only was Louie’s mindset different from his early days as a comic but, more importantly, his biography had changed dramatically as well. He was no longer a twenty-something with nothing to lose banging at the gates of success. Now, closing in on forty, he had traversed a vast terrain of success and failure, experienced the cruel realities of show business and age. He had, in short, lived a life — and he intended to talk about it.
“I finally understood people in America,” he said of his evolving comic DNA. “I had been through enough.”
His responsibilities as a father gave him newfound access to a universal human experience, serving as a portal through which he could place his finger on the pulse of one of the disparate but intertwining threads that weave together the national zeitgeist. “There [are] always three or four comedians that are like, those are the guys who can do an hour and keep an audience, and who are saying one of the four or five things that America’s thinking,” he explained. “The blue collar guys are talking about being American, and Chris Rock is talking about being black, and George Lopez is talking about being Hispanic.” Louis C.K. was talking about family.
The Oxford English dictionary defines shame as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” The average person is incredibly vulnerable to this sensation, which is why, as a matter of survival, we go to great lengths to keep our humiliating experiences to ourselves. Yet in Shameless Louis C.K. seeks out the biggest audiences he can find in order to relate to them tales of excruciating embarrassment and degradation, such as this less than tender moment with his wife.
One possible explanation for Louie C.K.’s willingness to publicly regale strangers with such obscene episodes is that he is so unburdened by other people’s opinions of him that he is immune to disgrace. Another is that he is a masochist. But the most likely explanation is that he knows that the people sitting out there in the dark beyond the stage have been down similar sordid roads, numerous times, simply as a consequence of being a human being in modern America. Acknowledging the fact that these vulgar experiences are widely shared is what diminishes their power to humiliate. To do otherwise would be shameful.
Cameron Tung is a writer living in Brooklyn.