Oh My God is the perfect title for a Louis C.K. special (HBO, April 13, 10 p.m.); it’s what you say when you watch his stand-up or his FX series. Like all great comedians, C.K. unscrews the top of his brain and lets his id come out to play.
But he doesn’t let the entire thing out. He can be shocking, but he’s not a shock comic. He’s selective and wise, always shaping his jokes to fit a coherent, consistent philosophy. And unlike a lot of comedians, including some legendary ones, he never attacks down. His barbs always fly sideways or up, or boomerang back to hit C.K himself right between the eyes. You’ll never catch him scoring laughs at the expense of relatively powerless people. If he makes a joke about, say, how nobody ever dates somebody of lesser attractiveness and social station unless they’ve somehow been duped into doing so — as he does in Oh My God — the joke is not at the expense of “ugly” or “poor” people; it’s about the fundamentally vain, selfish nature of adults on the prowl for sex. (“Some women fuck down, but it’s [because] the guy talked them into thinking it was up.”) When, in the final stretch of this special, C.K. talks about how slavery might not be as unimaginable an evil as we think, it’s not a cheap attempt to shock us, or even an excursion into “Accidental Racist”-style, White Guy special pleading. Like so much of his material, it’s about how ambition nearly always trumps decency. “Maybe every single incredible thing in human history was done with slaves,” he says. “You go, ‘Well, how did they build those pyramids?’ ‘Well, they just threw human death and suffering at them till they were finished.’”
That slavery bit is a small section of “Of course/But maybe,” one of two routines in Oh My God that rank with the best of George Carlin. That little voice that says “of course” comes from the part of C.K.’s brain that abides by social custom and law and shudders at the alternative. “But maybe” is the part of the brain that can’t help thinking about the alternative and which, when indulged, can result in, say, murder or rape or slavery — all of which C.K. deals with here, always in such a way that you feel the innate horror of the subject even as you laugh at the comic’s word choice, intonation, or body language.
C.K. is a humanist comic who goes Too Far with good reason — to see what he’s capable of thinking and saying, then wonder if it’s just him or if there’s some universal fear or longing or mania there. His humility and other-directedness keep him from disappearing into his own navel. He’s always sympathizing with the marginalized, misunderstood, neglected, and oppressed, and castigating himself for not being a less lazy, more inquisitive and enlightened person. Even bits that seem as though they’re about to turn into “humblebrags” don’t. Just in case you thought C.K. was becoming self-congratulatory about his parenting skills, he explains the reason why he’s good at it: because he’s divorced and only doing it part-time. “I’m an attentive, focused, responsible father. Do you know why? Because I get to say good-bye to these kids every week! Are you shitting me? It’s like every parent’s fantasy. Who can’t be a good father for half of every week? ”
The special’s other great routine could be titled “Basic life.” It’s a reminder of the basic pleasures that allegedly evolved humans tend to forget — sort of like C.K.’s career-making routine about the time he flew on a plane that was testing out in-flight wireless service, only bulked up into a manifesto. Though you may not realize it, our “basic life,” he says, is pretty good in and of itself, even if you don’t have much, For starters, you get to live on Earth (“Oh, my God, what a location! … For trillions of miles in every direction, it fucking sucks”). Beyond that are fundamental, physical pleasures, including the ability to eat food and have sex and “look at shit.”
This routine feels like a summation of material C.K. has been doing onstage and on his show for years; it connects with every other part of this special, including C.K.’s opening routine about a decrepit old woman and her equally decrepit old dog (which is really about our fear of engaging with the lonely and the broken) and a bit about attending one of his daughters’ dance recitals and seeing an audience full of parents staring at the screens of their camera phones instead of watching their offspring perform. (“Every single person was blocking their vision of their actual child.”) Oh My God is animated by deep skepticism and an appreciation of joy, qualities that don’t normally mix in comedy and that might seem, in a different context, incompatible. But they aren’t incompatible — not here, anyway. The comedian’s first job is to call bullshit on everything and everyone, but anyone who stops there will forever be Just a Comic. Louis C.K. is more than just a comic because he doesn’t just call bullshit; he reminds us of that which is not bullshit. The desires for comfort and affection, approval and accomplishment aren’t bullshit — they drive most of the behavior C.K. describes here, admirable or revolting. “Of course” is not bullshit, and neither is “but maybe.” Basic life is not bullshit. It’s beautiful.