Louis CK

Louis CK, the O2, 20 March 2013

As the audience gradually filtered into the enormous arena of the O2, I overheard several groups saying how they didn’t realise how popular he was. To a lot of his fans, Louis CK still seems like a well-kept secret. In the US, he’s exploded, with his fantastic HBO show Louie and his tactic of selling tickets, videos, and any other content directly to fans, with no middle man. Here, though, he’s not quite so massive, though he still sold out the O2 without much effort.

The show began with a short bit of jazz trumpet, immediately reminding the audience of the comedian’s award winning, jazz-soaked TV show. But if this set the tone for anything introspective or overtly artistic, Louis himself quickly undid it when he walked onstage. Dressed in his standard issue black t-shirt (noting ‘this is as formal as I get’), Louis began with a paedophilia joke at the expense of said musician, and went on from there.

It’s an odd room for the Bostonian comic. Not in terms of status – there’s scarcely a bigger or more respected comedian in the world right now – but just in its vastness. There was an unavoidable lack of intimacy, and even Louis seemed a bit daunted by the whole thing. He laughed at the size of the stadium: ‘You’ll pretty much be watching me on TV’, he admitted, gesturing at the huge screens either side of the stage.

Fortunately, though, he commanded the huge arena effortlessly. Without descending into McIntyre-esque histrionics or hyperactivity, Louis stayed informal and friendly to the 12,000-strong crowd, even as waves of laughter spread a little too slowly across the arena. His is confidence that comes entirely from experience – he’s been doing stand-up since his teens, and he’s now forty five – and he didn’t let the arena throw him off.

The material was unsurprisingly strong, and very much in the same vein as all his recent specials. In fact, you could almost make a checklist:

  • standard brutal honesty about bodily functions (as he detailed how he’ll sometimes ‘need to wipe my ass. For no reason! I’m just sitting there, then “Oh, I need to wipe my ass”’);
  • a brutal attitude towards children, especially his own, and holding them to the same standards as adults (as he proclaimed that if murder were legal, we’d all be stepping over children’s corpses in supermarket aisles, which would then have to be placed in the appropriate recycling bag);

But although the rhythms and topics may have been predictable, this hardly mattered. No other comedian seems quite as comfortable onstage as Louis, introducing observations and incisive descriptions with seeming effortless spontaneity. He’s a master in the age-old comedy trick of defamiliarisation, as he describes something familiar in an entirely new way, thereby drawing attention to its inherent absurdity.

Of course, he wouldn’t describe his work in such a pompous fashion. For Louis, it’s all about the jokes, and simply whether something is funny. His material is always intelligent, but never forcefully so – you can analyse the stuff thoroughly (as in this great essay from the New Yorker), but equally you can just laugh like hell. And that’s kind of the point of Louis: if something’s funny, it’s funny. You don’t need to ask why. If you did, one of his favourite routines wouldn’t be a man with a guitar spoofing Curtis Mayfield by singing ‘Sitting on a Cock ’cos I’m Gay’.

It’s this no-bullshit approach that’s so refreshing, and has made him insanely popular in the past three years. He’s staggeringly talented and hard-working, having created, written, directed and starred in three seasons of Louie, while at the same time writing an entirely new stand-up set every year. But this discipline is all behind the scenes, and onstage, he seems as useless as all the rest of us. It’s this that’s key to his popularity: he makes what feels like a genuine connection with each audience member, through his brutal honesty and disdain for theatrics. Maybe that intimate connection is the real reason why so many people were surprised at the huge audience.

Despite his success, he still seems like a hidden gem, partly because he seems so disinterested and unfazed by the fame and money that has recently come his way. He’s been in the business for long enough to know there are more important things; near the end, he describes how a fifty year old bus driver will always be more interesting than a twenty year old with three PhDs. So long as he holds onto this integrity, with his boots on the ground, Louis will deservedly pack out stadiums for years to come.

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