Louis C.K. isn't for everybody. His absurd and very funny dramatizations of sex and dating aren't for the squeamish, or really anyone who clings to everyday notions of human dignity. And his comedy series, Louie, on FX, often veers into somber, if not depressing, territory. Laughs punctuate long stretches of darker meditations on middle age and life in general. Yet the man has an energizing moral awareness that provides unsettling inspiration to viewers who stick with him. His recent monologue on SNL was one long tale about how he devoted hours of his life to an old woman he ran into and decided to befriend -- at the expense of his own comfort. It was a marvelous balance of self-effacing revelation about his mixed emotions while testifying to the kind of personal sacrifice that matters. The effect was a lesson on what compassion means -- long story short, it's hard work, and often funny. In an episode of Louie last season, he offered his own sidelong take on the real estate mania that led to the 2008 economic collapse. The story showed him losing his bearings and desperately trying to purchase a multi-million-dollar apartment in Manhattan despite having almost no cash. It was wistful, amusing, and actually filled you with sobering sympathy for anyone who fell under the spell of that bubble.
A couple of weeks ago, C.K. had one of his best episodes of Louie in which he pitted his own liberal bias against the deep, frantic Republican convictions of another comic, Nick DiPaolo. After the two finish their sets on the stage of a comedy club (where DiPaolo's Obama jokes are greeted with uncomfortable laughter and groans) they head to a diner where they quickly become enraged over politics. C.K. calls DiPaolo a fascist and soon, the fists start flying. DiPaolo injures his hand, and the pair of comics end up in the emergency room, waiting forever for a few stitches. They become friends again as their mutual enemy becomes life itself. The mood of that episode swings from incendiary to affectionate. As the show dramatizes one political extreme and then shifts to the other, it reveals the humanity hidden within each political stance. No resolution is reached other than tolerance and friendship. The show's final joke offers the story of a woman from Vermont who is shocked when she comes across a homeless man on a Manhattan sidewalk. She says, "What in the world happened to him?" C.K. smiles ruefully and says to her, "America happened." As C.K. tries to keep walking, his friend says, "But he needs our help doesn't he?" The comic says, "Oh he desperately needs our help. But we don't do that here." Anyone who has ever walked through Manhattan -- or other large swaths of America -- recognizes the truth of the bit and feels a twinge of regret. In New York City, we've all stepped around the homeless, haven't we? The moral life is basically all about daily choices like this vignette -- moments that almost go unrecognized, until somebody like this comic comes along to remind us how blind we can become.
Louie is a great show that has a deep moral consciousness when C.K. is able to channel it into the right topic. When he's really killing, as they put it in comedy, he lets you see and feel what it means to be alive. He delivers more than laughs. At his best he can show you the worst, and somehow, by giving you what's so bad, he makes you realize what it takes to be good.
Do you know people like C.K. who stand up for what's right in a way that's funny and tactful and self-effacing? Don't we need more voices like his that bring us together in a common vision of how much more we can do for others, rather than blaming some faction in society for some negligence we could help correct by making small choices in our own lives every day?