The audience cringes as he talks about murder, sexuality, and how he has so many strong noble beliefs but rarely follows them. He jokes about how irrationally mean he is to other drivers, how ungrateful we all are for modern wonders (e.g. flight), and how "maybe" we should allow people with allergies to die. It's dark stuff. With such dark stuff, how has Louis CK become the king of comedy?
A wealth of research by scientists like Boston College's Maya Tamir shows people often desire to take on negative thoughts and feelings. People find meaning in reflecting on negative topics and negative personal issues. Humans are not the pure shallow pleasure seekers we often think of them as. Instead, people find a sense of truth and purpose in pain. However, people also do not like to feel too much pain or threat.
Louis CK provides the best of both worlds. Through the safety of comedy he allows people to consider intense and threatening ideas. In doing so, his performances transform a night out into something special and meaningful.
In an interview, an amateur standup comedian once told me that,
Louis CK is not my favorite comedian, but he's the one I respect the most because he is just so honest.
In his recent special Oh My God Louis CK does not fully touch on his signature style of confronting uncomfortable truths until the last 15 minutes. When watching the first 45 minutes of Oh My God, despite its observational funniness, it feels shallow. With this modern king of stand-up comedy, viewers have come to expect more than laughs. However, in the last 15 minutes of Oh My God Louis CK explodes into his signature style, questioning whether he would murder people if it were legal and then spinning further into "a lot of horrible thoughts in a row." And some how this miserableness is a lot more enjoyable.
The theater has always been a place not just for laughs, but for honesty, meaning, and self examination. Louis CK's standup plays out more like a Shakespearian comedy than a traditional stand-up performance hitting on all these notes. He gracefully bounces between lowbrow jokes and deceptively intense social commentary.
And unlike many stand-up comedians, Louis CK does not "baby" his audiences. Instead Louis CK directly brings his audience into the experience. When his audience cringes instead of laughs at one of his Oh My God jokes, he reminds them that they had laughed at a joke about letting allergy prone children die. He then tells them: you clapped for dead kids, you're in this with me. If Louis CK keeps hitting the punch lines on such humorous and poetic levels, we all be in this with him for a very long time.
Troy Campbell is a behavioral scientist at Duke University. If you like this scientific take on pop culture you may also like More Than Funny: The Power of Modern Stand-Up Comedy or How to Make Star Wars Good Again.