They said it about Hicks, and they said it about Carlin: they were not only comedians, but great thinkers. They were cultural commentators, who just happen to pepper in some dick jokes for good measure.
It is hard to imagine, in our snug seats in the theater of modernity, that "Philosopher," with a capital P, was ever an occupation in its own right that could hold our attention. Philosophers (much like models and actors in LA) often have to make liberal use of slashes: actor/model/singer, Journalist/philosopher, neuroscientist/philosopher, author/philosopher. It seems that "philosopher" is just a title used to salt an existing mantle, to bolster the main occupation with a little intellectual flavor. Furthermore, in the age of proliferating woo-woo, new age bestsellers and self-help books, it seems that the word "philosopher" is slowly becoming more elastic, and just as homogeneous and vacuous as the title of "rock star," for example. What was once a very specific title with rigorous standards can now be applied to anyone that kind of, sort of, smacks of the original flavor of the thing. Madonna is in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame--my personal bias aside, be assured this isn't a value judgment on her work. It's simply a case of misfiling and mislabeling, like putting a peanut butter label on a jelly jar. It's simply the wrong category, and no one seems to care very much. So it is with the term "philosopher"--pop psych has replaced psychology, teenage girls with motivational quotes are cornering the self-help market, and these things are sometimes called "philosophy."
In comes the unlikely figure of the thoughtful stand-up comic. Comedy is a community in which taking oneself too seriously spells ridicule and death. Yet, it also lends itself oddly well to serious philosophical inquiry--it is the place where intuitions, common sense, and the setting up of expectations are the only measuring sticks, and the ability to convince "the mob" is the only real testament to a successful bit. The axiom is the setup; the reductio ad absurdum is the punch line, and one finds oneself waxing existential without even really thinking about the word "existential." To name one example, I defy you to watch Louis C.K.'s closing bit from his 2005 HBO special and miss the similarity to Plato's Socratic dialogues--Louie's frustration included.
Today we find ourselves in an age where many people actually do get their views--and even their news--from entertainers. The Daily Show simultaneously refuses to take itself seriously, all while a slowly aging mob of young people seems to take it more and more seriously as years pass. It is a clever and hilarious satire, but it is satire nonetheless. Surely, it shouldn't be a primary news source. Yet, it is apparent that somewhere between access to information and the anarchist freedom of the Internet, there emerged a palpable sense that not only are the current events of our time strange, but they're kind of absurdly funny, too. And, perhaps, the only way to properly articulate absurdity is through sarcasm, satire, and comedy (even when that satire is misunderstood, as it was with the "Cancel Colbert" hashtag "controversy"). "The world is a comedy," comedian Joe Rogan said, "get high and watch the news,"1 and even without the weed, perhaps he's right. Strangeness is now a part of daily life, and every once in a while, someone looks up from their desk and says, "this is odd, isn't it?" What is a comedian, or a philosopher for that matter, if not someone who does this for a living, in such a way that we cannot help but laugh? It seems it's a golden age for stand-up comedy simply because the world is becoming more bizarre, in sometimes exciting, sometimes macabre ways. I would argue that, even more than author/philosophers or journalist/philosophers, comedian/philosophers are inadvertently becoming the more relevant social critics of our time.
There was a moment when it seemed that Carlin was the end of the line--his jokes were so well-crafted, his output so prolific, that there seemed to be nothing else left to say. The next superstars were pure entertainers, who stayed safely within the box of sex jokes, observational humor, and silliness. Most comedians kept their good hour of material for years, while Carlin would throw his away annually, and start fresh. Arguably, no one after him could quite compete, at least for a time.
However, Carlin accomplished something more than entertainment--he knew that if he could make people laugh at an argument, he could poke and prod at deeply cherished opinions that would otherwise be off the table. His legions of fans not only laughed at his jokes, they were convinced by his theses, moved by his reasoning. The laughter in the theater was the sound of people acknowledging truths that they might not have admitted to in a serious context.
Carlin was not the first to notice this phenomenon--Sigmund Freud wrote "The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious" about it. He postulated that we laugh because our subconscious desires and unacknowledged intuitions are being verified and fulfilled.2 This makes Carlin more impressive, considering how far down the rabbit hole he goes. Only in the context of standup could a theater full of people be made to give an ovation for what is, essentially, a diatribe in support of humanity's greatest fear: death, and the extinction of our species. A people-less earth was his grand vision for the finale of his 1992 special, Jammin' in New York. He remarked, "I'm an entropy fan...I thought, what a wonderful thing! ...there's nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The people are fucked... the planet isn't going anywhere. We are. We're going away. Pack your shit, folks."3 In any other context, suggesting that the extinction of all humanity just might be a good thing would, safe to say, probably not inspire applause. But somehow, Carlin made even this quite literally inhuman point of view--sub specie aeternitatis--not only palatable, but preferable. Through Carlin's eyes, his fans became god-like observers of an inanimate and ego-less universe, and it didn't depress them. On the contrary, the vision was serene. They were made to grapple with an instinct that rarely comes up in the daily humdrum of conversation: maybe all this wasn't made just for us. Maybe we are not that important. This is one of the oldest revolutions in thought that we know of-- we are not the center of the universe, nor are we the point of it all, and it's kind of funny that we thought we were in the first place. Apparently if you take the heliocentric revelation of Galileo, and pepper in the word "fuck," it makes people laugh.
Even more contemporary thinkers have been forced to acknowledge the power of comedy to persuade. Neuroscientist, controversial philosopher, and all-around contrarian Sam Harris made a strangely random appearance on comedian Joe Rogan's popular podcast "the Joe Rogan Experience" (he has since come back a second time). Harris, the lesser-known originator of the so-called "New Atheist" movement, has become somewhat of a spectacle on Youtube, with lively debates on topics that would otherwise be considered intellectual snore-fests by young people. Much to the consternation of "serious" academics, the wit, vitriol and courting of controversy that Harris (along with Hitchens and Dawkins) have embraced since at least 2009 have drawn in a new, younger audience. Whether that is a good or bad thing for the intellectual honesty of the discussion has yet to be seen (Youtube comments are not good evidence of the former, but then, they never are). However, while the marriage of the mild, soft-spoken yet exceedingly academic Harris and the wacky, stoner-conspiracy-theorist character of Rogan seems like an odd mix, their conversation reveals they share a deeper connection in their two "fields" than seems obvious at first glance. The persuasive power of comedy has bolstered both of their careers: "People are pretty good about not having epiphanies in real time, in front of you..." Harris remarks, of the formal debate format, with subtly visible frustration in his placid face. "It's amazingly unsatisfying...It's like fighting with fog. No one ever falls down... It's amazing how invulnerable people's prejudices and biases are to argument... nobody has any hope that either side is going to change their mind in the context of the debate."
Rogan jumps in, then, and Harris seems surprised that he noticed: "Well you do it with comedy."
Harris responds, "Well yeah, that is what is brilliant about pure comedy... if you make someone laugh at themself [sic], or at the idea that they would otherwise defend...that actually is a sign that you have made contact. And you don't get that when you're playing it totally straight. Comedy is very powerful."4 Whatever one thinks of Harris' views, he is a prolific debater and writer of short, scathingly argumentative books. In other words: he makes a living attempting to change people's minds about things that people do not often change their minds about. With this in mind, it is significant what he must admit, here, with both a neuroscientist's and debater's expertise. That is, that the only strategy that seems to work, at least in real time, is to make his opponent, or the audience, laugh. It is involuntary, instantaneous, and the only reaction that ever reliably betrays one's inner states to the world. Even if one is emotionally attached to defending their views, what's funny is funny, even if what's funny happens to be one's own views. The next incarnation of Socratic dialogue may just have to be taught in an improv class in order to be truly effective.
In his crude, everyman way, Rogan's fans seem to consider him a citizen philosopher in his own right. His standup is rife with reefer-fueled musings about our place in the universe, and while his "theories," as he calls them, often go off the deep end into conspiracy (a la "Ancient Aliens"), absurdity, or both, there are grains of real philosophical ideas, if not rigor, there. He admits his own ignorance, stating over and over for the record that he's "dumb", before going on tangents. But he seems to succeed in getting his audience interested in the topics--and maybe that's what people need, in a way. Bill Nye is not an evolutionary biologist, a chemist, or an astronomer, but he has arguably done more to increase the public's interest in these topics, and science generally, than anyone since Carl Sagan. Perhaps there is office space for figures like Rogan in the Public Relations wing of philosophy. His childlike wonder and frothing enthusiasm is contagious, as he waxes ridiculous about the concept of an infinite universe: "above you is the craziest thing you could ever look at, and you hardly ever look at it... those aren't light bulbs motherfucker, those are gigantic nuclear explosions billions of miles away! And it goes on forever! Do you know what forever means? That means this whole universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies... might just be a part of one atom, that's in the cell, of the balls, of another guy, who lives in another universe, and it goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and there's no end ever!"5 This is, clearly, less actual philosophy and more an expression of scientific and natural awe (with balls). Though he may not have the intellectual rigor to actually solve philosophical problems or articulate them seriously--and who would want that, in comedy?--simply bringing them up and stimulating interest is a triumph in an age that still suffers from the "anti-intellectualism" that Bill Hicks touched on years prior.6 With Rogan's layman gusto, you can feel your own keenness to explore rising as you listen--this is not an act. He's actually excited, he wants to get out there, and he expresses it with an academic appetite and energy that smacks of a weed smoking, UFC watching Neil Degrasse Tyson. To make intellectual curiosity welcome again, in an entertainment setting, is hard won--even if it does sometimes come mired in a little new age woo-woo. The truth is, we might need people like this--people who can make us excited about science, and critical thinking again. We may need citizen philosophers who are not afraid to be openly enthused about the vastness of the unknown, and the unknowable.
This point of Rogan proudly announcing his own "dumbness" shouldn't go understated--it isn't just a superficial foot-in-the-door, just in case he's wrong. It brings to mind the vastly over-quoted Socratic paradox: that the wise man only knows that he knows nothing. For this purpose, Rogan goes to great lengths to describe his own ignorance: "I'm really terrified to have kids 'cause I'm dumb.... That's what's unique about me--I know I'm dumb. Most dumb people don't have a clue."7 Even if this humility of perspective is all that Rogan brings to the table, it seems necessary amidst the post-Facebook age of selfies and overblown egos, where young people my age truly do run their own fan pages, and are often encourage to do so by society at large. Someone needs to express doubt, and self-critical vigilance, and furthermore express these things in a format that is easily digested by the young audience that needs to hear it.
But still, what comic could go deeper, or be as honest, as Carlin? Rogan is all good fun, but Hicks and Carlin set the bar rather high. For a moment, it almost seemed like this was as deep as comedy could go, as a medium. The rest seemed to be lateral moves or simply joke-tellers, uninterested in ideology or making points. And comedy need not have a point--it is fine the way it is. But would there be another comic who would push his medium toward the thoughtful in this way?
In answer, Louis C.K. emerged from obscurity, as die-hard fans always hoped he would. While he may not have been the first to do what he did, his final triumph in standup, along with his FX show Louie (which The New Yorker called "a tribute to truth"8), has ushered in a new era of what comedy means to people--and, arguably, how television is made. Here was Carlin stripped of his Carlin cool. C.K. was a man mugged by his life, perpetually descending into a kind of Office Space/Fight Club nihilism, wherein ceasing to care about anything freed him to do (and say) anything. His wife had, in his own words, "assassinated his sexual identity." His infant daughter, in his own words, "is an asshole." In the wreckage of his personal life, he discovered a kind of honesty that was so pure and unfiltered, so raw, that it sounded almost familiar. Vanity Fair said of Louie: "If you don't find yourself nodding along with C.K. in fierce agreement, and even occasionally pumping the air with a raised fist salute, you're either dead inside or a member of that "crappiest generation" C.K. was talking about."9 Louis is persuasive because he articulates, clearly, the thoughts people have that they simply don't share--because they're scatological, because they're unethical, or because they're embarrassing. For example, Louis talks about the problem of moral responsibility in a society that embraces laziness and apathy over consistency: "I have a lot of beliefs...and I live by none of them... I just like believing them. I like that part...they're my little 'believies'... they make me feel good about who I am... but if they get in the way of a thing I want, or if I wanna jack off, I fuckin' do that."10 No matter how dignified we think we are, surely there's a moment where we can relate to this kind of thinking. Everyone has selfish moments, not that we would want to admit it. Louis addresses the competition between good and evil that exists within the mind, which he calls the battle between "of course," and, "but maybe." The former is the belief he holds, in his heart of hearts. The latter is a perversion, a dark underbelly of the truth: Plato's forms versus their shadows. And he doesn't "believe it...but it is there." In this bit, he remarks on the problem of liberal guilt, and the problem of evil:
Of course, slavery is the worst thing that ever happened. Of course it is. Every time it's happened... every time a whole race of people has been enslaved, it's a terrible, horrible thing... but maybe, every incredible human achievement in history was done with slaves. Every single thing where they go, 'how did they build those pyramids?' They just threw human death and suffering at them until they were finished...There's no end to what you can do if you don't give a fuck about particular people. You can do anything... even today, how do we have this amazing micro-technology? Because the factory where they're makin' these, they jump off the fuckin' roof because it's a nightmare in there. You really have a choice... you can have candles and horses and be a little kinder to each other, or let someone suffer immeasurably far away, just so you can leave a mean comment on Youtube while you're takin' a shit.11
He's clearly not one to sugarcoat. But it's more than that. He's past the point in his life where he could benefit in any way from not hurting anyone's feelings--he was at rock bottom so recently, that he is free of the fear of political correctness. He articulates a moral evil to which everyone in the audience is most likely a party, without shrinking for fear of calling someone out too directly. And the end of the bit is a shrug, and a look of queasiness, as if to say, "you and I already know all this. This is not new information." This is that dark suspicion that creeps into the mind at night--"maybe I'm not a good person if my comfort depends other people's suffering. Maybe there's something wrong, here." This peeling back of the layers of our comfort can only come from a man who's lost so much, worked so hard, and looked into the abyss. And, in a dark comedy theater, when you laugh into the abyss, the abyss laughs back.
A man who could be this honest about just how bad human beings get was free to notice it in himself--the microtechnology he was talking about? He took it out of his pocket to show the theater. It was an indictment of himself as well as everyone else--he is as much a part of the culture he criticizes as anyone watching, and it's because of this anti-elitist attitude that we seem to want to listen to him. No comic, arguably, has captured the absurdity of the modern condition better--and I'd be hard pressed to find a writer or serious philosopher who has, either.
"See this is a terrible realization." Louis says, "Because you should act in a way, that if everybody acted in that way, things would work out. Because it would be mayhem if everybody was like that."12 I wasn't the first to notice (a fair amount of Youtube comments, a New York Times article,13 and various others beat me to it) that Louis' casually invokes Immanual Kant's basis for morality, here: the categorical imperative. It is more than just an appeal to the audience's moral intuitions--we see that this morality should apply to us simply because we are rational enough to understand it, and have will. Nowhere is this more apparent than in those crossroad moments, like Louis' moment in first class when he realizes he should give his seat to the military man in coach. He never actually does, and instead luxuriates in the fantasy, reaping the satisfaction without ever performing the moral act. For the modern era, the problem of morality is not simply in articulating precisely what the oughts (as Hume would say) are, and trying to figure out if there are any oughts at all. The real problem, now, is that even if reason and rationality do give us our oughts, most of us still wouldn't care to do them--on the largest and smallest scales. People, perhaps, simply aren't as "good" as they'd like to believe. The Problem of Evil has turned into the Problem of Apathy. This is a predicament with which we still wrestle in philosophy, psychology, and even international relations (and, incidentally, it's something that Sam Harris has written and spoken about): the disturbing fact that the sphere of our empathy is not naturally elastic enough for globalization. We are built to care about our tribe, and to maintain a distinction between in-group and out-group. So we develop toward cultures of selfishness and apathy. Louis points this out, and makes us laugh at it. He gives us a glimpse into the very origins of philosophy--here is an everyman simply looking closely, listening carefully, and dissecting steadily the absurdity of the world around him. He does all this, presumably, without much actual education in the philosophy he stumbles upon--it is unclear whether C.K. is aware that he's paraphrasing Kant, or that he's continuing a tradition that precedes him (he's clearly highly intelligent, but it's not clear that he cares). However, whether he knows it or not, he finds himself happening upon classic philosophical problems that are likely being taught in college courses across the world at this instant. This is how philosophy began, after all--a man pondering his universe, trying to get to the bone of it all. In this way, Louis C.K. makes classic philosophy palatable for the masses, and spreads philosophy en masse in a way that the shrubbery of higher learning has been trying and failing to do for decades. And, surely, there are young people who, like me, did not realize they were learning philosophy until they heard it later, in class. The "aha!" moment that happens when you realize your favorite comedian beat your professor to the punch is something to savor.
If, to borrow a little Bukowski, "an artist says a hard thing in a simple way," then Louis C.K. is an artist to the marrow. He is a master at encapsulating difficult, controversial, or absurd truths in memorable, frank tidbits. One gets the sense that this doesn't come from training his eye for the hidden, necessarily--he just started being completely honest about things we all see every day. Louis said it best, in the viral clip from "Conan" that arguably ignited his rocket to fame and fortune--in the developed western world, "everything is amazing, and nobody's happy."14 It was the fortune cookie-sized bite of wisdom heard 'round the world, over six million views strong, and he elaborated on this idea during a subsequent interview--when asked why he won't give his kids a Smartphone, he said,
I think these things are toxic... you need to build an ability to just be yourself, and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away... That's being a person, right? ...Underneath everything in your life, there's that thing...that, empty, forever empty, y'know what I'm talking about? ...sometimes when things clear away, you're in your car...you start going, 'ohh, here it comes...that I am alone,' like it starts to visit on you, y'know, just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by, y'know, being in it... that's why we text and drive ...people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don't want to be alone for a second...[but] sadness is poetic, you're lucky to live sad moments... when you let yourself feel sad, your body has like antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I meet it with true profound happiness... the thing is, because we don't want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone... you never feel completely sad or completely happy. You just feel kind of satisfied with your product. And then you die.15
The clip is worth looking up. His delivery is the crux of why this is comedy and not a monologue, or a tirade. Written out this way, it almost seems solemn. But more than that, the sounds that come from the audience are not the same laughter and pauses that usually result from a comedian on a talk show. There is this sense of people following his logic with bated breath, a sense that he's taking us on a journey somewhere. The audience (and Conan) is made uncomfortable when Louis brings up the "forever empty," insisting that it lives in all of us--this is, incidentally, what most teenagers in "Intro To Phil" seem to think philosophy amounts to, in the end: nihilism. Even knowing Louis well, and having arguably discovered him, Conan begins to lean into that nervousness that comes with his post: he has to make sure the show stays funny, and doesn't get too real. You can almost hear the studio audience shifting in their seats, wondering if this isn't going to be the light-hearted entertainment they came for. The subsequent trek C.K. takes us on is hilarious, insightful, and near the end, almost heartbreaking -- a far cry from nihilism. With this one, brutally frank tidbit, he encapsulates the escalating loneliness in the midst of social media, and depression in the midst of incredible luxury, which are the hallmarks of this generation. And in the laughter, there is a tinge of guilt, a tone of recognition: we've been made to understand our own absurdity, to look at ourselves as an archeologist might look at us, ages down the line. We've been made strange by a comedian who seems to possess a talent for articulating clearly what we already know to be true, deep down, and cutting to the core of that truth -- and we've been given, perhaps, a prescription to fix it.
One of his contemporaries, the less successful but (in my humble opinion) no less brilliant Doug Stanhope did something similar, when he berated a hypothetical audience member with a camera phone: "Put your fucking camera away, you stupid fucking tourist of life. There's a whole generation of shitheads just filming every fucking thing they do. 'I'm gonna film my entire life and watch it later!'"16 This encapsulates our zeitgeist in parody, and it's almost embarrassing to hear. We are the tech obsessed, lonely, antisocial generation, hopelessly preoccupied with a phenomenon aptly dubbed "FOMO": the fear of missing out. It is an old, human, primal fear: fear of being alone, while everyone else is together, and safe. We must show everyone how much we're doing, how much we're enjoying ourselves, even if we have to hold a phone between the experience and us, ironically isolating us and making us miss out all the more. At the risk of bringing it up too many times, this is our modern incarnation of Plato's cave dwellers, shackled to their cave wall and their shadows. Plato himself told us that if we are dragged toward the light, our reaction likely won't be amiable--we will resist, at first, and it will feel uncomfortable, until we understand that the truth is out there to be discovered. If you're like me, and your phone is always somewhere near, there is something horrifying about the realization that your reaction to having it taken away is somewhere adjacent to a drug addict being deprived of a fix. As comedian Bill Burr says, "I challenge you...run out of the house with no phone, turn the corner where you can't see your house, and not have a full on panic attack."17 But C.K. takes us to this upsetting territory and leads us through the woods, Virgil-and-Dante style, and makes us almost want to change. In Louie's words, from his Q&A at Sundance, "I don't believe in just upsetting people. I believe in taking people to upsetting territory and making them glad they went there... if you just make people happy, you're a fucking whore. If you just hurt them, you're a murderer. But if you take them to a scary place and make them laugh, that's worth doing."18 So what do we do with a revelation that embarrasses all of us? What do we do with the discomfort we feel, seeing the sun for the first time, when all we've been seeing is candles and shadows? We have no choice but to laugh.
Though he bemoans the comparison, and though his popularity may never match Hicks' or C.K.'s zenith, the clearest heir to the throne of Hicks must be Doug Stanhope. C.K. himself put Stanhope in one of the most memorable roles in his FX show, as a friend who plans to commit suicide. While C.K. will flirt with politics but rarely touch on them explicitly, Stanhope aims to displease anyone in his audience who harbors even a superficial attachment to the status quo. He wrestles with social and political issues with all the spit and vitriol of a revolutionary leading a mob, with much more profanity. In his words, his comedy "isn't for everyone...I feel like I'm leading you into battle, you're not all gonna be here at the end."19 This is an understatement--his filth is for the fringe, the small percentage of people who can stomach his extremity. But if you can get past the filth, there is a rather profound thinker beneath. Almost everything he says is an attempt at offense and revolution of some kind. Some favorites:
- If you really believe that death leads to eternal bliss, then why are you wearing a seatbelt?20
- Nationalism does nothing but teach you how to hate people that you never met. All of a sudden you take pride in accomplishments you had no part in whatsoever.21
- Tradition and heritage are all dead people's baggage. Stop carrying it.22
It is hard to know where to begin with these, especially since they only scratch the surface of what he's capable of--these are tame. There are lines from his CDs that would make seasoned comedians cringe (and, incidentally, there are bits that he leaves unedited on his albums that don't get laughs--it seems uncomfortable silence is just as good, in his view, so long as he shakes people). But rarely does Stanhope say anything that doesn't also smack of philosophy, of a revolution of perspective. They barely resemble jokes, when written out--it's his delivery, the frothing passion, and the absurd hyperbole that follows, that turns these large ideas into comedic bits. Stanhope champions absolute individual responsibility--he believes that drugs, for example, are not part of a criminal or health issue, but a private property issue. That is: one's body is one's private property, so one should be able to destroy it as one pleases. He believes that nationalism leads to fascism, he believes that tradition, or ritual, without reason or logic as bedrock deserves to be discarded. If David Hume drank more and decided to take a turn toward the scatological, he might have been Doug Stanhope. Even if you disagree with him, you'll be laughing as you shake your head. This is nowhere near as dark as Stanhope gets. Try the bit where he describes assisting with his mother's suicide--apparently a true story--and discover yourself laughing at a subject that should have made you cry.23 Again, back to what Louie C.K. said--Stanhope takes us to scary territory, and in the end, makes us glad we went there. We are still making our way out of the cave.
The reason comedy seems to work so well, as a persuasive device, seems to be due in large part to its execution--this seems true about Stanhope in particular. There are deep, troubling ideas at work here, but they are introduced in an accessible way: as every day observations about the unsettling parts of the human condition. Once we relate to the setup, the conclusion follows logically, and we find ourselves thinking deeper about the everyday than we normally would. Comedian Bill Burr turns his frank, filter-free perspective inward, in a bit that, in the same vein a Louis CK, touches on the thoughts people have in the privacy of their minds:
So I have a lot of fucked up thoughts... you ever drive down the street and see, like, thirty people up on a sidewalk, and you just think: [turns his hand as if on a steering wheel, and makes a sound with his mouth that sounds like he is hitting pedestrians]. You don't do it, you just think it. That's what, like, separates the psychos from the functioning psychos, right? ...But as a functioning psycho, not only do you not do it, you actually analyze it, like, 'man, if I just leave my hand right here, nobody knows who I am. I move it two degrees over here, I'm on the cover of Newsweek. I am instantly famous.'24
This is no mere observational comedy--these observations cut into the very idea of who we are, and what makes us moral beings. This bit was edgy and hilarious when it came out, years ago, but now it especially rings eerie, since the Boston Marathon attacks and the subsequent Rolling Stone controversy. Burr's dark thought experiment became reality when Tsarnaev was given what looked like the Jim Morrison star treatment on the cover of the prestigious music magazine. The bit confirms something unacknowledged for us--these thoughts are not the sole territory of psychotics. There is a darkness in everyone's head. The difference seems to be action, and motivation. But can we call ourselves moral if we entertain these ideas? That's the difference between "psychos" and "functioning psychos," he says, and perhaps he's right--perhaps the concept of sanity, the concept of a moral human being, is more tenuous than we like to admit as a culture. The true measure of Burr's mastery is that he takes this tenebrous subject and whips the audience into a cackling, tear-streaked frenzy, where otherwise it would inspire an uncomfortable, church-like silence, and perhaps tears of a different sort.
Like much of philosophy, even in comedy things begin to look bleak once they are dissected and analyzed too much. There is a correlation--most comedians that dig deeper also tend to dig darker. So a ray of hope comes, of all places, from Louis C.K. once more. He brought us down, and then he brings us up in the same pure, honest fashion:
'I'm bored' is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you've seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless, it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? ...The fact that you're alive is amazing, so you don't get to say 'I'm bored.'25
There's something telling about the fact that this scene of his show on FX is a conversation with a child, and yet the lesson is something that has resonated with adults--the Internet is a-buzz with this quote. It has been photoshopped onto motivational posters of skyscapes, over imagery that is usually reserved for snippets of Stephen Hawking or Carl Sagan. It was Sagan's job as a pop scientist to articulate scientific and natural awe, and shake the foundations of how we saw the world and our place in it. But did even Sagan make these abstractions digestible by the masses (and by children) that have no interest in science or philosophy, and make them funny, too? Louie did, and if that's not philosophy, maybe it's something better.
1. Rogan, Joe. Shiny Happy Jihad. Comedy Central, 2007. CD.
2. Freud, Sigmund. The Joke and Its Relation To The Unconscious. London: Penguin Group, 1940. Print.
3. Carlin, George. Jammin' in New York. Laugh.com, 1992. CD.
4. Joe Rogan, Sam Harris and Brian Redban, The Joe Rogan Experience #192, Podcast audio, The Joe Rogan Experience, MP3, 2:50:14, accessed April 3rd, 2014.
5. Rogan, Joe. Shiny Happy Jihad. Comedy Central, 2007. CD.
6. See track entitled "Flying Saucer Tour." Hicks, Bill. Philosophy: The Best of Bill Hicks. Rykodisc manufactured and marketed by Rhino, 2001. CD.
7. Rogan, Joe. Shiny Happy Jihad. Comedy Central, 2007. CD.
8. Nancy Franklin, "Man Alone: Louis C.K.'s Tribute to Truth," The New Yorker, June 13, 2011
9. Spitznagel, Eric (2009-03-02). "SCBCB: Louis C.K.". Vanity Fair (PlanetOut). May 1, 14.
10. C.K., Louis. Live at the Beacon Theater. Louis C.K., 2011. Digital Download.
11. C.K., Louis. Oh My God. Louis C.K. and HBO, 2013. TV special.
12. C.K., Louis. Live at the Beacon Theater. Louis C.K., 2011. Digital Download.
13. Zinoman, Jason, "Louis C.K.'s Blue Collar In First Class," The New York Times, December 19, 2011
14. C.K., Louis. Hilarious. Comedy Central, 2011. Digital Download.
15. "Louis C.K. Hates Cell Phones," YouTube video, 4:50, posted by "Team Coco," September 20, 2013.
16. Stanhope, Doug. Oslo-Burning the Bridge to Nowhere. The All Blacks B.V., 2011. Digital Download.
17. Burr, Bill. Let It Go. Released Sep 28, 2010. Digital Download.
18. "Sundance 2010 - Louis CK Hilarious - Intro and Q&A," Youtube video, 9:47, posted by "Braddsky," February 3, 2010
19. Stanhope, Doug. Deadbeat Hero. Stand Up! Records, 2004. Digital Download.
20. Stanhope, Doug. Die Laughing. Stand Up! Records, 2002. Digital Download.
21. Stanhope, Doug. No Refunds. Levity Productions, 2007. Digital Download.
22. Stanhope, Doug. Oslo-Burning the Bridge to Nowhere. The All Blacks B.V., 2011. Digital Download.
23. Stanhope, Doug. Beer Hall Putsch. New Wave Dynamics, 2013. Digital Download.
24. Burr, Bill. Why Do I Do This? Loner Productions, 2008. Digital Download.
25. "Country drive." Louie. Writ. Louis C.K. Dir. Louis C.K. Pig Newton, Inc. and FX Productions, July 21, 2011.