[This appeared at The Jagged Word on September 8]
I know this one isn’t going to go over well. And, of course, I always say everything so that no one will be mad at me (/sarcasm). But sometimes offensive things are excellent illustrations of the O’Connor Principle:
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures (Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Mystery and Manners).
I think this can even happen when the “novelist,” or, in this case, the comedian, doesn’t appear to have any “Christian concerns” at all.
Louis C.K. is probably the only comedian in the entire world who can start a show with, “Hello. Thank you. Thank you very much. So, you know, I think abortion…” No matter who you’re talking to, abortion is about on the level of child abuse as far as humor goes. (Of course, that didn’t stop Louis C.K. from using child molesters as the basis for his infamous Saturday Night Live monologue in 2015.)
First of all (and I say this to unsuccessfully head off all the “but Christians shouldn’t do this or that” comments) I’m not endorsing Louis C.K., or his vulgarity, or his singularly crude and offensive brand of humor. I’m not encouraging you to watch, or even suggesting that you watch, his 2017 show on Netflix. Of course Louis C.K. is offensive. Of course he is. But maybe…
We live in a peculiar time in which the very same people who find vulgarity, profanity, and aberrant sexuality edgy and profound are offended by every other thing. There is literally nothing they are not offended by, except the banality of sex, four-letter words, and the mockery of Christianity. There are distortions that most people are used to seeing as natural, and sometimes it’s necessary to use ever more violent and shocking means to make those distortions apparent.
This is not to encourage attempts to “shock” in general. Usually, when people set out to shock, they do the least shocking things possible. Of course idiots are going to put crucifixes in urine. To whom is that shocking except to the professionally shocked? The truly shocking things are things to which most of the population is immune—and that immunity is assuredly, at our cultural and historical moment, to moral and even Christian concerns.
But that normal immunity to certain shocking things makes for a space filled with awkward laughter as Louis C.K.’s audience seems to sense they’re being drawn into waters for which they’re unprepared. Does anyone expect that nearly the first word of out of his mouth is going to be “abortion”?
The set-up is the perfect line, guaranteed to get applause from a certain audience: “I think you should not get an abortion—unless you need one. In which case, you better get one.” Because not getting an abortion you need is exactly like taking a s***. “I think abortion is exactly like taking a s***,” he says, with his usual smirk.
Now he’s messing with the somber and serious pro-abortion crowd who talk about how seriously they take their decisions. No one takes abortion lightly, they say. Abortion, Louis C.K. says, is “100% the exact same thing as taking a s***. Or it isn’t. It is or it isn’t. It’s either taking a s*** or it’s killing a baby.” I, at least, can sense some of the enthusiasm going out of the crowd’s laughter at that point.
And he goes further, touching another of the sacred pro-choice cows: “People hate abortion protesters. ‘Oh, they’re so shrill and awful.’ They think babies are being murdered! What are they supposed to be like? ‘Well, it’s not cool. I don’t want to be a dick about it, though. I don’t want to ruin their day as they murder several babies all the time.’”
I don’t think it’s killing a baby, he says. “Well, it’s a little bit. It’s a little bit killing a baby. It’s 100% killing a baby. It’s totally killing a whole baby. But I think women should be allowed to kill babies. That’s what I think.” And then he laughs at the applause and the cheering, and mocks the “safe, legal, rare” approach. “Why rare? If it’s legal, it’s sh****ng. If it should be rare, then it’s killing babies!” And, with that, a comedian has perfectly encapsulated the entire pro-choice philosophy: It’s killing babies, but I think women should be allowed to kill babies. Who else, in this time and place, can get away with saying something like that to a presumably hostile audience?
But women should be allowed to get abortions, he says, for two reasons: life is not that important. Life isn’t that important—which leads to jokes about suicide. Seriously: Louis C.K. is the only comedian who can push the edge of comedy taboos far past any previous line to actually touch the humorous absurdity of life in this world. The second reason is because women are “the selectors of the species” who decide whether people live or die. All the women in the audience applaud and cheer, but I think it is, in fact, a commentary on the irresponsibility of men and the recklessness of male hook-up culture.
More than simply , I think Louis C.K. is just the comedian of the sinful flesh. He is the voice of fallen human nature (with which I think he might agree). He has another bit (there is, of course, profanity) where he talks about flying first class and seeing a soldier walk down the aisle past him. He begins by saying, “Yeah, I’m not a good guy. I want to be a good guy. I like the idea of being a good guy.” And then goes on to say how he congratulates himself for thinking of doing something good, without actually doing it. I’ll leave that one to you to watch, because I won’t do it justice.
But he does a similar thing in the 2017 special when he talks about raising kids to know the difference between right and wrong. He’s not going to raise his kids religiously, he says, because he doesn’t want to get up on Sunday morning. He says you still have to teach your kids about religion, though, because they’re in the world where there are a lot of religious people. “All religions are equal,” he says, “but the Christians are the main one.” Christians “won the world,” so act accordingly and congratulate Christians when you meet them. And then he educates people, who are probably largely unaware, about the fact that we count years by when we think that Jesus was born. It’s fascinating to me. “We’re counting together: Jesus plus 1, Jesus plus 2, Jesus plus 3, Jesus plus 4.”
For my purposes, and for what I find funny, the last 20 minutes aren’t as humorous to me—and he becomes far more crude. Even so, the first hour is something unique and original, as far as I’m concerned, not only in comedy, but in pop culture. There’s a reason why the sketch comedy, comedy “news,” and stand-up that gets the most critical acclaim are generally not at all friendly to any concerns that Christians might share. And (coincidentally?) very little of it is actually funny.
Louis C.K. is clearly not a Christian—which is, perhaps, why he can make cringe-inducing jokes about things that no one else can. But it also means that maybe some of his comedy can tell the truth about things that very few want to see.