Live in My Armchair: How Louis C.K. Innovated TV

'Louis C.K. Live at the Comedy Store' is an experience that is not proper TV, but very much a product of this transitional age.

This column is supposed to be about TV, and it will be, but I would like to start by telling you about a stand-up comedy performance I spent considerable time enjoying last weekend: “Louis C.K. Live at the Comedy Store.”

You may have noticed some incongruities in the paragraph above. Attending a stand-up comedy show implies a live experience – sitting in a darkened club over a drink – relating to the guy (or gal) up there, with a mike in his or her hand, going on and on about life as he or she sees it, constantly adapting the tale to the vibes he or she senses from the unruly crowd out there: that is, you and your fellow listeners-viewers.

But Louis C.K. didn’t make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (as yet; he is Jewish on his father’s side, and the initials that stand for his last name sound the way he heard his Hungarian surname, Szekely, pronounced in the U.S.). So I could not have seen him live, and not only because he recently had to cancel a gig at New York’s Madison Square Garden for fear that the ticket holders would be trapped by a blizzard (which failed to materialize – which proves that not only Jerusalem can get hysterical over the weather).

So, I had to resort to the second-best way of seeing Louis C.K. performing his stand-up routine, on TV, which is only fair, since Louis C.K. is a TV phenomenon to begin with. His worldwide fame is in large measure the result of the TV series he wrote, directed, produced and acted in, “Louie,” in which he plays very much himself – a divorced, not too young or handsome stand-up comedian, father of two prepubescent daughters, trying to come to terms with the absurdities of his personal and professional lives. The fifth season is supposed to be released in April.

But the way we get to sample his work stretches the meaning of TV viewing. The very word television means “seeing from a distance” – the distance being expressed in time and space – implying that at a certain time, set by the powers that be, the viewers will be seated in front of a screen that beams to them a series of frames of events happening live, or prerecorded. But “Louis C.K. Live at the Comedy Store” is not live, and you don’t get to see it on a TV set unless you insist on it and have the technical knowhow to arrange for it. Otherwise, you can go online, pay $5, exchange a few emails with the Louis C.K. website, and then download or stream the show to your PC or tablet. Then you view it in the intimacy of your leisure, in bed, your favorite armchair, or, indeed, on your toilet seat (appropriately, a part of the routine has to do with the relations between Louis and his toilet seat).

This is a TV experience that is not proper TV, but very much a product of this transitional age of ours, when our cultural experiences are being technologically and psychologically reshaped and repositioned between the private and public modes. In this respect, Louis C.K. is an innovator, since this is the sixth stand-up comedy show he has marketed this way. It is pretty successful, establishing a sort of personal relationship with his viewers and admirers all over the world (the email exchanges with his site while purchasing the rights to view it are refreshingly and amusingly personal).

To me, Louis’ most endearing quality is that he comes across as not trying to be funny at all. On the contrary: the man up there on stage with a mike in his hands looks puzzled by his life and ours, and is sort of sharing his ruminations and bitching about it. He has an ability to see and highlight the incongruity of it all. Part of his act has to do with relocation: by repositioning an event or behavior from one set of circumstances to another, he highlights a clash of norms, which is surprisingly enlightening and funny. For instance, he tells us that recently he relocated the noises – those that come out of his mouth, words included, and his nose and throat – he used to make while coming (be warned: sexually explicit self-deprecating innuendos abound) to the grunts he makes when peeing. And while telling, showing and making the sounds, his mind takes off, and here he “disrespects” his own toilet – i.e. talks very “dirty” to it, as some uncouth males tend to do during sexual intercourse under the mistaken notion that it turns their female partner on. It rarely does. Louis is most articulate, and his patter demands that viewers be of agile mind, since part of the humor is very cerebral. But he is also a master of the non-verbal soundtrack. The number of weird noises he can produce using his throat, hands, nose and mike (he will hit his own bald head with a mike for a sound effect) is unparalleled. So are the number of expressions he can produce on his face. He may look sort of inert – standing, moving to and fro in an uncertain way – but his kind of comedy is actually very physical: for instance, when he tells the audience that while having sex with a woman, not seeing her face (as he usually does what a man has to do from behind, he tells us with a semi-embarrassed smirk) he imagines the look in her eyes while he is at it. This in itself could serve as a lesson in sex education for any male.

While all this is going on – and it looks like a well-rehearsed, thought-out and honed routine by a master – there is always a sense of him being at a loss, never quite sure how he got to where he is in the narrative, ever trying to take hold of his wild fancies and get himself back on track. Every so often he will say, “I don’t know,” and you get the distinct feeling that he really doesn’t. He is alive, but at loss to explain what life is all about, as are we all; most of us just won’t admit this to ourselves.