by: Mariann Devlin
“‘I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. You live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. And even the inside of your own mind is endless. It goes on forever inwardly. Do you understand? Being the fact that you’re alive is amazing, you don’t get to be bored.” -Louis C.K.
“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” - Woody Allen
In a recent interview, Louis C.K.’s new editor Susan E. Morse compared the comedian Louis C.K. to her old boss and my personal hero- Woody Allen. A former editor for Woody Allen, Morse didn’t expound upon their similarities; she really only mentioned that they’re both similar in personality and work ethic. But the headline, for me, led to an explosion of insight into what these two comic geniuses share, that I hadn’t- or couldn’t have- acknowledged if I hadn’t overcome my stupidly harsh rejection of Louis C.K.
Over a year ago, I would have heard that comparison and spewed bile all over anyone who dared connect Louis C.K.’s big, angry white guy schtick with Woody’s routine as a neurotic intellectual in persistent existential crisis mode. In fact, one of the most asinine, useless arguments I’ve ever participated in- and this is saying a lot- was about Louis C.K. A guy I was dating, who probably still believes that anyone who doesn’t get Louis C.K. doesn’t get him, got butthurt when- twenty minutes into “Chewed Up”- I announced that Louis C.K. was not funny and is only drawing attention to the trivial anxieties of entitled white male egos everywhere.
Wait a minute. That sounds like someone else I know.
To hell with everything I said that night. Louis C.K. is the poor man’s Woody Allen, and by that I don’t mean he’s a lesser version of Woody. What I mean is that Louis C.K. complements Woody Allen’s highbrow humor, because while Woody targets himself and other members of the white intellectual class, Louis C.K- in a more abrasive and openly self-destructive manner- targets the embittered white middle class to which he belongs. And for the same reason.
Woody Allen, at the end of Manhattan, says people in his city “constantly create these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.” Sounds a little like a Louis C.K. joke I love.
Louis C.K. doesn’t seem to connect this rampant sense of entitlement to a larger, more existential condition, because he appears to have written it off as privileged people being spoiled. They don’t really know how hard it could be. But if we take the last line for the opening theme of Louie is “You’re going to die” seriously, I’d argue that our inevitable non-existence, our finiteness, is his true concern.
In one memorable scene, Louis C.K. wakes up in the middle of the night, having an anxiety attack because he knows that one day, he’s going to cease to exist.
In one of my other favorite jokes, Louis C.K. answers his daughter’s incessant question, “Why?” and it leads him to some pretty frustrating conclusions about existence.
“Because, fuck it, we’re alone in the universe. Because some things are and some things are not. Because things that are not can’t be. Because then nothing wouldn’t be! You can’t have fucking nothing isn’t! Everything is! Because if nothing was there’d be all kinds of fucking shit that.. giant ants with top hats, dancing around! There’s no room for that shit!”
Woody Allen and Louis C.K. share more in common than staving off their fears of death. They also know, and share, the positive meanings they’ve created themselves, the meanings necessary to keep living.
For Allen, that meaning is both love and art. At the end of Manhattan he makes a list of all the things that make life worth living- including “Tracy’s face.” In Hannah and Her Sisters, he— after failing to commit suicide—goes to a movie theatre and finds life’s meaning in a comedy he loved when he was a kid. Even if there’s no God and no afterlife, Woody Allen says, we should sit back and enjoy the experience of living as it presents itself.
Louis C.K., Woody Allen’s dark counterpart, gives the same advice- not to himself, but to a fellow comedian who is planning on committing suicide. “Life isn’t something that you possess. It’s something that you take part in, and you witness.”
Not to mention, Louis C.K. is devoted solely to his daughters.
As I started watching more episodes, I discovered that there’s a sincerity to Louis C.K.’s “act” that may not be as apparent in his stand-up comedy specials. It’s easy to mistake his rants as a standard angry white man routine, only funny if its self-directed at some point. Louis C.K. isn’t just earnest in that he hates himself and other people for failing to be dazzled by life. He has moments of wide-eyed, almost innocent bewilderment, the same look of sweet, dumbfounded perplexity that crosses Allen’s face as he’s confronted with an incomprehensible, uncategorizable situation.
It took me a few tries to understand Louis C.K., much less consider him to be one the most brilliant comedians of our time, on par with Woody Allen. It’s not just Louis C.K.’s New York state-of-mind, the jazz music that plays while he’s wandering around the city, or his Manhattan-esque opening montage for the newest season of Louie. They’re kindred spirits because there’s no shortage of self-loathing for being the kinds of people who are prone to loathing life- when love, laughter and art, and all the other splendid things that keep us from killing ourselves, are right in front of us.
Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.