by Ben Dolnick
First in a series of two essays today on Louis C.K. Next: Super-Stud in Divorceland.
Let me start with a couple of stipulations:
(1) Identifying bubbles in real-time is notoriously difficult, and;
(2) I really, truly love Louis C.K. I’ve tried (and failed) on multiple occasions to see him live; I’ve watched all of his specials, including some of his weird, almost unrecognizable early appearances in Boston clubs; I’ve even, despite knowing full-well that one should never, ever do this, recounted his routines, through snorts of my own laughter, to my politely smiling friends.
Nonetheless: I’m ready to declare that we are, right now, in the midst of a Louis C.K. bubble.
I’m not glad to be saying this. And it’s our fault, not his. He is, I believe, among the best working artists we’ve got going right now, and his work-ethic — his capacity for churning out top-quality material at a rate that would make Joyce Carol Oates blush — is somewhere between inspiring and terrifying. The best bits of his stand-up (about the world’s saddest hand-job, or about the unappreciated miracle of flight) will make you laugh until your throat-cords burn; his show is a weird and occasionally wonderful alternative to the insipid, frenetic current crop of network sitcoms. I’m profoundly grateful that his comedy is in the world.
However: we have now, I believe, arrived at that moment in the party — some time between drinks three and four, say? — when the pleasurable wave of drunkenness gives way to the first intimations of nausea. He’s reached that full boil of fame at which his ticket-sales crash web servers; magazines scrabble to outdo each other with rapturous profiles and assessments; his personal and professional quirks (did you know he doesn’t let his kids watch TV? did you know he edits his show himself, ON A MACBOOK?!) have acquired an aura of divine relics. Last week he put his latest stand-up special on his website, and within a couple of days more than a couple hundred thousand people had downloaded it, at five dollars a piece… at which point, of the million-plus dollars, he gave at least a quarter of it to charity. There is the upcoming appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Liking him has come to feel not just like a marker of good taste but, somehow, an indicator of virtue. Which is to say: a note of desperation, of something less to do with rational evaluation than with a fear of being left out of something transcendent, has crept into our culture’s assessment of him. He is the stock market, and we who hang on his every word and Tivo his every late-night appearance are collectively writing Dow 36,000.
Cultural bubbles, like economic ones, arise with chart-able regularity. A year ago it was Jonathan Franzen and Freedom; a few years before that it was Radiohead; before that, Ricky Gervais. I remember a moment, in the fall of 2004, when I woke up to an op-ed in the paper by Larry David and realized that he could, just then, announce that he was running for president and (among the segment of the population that wakes up and reads op-eds, anyway) he could have himself a voting majority by dinner-time.
We’ve tended, understandably enough, to hear and read a lot these past few years about the ugly impulses that underly the creation of bubbles — the greed, the recklessness, the willful ignorance. But cultural bubbles, with their lack of potential for exploding the global economy, allow us to see another, less unpalatable set of impulses beneath bubbles’ creations. There’s a sadness, an almost sweet hopefulness, in the fervor with which we inflate certain figures and objects to places of undue worship. No one, after all, wants to live in an era of mediocrity. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to believe that there is right now, brewing away on someone’s Macbook, a work of art that will live on long after the polar ice caps have melted to the size of postage stamps? Wouldn’t it make you feel a little more hopeful about the world if a certain book, stacked in the front of the Barnes and Noble with a special embossed medal on its jacket, were not just good, not just something to read on subway trips after your iPhone battery has died, but something truly amazing? Something to rejigger your notions of what people are capable of? To make you write the creator a letter of abject-est admiration, not even caring if you get a response?
Here’s the tricky thing about bubbles, though, and the thing that assures their ongoing creation: there’s always a chance, however slim, that the show that everyone’s watching, the asset that everyone’s insisting you stock up on, really is the thing that will endure. There’s no law, after all, that ours must be an era devoid of genuine, time-capsule-worthy greatness. While Homer recited the Odyssey, there must, somewhere in the crowd, have been a moron whispering to his friends that this was all just middlebrow claptrap. And for all I know Louis C.K.’s comedy — or Seinfeld, or The Simpsons, or Kid A, or Freedom — really will still be consumed a hundred years from now, taught to bored undergraduates who can’t wait to get back to their Virtual Sex-Pods.
But I think that we don’t entirely do our favorite artists, or works of art, a favor when we rush to declare them the Greatest X of The New Millennium, or the Man/Woman/Show That is Redefining X, or the Perfect X for These Troubled Times. Because cultural bubbles, like economic ones, leave us sheepish, and angry, and feeling obscurely (or not so obscurely) duped. I wouldn’t, I don’t think, feel quite so queasy about Ricky Gervais — I wouldn’t greet his embarrassingly self-aggrandizing tweets, or his unfunnily nasty Golden Globes appearances, with quite such unhappiness — if I hadn’t, however many years ago, convinced myself that The Office was not merely an excellent show but a kind of comedic paragon. I wouldn’t have felt quite such searing disappointment during the last season of The Wire — and good God, did I hate watching those episodes in which McNulty developed his absurd plan to impersonate a serial killer — if I hadn’t insisted quite so often or so loudly in the years before that The Wire was the greatest work of art to have appeared in my lifetime.
And so, in the hopes that it isn’t too late for Louis — that we might not be so far along in the bubble cycle that we will have to be vaguely nauseated when, years from now, he appears again on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” to hold forth on the indignities of aging — let’s resolve be freer with our deflationary thoughts. Let’s love him less so we can love him longer.
Here goes my small contribution: the much-celebrated, hour-long episode set in Afghanistan actually kind of sucked. Especially the ending. That scene in which the duckling escapes from Louie’s hands and melts the Afghan soldiers hearts was on the level of those excruciating “Modern Family”-endings when all the characters put their arms around each other and jump in a swimming pool.
There. I feel more sensible already.