On Louis C.K. and His Comedy Show

Adam Wilson’s Los Angeles Review of Books piece on Louis C.K.’s comedy show is a brilliant piece of journalism. It’s entertaining and highly informative:

The format of the American sitcom held steady for almost 40 years. The most noteworthy innovation was a negation; in the early nineties, HBO comedies like the short-lived Dream On ditched the pervasive canned laugh track, paving the way for the so-called cringe comedy of shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm. On Curb, the absence of a laugh track makes it difficult for viewers to know when to laugh. We cringe because we’re holding in laughter, waiting for a cue that it’s okay to release. But there is always a breaking point, an explosion into an absurdity so deep — Larry rushing into the water to “save” a baptismal candidate from drowning, for example — that the tension is relieved, and the laughter is released.

Louie both reacts to the failure of Lucky Louie and advances on Curb’s cringe comedy by creating something tenser, more tonally ambiguous. Louie’s singularity lies in its ability to further confound viewers by setting up jokes, and then providing pathos instead of punch lines. Not only does Louie’s audience not know when to laugh, they don’t even know if what they’re watching is supposed to be funny. For the Laptop Loner, this ambiguity is made all the more palpable by the absence of viewing partners; we use other people’s reactions to gauge the correctness of our own. But it also makes the ambiguity less assaulting. Alone, we can be comfortable in our discomfort.

I recommend reading the whole thing. I didn’t really know anything about the guy until his $5 comedy show hit the Internet last year. I bought it and enjoyed it.

The Many Faces of Stephen Colbert

If you’re a fan of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report and its mastermind host, Stephen Colbert, you have to read this Charles McGrath piece in The New York Times. Over the six years of the show’s existence, Stephen’s popularity has exploded:

There is a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor named after Colbert (Colbert’s Americone Dream) and a NASA exercise device (the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Elliptical Trainer, or Colbert) and a minor-league hockey team mascot (Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle) in Saginaw, Michigan…

In the piece, we learn about the creation of the “new Colbert” and Stephen’s efforts to create a super-PAC:

The new Colbert has crossed the line that separates a TV stunt from reality and a parody from what is being parodied. In June, after petitioning the Federal Election Commission, he started his own super PAC — a real one, with real money. He has run TV ads, endorsed (sort of) the presidential candidacy of Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana, and almost succeeded in hijacking and renaming the Republican primary in South Carolina. “Basically, the F.E.C. gave me the license to create a killer robot,” Colbert said to me in October, and there are times now when the robot seems to be running the television show instead of the other way around.

On Colbert’s most awkward (but perhaps also his most defining) moment:

…Was his appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006. Mark Smith, an A.P. reporter who, as head of the correspondents’ association, was responsible for booking the talent, admitted later that he wasn’t all that familiar with the show, which was only three months old when he approached Colbert. Neither, to judge from video of the event, were many in the audience. Colbert got up and addressed the president, saying: “I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things. He stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a powerful message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound — with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world.”

Stephen Colbert’s father died when Stephen was 10, and he muses on his experience growing up. Turns out, Colbert began pronouncing his name as “coal-Bare” when he was in high school:

By high school he had become dreamy and nerdy, spending all his time reading science fiction and playing Dungeons and Dragons, and his friends were all the same way. “Socially, we were out in the hinterlands,” he said. “Living in the social mud huts.” But during junior year he happened to say something that made people laugh, and pretty soon he had become the school wit. It was around that time that he started Frenchifying his name. “I was probably still Colbert to a lot of people,” he said, pronouncing the T, the way the rest of his family did. “But in my mind I was coal-BARE.”

On the popularity of the show:

Colbert likes to say that the whole show is a “scene,” a term that in improv-speak means not just a unit of dramatic time but a transaction in which one character wants something from another. The other character in this instance is us, the audience, and what Colbert wants from us is love. The one moment on “The Colbert Report” that is not fake is when he sits at his desk and basks while the audience chants, “Ste-phen, Ste-phen, Ste-phen!” He can’t get enough.

I like the author’s comparison to James Thurber’s famous short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (a must-read, if you’ve never read it):

The show also enables a Walter Mitty side of Colbert, which is why he says he will never get tired of it. “As executive producer of this show, I get to ask my character to do whatever I want,” he said. Among other things, the character has so far visited troops in Baghdad; bottled and branded his own sperm; dueled light sabers with George Lucas; sung with Barry Manilow; sung as a trio with Willie Nelson and Richard Holbrooke; appeared on the Jimmy Fallon show, along with Taylor Hicks and the Abominable Snowman, in a big production of the hit song “Friday”; harmonized on the national anthem with Toby Keith; and danced a passage from “The Nutcracker,” in suit jacket, tights and codpiece, with David Hallberg.

There are so many money quotes in the piece that you just have to read the whole thing.