by Ben Sack
Louis C.K. is one of America’s premier comedians. He has won Emmy’s, Grammy’s, and his stand-up specials are some of the most popular in recent memory. James Parker at The Atlantic calls him “America’s current masturbator in chief and our most topsy-turvy moralist.” However, in 2008, C.K. was only standing at the threshold of national notoriety. It would be two more years before his hit TV show premiered. He had done some stand-up on late night talk shows, and he had recorded one stand-up special, but he hadn’t been able to connect with the mass audience the way he was destined to. In October of that year, however, while the country was plummeting into the “great recession”, and while C.K. was promoting the release of his latest stand-up special Chewed up, he broke through. In an appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, C.K. uttered a rant that was retroactively titled “Everything is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” Suddenly, the comedian who was mostly recognized for jack-off jokes and profanity had positioned himself as “America’s unlikely conscience.” (Parker)
In the rant, C.K. starts by expressing his feelings on capitalism. He says that in his lifetime, “the changes in the world have been incredible…now we live in an amazing, amazing world and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of just spoiled idiots that don’t care.” He provides examples of how awful it was to live in the past, specifically dialing rotary phones, waiting in line at the bank, and traveling across the country. He goes on to talk about people around him complaining about delays on airplanes and bad cell phone signal, and how he thinks they need a wakeup call.
We’ve already discussed C.K.’s personal and professional exigence for the going on the show. He was primed for the public spotlight, and his next stand-up special was about to premiere. He was running the talk show gamut, as celebrities are expected to do when they are about to release a new pop-culture artifact. What called him to perform this specific bit, however, was slightly different. In an interview with Time, C.K. said “That was material I was actually saving for my next special. But I thought, this really means something right now.” He goes on to say that he wrote the jokes before the recession hit, and before people started losing jobs. By the time October came, however, the country was sinking into economic quicksand, and C.K. knew that the audience at Late Night wouldn’t want to hear another famous person complaining about how screwed up things were. “I was literally looking at an unemployed audience,” he said in the Time interview. “You have to be aware of who you’re talking to in an audience. It’s no f—ing around anymore.” So he decided to turn the tables, and instead of complaining about how bad things were, he complained about how nobody could see how good things were. The show was a hit and the resulting YouTube clip went viral, verifying that he had made the right decision.
C.K.’s stand-up style can be described as “rant comedy.” Other practitioners of this genre are the late George Carlin and Bill Hicks, both of whom C.K. cites as influences. However, Carlin, Hicks, and C.K. are all elevated in public opinion above standard rant comedians. What makes them different is that they are/were looked up to as icons of common sense. Before journalists called C.K. “America’s unlikely conscience,” his predecessors filled that role. While C.K. shares many similarities with Hicks and Carlin, there is a distinct difference that keeps him from fitting snugly in their genre. Carlin’s most watched YouTube clip starts with “There’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason that it will never, ever, ever be fixed.” Hicks’ most watched clip begins “By the way if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself.” C.K., meanwhile, racked up the most views on his optimistic Conan O’Brien appearance “Everything is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” C.K.’s predecessors were complainers. C.K. is too, but he is complaining for good, in the hopes of positively affecting the attitude of his audience.
Aside from his understanding of the current socioeconomic climate and his proper read of the audience, it was Louis C.K.’s comedic and rhetorical skill that made the performance so successful. He makes the audience trust him, projects his ethos, by using anecdotal evidence. When the things the speaker is talking about happened to the speaker himself, the audience is much more likely to find him credible. One of the most notable quotes from the appearance is as follows: “I was on an airplane and there was internet, high speed internet on the airplane, that’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go ‘open up your laptop and you can go on the internet’ and it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips, it’s amazing. I’m in an airplane and then it breaks down and they apologize, the internet is not working, and the guy next to me goes ‘this is bullshit.’ Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.” This sort of rhetoric is necessary for the material because it backs up the generalizations he makes at other times during the performance. Those generalizations, like “We live in an amazing, amazing world and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of just spoiled idiots that don’t care” are emotional appeals. He is persuading the audience to change by simultaneously insulting them and making a joke they can all relate to. Finally, C.K. appeals to logic by comparing past and present (even if his claims are slightly exaggerated). For example: “People say there are delays on flights. Delays really? New York to California in five hours. That used to take 30 years to do that and a bunch of you would die on the way there and have a baby.” By pointing out how good life is now compared to the past, he can persuade the audience that everything really is amazing right now.
In his interview with Time, which took place five months after the Late Night performance, C.K. revealed something that had the possibility to negatively affect his image. “You know what’s interesting about that clip to me? It’s really about me; it’s not about other people. Like the story I tell Conan about the guy sitting next to me on the airplane when the Internet shuts down suddenly…There wasn’t anybody next to me on the plane, that was me. People don’t talk to me on airplanes. [Laughs] Anytime you see a bit where some stranger does something to me, it’s me.” Some might argue that this obliterates the ethos of the piece, negating C.K.’ credibility. I contend, however, that this makes the performance more meaningful. Earlier we examined how C.K. differed from similar rant comedians. While Carlin and Hicks made careers out of complaining about others negatively, C.K. Complained about others in an effort to positively change people’s attitude. With the insight that he wasn’t actually complaining about others at all, but about himself, his credibility improves. Watching the clip with this in mind, C.K. no longer seems self-righteous, he is only self-reflexive, self-aware, and self-deprecating. Displaying these qualities make his message more powerful, and make me more confident in agreeing with James Parker at The Atlantic in calling him “America’s unlikely conscience.”