As stragglers settled into their seats Friday night at the State Theatre, a nervous-sounding female voice came over the loudspeaker to deliver the standard turn-off-your-cell-phones-and-don’t-use-flash-photography pre-show warning. But this was a comedy show, so when the voice started improvising, the audience stared chuckling. “Do you understand why you can’t use your phones for anything but pictures? No texting. Because it’ll just be your one stupid face looking down at the glow of your phone, breaking up the oneness of the audience.”
Could it be? Yes. The voice we were hearing belonged to the man we were there to see: the comedian Louis CK, who is crisscrossing the country on his current tour “Word.” While some of Louis’s most popular material to date focused on two words in particular (one starts with an “n” and the other a “c”), this show was less about naughty words and more about buzzwords. More specifically, it offered a contemplative look at words and ideas we let pass by us every day without much thought: Millennials, environmentalism, disconnectedness, and more.
I went into this show with high expectations. In April 2009 I saw Louis at the Pantages during his “Hilarious” tour, and still think of it as one of the funniest experiences of my life. He lambasted idiots on planes, plowed through taboos on forbidden words, and said things about his daughters virtually no parent but him could get away with saying. I remember my whole body feeling exhausted after the hour and a half of nonstop laughing. But Friday’s set didn’t give me the hour and a half of sidesplitting laughter I was expecting. He still covered airline travel, the “n” word, and his family, but it was in a sharper, more thoughtful way. Don’t get me wrong; it was still incredibly funny. But while I left “Hilarious” thinking Louis CK was one of the greatest comedians of our time, I left “Word” thinking he was one of the greatest social commentators of our time. This tour positions Louis as less of a comedian whose job it is to make us laugh for an hour, and more of a court jester, who has gained our trust and can now offer insight and criticism we are willing (if not eager) to embrace.
Louis is acutely aware of the audience’s trust, and does with it what any good comedian would do: turns it into a joke. “This might be the show where I decide ‘fuck it,'” he said, “I could ruin your night. Let’s be honest.” He then spent the next 10 minutes contemplating the reputation he’s built for himself, his responsibilities as a performer, and the implicit relationship between entertainer and audience. With a few jokes about shitting his pants on stage thrown in for good measure, of course.
I doubt anyone in the audience took his threat of ruining our night seriously, and they didn’t need to, because it’s clear he takes his job seriously. “You should do your job. I’m saying it again because it’s important to keep repeating it,” he said in an uncharacteristically earnest tone, before explaining how 20-year-olds are the worst people on the planet. He spoke to the imaginary or not-so-imaginary 20-year-olds in the room: “You’ve contributed absolutely nothing, and yet you feel the word owes you something. You went to Guatemala and ‘helped’…but you weren’t that big a help.” He smiled; the audience laughed. We knew exactly who he was talking about; for some in the audience, we were who he was talking about. But he has a way of impugning without alienating, so rather than jumping to the defense in our minds, we think to ourselves, “Yeah, I should do my job well. And I should do it without complaining or feeling entitled.”
While most comedians I’ve seen tell a series of jokes that aren’t terribly connected, Louis has a knack for flowing from one topic into another, creating a narrative that forms a cohesive vision of the world we live in, and how ridiculous it really is. His rant on the entitlement of 20-year-olds segued into a joke on the sense of entitlement his 5- and 8-year-old daughters possess, which then led to the trials of being a parent (“our age discrepancy is the most challenging thing—the 5-year-old brings us down to her level”), before weaving to the trials of having an old, human body (“I’m not in good shape…I’m always within a 48-hour window of diarrhea.”) Within these stories are lessons of responsibility and consequence; the unfunny realities of life we desperately want to laugh at. And Louis gets us to.
A big part of the reason Louis can get away with being so critical while remaining so likable is that he often is the subject of his own disdain. “Food is supposed to be a benefit to your body…I’ve never viewed it that way,” he said, describing the physical pain he endures as a result of his gluttony. He gave voice to his stomach’s reaction to him eating a third donut: “What the fuck do you think I’m gonna do with that? I can’t make any part of you out of that. It’s like a storage problem down here.” As spots of sweat materialize on his trademark black t-shirt, he points out how he sweats with absolutely no physical activity involved. Most people talking about their sweat and bowels movements would come off as gross, but he finds a way to make it almost charming.
I don’t want to give too much more away, should you be able to catch “Word” while it’s on tour or after it’s filmed for a stand-up special, but listen for particularly funny bits on a guy in a Reese’s outfit, an exploding skateboarder, and little blonde girls pugnaciously bidding farewell to Jews being carried away to concentration camps. It’ll probably be one of the funniest experiences of your life, and you’ll only feel a little dirty about it.