Monday, February 14, 2011

I, Schlub: Louis CK's Hilarious & Todd Glass' Thin Pig

The nearly hour and a half of all-new material in Louis CK's Hilarious feels divided into three distinct parts. The first is made up of finely honed, self-effacing bits about CK's single life after his recent divorce mixed together- for no discernible reason- with some of his blandest, laziest work in his career. The second, more socially motivated segment features the track "Cell Phones and Flying" that many will recognize as the material CK recited on Late Night with Conan O'Brien that eventually went viral as "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy." The third segment could possibly be the best thirty or so minutes of CK's career, and some of the best comedy I've heard in years. It's not a surprise that this material revolves around the raising of his two children- Louie's terrifically, vulgarly honest take on child raising has consistently been the most memorable part of his last few specials, and here it's breathtaking just how powerful CK is when he's spitting bile at stupid, careless parents (including, of course, himself) and how deftly he talks about his children with equal parts tenderness and utter resignation.

CK's act has always been about a certain nihilism, and his failed marriage has only reinforced this. Hilarious opens with the observation that "most people are dead... You're just dead people who haven't died yet" and that to be optimistic is to be stupid. This pessimism seeps its way into CK's delivery itself- descriptions of the way people talk (including the way he talks) are reduced to little more than idiotic grunts and whines, as though no one really has... nay, can have anything worthwhile to say. Even the seemingly self-congratulatory title of this special is pure venom- CK explains in one bit how the word "hilarious" is so overused and watered down that it is now a term completely bereft of meaning. CK positions himself as a comedian at comedy's end- to call his work Hilarious carries a sense of ironic disgust that cuts deeper than the more upfront Chewed Up or Shameless.

What's clear throughout Hilarious, though, is that this nihilism and disgust works best when it's aimed at subjects with which CK is really acquainted, and that's the obvious reason why his segments here about raising children are easily his best. CK elaborates on points he's made in and Chewed Up and Shameless; that is, his singular view that all parents necessarily suck because no one knows what they're doing. The obvious highlight of Hilarious is CK's vitriolic takedown of parents who discipline their children through corporal punishment. CK compares these parents to "consumers" who wish they could call customer service instead of actually having to deal with their children ("'Why does he play video games all day?' MAYBE BECAUSE YOU BOUGHT HIM A FUCKING VIDEO GAME, YOU IDIOT.") and rails mercilessly against the idea that hitting one's child is anything except the laziest, most inane solution to any problem. It's CK at his most disgusted and furious, but also at his most decent and sincere, and it makes a convincing argument that Louie is indeed the most talented stand up comedian working today.

When he's straining, though, it shows. Even his much lauded "Cell Phones and Flying" bit strays when he attempts to introduce rather simplistic race politics that come off mostly like the sort of PC white guilt overcompensation CK has usually avoided. Elsewhere, a bizarre bit about the heft of coins in the "Old West" feel like the type of utterly uninterested, base material one would rightly expect from a Dane Cook set (though it's better delivered here, of course). There's also the ongoing problem of the increasing exclusiveness of CK's language- while one can introduce someone to his older material rather easy, here it feels that one needs to understand something about CK's demeanor and past work to know why he uses words like "faggot" with such nonchalance. CK's penchant to simplify issues work to great effect when he eyes that issue with focus and sincerity- when it's unfocused, it feels hopelessly hackneyed.

What CK feels like more than anything here is not a schlub, per se, but Comedian as Schlub- a well read, intelligent, conscientious comic (whose liner notes for Hilarious thank no less than Bill Cosby and the late George Carlin) willing to deploy intentional laziness and efface anything- most prominently himself- for the sake of his act. Strangely, it's what simultaneously propels Hilarious to some of the greatest heights and some of the most listless moments of CK's career.

Meanwhile, Todd Glass- who was CK's opener during his Hilarious tour- seems to be the exact inverse throughout his Thin Pig; that is, the Schlub as Comedian. Though he's been a professional comic for decades, Glass' on stage demeanor feels like anything but a honed act. Glass' style is straightforward, honest and often banal, but for some reason this never detracts from his charm or his wit. In fact, that might exactly what makes his set so charming and so witty.

There's less venom throughout Thin Pig than one finds in Hilarious. Glass is introspective but with quite a bit more goodwill towards himself and others; the same type of humor that doesn't work as well in CK's set works a bit better here precisely because the bile is toned down and, more importantly, because he's not trying to make a larger point. A routine about getting lost while traveling to a "Watermelon Festival" that leads to the dilemma of asking a group of black people for directions, or a segment where he admits he might find gay marriage "weird" but that this doesn't make it wrong (and, moreover, that it's his own problem and eventually he'll get used to it), feel less like comedy bits than getting to spend some time chatting with a good-hearted, funny guy willing to poke as much or more honest fun at himself as at anyone else. When CK The Comedian replaces dialogue with grunts and whines, it has a tendency to feel lazy and phoned in; when Glass The Schlub mocks people who don't replace the pump at gas stations with a "Durrr" idiot voice or fakes a breakdown over a hamburger to counteract his girlfriend's complaining at a restaurant, it's surprising and strangely refreshing in it's utter lack of pretension or tact.

Overall, it's hard to come to a definitive conclusion on whether Hilarious or Thin Pig is the better album. CK is a master showman and performer, while Glass is an honest, dependable comedic workhorse; CK's material is all-new but stumbles in spots, while Glass' work is a bit more consistent but is also years old (you can hear many of the bits on Thin Pig on his Comedy Central special, his track on the Comedy Death Ray compilation, etc.). Give Louis CK credit for his risk taking, Todd Glass credit for the purity of his delivery, and both Hilarious and Thin Pig credit for being two of most entertaining comedy releases in recent memory.

Louis CK, Hilarious (2011)
Todd Glass, Thin Pig (2009)

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