I saw Louis C.K. do a standup set at Louis Davies Symphony Hall tonight. This was a stop on the tour that earned some fame when Louis C.K. announced he'd sell tickets only off of his website, at a fixed price of $45 a ticket. No ticket brokers allowed, and scalping the tickets above face value would be grounds for having your tickets revoked.
I'm not sure how seats were assigned, but I did log in first thing when the tickets went on sale to snag some for his first date in San Francisco. Some time later, I received an email with a link to print out my tickets, and I set them aside for the interim months before the show date.
Marie went to the theater straight from work, and as I was waiting in a cab line to get myself to the venue, she sent me a text: "Nice seats".
I arrived at the Symphony Hall and was pleasantly surprised to find us sitting in the second row, dead center. Furtively, I took this quick pic with my iPhone near the end of his set. Sitting close to the stage doesn't always matter, but for some types of performances, it does, like opera or theater or standup comedy, where the facial expressions convey much of the emotional through line. Louis C.K. (I'll keep referring to him by his full name as writing simply Louis or C.K. feels odd) didn't have any projection screens behind him to blow up his face, so I was happy to be able to see his goofy impressions up close.
Obviously, he's riding a wave of momentum right now, from the standup special he sold off of his website for $5 to his critically acclaimed, amazing self-titled TV show. It's for those reasons I'd like to think he was so self-assured on stage tonight. No flop sweat, no nervous tics. In fact, I can't ever remember a comedian that seemed so utterly relaxed on stage. Some comedians, like Chris Rock, seem to be on cocaine during their performances, and that live wire energy is core to their persona.
Since Louis C.K. plays a version of himself on his TV show, and since he often builds both his TV show and standup material around his persona as a sad sack divorced, balding, overweight middle-aged man, it's easy to confuse Louis C.K. the actual real-life standup comedian with his TV persona.
So it was supremely satisfying in a "revenge of those once less fortunate" way to see him stroll on stage and then be in utter command of the audience and his material from start to finish. He never had any nervous breaks, throat-clearing pauses, or moments of frustration with either himself or the audience. No sweat under the spotlight, no moments when he lost his way and had to go for a drink of water to collect himself. When he wandered off of a joke for a detour joke and forgot which way he'd come, he seemed almost amused and talked his way back to the main route. He tried a bit about Jews that he wasn't happy with and flipped it into a joke: "I'm going to add on some extra material at the end to make up for this Jewish bit, don't worry, it didn't really...yeah..."
The connection between a standup comedian and his audience is tighter than that between almost any performer and their audience. Every joke is a moment of judgment, to be adjudicated by the dispensation of either laughter or silence, and so a standup set is a series of dozens and dozens of judgments rendered one after the other in rapid succession. It's the reason why a comedian who flails on stage stirs up such sympathy discomfort in the audience. When comedians feels themselves struggling, the audience feels complicit in withholding laughter. It causes the audience to feel an odd mixture of guilt and disgust at having been put in such a situation, and some comedians react badly when things are going bad and turn on the audience, trying to shift all responsibility for the fiasco on the people sitting in the darkness.
Watching Louis C.K. tonight, I felt none of that nervous tension. He was so collected and controlled that the emotional wire connecting comedian and audience put us in a state of relaxed anticipation.
More than that, the audience was thoroughly on his side from the start. Given how he's forgone higher budgets to retain creative control over his TV show and how he's spent the past year offering up his great material for low prices (DRM-free in the case of downloadable content) through his website, Louis C.K. has become a beloved figure. He was admired before for being a great comedian (I have no hesitation in declaring him the best standup comedian working right now), but he has engendered a real deep affection from his fans now.
Lastly, he's clearly in a better place in his life, and his material reflected that. He admitted that he'd come into his own. He waved a selective circle over his entire body with his hand and said, "This doesn't work too great at age eighteen, but at 45, with some more income, this is not bad." He spoke with some satisfaction about his relationship with his ex-wife ("You know what's great about divorce? It's forever. Marriage is for as long as you can stand it, but divorce is forever. I'm not telling you not to get married, if you love someone you should go ahead and get married, but then get a divorce.") and his children ("I'm a great dad, very listening, kind, and you know why? I get to say goodbye to them every week.")
But don't mistake for this happy state of affairs for toothless comedy. The joy of his material is still how he manages to bring you to the border of what seems inappropriate and then make it feel logical and safe to just hop right over it with him, but it comes from a happier and more enlightened age. He spent time making fun of his own ridiculousness, like his incidences of road rage, and put it in some sociological context (as in Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, being in an automobile changes us into homicidal assholes). He managed to counsel us to be more tolerant to each other (notably towards gays) while still making us laugh, like some folksy philosopher king. And he was able to wrap it up with a perfect little sequence he called "of course...but maybe...". It was the perfect encapsulation of his comedic ethos.
The best comedians are our keenest and most honest observers of the human condition, like Chris Rock on relations between the races or between men and women. Louis C.K., riding a wave of success, is heading not into a middle-age crisis but a middle-age coronation, and in doing so while continuing to put out so much great material, is showing us that one doesn't have to be an angry failure to dispense wisdom as the court jester.