Recently, I was watching an episode of Louie, the television series based loosely upon the life of stand-up comedian, Louis C.K., when suddenly I was struck by an uncanny similarity between his show and the work of Albert Camus, the famous French writer and philosopher. While their work differs in theme, tone, and setting, they share an interesting commonality in their examination and ridicule of aspects of modern life. In Louie, comedian Louis C.K. uses unusual plotlines as a template to create and examine the oddities of his life as a single man in his forties living in New York City. He explores the different, and often bizarre, situations he encounters as he juggles raising his two kids and developing new relationships after a recent divorce. While his comedy is unapologetic, abrasive, and often vulgar, it is precisely this brutal honesty in his derision of modernity that draws parallel with the novels of philosophers like Camus, who used fiction as way to examine our existence.
Whether in his show, which is currently in its second season, or in his stand-up performances, which include One Night Stand (2005), Shameless (2007), Chewed Up (2008), and Hilarious (2010), Louis C.K. has never hesitated to explore the questions and subjects that most people would not dare admit they think about. The scenarios he depicts and the societal nuances he ridicules through outrageous hyperbole force the audience to look at the absurdity of the mundane. This unique perspective on life combined with his comedic talent has led to his emergence as a comedian, writer, and director because he is able to convey big ideas by making fun of the specific and ordinary aspects of life that each of us has experienced or can relate to. His crass, dry, and innovative humor takes traditional roles or concepts, such as his marriage and children, and turns them into hilarious situations, and his work has earned him countless Emmy nominations for Comedic Writing and for his performance as a Lead Actor in a Comedy.
Louis C.K. – Why?
In the clip above, Louis tells a riotously funny story in which he attempts to answer the questions of his persistently curious child, all while desperately trying to hold together the pieces of his obstacle-laden, rapidly-deteriorating life. The anguish and frustration he expresses mirrors the downward spiral experienced by Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the protagonist in Camus’ novel The Fall. While reflecting upon his life in a bar in Amsterdam, Clamence recounts his descent from the once perceived state of grace to the depths of immorality and despair. As he describes, “It seemed to me that I was half unlearning what I had never learned and yet knew so well – how to live.” (42) Through this decadence, Camus investigates morality, religion, and the meaning of life, often illuminating the paradoxical ways of society to prompt questioning from the reader. As Clamence continues his “fall,” his perspective on society changes, becoming critical of the same actions that were once second nature to him. In his characteristically poignant writing, Camus notes through the eyes of Clamence, “But too many people now climb onto the cross merely to be seen from a greater distance, even if they have to trample somewhat on the one who has been there so long. Too many people have decided to do without generosity in order to practice charity.” (114)
Camus’ thoughts emanate from his interaction with what he and other similar philosophers refer to as the Absurd: the effort to find value in life appears ridiculous since the inevitability of death renders everything we do meaningless. Although seemingly morbid, Camus was neither an existentialist nor a nihilist, and he posited that there is actually meaning in life, buried somewhere beneath all of its absurdity. Meaning, he believed, could be found only once one has acknowledged the absurdity of existence, as this gives one the freedom to understand the value of his journey through life. This is precisely what Monsieur Meursault struggles so vehemently with in The Stranger. In this novel, Camus tells the story of a man’s utter indifference to all aspects of life – family, love, murder, and even his impending execution – someone who is lost in the Absurd, estranged by life itself. It is this persona that Louis C.K. resembles in his show Louie, where he mocks everyday aspects of our lives while adopting a very cynical and humorous outlook on the situations he encounters.
Camus’ notoriety does not come from the way he provokes laughter from his critique on society. Rather, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature (1957) elicits a much different visceral reaction through his books and essays. Writing in a generation that reflected on so much societal change and that had experienced multiple world wars, which had left populations disillusioned, ideas concerning our existence permeate his works. Commenting on the meaning of life and incorporating absurdist thought, his stories often leave the reader uncomfortable, lost in a world seemingly void of meaning and filled with despair. His eloquent, thought-provoking writing engages the reader in an intense story and then leaves him with myriad questions, as he has just taken something commonplace and turned it upside down.
While Albert Camus and Louis C.K. possess radically different styles, upon examination, the precise French writing of the former and the outrageous, comedic ranting of the latter exhibit a similar view of life. This echoes the underlying power of art. It allows similar thoughts, generations removed and created in a different place and culture to be conveyed to an audience, whether it is through Nobel Prize-winning literature or Emmy-winning comedy. Ironically, although their work focuses upon the absurdities of our existence, their stories seem to have a positive influence on their audience, serving as a catalyst that prompts people to wonder about the meaning in their lives. It is through the collective interpretation of our experiences that art explores the meaning of life, allowing us to better grasp the nature of our existence.