Where Comedy Crackles

Last week, Louis C.K. emailed his fans a manifesto on the importance of comedy clubs:

Nightclubs, comedy clubs, is where comedy is born and where comedy, standup comedy, truly lives. Going back to Abraham Lincoln, who was probably America’s first comedian, Americans have enjoyed gathering at night in small packed (and once smokey) rooms, drinking themselves a bit numb and listening to each other say wicked, crazy, silly, wrongful, delightful, upside-down, careless, offensive, disgusting, whimsical things. Sometimes in long-winded, red faced hyperbole, sometimes in carefully crafted circular, intentionally false and misleading argument. Sometimes in well-chiseled perfectly timed trickery of verbiage. Pun-poetry. One line, one off, half thoughts. Half truths. Non-truths. Broad and hilariously wrongful generalizations, exaggerated prejudices and criticism of nothing and everything while a couple over here shares a pitcher of sangria, this table of guys order round after round of beers. … These are the things we do when we are DONE working and being citizens. We go to a comedy club and pay a bit of money to laugh harder than we ever do anywhere else.

What fascinated David Haglund about the email was the focus on how integral clubs are to the creative process:

[C]onsider the joke-writing process that C.K. describes later in the e-mail.

In Los Angeles, where the New York-based C.K. filmed the special, he would do “twenty minutes of new material” at alternative venues and get “cheered on by the young, open and adaptive crowds” there. Then he would take those jokes to the Improv, “where the more basic and average character of the audience would cut the new material down to about three jokes.” And then he’d take those three to the famous Comedy Store, where, he writes, “maybe ONE of those jokes would get a chuckle.” That’s the keeper.

Having watched C.K.’s latest direct-to-fans special, Matt Zoller Seitz stands in awe:

[W]hen C.K.’s brain starts buzzing and his mouth follows the firing synapses, the result is marvelous. He’s one of those comics who can be very good when the material is intellectual, theoretical, or rhetorical, and there are a few stretches here that fit that description; my favorites are his very Louie-like discussion of how pets can be used to prepare children for the reality of death. (When a dog dies, you can tell them, “Yeah, well, Grandma now.”)

But he soars when he goes off-book (or seems to) and starts riffing, or seems to riff. You can tell when this is happening. C.K.’s eyes seem to almost literally light up, and a thrilled and demented grin appears on his face. This is the signal that he’s seized on a marginal aspect of whatever he just said and is about to grab hold of it, take it apart, and see if there’s a more ludicrous or surprising notion hiding inside of it.