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Tonight In Louieland

I was watching an episode of Stephen Merchant’s new tolerably decent HBO show “Hello Ladies” the other night, standard fare cringe-comedy of the sort he’s been doing with Ricky Gervais for the last decade. Merchant has yet to reach Gervais’s saturation level and as such hasn’t veered off into ‘Derek’ territory – the latter’s latest TV comedy-drama about a ‘special’ volunteer member of a nursing home staff who enlightens all via uncalculated displays of ‘kindness.’ Ugh.  But more on that another time. There was a transitional scene in the ‘Ladies’ episode where Merchant exits a pool party he’s planned because the invited Hollywood models and actresses have failed to show. They then, of course, all arrive on cue shortly after his departure. In order to explain why nobody phones or texts to alert him to the change of events they had to insert a scene where a neighbor woman throws his cell phone in the swimming pool. It’s only later, once he’s home on his laptop computer, that someone breaks through via a pop-up message to let him know what’s going on.

Louis CK had a brilliant bit on a recent Conan show that starts with him explaining why he won’t get his kid a cell phone and develops into a dissertation on the absence of healthy despair and sadness in modern culture. “You need to build an ability,” he reasons “to just be yourself and not be doing something .. and this is what the phones are taking away.” He goes on to explain that “underneath everything in your life there’s that thing .. that empty .. forever-empty ..” Cut to CK driving in his car as Springsteen’s ‘Jungleland’ comes on and his instant urge to join the murderous legions texting while driving in order to not feel lonely. He describes the powerful instinct to get the phone and “write ‘hi’ to, like, fifty people” sifting through the uncool ones until he finds the appropriate response to alleviate his crushing sadness. Instead he pulls safely over to the side of the road and cries hard. While I’m not sure I agree with his alternative method — I once had the “getting it out of you” analogy for intensely indulged grief explained as the psychological equivalent to running on a broken leg — I do think he’s on to something. Perhaps the more reasonable alternative is to just keep driving while letting yourself listen to the end of the song and shedding a few unmanly tears for no one to see.

CK’s humor follows the trail blazed by George Carlin and borders on straight-up pathos, save the appropriate comic observations. The laughs often come defensively; his observations are so uncomfortably accurate that responding any other way would involve pulling the car over. Where Carlin evolved into a loquaciously dark, almost confrontational persona, CK sticks with an edgy sort of hopelessness with homicidal id on full display. He can reference topics like filicide and necrophilia with the same ease Jerry Seinfeld talks about Superman. He loses me at times when he indulges in the morbidly unattractive elements to middle aged physicality and decline, but always seems to right the ship with some insightfully funny and brutally honest shit. He had another bit recently about parents at their children’s school dance recital, none of whom are viewing the event straight-on but rather on the screens of their iPhones and iPads held in front of their faces and causing all to look like a group-shot from the witness protection program. “In a million years you’re not going to watch videos of your kid doing shit you missed the first time it happened.” It’s in these unscripted moments that he’s most eloquent. He goes on to say that the parents just post this stuff to Facebook, where it goes unwatched by legions of others who see only the first frame and occasionally comment. You can prove this to yourself, he concludes, by splicing in an extended video of your asshole shortly after the dance intro and noting how nobody notices. Personally, I don’t think he needs to wrap up what’s already a brilliantly funny bit by going for the huge laughs with broad humor .. but it works.

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