Monday, May 18, 2015

If you have to explain the joke ... it's still funny

Before this weekend's season finale of Saturday Night Live (which I didn't watch at the time but have caught up on since), I was of the firm belief that Louis C.K. delivered the best monologues of the current era. In part because he is my favorite comedian at the moment. And also because I like actual monologues way more than yet another tired, pointless and meta musical number about hosting. (I hear the writers find the segment to be a chore to write, yet another reason a stand-up stands out.)

But after this most recent monologue, I'm not so sure...

... If Louis C.K. should always do the monologue, or merely do it every couple of weeks.

Because that was pretty much the perfect SNL monologue. Energetic, dangerous, not ready for prime time and — above all — onions-to-the-eyes funny. Billy Crystal has said that the show in its earlier days was like NBC had shut down for the night, and the cast got to turn on the lights and play. This is the first monologue in a while — at least since Martin Lawrence's in 1994 — that most closely reflects that aesthetic.

Not that I'm comparing Lawrence to Louis. Martin's extremely NSFW monologue was quite possibly the grossest combination of words ever spoken on network television. It was cringe-inducing and only sporadically funny, a textbook case of a provocative comedian trying too hard to be provocative. But the notoriety around it reminded us that SNL is the only show on TV where chances like that get taken. Any show that can be likened to the mice fooling around after the cat's gone to bed is going to have such moments. For better or for worse, that's what makes it worth watching.

Louis made that quality work for the better Saturday night with a monologue as hilarious (though C.K. might hate my use of that word) as it was dangerous.

To sum it up — and to paraphrase the critics — Louis joked about being mildly racist, compared his children's fights to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and found the humor in child molesters — all topics generally off-limits to comedy.

But Louis CK pulls it off like few others ever could. How?

Because of what the critics all seem to miss: It is Louis CK, not minorities, Israelis, Palestinians or victims of child molestation, who is the target of his own jokes.

His act, in large part, is the explosion of white (and male) privilege. He thrives on reflecting White America's First World problems back in its face with an "ARE YOU KIDDING ME?" sneer. For example, he wonders how someone can hate Verizon because that one time the service wasn't perfect. ("It's going to SPACE! Give it a second!") He riffs on how much better things are now than they've ever been, even if we're too short-sighted to see that — and how it's good that nowadays we actually examine why people are they way they are.

Moreover, he sets himself up as the privileged, schlubby, social has-been, deeply imperfect father — a guy who means well, but who sometimes can't help his shittier side. When he slams white privilege, he never lets us forget that he's overloaded with it.

When Chris Rock (for whom Louis C.K. used to write) claims that no white person would ever switch places with him even though he's rich, Louis answers in the affirmative: "If it was an option, I'd re-up every year! 'Oh yeah, I'll take white again, absolutely.'"

"I'm not saying that white people are better," Louis says, "I'm saying that being white is clearly better ... And I'm a MAN! How many advantages could one person have? I'm a WHITE MAN! You can't even hurt my feelings!" 

There's often a fine line between biting satire and the real thing, a boundary so often overlooked in the rush to judge. But this is not the stuff a racist/pedo uncle would say at Thanksgiving. This is trenchant commentary. Just like the monologue, which is what SNL has needed for a while now.

There's nothing funny about racism, Middle East conflict or child molesters. But white privilege deserves all the punch lines.

So, yeah, keep holding up that mirror, Louis C.K. It should never be your last show.

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