Louis C.K., the Jerk-Off Genius

He's a compulsively honest, deeply neurotic, masturbatory schlub - and the funniest man on television

louis ck
FX
Louis C.K.
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Greatest moment ever on Louie: the scene last season where he torments his daughters by singing along in the car to the Who's "Who Are You." It isn't just a pithy chorus or two – he does almost the whole song, one "who who, who who" after another, just air-Keith-Moon-ing away, while his daughters cringe in their car seats. It really makes you feel the pain of being trapped in a moving vehicle with this guy. It also helps answer the question of who Louie is. Who who, who who? He's a jerk genius, that's who.

Like a lot of moments on Louie, Louis C.K.'s soul-suckingly great FX sitcom, it goes on for-fucking-ever, which is why it's brilliant. Being confined anywhere with Louie is not much fun for anyone – least of all for him. (He doesn't want to be in that car either.) As Pete Townshend might have said, 11 hours in a tin can – God, there's got to be another way.

As Louie rolls into its third season, the man remains gloriously overwhelmed by the misery of his life as a fortysomething stand-up who's divorced with two kids. He's got body-image issues. He has no social skills. He has a Cinnabon problem (he hits the airport Cinnabon after the plane lands), and he worries a lot about his masturbation habits. As he admits at one point in the new season, "I jerk off to that wedding album I found in the garbage."

Louis C.K. is so compulsively open about his flaws that he appeals to the self-loathing Louie inside everyone. He hits a nerve across cultural boundaries, which is why his most famous line is still his classic observation on 9/11: "You can tell how bad a person you are by how long after 9/11 you waited to masturbate. For me, it was between the first and second tower falling down."

As always, Louie is a one-man show: He stars, writes, directs and even edits it himself. He takes the punk-rock DIY work ethic to heart, directing the way Steve Albini produces, shoving the rawness and realness in your face. There's a principled disdain for production values, even when he's working with guest stars like Parker Posey and Melissa Leo – which might be why he brings out the animal in both of them. (Posey hasn't been this electric since Best in Show.)

Louie's urban misanthropy is always tempered by the fact that he's a dad, one who loves his daughters almost as much as he hates himself for resenting them. That makes him different from kindred cranks like Larry David or Lena Dunham – he doesn't just have himself to worry about. He has dependents, and these two kids are innocent bystanders. That's the agony of Louie: It's Curb Your Enthusiasm with hostages.

So he can do vignettes about dismal sex ("Your sperms are dying inside my mouth right now," one lucky lady tells him), or scenes where his daughters cheer him up over dinner with knock-knock jokes, and both moments seem like part of the same complex life. All the realness could seem contrived, like an indie band that insists on keeping the drumstick clicks on the record. But that's how he achieves amazingly cathartic moments like the episode where he gets a new male friend and has no idea how to make emotional contact. It's rare to see anyone depict the awkward intimacies of straight-guy bonding this nakedly. It's the bromance Lost in Translation.

"Getting divorced is like stepping out of a time machine," Louie said in one early episode. "But it's a really shitty time machine. It's the kind of time machine that takes the real amount of time to take you to the future." It was a great gag – yet the real punch line is that Louie still hasn't gotten out of that shitty time machine. Three years after the divorce, he still finds himself trapped in his own life. Will he ever escape into a future he likes better? There's no way of knowing. But one thing is for sure – he'll be air-drumming all the way there.

This story is from the July 5th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1160: July 5, 2012