There is a riff in Louis CK’s Hilarious that’s been stuck in my head all afternoon.
Anyway, I was listening to the two guys. And one of them used a word that really pissed me off. Because, it was how he used it. He used the word ‘hilarious.’ That’s one of those words that we use, and we don’t care what it means. We go right for the top shelf with our words, now. We don’t think about how we talk. We just say, 'Dude, it was amazing. It was amazing.’ Really? You were 'amazed'? You were 'amazed'? By a basket of chicken wings? Really? 'Amazing?'
What are you going to do with the rest of your life now? What if something really happens to you? What if Jesus comes down from the sky. Makes love to you all night long. Leaves the new living lord in your belly? What are you going to call that? You used ‘amazing’ on a basket of chicken wings. You’ve limited yourself verbally to a shit life. All these words we use. ‘Genius.’ Anybody can be a ‘genius’ now. It used to be you had to have a thought no one had ever had before. Or you had to invent a number. Now, it’s like, 'Hey I got a cup in case we need another cup. Dude you're a genius. '
So this guys, he used ‘hilarious.’ […] His friend goes, ‘I saw Lisa today.’ And he goes, ‘Hah. That’s hilarious.’
How the fuck is that hilarious?! That you saw Lisa? Is Lisa a poodle on her hind legs. How is that hilarious? Was she standing next to Jerry Lewis when he was younger. How the fuck is that hilarious? Do you know what hilarious means? Hilarious means so funny that you almost went insane when you heard that shit. It’s just so funny that it almost ruined your life. You’re homeless now because you can’t cope or reason anymore because that hilarious thing just shattered your mind. And three months later you’ve got shit and leaves in your hair and you’re drenched in pee in the gutter. That’s how funny hilarious is.
This extended Louis CK riff ranks right up there with this passage from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which, by the way, now that it’s been like four decades since I was in school—how great of a title is that?).
The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the grey-fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many- coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?
I listened to CK’s Hilarious twice today, and I’m convinced it’s one of the best self-help audio books in history, which seems like a rather short list culled from a small pool, but if you consider basically anything anyone ever said in history, it’s actually a pretty hyperbolic claim. I mean, it does end with CK saying, “I don’t give a shit. If you’re having your period, come on over. I’m forty-one. I’ll fuck the shit out of you. I’ll drink the blood. Let’s party.” So its, you know, timeless worth is also relative. Or maybe not. Period sex, right.
Anyway, I derailed myself.
CK is actually hyperbolic frequently. Like above. A lot of his comedic etiology is hyperbolic observation. But in his eponymous riff—and elsewhere, like when he talks about parenting—he sort of preaches this American pragmatist doctrine of empirical/practical effectiveness leading to a somewhat transcendental set of human conditions. At the same time, he speaks the writerly assertion that language constitutes our experience, thereby arguing for the primacy of language over experience. In this way, he is fairly right at home with my other heroes, Joyce and Wittgenstein.
I believe it’s part of the modernist program to revitalize the everydayness of our experience by reinvigorating our verbal experience of reality. Humor is I won’t say one of the easiest, but when it’s good it’s one of the most salient ways we get to reinvigorate our verbal experience of reality. The whole Seinfelsian What’s the deal with? school of comedy is basically about hanging language on the bare bones of lived experience in order to make it dance like a fool.
When CK makes his comedy routine explicitly about the everydayness of linguistic experience, then, you can see why I shoot a metaphor wad all over my headphones. When he says, “You’ve limited yourself verbally to a shit life,” it’s really one of the most impressively critical diagnoses of life I’ve ever heard. Being limited verbally to a shit life is the circumscribed-transcendental ground of artistic expression. Philosophically, I suppose, we’re damned to a life of limited expression, always butting with words against the limits of ratiocinated experience, since Life seems to be limitless but existence is always already finite. But CK’s humor and outrage are an effective—if not panacea for, then—reminder of the ways in which we further limit our experience through a lack of effort or mastery over language. We can never be perfect, but we can try, right?
A way that CK is like Joyce and Wittgenstein is how he writes thematically as words qua words. He’s not writing about the experience of being amazed or the experience of hilarity. He writes about the structure of language, and its internal logic. Saying something is improperly assigned the words “hilarious” or “amazing” isn’t to deny the validity of experience. It’s an affront to language, which is this way not really connected to experience. It’s an affront to the transcendent itself. You can construct a verbal world that doesn’t obtain to reality—yet it’s connected somehow indistinctly to reality—and that construction can be ill-formed.
I want to say that even his name itself, ‘CK’ is a great sign, a metonymy, for what he does: He takes what’s OK about experience, and chips a little bit of its structure away so that we can see the hole in life that’s actually always present. The one that we cover up with the vague assertion-through-living that things really are OK. But really, they’re missing something.