Stand-up comedy is a complex, vibrant, multilayered phenomenon that, over recent decades, has attracted a fair share of attention not only from critics and target audiences but also from researchers in different fields. From a linguistic standpoint, jokes and comedy routines are usually subtracted from the main discourse and dissected in isolation from the context. Social studies consider more factors: for instance, the period when a particular routine was written and for whom it was created.
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This paper will provide a rhetorical analysis that will incorporate both linguistic and social perspectives on several fragments from Louis C. K.’s “Shameless” comedy show. The present essay will also discuss controversies surrounding Louis C. K. as a public figure and his stance on humor to give the analysis more depth.
Brief Biographical Overview and Controversies
Louis Székely, who is better known by his stage name Louis C. K., is a stand-up comedian, actor, writer, and filmmaker of American-Mexican origins. He was born in 1967 in Washington, DC, and began his career in comedy at the age of 17 in 1984. Louis C. K.’s professional life had a rocky start and humble beginnings as he did not gain much attention as a stand-up artist in the 1990s. It was not until 2005 that he had his first breakthrough in the stand-up industry after years of focusing on filmmaking – writing and directing.
Despite Louis C. K.’s steady rise to stardom and continuous success, for him, the year 2017 was marked by several accusations of sexual misconduct as the “MeToo” movement was in full swing. His fellow comedian, Roseanne Barr, spoke out about the stories she heard from other women about Louis C. K. locking himself up in a room with them and masturbating (Ryzik). His downfall continued as more and more female comedians started to give an account of Louis C. K. abusing his power and leverage in the industry to exploit them sexually. One of the consequences of the past incidents appeared to be closer scrutiny of Louis C. K.’s comedy – the outraged public sought inappropriate messages in his routines to undermine his reputation further.
Louis CK’s “Shameless”: Rhetorical Situation Analysis
There is no denying that the image of Louis C. K. in media and the comedy world is not only eccentric but also controversial. His comedy as a direct product of his mind and personality is too often characterized by a high degree of “inappropriateness” and polarizing messages made for entertainment. Yet, his shows and specials on HBO and Netflix are widely popular and attract many viewers. The vast popularity of his type of humor points to two possible explanations: undeniable relevance of the subject matter of his routines and their perfect structure and timing.
The structure of comedy routines can be examined using rhetorical analysis. This type of analysis aims at exposing three parts in every joke or comical story: exigence, audience, and constraints. Exigence is defined as a social and political circumstance that allows for making a relevant routine as a response to a resonant event. The audience consists of the viewership of a comedian, and it is essential that they can recognize the facts or phenomena to which a comedian refers. Lastly, constraints are stereotypes and commonly held beliefs that a comedian may choose to question, debunk, or attack directly.
“Shameless” is one of Louis C. K.’s most iconic shows to date. The show came out in 2007 – shortly after the comedian’s rise to fame – and includes some of his most well-known routines that can be described by the adjective that is the title of the performance – “Shameless.” For instance, the opening bit already contains all three elements necessary for rhetorical analysis – it trains the audience and orients towards the nature of the show (Filani 43). C. K. starts with a statement that both Hitler and Ray Charles are dead – the death of Ray Charles being a recent event back then makes the opening relevant, and the audience is aware of it.
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He then proceeds with comparing these two very dissimilar people. The comedian says that “Hitler killed several Jews. Too many. I’ll say too many. He killed an excessive amount of Jews. Just no moderation (“Louis C.K. – Shameless (07)”).” In this fragment, he breaks a societal expectation of him being aware of the realities of the Holocaust and then acts surprised as he discovers what Hitler did.
Another famous routine from “Shameless” is the “I Love Being White” piece. Again, all three elements are in place: the racial tension was still very much present back in 2007, and the mixed audience was aware of it. Right from the start, Louis C. K. breaks the audience’s expectations about what they are about to hear. He enlists some things that he is grateful for – “Thank God, I am alive, I am healthy” – and adds “I am white ((“Louis C. K. – Shameless (07)”).” In a country where there have always been complicated relationship dynamics between races, such a statement could generate controversy. However, as Louis C. K. goes on and talks about his privileges, it turns out that it is his way of exposing the faulty system of oppression.
Lastly, another highlight of the show is a no less controversial piece titled “Never Rape Anyone unless You Have a Reason.” Louis C. K. starts a rooting with setting the background that can be interpreted as the exigence part: he tells a story of an annoying friend who likes to make many phone calls and ask him uncomfortable questions. Both characteristics of the friend are familiar to the audience – especially given that mobile phones were emerging in the mass market. He then mentions a frequently asked question to strike a conversation, “What would you do if you had a time machine?” Unlike his friend who would murder Hitler, C.K. says that he would rape him. He concludes that it is appropriate to rape people if it is for a greater cause – a statement that would cost him a career was it used outside the context.
Modern Perception and Target Audiences
Louis C. K.’s old shows on par with performances by other prominent figures like George Carlin may make a viewer feel nostalgic for the era when comedy was freer and less restrained. The question arises as to how C. K.’s humor fits in the modern context, if it does at all. As the political climate in the United States becomes more polarized, some people make attempts at policing jokes and call for more sensitivity towards social groups with actual or perceived disadvantages. For instance, the routines about race, sex, and gender from 2007 “Shameless” might have proven to be negatively resonant were they to come out today. While C. K.’s humor aligns with the characteristics of the chosen genre, his target audience now might be smaller.
It seems like his approach to comedy is losing its relevance especially given the accusations of sexual impropriety. After all the controversies, C. K. tried to make a comeback and once again generated controversy with his jokes about mass shooting victims (Kenny). Even though it is true that C. K. might have been inconsiderate, it is safe to assume that both media and he contributed to his failure. As Greenwald states, comedy should feed on “hard truths” and not “cheap gags.”
Louis C. K. seems to be playing a game of trial and error – sometimes, he is a neat observer of relevant phenomena, but sometimes, he makes jokes for the pure shock value of them. Critics, on the other hand, might be stifling his potential while imposing political correctness onto comedy. As Pérez and Greene state, the main function of humor is to move the viewers from “the serious mode to humorous mode (3).” It is upon them to support or condemn the comedian – and do so independently.
Humor and comedy are some of the oldest forms of human self-expression, and on many occasions, they have become the subject matter for such disciplines as linguistics, sociology, psychology, and some others. Even though the concept of comedy may seem nebulous and extremely broad to be analyzed, there is a number of perspectives in which stand-up comedy can be put for examination. Louis C. K., a renowned comedian, created many specials which can be analyzed rhetorically with the exposure of the three essential elements – exigence, audience, and constraints. In his 2007 show “Shameless,” almost every routine is structured according to the rhetorics of humor, making the jokes effective in delivery.
Louis C. K. is a controversial public figure which, however, never missed an opportunity to enrage his critics. It is argued that he might need to find a balance between harsh truths and offensive content, whereas his critics should let his potential unfold and allow viewers to decide whether his comedy has any value.
Greenwald, Abe. “Louis C.K. – and His Critics – Are a Plague on Comedy.” New York Post. 2019. Web.
Filani, I. (2015). Discourse types in stand-up comedy performances: An example of Nigerian stand-up comedy. The European Journal of Humour Research, 3(1), 41-60.
Kenny, Brody. “How Louis C.K. and the Rest of Us Failed in His Comeback Attempt.” Consequence of Sound. 2018. Web.
“Louis C.K. – Shameless (07).” YouTube, uploaded by FyahRas Tv, 2018. Web.
Pérez, R., & Greene, V. S. (2016). Debating rape jokes vs. rape culture: Framing and counter-framing misogynistic comedy. Social Semiotics, 26(3), 265-282.
Ryzik, Melena, et al. “Louis C.K. Is Accused by 5 Women of Sexual Misconduct.” The New York Times. 2017. Web.