Comedy and the Social Contract: The Surprisingly Conservative Vision of Louis C.K.
Carrie Andersen / FLOW Marketing Editor


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On stand-up comedian Louis C.K.’s widely acclaimed television show, Louie, a woman plucks a strawberry from Louie’s breakfast plate while he dines at a restaurant. She asks in passing (and without waiting for a response), “Can I have one of these? Thanks!” Most people would chalk this strawberry loss up to bad luck and grumble about the woman’s presumptuousness. But Louie replies: “No, you can’t.” She is baffled by his retort, having already eaten the strawberry. He ends the exchange by pointing out the ridiculousness of her request: “You asked me if you could have one, and I said no, so… you just ate a strawberry that you can’t have.” As we see, Louie continually grapples with rules that govern human behavior in his usually unpleasant encounters with others.

Beyond the strawberry issue, Louie explores lofty questions that half-hour comedy programs rarely confront. How do we live a good life? How do we cultivate a code of conduct for our world? How can we avoid being awful to each other?

C.K. is no stranger to questions of living an ethical life—and, aware of his moral choices, often puts his own behavior on trial. In his December 2011 stand-up special, Live at Beacon Theater, the comedian describes one of his own falls from grace.

Too late for a flight to return his rental car, C.K. simply drives the car to the terminal—not to the rental car return—and boards his flight. He then calls Hertz to explain where the car is, and the employee exasperatedly explains the proper rental return procedure. C.K. replies matter-of-factly, “Well, I didn’t do that already, and now I’m leaving California.” Hertz sends an employee to retrieve the car, and C.K. avoids any consequences from his failure to abide by the rules.

Although C.K. realizes he could do this every time he flies to avoid Hertz’s bureaucratic song and dance, he knows it is wrong. Considering the broader consequences of this behavior, Louis advises, “You should act in a way, that if everyone acted that way, things would work out. Because it would be mayhem if everyone was like that.” This is Louis C.K.’s crude twist on Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: for Kant, a principle (or, in his words, a maxim) is ethical if it would “become through your will a universal law of nature.” ((Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (New Haven: Yale University Press), 38.))

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C.K.’s maxim is, of course, not a strict reinterpretation of Kant’s. Louis is concerned with the outcome of his actions—he wants “things to work out”—while Kant questions whether we act in alignment with what duty requires of us. But both evaluate ethical choices based on the negative criterion of universalizability: you can’t make exceptions for yourself even if you want to.

Louis’s consequentialism also makes him more concerned with how actions can help society function as painlessly as possible. Unfortunately, he has a dim view of how this works in practice. C.K.’s crafted world in Louie becomes an arena in which moral quandaries about our world are tested and diagnosed through a character based almost entirely upon C.K. himself. And C.K. is more than simply a player: his personal sensibilities and philosophies innervate the core of the show, as he is its sole writer, director, and, until its third season, editor.

The deepest flaws that plague Louie’s world are found in the institutions intended to educate and cultivate moral character. We see weaknesses in the school system, for example, when a PTA meeting devolves into a battle among almost hyperbolically unpleasant parents and no headway is made to address real problems:

Similarly, the church is concerned with punishing sin over encouraging compassion for one’s neighbors. As a child, Louie was prodded to literally drive nails through his friend because, as a sinner, he was so willing to do the same to Jesus, leaving him mired in a perpetual state of apostasy as an adult:

Louie and God

Louie’s experience with the Catholic Church

The government, even with Obama at the helm, cannot provide Louie the support he expects. Louie hopes to buy a $17 million home for his daughters, imagining that an upgrade in housing will heal the familial wounds opened from his divorce and reconfigure him as a good father. His accountant, however, advises him that his $7,000 in savings are not quite enough for this purchase, prompting a Hail Mary pass to our Commander-in-Chief:

Louie and realtor

Louie’s dashed home-ownership hopes

The senselessness of these institutions means Louie has little incentive to participate in them. Nor does he have any possibility of benefiting from them. He cannot rely on any formal organization for moral uplift. Louie must rely on himself and incidental human decency.

Louie’s lack of faith in formal institutions parallels a trend in late 20th century American life that Robert Putnam has explored for the past twenty years. Putnam’s work points to declines in membership in voluntary associations of several kinds since the 1960s, which he suggests may underlie other destructive trends: declines in social trust, civic engagement, and norms of reciprocity. ((Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).))

But the sociological concern with social obligation and withering ties is much older than Putnam’s research. Alexis de Tocqueville’s canonical exploration of American life and temperament at our nation’s inception similarly advocates the voluntary association (or, for political theorist Edmund Burke, “little platoons” of civic life) like Louie’s PTA. ((Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “Defending the ‘Little Platoons’; Communitarianism in American Conservatism,” American Studies 40, no. 3 (1999): 127-145.)) Likewise, Tocqueville reminds us that the individualist spirit that inheres in a democratic society can result in the atrophy of civic life as it also encourages closing one’s social sphere to those close to him. He warns, “Individualism…disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellow men and to draw himself off to the side with his family and his friends in such a way that…he willingly abandons the larger society to itself.” ((Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), 205.)) Both Putnam and Tocqueville worry that the ties that bind us in mutual obligation may be limited to those close to us, rather than extended to a broad civic community.

In a world like Louie’s where the system is both flawed and nonsensical, and where institutions cannot provide moral guidance or community, maybe focusing on the family is the best he (and we) can do. Louie is not bent on fixing the institutions that fail him. He embarks on no quest to right the wrongs of the Catholic Church. He doesn’t return to another PTA meeting. Instead, he turns to his relationships and casual encounters with others. Just like Voltaire’s Candide, Louie’s energies rest primarily in cultivating his own tiny, immediate garden.

Louie clings to the idea that we owe goodness to each other. One of the most extraordinary moments in the show’s second season occurs on the subway, where he notices a pool of sludge on a seat. His fellow passengers look on with disgust, making no moves to clean the mess. But Louie does what he feels is right: he sacrifices a clean shirt to wipe the sludge away, bathing in the gratitude of his onlookers until he snaps to his senses. His action was a mere fantasy of compassion. The sludge remains:

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But although Louie hopes for a broad social contract that encourages such actions, the bulk of his efforts to live a good life focus narrowly on his family. Louie’s duty to instill moral values in his daughters is featured throughout the show, but he nonetheless remains ambivalent about this charge.

Louie knows that his daughters rescue him from moral declension. After dropping the girls off to stay with their mother for a week, he proclaims, “I’m not going to be a bag of shit like I always am,” briefly vowing to engage in healthy behavior. However much our behaviors are driven by unconscious or external forces, we want to believe that we are on our own and in control, as philosophy scholar Firman DeBrabander points out. We don’t want to believe that, rather than living, “we are lived.” ((Firman DeBrabander, “Deluded Individualism,” New York Times, August 18, 2012, accessed August 25, 2012, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/18/deluded-individualism/.))

Nonetheless, he immediately succumbs to his Id. In a grossly sexualized display of physical appetite, Louie plows through an entire pint of ice cream in a few brief moments:

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Top: Louie dives into the ice cream. Bottom: the aftermath.

But he also detests this parental obligation. Just before he devours his ice cream, Louie laments, “Every day that you spend with your kids is torture.” Louie—like many of us—is tempted by his animal desires. He longs to give in to his selfishness, to be completely self-contained. He wants to toss his daughters aside so he can eat pint after pint guilt-free.

This impulse is not surprising. After all, radical self-reliance is appealing in an age when we cannot rely upon formal institutions for guidance. Believing that we could survive on our own is empowering. ((This flavor of empowerment also underlies the appeal of festivals like Burning Man, an “annual art event and temporary community based on radical self-expression and self-reliance in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.”)) But the independence that Louie idealizes is far from the self-interest rightly understood that Tocqueville lauds. We do not “sacrifice [ourselves] to [our] fellow man.” ((Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 220.)) Giving up our clothes to mop up a mess on a subway car is only a fantasy. The reality is, Louie points out, that we’re assholes. Although we want to believe we’d do the right thing, left to our own devices, we would give the middle finger to those who count on us so we can eat junk until we pass out.

Against these urges that he himself finds grotesque, Louie yearns for mutual obligation and a fixed social contract within a disorderly, fragmented world that lacks institutional support. These are surprisingly conservative ideals that contrast with C.K.’s otherwise progressive repute. I don’t mean that C.K. endorses Mitt Romney or Tea Party politics. Nor do I believe that Louie should be read as a solely conservative text: one of the show’s best attributes is its moral complexity and its progressive vision of what we owe each other. But these hopes for constancy and broad moral social codes that require us to conquer our reptilian brains resemble paleoconservative political and moral philosophies of thinkers like Russell Kirk.

Kirk was speaking of individuals like Louie when he asserted that “man is a creature fallen from grace.” ((Russell Kirk, “Conservatism, Liberalism, Fraternity,” lecture given in June 1954 to Chi Omega, in The Chi Omega Address, 1914-1954 (1956), 115.)) It’s in our nature to gulp down the ice cream. But our purpose on this planet, he argues, is ultimately to reject these desires as best we can, “to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in [our] neighbors and in [us], and to aspire toward the triumph of Love.” ((Kirk, “Conservatism, Liberalism, Fraternity,” 115.)) In Kirk’s Old Testament mind, an orderly and just society is possible if we first learn to love particular individuals: our families, associates, communities. ((Kirk, “Conservatism, Liberalism, Fraternity,” 116. Kirk’s understanding of the moral uplift that can arise from immediate and particular human relationships draws in part from Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, who similarly believed that specific relationships are more likely to foster love and justice than more abstract sentiments about others. See Barbara J. Elliott’s “Faith, Civil Society, and the American Founding” on The Imaginative Conservative for a thoughtful exploration of how these conservatives imagine community in America.)) As ambivalent as he is, if Louie learns to avoid base temptations with the help of (and for the sake of) his daughters, he might have a shot at living in a decent world.

Should we be surprised that these moral fibers run so strongly through a cable comedy program? I don’t think so. Comedy has a long history of offering social critique and suggesting how we should act. And perhaps delivering hard truths obliquely through comedy is more effective than a political jeremiad. Maybe the message to shape up for the good of society is more palatable from Louis C.K. than it is from Jimmy Carter, whose reproaching malaise speech, while initially well-received for asking Americans to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of the nation, soon gave way to Reagan’s rosy rebuttal: “I find no national malaise, I find nothing wrong with the American people.” ((Ronald Reagan, “A Vision for America,” November 3, 1980, accessed August 6, 2012, http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/reference/11.3.80.html.))

No sacrifice necessary in our shining city upon a hill. At least, not as long as we can simply take a strawberry that we can’t or shouldn’t have. Louie invites us to take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror, recognize our excess, our failings, our repugnant shortcomings, and learn how we might move towards the light of common decency and individual responsibility.

Image Credits:

1. Louie’s experience with the Catholic Church (author’s screen capture).
2. Louie’s dashed home-ownership hopes (author’s screen capture).
3. Top: Louie dives into the ice cream. Bottom: the aftermath (author’s screen capture).

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