Louis C.K. Stares at the Void

His new show, Louie,displays a fine dark humor.

Louis C.K. in Louie

“I’m 41, and I’m single,” Louis C.K. said in introducing himself on Louie (FX, Tuesdays at 11 p.m. ET). He was holding a mic onstage at the Comedy Cellar, where the color of the exposed brick colluded with the lighting so that he took on the purple sheen of an uncommon pigeon. He went on to offer a clarification: “Mmmm—not really single, just alone.” He dragged out that last word with a strain indicating the precise weight of its meaning. Woeful but not self-pitying, his intonation was a generalized metaphysical moan, and it declared that his relationship status coincided with a particular state of being and nothingness. Having suffered the death of much of his optimism, Louis C.K. is feeling alone in the universe.

Indeed, he dwells lavishly on his mortality. The show’s theme song rewrites the chorus of “Brother Louie” so that the mondegreen is actually there—”Louie, Louie, you’re gonna die”—and elsewhere he roars, with a hard chuckle, “There’s never gonna be another year of my life that was better than the year before.” But the wonder of the situation is that there’s something life-affirming in the very way he dwells.

Louis C.K.—or, more precisely, the comic persona we see him deploy in segments of his consistently excellent stand-up act and in uneven short films amounting to blurts of surrealistic autobiography—isn’t especially jaded or anxious. Though his sensibility is streetwise East Coast urban, he’s not a self-dramatizing neurotic like Jerry Seinfeld or Woody Allen. Rather, he’s a regular guy with a lot of well-worn nerves, just a bit more introspective that most.

The crux of the shtick is that he’s free of illusions—wide-eyed and accepting of the cruelty and meaninglessness of it all—but not actually disillusioned. Though he derives a giddy pleasure from hating other people (what’s not to hate?), he is too kind a soul to let himself degenerate into terminal misanthropy (what’s the use?). Though he lacks the smugness of a moralist, his jokes about the privileges he’s lucked into have a moral core. Here is a man who laughs with bitter amazement at the fact that people are starving in the world while he’s driving an Infiniti. In his hands, even a line about having sex with monkeys—a delightfully rude roundabout way to ponder the psychology of desire—turns on a consideration of ethical living that is more than halfway serious. He jokes that his only objection to bestiality concerns the problem of obtaining consent: “If you can get an animal horny, go ahead, man.”

It is as if, beneath the anger that every good comedian must cultivate and cherish, he’s achieved a kind of philosophical peace. Having meditated on the world’s absurd injustices, he greets them with absurdity in kind. In all, the outlook qualifies him as a kind of existential hero.

Louie’s line about his aloneness led straight to the central fact of his nonmarried life: He shares custody of his two young daughters. Despite his copious raunchy material about sex and sexuality and his risky observations about race and racism, this comedian is most daring when approaching taboos about parenting and the way parents are supposed to talk about their kids. His lack of sentimentality is sterling. In a short film imagining an apocalyptically awkward first date, Louie’s sole moment of dignity comes after the date in question, automatically sappy as most of us are, goes, “Awww!” upon hearing that he has two girls. He does good deadpan bafflement in response to her so-cute coos: “What? Have you seen them?”

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