Some comics work years to develop a solid hour of material, then hold on for dear life. Not Louis C.K. The 41-year-old American standup, otherwise known as Louis Szekely, is a lazy workhorse whose routine has a self-imposed best-before date. Each year he throws out the old act and begins work on a new one. And not because he's ripping jokes out of the headlines of the day. His approach isn't topical, except insofar as it reflects where he is in his life.
"I'm a badly motivated person," he insists, reached at home in Los Angeles. "So I have to make it a rule that I don't do material after a certain point."
His explanation for why so many standup comics rely on the tried and true is that jokes and laughs are addictive.
"And you get scared," he points out. "You think, 'I couldn't possibly do a show without that stuff. That's my big stuff.' But sure you can. Tell yourself you're going to do it.
"Self-preservation works wonders," he adds. "The natural instinct of my brain will kick into high gear and give me stuff to talk about."
These days, C.K. tries not to censor those impulses. Somewhere along the way during his 21-year career, C.K. lost his fear of offending. He links it to a comedic question he pondered after 9/11.
"The bit was about how soon after September 11th you masturbated as a measure of how bad a person you are," he says. "When I first started doing that bit I was afraid to do it in certain places. I would think 'Is this a night for that bit or not? How's this audience going to take that bit?' Then I found later in the year, 'Oh yeah, I don't think about that anymore. I stopped checking on that.' "
That was the turning point. The bit just resonated with his audiences, and so it stuck. It's no wonder he believes comedy is Darwinian.
"If you're trying to find something that people are gonna like, you're never going to," he explains. "You'll drive yourself nuts, and it's no fun anyway. I think evolution worked that way. Species grew different parts and the ones that helped them stayed on and the ones that weren't helping dropped off. That's kind of what happens with an act."
Following that realization, C.K. went on to joke about subjects like fatherhood (he has called his four-year-old daughter an "asshole"), how great it is to be white, and rape. He's also defended terrorists, and made more masturbation jokes than you can shake a fist at—including one about coming on his cat's face. In context, none of these topics are as shocking as they sound in the Coles Notes version.
"I stopped thinking it [being offensive] was an issue once I sort of realized that it was better, more generous to an audience, to take them to places and subjects that they find cringe-worthy," contends C.K., who plays the Vogue Theatre on Friday (November 14). "It's just more worth it to go there for laughs. Nobody's been there before. And it's a bigger payoff because they're laughing at shit they're afraid of. So why the fuck not? Why would you ever not want to do a joke about any subject, unless there's nothing funny there? Or nothing real there."
Nonetheless, there's one topic he intends to leave untouched.
"This has been the most fascinating election," he says of the recent U.S. presidential tilt. "This has been the one to talk about if ever there was one. And I haven't touched it. Nobody needs me to do that. There are so many sources for political humour."
If you're looking for jokes about Louis C.K. and the solitary art of masturbation, however, there's only one place to go.