The First Two Minutes: The Semiotics of an Opening with Louis C.K.

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The name of the special on Netflix is “Louis C.K.: 2017.” Let’s say that you see the thumbnail image on Netflix, and you consider watching it. You click on the image, and it expands for a larger description of the special, complete with a slideshow of images. The name of the special, plus C.K’s full name, is in bold, blue-white font, with black “cracks” in the letters as if they are about to burst. “2017” is bigger than C.K’s name – perhaps 2017 is bigger than him. The description reads: “New year, new jokes, classic Louis. Comedy star Louis C.K. is back with his take on the misery and hilarity of life in 2017.” This is our primer for the special, and the key words are “misery” and “hilarity.” The slideshow includes a number of images. The first is of C.K. walking out on stage, arms outstretched. This is from a side angle that allows the viewer to see the stage, which is black and has his shadow reflected on it, Louis C.K. stepping out in a suit as if “in motion,” a black “starry” background that is behind him, an audience cheering in front of him, bathed in warm, orange and red light. The next is an intimate, close-up shot of C.K. that includes his face, the microphone, and his shoulders. He is turned slightly left, and his large hands are gripping the microphone so that his fingers cover even the transducer (the top part of the microphone). He wears a smirk on his face, and his eyes are slightly squinted. He knows something we don’t, or something is amusing to him. There is mostly a black backdrop, but we see a glimpse of lights behind him – three small blue lights and two large orange-red lights. The last photo in the slideshow is a bit of a larger shot that includes Louis C.K. down to his hips. He is holding the microphone at the bottom of its shaft. His hand is on his hip, and his eyes are wider than in the previous shot, his mouth slightly parted. His wide eyes denote surprise. As it is with many American comics, a big part of C.K.’s comedy is playing the sane man amongst many insane people (Walmsley). He is their “tell-it-as-it-is” interpreter.

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You decide to watch the special. You click on it, and the Netflix logo appears, and next, a black backdrop with white letters: “A Netflix Original Comedy Special.” We open with a shaky close-up shot of Louis C.K. presumably backstage. A close-up shot, particularly an intimate one, denotes intimacy between the Netflix audience and C.K. – he is the first body the camera latches onto, and by association, the first body that the audience latches onto. Moreover, the camera is slightly shaky – a bit less professional than the smooth, panning shots we see later on – indicating a rather intimate, informal situation. This “interaction” between Louis C.K. and the camera must have been planned (as the camera is close, he must know it is there), but C.K.’s lack of acknowledgment combined with the “unplanned” shakiness of the camera performs a trustworthy candidness to the Netflix audience before the show actually starts. This angle and movement of the camera allows for a performance of authenticity from C.K. that allows the audience to sympathize with him.

He is in the darkness, but there is a blue light that rests on him that comes from the upper right. We see that he is wearing a tie, and a black striped suit – different from his signature get-up of a black t-shirt and jeans. Perhaps this performance is important to him – it is his first Netflix special – why else would he don the new, more formal image? There are murmurs behind him, but he seems oblivious – C.K. is deeply concentrated, and seems a bit melancholy. He is looking down at the floor, his mouth turned slightly downward. He seems to be seriously contemplating something; the frown looks natural; gruff but not necessarily displeased. “Gruffness” is certainly a part of Louis C.K’s performance as a comic – he has a reputation for ignoring political correctness and “telling it as it is.” This gruffness is performed in juxtaposition with a certain misery and cynicism towards life. This is a tactic used in film dramas centered around men to establish sympathy: “considering the sense of failure that permeates some male-centered dramas, a useful starting point…is those apparently minor scenes that exemplify and explore disturbances in the male psyche” (Dennis 127). It is the sense of failure that allows the audience of sympathize with C.K. – he’s seen it all, and is therefore a trustworthy social interpreter. Because of this, the audience of his comedy can experience a strange combination of pity and admiration while C.K. still establishes his gruff, masculine control.

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We are allowed this image for a couple of seconds, and then C.K. turns to the left, addressing someone we cannot see. “Go ahead and do the lights,” he says in a low, expressionless voice. He stares to the left, listening to someone say “…house lights…” Suddenly, we hear loud cheers, presumably from the audience. C.K. immediately turns to the right and a huge, contagious grin spreads across his face. This is a quick relief from the lack of expression we saw before – we get a little snippet of emotion to establish C.K.’s humanity. He glances back, smiling, at the people presumably off-camera and backstage, and then back toward onstage, delighted that he’s being cheered at. A skinny man with glasses grabs a microphone. Still smiling, C.K. looks at him and says, “go ahead,” giving him a pointer figure. “Ladies and gentlemen, Louis C.K.!” C.K. points at the announcer again as this is being announced. The crowd goes wild. C.K. pulls the announcer in for a hug, slapping him on the back several times. Then, he turns around and walks into the darkness, becoming shrouded by it. The camera follows him, and never leaves him.

The screen turns black, but we still hear the crowd going nuts. “Louis C.K.” appears in bold, white letters. “2017” appears soon after, right below, in even larger font. The words disappear, and we see some brightness emerge as C.K. opens the curtain. We are behind his head, and the curtain opens to an audience bathed in orange and red light. The camera pans down so we are still following him, but we are below him, allowing a full body shot from behind. The crowd is still cheering loudly.

Finally, we cut to a wider shot in which we are no longer behind C.K., but in front of him. There are orange lights framed by a black background, with starry white dots. The camera pans, following C.K. as he waves to the audience. We are then offered several shots from various angles of the audience, which is presented as a collective. The audience, a temporal entity, becomes the collective “us” – the shots are reassuring, satisfying the desire to have a collective emotional experience through comedy. According to comic theorist Judy Batalion, “a comedy audience…is a group held together by a desire to have an emotional experience and one shared mainly with (irrelevant) strangers, by their desire to be that comedy audience” (Batalion). This, by extension, includes the Netflix viewer, and their desire to be a member of this collective experience. We do not see individual faces, but a crowd of collective supporters and cheerers darkened in the auditorium, and made only slightly visible by the warm, orange light.

Why the choice of orange light in this special as a theme? The orange light, an emblem of warmth, counters C.K.’s gruff persona that could be perceived as “cold” in a different environment. The orange, like C.K’s earlier smile, helps to counter and balance his performance of masculinized, rational misery that is a large part of C.K.’s comedy. This creates a balance of affect that allows identification with the “gruff” comic – the warmth invites us, as viewers, in. Comedy venue architect Iain MacKintosh says on color and room design that people in a “red and gold room laughed quicker and cried quicker than the people who’d been in the black and concrete room. It takes longer to get the audience on your side in a black room” (Batalion et. al).

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We cut back to C.K., who grabs the microphone, which is laying on a stool with a glass of water. He waves, no longer smiling, but looking rather gruff. His eyebrows are furrowed, and he is walking briskly across the stage, microphone in hand. “Hello,” he says, in his characteristic low, gruff voice. “Thank you.” He puts his hand in his pocket. “Thank you very much. Thank you. Um…” He paces to the left of the stage, and the camera pans with him in a full body shot. The audience waits in anticipation, quieting down. Anyone familiar with Louis C.K’s work knows that starting shows is not easy for him – it requires riling up the audience to a certain extent, which conflicts with his bumbling, awkward, gruff persona. In his 2010 special “Hilarious,” he begins with “uh, hello everybody” before proceeding to deconstruct what he means by “everybody,” and even highlighting that he “hates starting shows.”

The start of his 2017 special is a nod to his hatred of openings. He begins awkwardly, continuing to pace. “So, you know, I think abortion is, um…” He deadpans, scratching the left side of his nose casually. This is a classic example of a form of rhetoric known as comic minimization: the comic reduces the apparent significance of a topic for both humorous effect and to raise the true significance and/or gravity of the topic. Not only is abortion a dangerous, controversial topic often tiptoed around, but introducing such a controversial, hotly debated topic right off the bat to the audience is so shocking that it creates pleasure. This adheres to linguist A. Peter McGraw’s Benign-Violation Theory; in order for a bit to be considered humorous, it must both be a violation of social norms (in this case, mentioning abortion, a hotly debated topic – I might add that this is why many comics employ a disregard of political correctness in their stand-up) and benign (in this case, he has not yet expressed an opinion on it, though he will certainly express ambivalence later). The benign-violation theory ensures that a joke will be shocking enough to produce a bodily reaction – laughter – but benign enough to ensure that the audience does not leave the theatre. C.K. relies heavily on benign-violation theory, as it supports his performance of gruff rationality – the audience may be shocked, but he sure isn’t. In fact, if the audience is shocked, he usually imitates their reaction with a feminized impersonation. They can’t stomach the joke, and since he has the rational power as a man on the stage, he is allowed to poke fun at them, posing “feminized disgust” as monstrous, oppositional, and “against the rules” in his comic arena.

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The audience breaks out in laughter. “I…” There are some hoots from the audience. He paces to the left again, and the camera zooms in on his face. He allows a slight smile to play around the corner of his lips – he knows what he’s doing. “Here’s what I think.” Notice how his speech is an authoritative utterance, giving the impression of an objective lecturer – he is already establishing what he speaks as the rational truth, even if the timing of the topic is surprising. He allows a little laugh at the end of “think,” finally acknowledging his own comedy. “Here’s what I-” He suddenly launched into a snobby, feminized voice, characteristic of his feminized “oppositional” impersonations. His face scrunches, almost monstrous. “This is what I think.” He smirks, and then his voice returns to a lower, more supposedly “rational” tone. “Here’s what I think. I think you should not get an abortion…unless you need one.” The audience laughs, still caught in the absurdity of this start. He nods, smiling. “In which case, in which case…you better get one!” He allows his voice to raise in pitch a bit for emphasis. “I mean, seriously! If you need an abortion you better get one – don’t fuck around. And hurry!” He raises his eyebrows, in full lecture mode. “Not getting an abortion you need is like not taking a shit. That’s how bad it is. It’s like not taking a shit. That’s what I think,” He laughs. “I think getting an abortion is exactly like taking a shit. I think it is 100% the exact same as taking a shit.” The audience chuckles. He pauses, then raises his eyebrows and allows his eyes to widen. “Or it isn’t!” He puts his hand up in fake surrender, and the audience lets out a louder laugh at his indecision.

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What is fascinating about this opening is that C.K. both expresses a masculinized rationality (which, might I return to here, is put in opposition with a feminized disgust and “irrationality”) and ambivalence (his back-and-forth commentary on abortion). I say “masculinized rationality” because when C.K. means to denote sincerity, his voice drops. When he is being sarcastic – or playing a character that is in opposition to his main point – his voice raises in pitch, becoming supposedly feminized. According to Stuart Price’s “Rhetorical Masculinity: Authoritative Utterance and the Male Protagonist,” men in films “must constantly perform a masculinity based on a panicked headlong flight from any implication of feminine or gay; even women often fear being labeled as ‘too girly,’ and gay men often value machismo and denounce flamboyance” (Price 111). This is the establishment of C.K.’s masculinity as rational – he puts it in opposition to a flamboyant femininity that is positioned as ridiculous. To counter this is C.K.’s miserable awkwardness that is almost contagious – his awkwardness and the disturbances in his psyche allow for the audience to sympathize with him. It is pathetic, but not too pathetic – the audience can stomach his comedy because he is masculine, but not intimidating. He is an awkward, masculine social interpreter from the sidelines, and for that the audience learns to love him.

This rational, gruff, masculinity, humbled in its bumbling awkwardness, is what allows C.K’s jokes to fly. He is miserable and cynical – what bell hooks has labeled as “white cool,” a characteristic of Tarantino’s cynical films such as Pulp Fiction:

a hard-core cynical vision that would have everyone see racism, sexism, homophobia but behave as though none of that shit really matters, or if it does it means nothing ‘cause none of it’s gonna change, ‘cause the real deal is that dominion is here to stay – going nowhere, and everybody is in on the act. Mind you, domination is always and only patriarchal – a dick thing…folks be laughing at the absurdity and clinging to it nevertheless” (hooks 60).

The absurdity of C.K.’s gruff, miserable (misery to a mentally unhealthy extent, in which he goes so far as to later describe his hatred of life and contemplation of suicide) persona is laughable to the audience, but one has to wonder the extent to which it becomes internalized within the audience member – particularly the Netflix viewer. Netflix viewers have the ability to go back and rewind a section of the comedy special, repeating it over and over until it is ingrained in their minds. The behavior becomes normalized, and perhaps subconsciously incorporated into our own psyches and everyday performances of ourselves. And while Louis C.K.’s stand-up is quite hilarious (and even as a critic of it, I laugh every time), one has to wonder the extent to which his performance of rationality may be abused, perpetuating and normalizing certain kinds of prejudice – even beyond the monstrous “feminized” voice.

Citations

Batalion, Judy. The Laughing Stock: The Live Comedy and Its Audiences. Edited by Judy

Batalion. Anderson, SC: Parlor, 2012.

Batalion, Judy, & Iain MacKintosh. “Room for Comedy.” The Laughing Stock: The Live

Comedy and Its Audiences. Edited by Judy Batalion. Anderson, SC: Parlor, 2012.

hooks, bell. “Cool Cynicism: Pulp Fiction.” Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies.

Routledge, 2015. Print.

Walmsley. Brit-Think, Ameri-Think: A Transatlantic Survival Guide, Revised Edition: Jane

Walmsley: 8601300123486: Amazon.com: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2017.

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