Louis CK's rise as a comedic elder statesman couldn't be more counterintuitive. On paper, CK traffics in a perfectly average set of comedic tropes: sex, death, divorce, feces and flushing pets down the toilet.
But for anyone who watches CK's Emmy-winning FX show, "Louie," or has experienced any of his stand-up comedy, it is clear that CK exhibits a genuineness and aesthetic insight that many great mainstream comics don't seem to muster.
In front of a sellout crowd Thursday night at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, he joked about everything from getting old to the oppressive conditions animals face in zoos. He acknowledged that the animals would be better off in the wild, but he takes his kids to the zoo anyway because "If they're hurting the zebra, we might as well look at it."
His jokes never feel like the result of a Seinfeld-like process in which every nanosecond has been meticulously crafted to maximize every laugh with the precision of a fussy French chef.
Nor do they feel like well packaged but over-performed Dane Cook-isms, designed for stadium-sized consumption.
They are presented as short-order -yet oddly profound - life experiences of a 45-year-old divorced white guy with two kids who isn't afraid to relentlessly push his audience to accept the logic of his marginally depraved and self-deprecating inner monologue.
CK ended the night with precisely this kind of boundary pushing. In a series of jokes structured as "Of course not ... but maybe," he got the audience to join him in laughing about terminally ill children, fallen soldiers and slavery.
For instance: Of course the Make-a-Wish Foundation is a great organization, he said. But maybe it's a waste to spend time on a kid who will be dead in a week.
When CK began an "Of course not ... but maybe" about a fallen soldier, the crowd fell silent. He immediately picked up on the discomfort and used it to his advantage. He playfully scolded the audience for laughing at a dead child but not a dead soldier. The audience took the bait and he finished the joke.
Maybe if you go to another country and start shooting at people, it's not that surprising when you get shot, he said. The audience roared.
Although there are moments when virtually any audience member will (or should be) offended, his jokes don't suffer at the hand of their own crudeness. His vulgarity is almost never deployed for the sake of cheap laughs; it is embedded in his persona.
CK exudes an everyman attitude about his life and even his commercial success but doesn't tread into the tired rhythms of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour.
He is willing to challenge the stand-up comedy business model by charging everyone exactly the same amount for each ticket and circumventing the major networks by releasing comedy specials through his website.
Some of these broader questions bleed through the experience of seeing CK perform live. An interesting mix of thoughtful vulgarity and unvarnished self-deprecation makes CK a deceptively engaging comic.
Alex Zimmerman: email@example.com or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman.