Stephen Colbert was there. So was Steve Carell.
But no one really noticed. That’s because it was 1996 and they weren’t Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell yet, just a couple of Second City alumni working on an ABC network summer replacement series for which people had little or no hope whatsoever.
Which is the way it still was back then with network summer replacement series.
Few more invidious offerings ever made it to network prime time than the garden variety summer replacement show, even 17 years ago when TV’s cable multiverse had long been in full swing.
The show Colbert and Carell were on in their larval comedy incarnations was “The Dana Carvey Show.”
For rather obvious reasons.
Its visible center and putative guiding force was the smash hit “Saturday Night Live” sketch comic America had taken to its heart for his “Church Lady” bit and his permanent best buddy status on “Wayne’s World.”
But there was something radical and unusual about “The Dana Carvey Show” (whose host eccentrically refused to leave it at that but rather insisted that the sponsor get equal billing as in primordial TV in the earliest ’50s. Hence, its title one week “The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show.”)
What was unusual about it was that it was wild and brilliant – not just hilarious but almost as daring and radical in so many of its bits and pieces as, yes, the original “Saturday Night Live” seemed when it went on the air with a ghoulish Michael O’Donoghue bit in 1975.
The producer and head writer of “The Dana Carvey Show” in 1996?
Not Carvey. Or Colbert or Carell, either. But a comic of almost no presence whatsoever outside the innermost circles of comedy whose unusual name was Louis C.K.
His real name is Louis Szekely. Louis C.K. is what he has long called himself because it’s a way in English to approximate roughly the Hungarian pronunciation of his real name.
In the geography of American comedy, one of the earliest salient facts about Louis C.K. is that he emerged from the comedy club scene in Boston, just like Denis Leary, Lenny Clarke, Steven Wright and, much earlier, Jay Leno. What many Boston comics had in common is that they were expected to bring laughter not just to young South Boston beer-guzzlers but to the Mongol hordes of students who lived in Boston because the city is the unofficial capital of the most advanced higher education in America (where Cambridge’s Harvard is king, but MIT, Brown and many, many other campuses all lie within a hundred-mile radius).
As they like to say in the showbiz promotion racket, “Louis C.K. is hot” right now. Really hot. The hottest comic in America inside comedy world.
His FX show “Louie” – for which was given sole responsibility and miraculously promised no network interference whatsoever – is a gleefully dark anti-sitcom. Think of it as a satanic noir version of “Different Strokes” or the like.
So hefty is Louis C.K.’s rep inside comedy world (and TV) that they’ve had no difficulty giving him Emmys for a while.
His fourth stand-up comedy special on HBO hits tomorrow at 10 p.m.: “Louis C.K.: Oh My God.”
It shows America what happened in February of this year when he took the stage in a theater in Phoenix.
He comes out in classic Louis C.K. style which you might call aggressively schlubby – wrinkled brown pants, untucked blue polo shirt and a white T-shirt visible underneath it. One look at his goateed face and his bald head and you’re instantly aware that this is a showbiz grandee who has not been put together by the most dedicated practitioners of the makeup or haircutting trade. In the makeover business, Louis C.K. is beyond such familiar categories as “before” and “after” and is safely ensconced in the category “you’ve got to be kidding.”
As befitting a comic originally from Boston, he is unafraid of cerebral material. There is, in fact, a kind of philosophical basis to a lot of what he does, not all that far from the hilarious metaphysical musings of Steven Wright in his prime.
The difference is that Louis C.K. is a comic with so much “edge” that he’s comfortable going way out there, whether the audience is with him or not. Which is why, as I laughed through a preview DVD of Saturday’s show (which I did an awful lot throughout), the funniest thing I saw was a woman in the front row who during some bits (one about male obsession with female breasts) had her arms folded across her chest and was not laughing at all. I’d bet the farm that her seats were comped by management for one reason or another, but the sight of her was a wonderful, infrequent reminder of how Louis C.K. sometimes hits those who are nonfans.
Those, for instance, for whom he isn’t “hot” but rather “ice cold.”
Louis C.K. is living proof that you can still make a comedy out of asking yourself, “What can you say? What can you get away with?” (five decades after Lenny Bruce and three after George Carlin).
He isn’t out to offend, mind you, only to say things you’re just not likely to say out in the world – like “most animals are really disgusting in person” and “all fountain sculptors are pedophiles.” Here is a comic who pretends to evince pure joy at discovering “a new way to hurt somebody’s feelings.”
Personally, I wasn’t entirely mad to hear his disquisition on the mutable state of his nether-region hygiene at the age of 45. But then who can’t feel affection for a man who’ll admit to an audience that at a certain age, just sitting down seems “way better than sex.”
He can be explosively funny, even when cerebral – as in his mathematical formula for sexual attractiveness.
There are times – as in his early routine discoursing on the animal kingdom – when he seems to be a stand-up combination of the two darkest, most dismal Thomases of English prose – Hobbes and Malthus.
But then there are times – as when he tells us about his divorce – when he sounds downright merry and sprightly.
And just before he’s finished, he’ll step outside himself, smile a huge smile and observe that he’s just imparted “a whole bunch of horrible thoughts all in a row.”
And that’s why so many audiences love Louis C.K. these days.
And why that woman in the first row at that Phoenix theater may well still be sitting there with her hands crossed across her chest.
And not laughing at all.