‘Oh My God’ Is Louis C.K.’s Best Stand-up Special Yet

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In the opening moments of his new special Oh My God, Louis C.K. is seen standing backstage, waiting patiently. He takes a sip of water, checks his watch, and then strolls out to thunderous applause. And when he does, comedy nerds’ jaws are bound to drop in recognition of the location: he’s performing at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix, Arizona, the distinctive in-the-round venue where George Carlin did his second HBO On Location special. Maybe the placement was accidental, but I doubt it. For years, Louie has been positioning himself as the heir apparent to the late, great Carlin: America’s finest road comic, a stand-up whose productivity is only matched by his brilliance.

Louie is legendary among not only stand-up watchers but fellow comedians for his blue-collar work ethic: in a business where comics will gig for years on the same hour, where Jerry Seinfeld actually turned the retirement of jokes he’d been telling for a decade into a special of its own, Louie does a new act, a new hour, every single year. He takes it out, develops it, works it, tapes it (either for a special or for inserts on Louie), and then he throws it away and starts over. The material in Oh My God (which was shot in February) is, basically, his 2012 act; his 2011 stuff was in his last special, Live at the Beacon Theater. He will presumably toss this stuff now, and start over.

He’s talked before about this decision, this way of working, how he arrived at it around 2006 and just made it his way of life — because he wanted to be as good at this as he could be. Watching Oh My God, you feel like he’s gotten there. He’s so gifted, so uniquely skilled at the art of personal storytelling, but it’s more than that; he also enjoys being good at it, bringing an audience in, making them laugh. He does it with the precision of a surgeon — he knows when to go for the laugh, when to hold back, how long to make the beats, when to use the whole stage, when to stay in close. He’s not comic who does a lot of “crowd work,” but he uses his audience well (a simple audience age poll becomes a great bit). He’s not known for his physicality, but witness his dramatization of people watching Nixon leave after his resignation (“Our president wept like an insane person, and then got in a helicopter and flew away”), or how he vividly enacts the worst thing he has to do every day: putting on his socks.

The subject matter isn’t groundbreaking: he’s talking about aging (specifically, “moments where you kind of start getting what ‘old’ is”), coming to terms with his looks (he’d like to make an “It Gets Better” video for “young, dumpy guys”), the myth that there’s “somebody for everybody” (“Nope! Not at all true!”), divorce (“Divorce is forever, it really truly is. Marriage is for however long you can hack it”), and death (“As soon as you’re 50, you’re a candidate. There’s no candlelight vigils for 50-year-old guys”). His stories are filled with little touches, untold sidebars that given them depth and richness; his material is dirty, but never just for shock value (there’s a long riff on breasts that’s cheerfully vulgar, but never “offensive”).

The special closes with one of his strongest bits to date, a lengthy and brilliant deconstruction of obvious premises granted but then questioned, within a construction that “of course” one thing is true, “but then maybe” something else is too. He leads the audience through it, taking their hand as it gets darker (“You’re in this with me now, you don’t get to cherry pick!”). The formal construction of the bit and the grizzled voice he takes on for certain lines, coupled with the setting, immediately recall Carlin, but there’s an important distinction to be made in comparing the two men: Louie flirts with but never embraces the nihilism that became so essential to Carlin’s persona in those later years. His act is, in an odd but literal way, life-affirming — from the examination of dating as an act of courage to his declaration (somewhat recalling his deservedly immortal “everything is amazing and nobody’s happy” bit) that even in the bare minimum, the “basic cable” version of life, “you get to eat, you get to fuck, you get to read To Kill a Mockingbird.” Louie’s onto something there, and throughout Oh My God, his finest hour to date.

Louis CK: Oh My God premieres Saturday night on HBO.