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Louis CK's Fourth of July: Empathy As An Antidote To Polarization

Updated: Aug 9, 2022

“It’s gonna be okay, & even if it’s not okay, that’s gonna be okay”

- Joe List, Fourth Of July (2022)

We're living through unprecedented times. Walking outside these days is sincerely surreal. The vibes of this summer are insane and will remain unmatched, it’s really our first time outside in a few years as a collective, and it palpably feels like it everywhere you go. It’s fun, beautiful, weird, & kinda dangerous all at once. Some people are still wearing masks, while others have completely forgotten about the concept, and there's even a new monkey thing. When else are they going to shut the world down, lock people inside for years, have political, social and economic polarization at a fever pitch, then have a surge of unemployment, inflation, and good music all at once? There's new ideologies, new concepts, new ways of life. It’s nuts. I’ve never felt this before.

The media likes to report our division, everything from race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality or class, but ultimately we're all just people, individuals, with our own stuff, going through it together, and everyday I realize we're all more alike than we're different, and despite what happens in life, we just have to keep living, and that’s what the movie Fourth of July by Louis CK reminded me of. This is a movie I urge everyone to see.

On the 4th of July Weekend of 2022 Louis CK released "Fourth of July" directed & edited by Louis, and co written with fellow comedian & rising star Joe List. This was easily one of the best movies I’ve seen in years. I went to the theatre and the only other movies available were Thor and The Minions & this was completely not any of that. This was a self financed independent film from Louis. The authenticity of this movie is what makes it stand out, this movie is hilarious, it’s earnest, it’s sincere, it deals with the human condition, anxiety, the family unit, & what it is that keeps us together as people.

The movie deals with relationships, empathy and how what we need most in this life is other people we love, but there's no greater source of our general anxieties than people we love. One of the best lines that describes the thesis of the movie without spoiling anything is "She's a cunt but I was lucky to have her, & so were you."

On the surface, this movie looks like some romantic comedy about a mid 30s jazz musician, and recovering alcoholic who suffers from anxiety going back home for Fourth of July weekend to confront his family for the problems he faces in his daily life, because his family were fucked up drunks and he felt they gave him his anxiety issues. In reality the movie is about all of us.

This movie was carefully and intimately shot, written and directed. The movie is very emotional, and stylized while being one of the funniest movies I've seen in a long time. Joe List does an incredible job playing what seems to be an exaggerated version of himself similar to what Louis CK did on his FX show Louie. All the characters feel very real, because they are, we are all the characters.

The writing was witty, the theatre was all howling from laughter at the exact same time. The writing dealt with a lot of the issues we deal with in society today from mental illness, political correctness, intergenerational trauma, sexuality, race, class, political beliefs, masculinity, religion, gender identity, and it weaved them all in mastefully and comedically through this beautiful story about a small family. The movie doesn't end like your typical movie, there are many moments that you don't expect but they felt real and sincere.

The movie showed us that everyone's family is fucked up and gave them anxiety problems. It's interesting to see the point in history this movie is coming out in. This movie is a reaction to a post Trump America, it's a reaction to the capitol riots, its a reaction to the pandeezy. 4th of july is where Americans gather to unite, and being American, or being Countrymen is like being in a family, and in a family there are people you disagree with, people you don't like, people that hurt you, people you think are stupid, people that made you feel bad, but ultimately you're stuck with them, and maybe you can even find a way to love them despite their flaws. Maybe instead of looking at each other as left wing or right wing, black or white, people can look at each other as family members and have a laugh, because it's gonna be fine, even if it's not fine.

Stand up comedians like Louis CK are able to see what unites human beings above our differences, above our skin color, ideologies, religions, belief systems, or personalities, there's an underlying sameness to us all. I've never been in the family in the movie, I've never been a mid 30s white jazz artist, but there was something so true about this movie, about the characters, about the way they spoke, I saw my own family and my own life reflected on the screen. We all have the racist uncle with conspiracy theories, we all have the uncle who can't stop telling jokes, we all have cousins who will mock us if we're getting soft, we all have families that are hard to deal with, we all have problems, and even when we try to deal with our problems that doesn't mean we solve them, but life does keep going. This movie is incredible, it was filled with stand up comics like Bobby Kelly & Nick Di Paolo, and it's a movie that could only be written by people who see the world like stand up comics.

Stand Up comedy is a genre like no other. It's the only genre that consists of a person standing up with a microphone and trying to get everyone in the room to make the same sound, that sound being laughter. Comedians are able to see people as people, because they're going to get the same reaction from anyone. Laughter is transcendent. Laughter is above language, its above culture, its above age, it’s a fundamental of life, it's a part of human culture. Laughter is part of what unites us as a species, we may not believe the same things, we may have different genders, races and nations but we all laugh.

I remember being in middle school and going on YouTube to find comedy videos when I randomly came across Louis CK. On paper, a 40 year old Mexican and a chubby 12 year old Ethiopian kid shouldn’t have much in common. I wasn’t divorced, I didn’t have kids that annoyed me, I wasn’t American, there’s so much about Louis that didn’t represent me, but even as a child I felt like Louis was one of the few artists who represented me, and people like me.

I was a comedy nerd. I loved it, I still love it. My favourite writers are comics. There’s no gimmicks, it's just a guy, a stage, his ideas and it works every time. It's like drugs. It's like music but it might take more artistry, and I’m saying this as a musician. It's easy to do badly as a musician and just chalk it off to art, it’s not easy to stand in front of a room full of people not doing the whole point of the entire genre, or even worse, people booing you off the stage, for sharing your ideas to try and make them happy. You literally have to be superman to do this job well, especially if you're taking the weird risks that Louis often took as a performer, it was incredible to watch.

Louis is a gifted writer, & orator, with unbounded empathy. He always had a dedication to absurdity with premises that were highly sophisticated & real, juxtaposed against the most silly & horrific sounding content. He did what Jerry Seinfeld called "dodging laser beams."

We would hear Louis say horrific things about everything from pedophilia to the holocaust, but there would be an implied irony with his tone, how he structured his sentences, his word choice, his transitions, & how he delivered his punchlines. Louis would vent on stage, but he was able to transform his mundane reality into these surreal landscapes. If you just look at it on the surface it's gonna look like a bunch of shit jokes, and a lot of the time it is, but that's what made Louis one of the greats because everybody takes a shit, literally everyone on planet earth, it is something that unites us yet is left as some taboo topic in 99.9% of our gatherings, Louis CK has several hours on the topic, which shows you his everyman sensibilities, while having this genius level description, he uses poetic imagery and stylized language to describe diarrhea. Every Louis bit is hauntingly beautiful, his delivery is musical and takes the audience on a journey of their own anxieties, biases, hypocrisy, logical patterns, reasoning flaws, linguistic context, and some of the funniest punchlines ever written. Even when he discusses high concepts like the ills of capitalism he does so brilliantly by framing it as a conversation with his daughter about monopoly, Louis has genuine profound moments on stage, he morally investigates his audience by engaging in uncomfortable topics and making us laugh at them against our will.

Part of Louis' appeal was his empathy, that’s why his art resonated with me and with millions around the world, and that's also what made Fourth Of July so great. The current war on comedians is centered around this belief that comedians are somehow psychopathic and there to wreak havoc and upset people, but it was actually the complete opposite. Comedians want to bring people joy and laughter, and the best comedians have an acute sense of empathy, self awareness and emotional intelligence that is most visible in Louis CK.

I was fascinated with comedians & the artform of comedy, and not many people made stand up feel like an art quite like Louis. Louis’ stand up comedy is great but I think the perfect display of his artistry is the show Louie on FX. Louis CK had been making short films since the 80s, he was writing, filming & editing them himself, they were these beautiful, carefully filmed & stylized movies filmed around New York with various high profile celebrities before they blew up, the films centred around these absurd surrealist concepts like a woman looking for Richard Nixon, a man who exclusively speaks through a tapedeck, or people yelling at old ladies. By the time Louie came around in 2011 on FX it changed television completely. Shows like Atlanta, Bojack Horseman, Rick & Morty, or Baskets wouldn't be able to exist with their darker toned sureal realism if Louie didn't succeed critically and commercially.

Louie romanticized the world cynically, it looked at the dark corners and found the beauty in them, it was a show about a miserable man, in a miserable world trying to live his dreams despite it all. Even when the character would find a silverlining like the girl of his dreams she would die of cancer. The show emphasized the horrors of life, but juxtaposed it against the beauty and surrealism of life.

Louis showed this acute empathy with scenes like him chasing a duck in Afghanistan and falling, and how the Afghan soldiers & American soldiers who were on the brink of war both united in laughter at his ginger bald head falling while trying to catch tiny yellow ducks. It's beautifully self-deprecating and it's why I love Louis CK.

Episodes like Louis dating a Hungarian woman who didn't speak English and attempting to communicate with her through music, food and art is the foundation of Louis CK's universal appeal. He communicates with the whole world through his art. Comedy is about empathy. You can't make anyone laugh if they don't see themselves in you. If we can laugh together we can overcome anything together. This movie was great and I highly recommend it.

"I want to just talk about my genre, stand-up comedy is an incredibly American genre. I don’t think any other country could produce this many comedians, and unbeknownst to many people in this audience, I don’t think there’s opinion that exists in this country that is not represented in a comedy club by somebody. Each and every one of you has a champion in the room. We watch you guys fight but when we’re together we talk it out! I know comics that are very racist, and I watch them on stage and everyone’s laughing and I’m like, mmm that motherfucker means that shit. Don’t get mad at them, don’t hate them. We go upstairs and have a beer, sometimes I even appreciate the artistry that they paint their racist opinions with. Man, it’s not that serious. The First Amendment is first for a reason, the Second Amendment is just in case the first one doesn’t work out."

-Dave Chappelle (2019)

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