He's an everyman schlub with a brilliant streak, an incisive observer whose devoted self-skewering softens his edge.
Louis C.K. is also today's biggest comedian. He sneak- attacked his way to the top minus the rock-star charisma of a Richard Pryor or a George Carlin or an Eddie Murphy, yet informed by their daring and by an awareness that comedy and the world have changed since their heydays.
He cloaks controversial remarks in self-deprecation and a knowledge of today's values a consciousness that a comic cannot make gay or racial jokes, or jokes about hating one's kids, without the audience also knowing he's actually smarter than that, that he's really a decent man, a man who tries. If he were truly racist or homophobic or a kid hater, there would be far less laughter.
Louis C.K. looks like a regular guy in his T-shirt and jeans, balding and paunchy and just trying to get through the day like everyone else. He doesn't blaze out onto the stage, or even project. He just talks, about society's troubles and his own many of the latter self-created to audience members who maybe only could afford tickets because he offers them at a reasonable price directly through his website.
If his humor is tinged with darkness, his expression downcast, that too suits his times.
Louis C.K. will deliver his stand-up Tuesday night at Sacramento's Wells Fargo Pavilion. The show is sold out, but it's not the only chance to see his material. He has made several stand-up specials and will film another later this week in Phoenix for HBO. (The Wells Fargo Pavilion date, a late addition to this tour, likely was planned partly to prepare for his Phoenix shows, also in a theater in the round.)
He also writes, produces, directs, acts in and wins Emmys for "Louie," a meticulously crafted FX series whose episodes play like profane, tragicomic mini-movies. The show will return for a fourth season in spring 2014. Its first three seasons are available on DVD or streaming.
In "Louie," he plays a divorced dad and comedian named Louie who, like the real guy on stage, lets it all hang out insecurities, alarming personal habits, inappropriate liaisons (including Joan Rivers) and frustrations with two young daughters he adores but sometimes finds grabby and unappreciative.
"I think he is just one of those comics who has this blatant honesty and no shame, and that is always really attractive to an audience," said Sacramento stand-up John Ross, 35. Ross also notes that Louis C.K.'s success was hardly overnight.
Born Louis Szekely, the 45-year-old comedian got his start in the Boston comedy scene in the '80s. He later wrote for David Letterman, Dana Carvey and Chris Rock, and created and played a blue-collar dad in the short-lived HBO series "Lucky Louie."
"He obviously has put an amazing amount of time into his craft," Ross said.
He is also exceptionally prolific, Sacramento comic Keith Lowell Jensen points out. Though it takes most comedians more than a year to build up an hour of workable material by testing it in 10- or 15-minute bursts in comedy clubs, Louis C.K. frequently offers a new hour's worth of work.
"I try to have a new hour every year, and (Louis C.K.) does that while also doing 'Louie' and going on talk shows and telling hilarious stories that don't always make it into his specials," said Jensen, 40. "It is incredible, and of such high quality."
Louis C.K. is so prolific that Jensen worked up an Internet petition demanding that Louis C.K. "leave some funny for the rest of us."
Louis C.K. offers some of that wealth of material directly to fans through his website, www.louisck.net. Concert tickets are sold only through the website, without surcharges. Audio and video files of performances go for $5.
"He is the Radiohead of comedy as far as a business model," Jensen said. "Where they just bypassed the industry and said, 'Here it is. Come get it from us.' "
"Here it is" encapsulates the Louis C.K. approach. But he did not start out being so direct, or so candid, he told the audience in a 2011 tribute to the late George Carlin at the New York City Public Library. He changed gears midway through his career, with some inspiration from Carlin, one of his comedy heroes.
He said he had been doing the same hour of observational material for 15 years, performing in Chinese restaurants and any other place that would have him.
"Nobody gave a s--- who I was and I didn't, either," Louis C.K. said at the tribute.
Despondent, he listened to a Carlin CD in which the legendary comedian described workshopping material. Carlin spoke of a determination to gather enough material to do a special each year, and then throwing it out after the special and starting over.
"He gave me the courage to try that," Louis C.K. said. "When you are done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs you can only dig deeper. And you start talking about your feelings and who you are. And then those jokes are gone, and you've gotta dig deeper, so you start thinking about your fears and your nightmares."
He also began to emulate Carlin's willingness to "say whatever he wants," Louis C.K. said.
A new dad at the time, Louis C.K. wanted to say that the baby's demands were killing his sex life with his wife. Then he joked that he now understood how babies ended up in garbage cans.
Crickets. Then groans.
"But I would rather have (that) than tepid laughter from my old jokes," Louis C.K. told the crowd.
Bits about kids remain staples of his act and of "Louie," though they are better finessed. They come from the perspective of a dad trying his best at a sometimes thankless endeavor. In "Louie," when his daughter tells him that she loves her mother more, Louie flips her off. But at least he waits until she walks away to do it.
"He sees things that people have been seeing for years but no one says them," Sacramento comedian Mike E. Winfield said. "There are things people don't want to say about their children. He says them for you."
Winfield, who has appeared on "The Office" and hosts the Fuse channel viral-video show "Off Beat," reached the final casting stages of a Louis C.K.- produced show that never got off the ground. He said Louis C.K. is like the guy on his TV show. To a point.
"He has a lot of energy, which a lot of people don't see," Winfield said.
Louis C.K. often couches shocking material so well that the shock diminishes or disappears. His jokes tend to work on several planes, and often start with one idea and quickly become something else.
"There is actually thought behind it it is like gratuitous content with intellectual backup," Ross said.
He has inspired Ross, who says his own comedy is rooted in "trauma."
"Watching what he does, it makes you think, 'OK, I could probably get away with what I want to say.' "
In his 2008 stand-up special "Chewed Up," Louis C.K. builds a bit around how he misses being able to use a term most commonly used as a gay slur. In the same breath, he expresses his appreciation for gay men. The bit is delivered in crude yet carefully considered terms.
His thoughtful provocation evokes Chris Rock, with whom Louis C.K. has collaborated closely. But Rock holds back a little, maintaining a shred of mystery about himself. Not Louis C.K.
He discusses his excessive eating habits he is pretty sure, he told an audience, that physicians' weight guidelines are not "your age plus 200 pounds" and other undesirable traits. Unlike other observational comics, he puts no distance between others' objectionable behavior and his own.
In one routine, he discussed being hassled by an angry fellow motorist. Louis C.K. understood the man's anger, he said, because the comedian had brazenly cut the guy off in the fast lane. He did it, Louis C.K. said, because he needed to get over and there was no one in his own car to stop him from doing it.
Like all of his best material, the story focused on what people do when nobody is watching. He's so comfortable with scatological jokes that they form subplots on "Louie." Louis C.K. also uses the show to test comfort zones in a broader social context. The show constantly challenges traditional ideas of masculinity.
In the first-season episode "Bully," Louie's date drops him because he does not stand up to an aggressive teenager. Season 3's best episode, "Daddy's Girlfriend, Part 2" chronicles Louie's nightlong New York City odyssey of a date with a spontaneous, possibly crazy woman (Parker Posey) he has just met. A highlight of the episode is Louie's willingness to try on a dress at his date's insistence.
Season 3's "Miami" is nearly as good. In it, Louie develops a strong, ambiguously defined affection for a young, male Miami lifeguard. Louie's halting, inarticulate explanation of his feelings is painful for the character but groundbreaking for his creator.
Louis C.K. says and does outrageous things, but they are easier to accept because his explanations and motivations are easily understood.
He is the boundary defier accessible to all.
Although it's probably best if everybody is over 18.