The measures of success for a comedian tend to deviate from the mainstream career milestones dotting the careers of America's most successful performers. Platinum records and record ticket sales are rarely on the horizon for a road comic eating peanut butter out of a jar in a roach motel somewhere uncomfortably far to the south of the Mason Dixon line.
That's why Louis C.K. is probably the best living comedian, period. Before 2010, the man was already a living legend among the comedy elite, selling out smaller clubs in savvy cities overnight and, partially thanks to the internet dust up over Dane Cook allegedly stealing some of C.K.'s jokes, owns the coveted title of Comic's Comic.
But now, after slogging it out in the trenches for more than 20 years, C.K. has risen to heights of rockstardom that so-called "sell-out" comics like Dane Cook and Gallagher had previously achieved.
His comedy shows are selling out arenas, not nightclubs, and at upwards of $50-$70 per seat. His last two comedy specials, which C.K. edited, produced and distributed himself, sold in the millions of dollars at only $5 per download, redefining the model for how a comic makes money. And on top of all that, his television show on FX is earning critical praise, not only for it's edgy comic brilliance, but for the dramatic content as well.
The rub? He does it all while maintaining his reputation as a Comic's comic. Uncompromising in his approach to joke writing, not only does Louis C.K. not shy away from blue toilet humor, he defends it, stating in a recent interview that, despite his growing fame and popularity, he never wanted to be "a household name" and if people's kids are watching his show, well, they shouldn't be.
So if Louis C.K. isn't the best living comedian, who is? Probably someone equally dirty and less well known, like Doug Stanhope, who appeared on an especially gripping episode of FX's "Louis" as C.K.'s comedian friend with an eye towards suicide. But that's really where the list of contenders ends, if you measure the success of a comedian the old-fashioned way, not with record or DVD sales, but in terms of how drastically a comic has influenced a generation, how many times he has reinvented himself (C.K. throws all of his jokes away every year), and how inimitable a comic's voice really is.
In a recent interview, C.K. was asked why he has to do the "dirty jokes," or as the reporter referred to them, the "cheap" jokes. C.K. responded that no jokes are cheap. "They all cost something," he responded. He also remarked that if those dirty jokes seem easy, he challenges other comedians to get laughs with them.
And he's right. Developing a unique voice that can make the most profane words elicit an emotion other than disgust is challenging. Doing so while selling millions of albums without selling his comic integrity? That to me is the exact measure of the best living comedian.