Louis CK on Charlie Rose


They took down the video, and all that is left is either difficult to embed or not available in Canada: watch the full episode at the Charlie Rose site.

CR: So did you have the power of observation always: you just had to learn how to shape it and form it? I mean to see life with a comedic eye. 

LCK: Yeah, I mean I guess that's just the way I look at things. And I'm very curious so I like to look at a lot of things. So I'm always out there looking at life and thinking about it, so I guess that's just observation. But it's being able to have people understand an observation even if it's really from a strange place or even if it's very personal.   

Ethnography is the heart and soul of folklore (and anthropology, and [shudder] ethnomusicology). There are various definitions for what it is, but the simplest and most profound is one I heard from Guha Shankar of the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center. It is 'deep hanging out': you know what it is to go somewhere, figure out how things work there, and operate moderately successfully, even if you never entirely meld with a place. We all have those skills. The 'deep' part, what differentiates ethnography from 'regular hanging out,' is knowing that your aim is ultimately to communicate that experience to an absent third party, one unfamiliar with the ethnographic site. So you pay a little more attention, perhaps, trying to develop a communicatable understanding.  

Although the aims of the stand-up and the aims of the academic are different, their shared project of communicating experience has a lot of overlap. The ethnographic adage of "making the strange familiar and the familiar strange" is as true for one as it is for the other. Both are using words to communicate a particular experience to their respective audiences, and both imply a certain amount of intellectual honesty and integrity; the stand-up is allowed more poetic license but there is the expectation that what is described in an idiosyncratic way is nevertheless grounded in reality.   

I call what the stand-up does "vernacular ethnography": it is a description of culture that isn't intended to integrate with and contribute to an ongoing and established discourse on culture like the academic, but nevertheless draws on keen observation and creative word choice to communicate an experience to another (or, in the case of 'making the familiar strange,' providing an exoteric perspective on something so close to the audience that its oddities are not noticed). What is more, I feel that - understanding poetic license is in play - the academy can nevertheless draw on these forms of observation as ethnographic data. Like children's games: