An overweight balding man exits a subway station and, as he walks, up pops his name in bold, cartoonish, dropshadowed white letters: Louie. He stands alone in the doorway of a pizza parlor inhaling a slice, his eyes searching and expressionless, watching people pass by as people watch him, an urban Everyman of the crowd.
When parsing Louie's minimalist yet genius opening sequence, I recognized an essential '70s aura around the shapes of the words. It took a bit of Googling for me to comprehend the ubiquity of this particular typeface, called Cooper Black. Though it was designed in 1919, Cooper Black's groovy badonkadonk didn't truly hit the world over the head until it graced the cover of the Beach Boys' classic 1966 album, Pet Sounds.
For the next decade Cooper Black slowly asserted pop culture supremacy, making notable appearances on The Bob Newhart Show, The Odd Couple, 1976's remake of King Kong, The Sting, The Doors' L.A. Woman, “Garfield,” Tootsie Rolls, National Lampoon magazine, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, M*A*S*H and Diff'rent Strokes, along with less notable appearances on an unbelievable number of signs, packages, labels, T-shirts and advertisements.
Once you start to notice Cooper Black, it sings out to you from every street corner. The ultimate authority on Cooper Black's history is designer Cheshire Isaac's deadpan but informative 2002 parody of VH1's Behind the Music, called Behind the Typeface, which chronicles the life of Cooper Black and its creator, illustrator and typographer Osmond “Oz” Cooper, who called it “the typeface for farsighted printers with nearsighted customers.”
Cooper Black has become shorthand for late-'60s/early-'70s nostalgia, as in The Black Keys' “Brothers” or Wet Hot American Summer, but nothing in the structure, jokes, storylines or aesthetics of Louie harkens back to the sitcoms of yore. Despite having passed the editing reins for Season 3 over to Woody Allen's longtime accomplice, Susan E. Morse, who cut Annie Hall and Manhattan among other '70s classics, Louie belongs definitively to the 21st century. So why does Cooper Black make sense?
The populist, prosaic appearance of both Louis C.K. and Cooper Black belie a more deliberate cleverness. Despite his newfound wealth, Louis C.K. projects a working-class, underdog image; he is a flabby and unattractive representative of fumbling middle-aged men all across America. One font-obsessed friend told me, “Cooper Black isn't trying to be a svelte and economical Helvetica, but instead almost luxuriates (if a font can do that) in its big and beautiful strokes and serifs. Just one look at the curved tail of the uppercase 'Q' and you know that Cooper Black doesn't have any body issues.”
Guess who else seems totally content to be his pudgy self? Louis C.K. He almost physically resembles the typeface!
By the 1980s, Cooper Black mania had sullied the brand somewhat, with its jaunty, rounded serifs suddenly calling to mind bargain shoes and non-groundbreaking rock & roll.
But unlike the similarly overused Comic Sans, the laughingstock of the design world, Cooper Black retains its dignity and, according to Isaac, inspired something of a revival among discerning designers in the late '90s. “Where others saw a cheap commodity,” the video intones, “[some] saw an underappreciated classic.”
From the outside C.K. appears average or generic, like Cooper Black, but on the inside he is an “underappreciated classic,” or at least he was during the 25 years he spent toiling in comedy before reaching stardom. Last year, when he offered his Emmy-nominated Live at the Beacon Theater special for $5 through his website, he included an open note to would-be Torrenters, asking them to bear in mind, “I am not a company or a corporation. I'm just some guy.” Of course, he's not really “just some guy” anymore, but this humble self-identification caught the sympathy of innumerable potential downloaders and made him over $1 million within days.
Cooper Black seems to have been an instinctive decision for C.K., characterized perhaps by the same hedonism that inspires Louie to indulge in a few scoops of ice cream with lunch in the Season 3 premiere or gorge himself on ice cream and pizza when he gets a break from his kids for a few days in the first season's episode “Dogpound.” Explaining the choice, C.K. told the L.A. Times “I just grew up watching TV in the '70s. I just like those aesthetics.” He just likes it; pleasure is pleasure, and sometimes you can't go into a deeper explanation when something simply makes you happy. On Twitter, when a Berkeley-based graphic designer and self-described “type geek” demanded, “Why on earth did you pick Cooper Black?” C.K. responded in a tone not defensive or intellectual but almost naïve and optimistic, like a little boy: “it's balloony and pretty and nice!”
In his stand-up and on his show, too, he draws you in by showing his dark, vulgar, anxious and incapable side alongside a profound belief in the beauty and humor of life. I can't really think of another comedian who seems so capable of both pure joy and utter depression. In the second episode of the current season, Louie finds himself at a bar with a woman named Laurie (Melissa Leo), and the two commiserate about how awful life is. “Mostly it's really shitty,” she says, and he responds, “Isn't it, like 90 percent of the time? Isn't it shitty?” This part isn't new. Most comedians talk about life being shitty. Lewis Black rails at the shitty. Larry David whines about the shitty. Chris Rock muses about the shitty and only seems to smile because he's made you smile, marveling at the absurdity and irony of what he's just made clear. Jon Stewart points out the shitty, and only seems gleeful with schadenfreude when he succeeds in outlining the flaws of an institution or individual.
But Louis C.K. complains about the shitty and then turns around and, five minutes later, makes it clear he believes in the possibility of something better, in a very relatable and innocent way. Laurie offers Louie a blowjob and, after he accepts, demands he reciprocate. He won't because, as he says, “It's too soon.” Though they both are jaded and lonely, Laurie cynically sees oral sex as transactional, whereas Louie hopes for something more intimate.
I think this hope, and by extension C.K.'s choice of the playful Cooper Black, is related to how central his children have become to his comedic success. Is it possible we are all more likely to accept a series of jokes about jerking off if they're followed by the wonderful retelling and dissection of a joke his daughter told him: “Who didn't let the gorilla into the ballet?” (Answer: Just the people who were in charge of that decision). Somehow his signature combination of delight and crass self-deprecation is not dissonant but transcendent. We all feel this way, all the time, disgusted with the human race one minute and then pleased by a moment of magic the next. Louis C.K captures this ambivalence and rightfully employs the kindly, chubby, overexposed Cooper Black to tell the tale.