Louis C.K. Remains Brilliant

Comedian Louis C.K. at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2016 (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)
His new special, wild and acidic, is characteristic of how he has been doing comedy his entire career.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE ‘I ’m not a good person,” Louis C.K. says near the top of his new one-hour special. We heard. Do I want Louis C.K. making s’mores with my kid’s Girl Scout troop? No, I do not. And if I were a woman, I might be reluctant to be alone with him. (On the other hand, I might just remember that I have the right to walk away if anything weird starts to happen.) Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about these things, and neither do you. As comedy consumers, none of us has to be in the room with Louis C.K. We can benefit from his brilliance without having to deal with his perversion.

The new special, Sincerely Louis C.K., which is being offered on his website for eight bucks, is much like all of his previous ones: It’s wild and acidic. It’s misanthropic, it’s twisted, it ventures into some forbidding dark corners of psychic crawlspace, where the spiders and the worms lurk. These characteristics make it more interesting, not less. They’re also markers of how C.K. has been doing comedy his entire career. C.K. is back, and he’s just the same as before, though some observers are pretending otherwise.

The title is not ironic: He is sincerely trying to tell something like the truth about what it’s like to be the person he is, a severely flawed man of the early 21st century. Louis C.K. has always invited us to consider the comedy payoff of rolling with our worst thoughts instead of cutting them off before they get disturbing. This means that being inappropriate is now, as it always has been, central to his act. There’s a joke about rape along these lines. It’s horrible, but it’s also very funny. It’s funny because it’s horrible: The horribleness is the point. Our comic selves venture into places our other selves dare not go. C.K. is a master at exploring that divergence, leading us down one path and then veering shockingly off course. C.K. went to one of those advanced European cities where there are eight different recycling bins on the curb for different types of garbage, and he was annoyed by this. One bin has a drawing of a cup on it. Another bin has a drawing of a slightly different type of cup. “I’m standing there with a dead baby, what am I supposed to do with that?” he asks.

This is why the performative dudgeon directed at C.K. is hard to take at face value. Why be offended at this stuff now, and not at the last 20 years of it? Variety’s writer Jordan Moreau deemed the show “racist” and “misogynistic.” See if you can detect the racism and misogyny in this joke: Women, observes C.K., sometimes make pleased-sounding noises while having unpleasant sexual experiences because that can be the easiest way to get through a trying moment. “It’s kind of like a Negro spiritual,” C.K. says. “It is like, if you heard slaves singing in the fields and you’re like, ‘Hey they’re having a great time out there!’” This is a clever comparison; moreover, it’s actually sensitive to, rather than dismissive of, the feelings of women and slaves. To find the joke racist you’d have to be not just ungenerous but actually obtuse. Should people who don’t understand comedy be the ones who review comedy specials for Variety? But maybe I’m the one missing the point. Entertainment writers de nos jours seem to be selected for the purpose of not getting it, because getting jokes might interfere with the now-greater goal of advertising one’s progressive bona fides. C.K. has been excommunicated from the comedy church for a failing that has nothing to do with comedy, therefore we must fabricate reasons why the comedy supposedly fails, or offends.

C.K. probably does not actually hate Florida so much that he wants everyone in it to die a miserable death. But his comedy depends on coaxing his worst impulses out into the open. “I don’t like Florida at all,” he says. “It’s a s**t state full of s**t people. . . . Every time there’s a hurricane I think, ‘Yeah, get ‘em, get ’em all, Melissa!’” Thinking about his own mother, who died recently, he imagines what it must be like to be a person of faith whose last thought is discovering that there is no God: “‘Seriously, nothing?’ Yeah, just get in the dumpster. You’re just garbage now. . . . You are your family’s newest garbage.” This leads to a story about how his mom (a nonbeliever) paid in advance for her own cremation, which led to some guy coming over and unceremoniously taking her body away in a bag he put in the back of an even less ceremonious van: “Just a ’98 Ford Windstar with a bottle of red Gatorade rolling around in the back.” Gruesome and funny coexist in C.K.’s mind.

At both the start and the end of the one-hour special, C.K. talks about the scandal that cost him millions of dollars in lost contracts from FX Network, the cancellation of the release of his movie I Love You Daddy, and the removal of his shows from HBO (though some have now reappeared on Amazon Prime Video). “You all have your thing,” he says. “Everybody knows my thing . . . Obama knows my thing!” Yes, and we all sort of knew about his thing even before 2017, didn’t we? C.K. did lots of jokes about being a compulsive masturbator. In his 2007 HBO special Shameless, he does a long bit about following a guy whose car has a bumper sticker reading, “Tell your girlfriend I said thanks.” C.K. imagines going to the driver’s house, beating him to death, and then masturbating over his corpse. In season two of his 2010–15 FX series Louie, he built an entire episode around compulsive masturbation. The C.K. scandal was sad, pathetic, and disturbing, but it was not surprising.

Now comedy commissars declare his new set “offensive” or “far right” or (that passive-aggressive scarlet letter) “problematic,” any label that will serve to make him radioactive among the good people. Critics seem to be trying to shame C.K.’s viewers away from his act by warning them it contains inappropriate ideas. Variety: “Throughout the profanity-filled special, C.K. makes jokes about necrophilia, pedophilia, terrorism, people with disabilities, the Holocaust and other touchy subjects, much to the audience’s amusement.” It’s been more than half a century since Lenny Bruce, but suddenly making jokes about “touchy subjects” is beyond the pale? We’re not too far away from entertainment reporters going after C.K.’s fans. “Excuse me, Sir, you laughed at Louis C.K. tonight. Care to explain yourself for our viewers?” Slate’s Matthew Dessem essentially labeled C.K. fans a basket of deplorables, in a review in which, under the headline “Louis C.K.’s Newest Fans Deserve Louis C.K.’s Newest Special,” he asked readers to consider his, Dessem’s, personal pain: “ I find it so depressing and boring — the special, Louis’ new fans, Louis himself — that I don’t ever want to give any of it my time or attention again.” Why tell us this? Hands up, all of you who worry about whether Matthew Dessem is depressed (or bored) about Louis C.K.

Dessem knew he wouldn’t like the C.K. special; in 2018, he had already heard some of the material used in this show, and wrote about it under the headline “Audio of a New Louis C.K. Set Has Leaked, and It’s Sickening.” So why did he pay eight bucks to subject himself to this nauseation? Why expend a thousand words on how C.K. doesn’t deserve his “time or attention”? Are entertainment writers going to continue to tell us we should shun a man they can’t stop talking about? “‘I AM IGNORING YOU,’ Shouts Area Man.”

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