A few months ago, I found myself in a place not known for its nuanced political discussion: an online screenwriting course. Every class would open with students recapping the highlights of their week. One student, somewhat hesitantly, said that he had attended a Louis CK show. He said it was great “as usual,” and that Louis was a great comedian. There was silence over the Zoom. The next student to go, just as hesitant, smirked and said “Well shit, I didn’t know we could talk about this. I went to see Louis CK too!”
It felt strange, like there had been something brewing under the surface for a long time that I’d only just seen bubble up. Just by being classmates over Zoom with these two people does not mean I know them well enough to comment on who they are as people. They are allowed to like whomever they choose. But I did find it odd that the only two people advocating for Louis CK were the only two cis-white men in our class. And it was then that I knew that not only was Louis CK “back”, but that he may have never really left.
You may have heard a little more about Louis CK recently. His newest standup special, Sorry, is now available on his website. The preview clip alone has garnered almost a million views in the two weeks since the time of writing. An ad for the special ran during a recent showing of SNL. It feels like he’s becoming the center of a mainstream conversation for the first time in a while.
Since a number of women came out in 2017 to reveal that they had been sexually abused by CK, he has been ostracized. In the sense that being ostracized means earning a Grammy nomination for his special “Sincerely” (yes, Sorry is the second comedy special he’s released since the allegations). In the sense that being ostracized means sellout crowds for live shows.
Louis was at the very pinnacle of success when these allegations came out. A number of his fans felt that their favorite comedian was taken away from them. I will be forthright. I loved Louis CK.
I bought almost all his standup albums and specials. I watched all of Louie. I watched all of Horace and Pete (which deserves to credit genius playwright Annie Baker for additional writing). Louis CK is not just a comedian. He is a legitimate artist who is constantly trying to push boundaries.
So why is it that all his humor post-2017 seems so hackneyed and cheap?
In 2018, a bootleg recording surfaced of CK performing at a Long Island club. The recording has already been discussed by more clever and tuned-in voices than mine. But the most irritating (and illuminating) aspect of listening to this is hearing the voice of the person recording the set.
You can tell a lot by the tone of someone’s laugh, whether it’s real or genuine. We hear the person recording the set have genuine, guttural reactions. This is what Norm MacDonald used to call “the objectivity of comedy”. The unforced laughter of someone who’s genuinely surprised by a punchline is not subjective. It’s a physiological response that we can measure.
When CK talks about the Parkland survivors, and how “annoying” they are, the laugher is not genuine. It sounds forced, and it’s followed by a “Fuck em”! When CK goes after Asians (not a specific group of Asians, just “Asians”) the guy recording cackles again and yells “Get em, Louie!” He’s not laughing. He’s agreeing.
One of the few times I ever heard that in a live show was at a Norm MacDonald show at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. Norm was telling a joke about transgender people, a person sitting next to me screamed “Woooo, get em, Norm!” Not long after that show, Norm stated that he would stop doing transgender jokes because he didn’t want people to hear those jokes and then go out and hurt a transgender person. This was coming from someone who strongly believed that a comedian should be able to say anything that was funny.
The greatness of CK’s comedy was always based on his ability to work at his craft. At a memorial for George Carlin, he emotionally talked about how Carlin changed his life by introducing to him a “once a year record” work ethic. CK once described his process of moving the closing bit of his set to the front so he would be forced to come up with an even better closing. He described this process as like crafting “the folds of a katana.”
In Sorry, he opens with “My favorite sex position is reverse cowgirl, but I’m on top.”
It’s a bad sign.
His most interesting section is about pedophilia. He wonders why we don’t take measures to prevent it rather than just prosecuting it, like drug addiction, and it’s a unique point. It’s distasteful, and you may certainly disagree with it, but it genuinely makes you see the world in a different way. He also talks about the death of his mother in an eloquent way. I was hopeful watching these moments.
But for every unique point, there’s the now trademarked “raunchiness”. He talks about little girls’ panties and how hard it would be to give birth out of your dick. He talks a lot about babies. Killing them. Throwing them away. Molesting them. Lots of baby stuff. People assume that this is what CK’s comedy used to always be. But it wasn’t. It used to have a point. It used to have empathy.
Now, when he talks about “the protests” (the ones that followed George Floyd’s murder), he only brings it up to make fun of a young female protestor on the street with a sign that says “Abolish Billionaires.”
The only time he’s funny is when he’s playing with low stakes. The best joke of the set is the one used to promote it online. He makes fun of Good Will Hunting. It’s funny.
But that’s about it.
There have been long reviews dedicated to how Louis’ handling of the transgender “issue” is better than Dave Chappelle’s. I agree, but only in the sense that he doesn’t seem as personally aggrieved as Chappelle.
He uses this opportunity to make fun of straight men who he believes nowadays are “f**s”, and ends the set by stating that the only way to make a baby is if a straight man and a straight woman have sex.
It’s a testament to Louis’s delivery, because if you were to list all these moments out in bullet points, you’d assume I was talking about an alt-right comedian.
Louis changed comedy. If you went to any comedy club post-Louie, every dad comic would talk about how “shitty” their kids were, but without any of CK’s empathy. He was surreal and absurd in a way that felt unique to him. His comedy wasn’t about “raunchiness” and “crassness”. It was about seeing the world in a different way and going against conventional thinking.
And now the audiences at his live shows scream for him as he comes out while he tells Asian jokes to applause. Not laughter.
It could have been different.
Louis CK had a genuine chance to take one of the darkest moments of his life, show actual contrition, and use his comedy to move through it.
Instead, he put up a neon sign that said “Sorry”.
That’s his choice. There are forks in the road for every artist’s career. It really could have been different, and that’s what bugs me the most.
Watching this special, I kept thinking about Norm MacDonald’s career towards the end of his life (to whom CK dedicates this special). Norm had similar, edgy, boundary-pushing humor, with a slightly conservative tinge. But he morphed with the times, took responsibility for the idea that his jokes could actually cause harm, and became better for it. The works he produced at the end of his life (his “autobiography” and Hitler’s Dog, Gossip and Trickery) were the best of his entire career. Experience those works, you see an artist who puts their craft first.
I watched Sorry and I saw what could have been. A Louis CK that owned up to his flaws instead of reveling in them. A Louis CK that didn’t just apologize to the public, but to the women he masturbated in front of because he could, and because they weren’t in a position to say no. I wanted to watch a funny set that didn’t seem so recycled because Louis knew that his audience would support him no matter what.
But Sorry is what we have instead.
He’s still talented. He’s still funny. It’s really entertaining to watch the paths he takes to get to a punchline. But he’s not Louis anymore. He’s a comedian who’s traded laughs for applause. Louis cannot choose his audience. But he can choose to pander to them.