Comedian Louis C.K., who in November 2017 admitted to repeatedly exposing himself and masturbating in front of unwilling women, said at the time he was going to “step back and take a long time to listen.” Less than a year later, he returned to the stage at the Comedy Cellar to perform an unannounced set. Although the way he came back didn’t inspire much confidence that he’d learned anything during his time in the wilderness, it was still possible, if you leaned way back and squinted, to speculate that his decision to return without any fanfare was a mistake—Slate’s Christina Cauterucci left open the possibility that it was an “ill-advised toe dipped in water too boiling hot for swimming”—and that whatever missteps C.K. had made in returning to the public eye the way he did, he was sincerely engaged in an attempt to wrestle with what he’d done.
It is not possible to believe that anymore. Bootleg audio from one of his shows—it’s labeled as being from Long Island comedy club Governor’s on Dec. 16—has been uploaded to YouTube, giving those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be in the audience for a surprise Louis C.K. appearance a chance to hear what he’s been up to. And what he’s been up to, judging from the material, is bemoaning the money he lost, fuming over young people and political correctness, and writing some really killer jokes about the respective penis sizes of various ethnic groups. It’s not just that it’s not funny: it’s positively sickening. Here, for example, is the way C.K. ends a bit about visiting his doctor (described earlier in the joke as old, and Jewish, and touchy-feely):
And he said, “You need to stop eating ice cream.” I said, “You need to go fuck yourself. And don’t ever touch me again, you old faggot. You old fucking Jewish fag. Get your fucking hands off me.” You’re fucking with my ice cream, I get upset.
Whatever you think about C.K.’s past use of slurs in his act, his old material at least made some attempt to think about what they meant. There’s no payoff here except for the slur itself: The entire joke is that he’s so mad about not being able to eat ice cream that he’ll casually use it, even with someone who—as he spends the whole build-up establishing—he otherwise likes. It’s cheap and it’s hacky. But it has nothing on the five solid minutes (!) he devotes to lamenting the fact that people have stopped using the word retarded. After reminiscing about how often people said it during his childhood—and saying it over and over again himself, sometimes in a comically exaggerated Boston accent—he lands on this:
But we started to feel shitty about it, so we changed it to intellectually challenged. What the fuck, it’s—don’t name the kid a thing he can’t say out loud. An intellectual challenge is can you translate Shakespeare into Latin and make it rhyme. These kids are not intellectually challenged, they’re intellectually fuckin’ done. They are! It’s not their sport! But we decided we didn’t want to call them retarded because we call each other that, so we went back to Nelson and we said, “Listen, Nelson, I have something to tell you. You’re not retarded anymore.”
“You mean I’m cured?”
“No, not at all. We just don’t call you that, ’cause it’s a terrible thing to call somebody.”
“But you called me that with—”
“Yes, but not anymore, because we shouldn’t.”
And he’s trying to wrap his head around this, which is difficult for Nelson, ’cause he’s fucking retarded.
That is vile. It’s not that the topic should be off limits: Whether or not you think Anthony Jeselnik, say, should do that kind of material, the joke is that Jeselnik is being awful—the humor comes from thinking, “Christ, what an asshole.” C.K. is doing a George Carlin thing, acting like he’s telling forbidden truths, but spends five minutes riffing on “Christ, people with intellectual disabilities are stupid.” So stupid, in fact, that, according to C.K., “They don’t give a fuck what you think of them,” if anyone was looking for a permission slip to go back to using a slur. And speaking of people who don’t give a fuck what you think of them, Louis C.K. is such a rebel that he doesn’t give a fuck what you think of him, as he made clear, seemingly in response to someone leaving or giving him a dirty look around four minutes into his killer material at the expense of the intellectually disabled:
What’re you, gonna take away my birthday? My life is over, I don’t give a shit. You can, you can be offended, it’s OK. You can get mad at me. Anyway. So why do black guys have big dicks? Let’s talk about that for a minute.
You might think that last line was C.K., in a rare moment of self-awareness, making a joke at his own expense—“I’m committing career suicide here, let’s just go all the way”—but no, he really had prepared a bunch of jokes about race and dick size, including a charming section about Asian men that is less standup comedy than something a racist drunk at a bar would hiss seconds before getting punched in the face. And who’s to blame if people don’t respond well to these jokes? It will not surprise you at this point to discover that C.K. thinks his problems are entirely the fault of the young people on his lawn:
[Young people] are just boring. Fucking telling, “You shouldn’t say that.” What are you, an old lady? What are you fucking doing? “Nyeah, that’s not appropriate.” Fuck you! You’re a child! Why aren’t you finger-fucking each other and doing Jell-O shots? Why aren’t you—“You should address me”—they’re like royalty, they tell you what to call them. “You should address me as they/them, because I identify as gender neutral.” Oh, OK. OK. You should address me as “there,” because I identify as a location. And the location is your mother’s cunt.
It would be tacky for a comedian who had not spent years whipping it out in front of unwilling co-workers to complain about people trying to explain to him what’s appropriate and what’s not. For Louis C.K. to write and tell those jokes would require a breathtaking, Kevin Spacey–level lack of self-awareness, and there was a time that self-awareness was C.K.’s brand. So what the fuck is going on here? For one clue, here’s a joke C.K. told at the expense of the Parkland teens, of all people, children who responded to an unthinkable tragedy by dedicating their lives to making the world a better place:
You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot. Why does that mean I have to listen to you? Why does that make you interesting? You didn’t get shot, you pushed some fat kid in the way, and now I gotta listen to you talking?
One of the things that makes listening to the new C.K. material so painful is he hasn’t lost his talent: his timing and delivery are still there, somewhere, peeking out under all the racism and ranting about political correctness and—for some reason—anger at gun control activists. Those are pretty specific targets, actually, and C.K. tackles them with nearly the same control of his craft he had before his downfall. In other words, it would be wrong—and not giving the comedian enough credit—to think of this as a meltdown instead of a deliberate rebranding, a bid to spend his twilight years spreading hate on the Trump rally circuit.
But the single most disheartening thing about the bootleg recording is that Louis C.K. isn’t the only voice on it. An audience member, either the person who made the recording or someone who was sitting nearby, is audible throughout, giggling, snickering, and roaring in laughter. At one point he yells out, in anticipation of a punchline, “ ’Cause he’s retarded!,” then pounds on the table in a paroxysm of delight. The jokes about race make him howl like a hyena. Louis C.K. is clearly unwilling to reckon with what he’s done, but unfortunately, he seems to know exactly what he’s doing: There are a lot of people out there just waiting for permission from an authority figure to become more bestial and brutish. And we all know how fastidious Louis always was about permission.