There’s one moment in Sincerely, the new stand-up special that comedian Louis C.K. unexpectedly released online on Saturday, where he does something genuinely interesting. He starts off with a joke that was part of the stand-up set that leaked two Christmases ago. Here’s the earlier version:
I was in a small town in eastern Long Island. There was a drug store. I was looking in the window of the drug store, and they had a wheelchair on display. Is that really an impulse purchase? A wheelchair? “I should get a wheelchair. That would really help with my paralysis. Then I wouldn’t have to drag myself along the sidewalk like I was scaling a cliff the whole time.”
At that point, back in 2018, Louis C.K. moved on to another topic (France). In Sincerely, he goes a little further, turning the joke back around on his audience with a surprising amount of venom:
I was in upstate New York in a small town, and I was standing in front of a drug store. And in the window of the drug store, they had a wheelchair on display. In the window. Is that really an impulse purchase? “Hmmmm. I should get a wheelchair. That would really help. [Laughter.] With my paralysis. [Laughter.] Then I wouldn’t have to drag myself everywhere I go. [Laughter.] Like I’ve been doing for 10 years. [Laughter.] Since my legs were blown off. [Laughter.] At the marathon. [Shocked gasps, groans, boos.]
OK. OK. Bunch of fuckin’ hypocrites, apparently. Because let me point something out to you. Let me point something out to you, motherfuckers. You were just, like, seconds ago, laughing at a man with no legs crawling on the ground, you were just, “Ha ha ha HAAAAAA!” And then at the end, you’re like, “Oh, but not those particular legless people. No-o-o. We thought you meant just some asshole with a childhood disease. Who deserves to be laughed at. Not one of those.”
It’s the closest he gets to expressing any anger about his fall from grace, and it’d be a smart joke about how arbitrary the line can be between what people consider funny and what people consider unforgivably tasteless, except for one thing: It was delivered to an audience that had paid money to hear Louis C.K. tell it, which makes their judgment about where to draw the line suspect from the start.
Louis C.K.’s comedy has always depended on a shared understanding that he and the audience had broadly similar ideas of right and wrong—that when he told a joke about rape, for example, no matter how outrageous his premise was or how far he took it, the joke would ultimately be at rapists’ expense. The high-wire routine was a large part of the thrill that powered his act: watching him baldly state a horrible idea, wondering how he’d manage to land the plane, being delighted when he pulled it off. That can be a powerful mode for a comedian to work in, and Louis C.K. was arguably better at it than anyone else, but it requires trust.
Most of that trust disappeared when Louis C.K. admitted he’d routinely pressured his co-workers and other women into watching him masturbate. Whatever was left of it was destroyed when he reemerged, less than a year after saying he was going to “step back and take a long time to listen,” with angry new material on shopworn premises like “I don’t like it when trans people choose their own pronouns” and “black men have larger dicks than white men, but white men have larger dicks than Asians.” He also found time to attack the Parkland teens and lament all the money he’d lost by—again—sexually harassing his co-workers and other industry colleagues.
In Sincerely, Louis C.K. has dropped most of the most appalling jokes from the leaked material—although an extended bit about the word retarded is still there—and some of the jokes he’s replaced them with, particularly the ones about his family history, are good ones. But it’s impossible to give him the benefit of the doubt he once relied on, and without it, jokes about, say, pedophilia—“I don’t even need to be told, I just know that it’s wrong,” he says—inspire more queasiness than laughter. Then there’s the section where Louis C.K. ostensibly addresses his actions. Here’s how that goes:
All right, you want to talk about it? Should we talk about it? I don’t mind, I don’t mind talking about it. OK. Here’s what—I’ll give you some advice. Here’s some advice that really only I can give you. Here’s my advice. If you ever ask somebody, “Can I jerk off in front of you …” Let me finish—I mean, let me finish what I’m saying! If you ever ask somebody, “May I jerk off in front of you,” and they say yes, just say, “Are you sure?” That’s the first part. And then if they say yes, just don’t fuckin’ do it. Just don’t do it. ’Cause look, whatever you’re into, OK, ’cause everybody’s got their thing, whatever your thing is, I don’t know. You all have your thing. I don’t know what your thing is. You’re so fucking lucky that I don’t know what your thing is. Do you understand how lucky you are? That people don’t know your fucking thing? ’Cause everybody knows my thing. Everybody knows my fucking thing now. Obama knows my thing—do you understand how that feels? To know that Obama was like, “Good Lord.” Everybody in the world knows my thing.
The Obama part could be funny, if it were told by a man whose harmless but embarrassing sexual kink had been publicly exposed through misadventure. It doesn’t work at all when it’s told by someone who abused his power in the workplace to sexually harass co-workers and other women in his industry who were less powerful than him, and whose manager then attempted to silence those women in a “perceived … cover-up.” There’s no reason Sincerely had to be an apology tour—the smart move would have been preceding it with actual apologies—but addressing his misconduct while framing it so disingenuously (for starters, the New York Times’ reporting suggests many of C.K.’s victims never offered anything approaching their consent) is worse than not bringing it up at all. Not that you’d get that impression by watching Sincerely: Judging from the audience reaction when Louis brings up his scandal, 51 minutes into the hourlong special, that’s what everyone came to hear.
Which brings us back to Louis C.K.’s audience. On Saturday, when he announced that he was releasing Sincerely, Twitter exploded with cheers from people who were watching entirely out of spite: Louis C.K.’s new fanbase. Whatever is going on there, it isn’t about comedy, it isn’t about Louis C.K., and it especially isn’t about Louis C.K.’s jokes. Serving as a proxy for such people is one way to make a living, I guess, and everyone involved in that transaction deserves one other. But it’s a waste, and 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.