Wide Angle

What Louis C.K. Has Really Lost

Louis C.K. holds a mic and scowls as he performs onstage
Sorry. LouisCK.com

Louis C.K. has a new self-released stand-up special, somewhat trollishly titled Sorry. It’s the second since the 2017 reports of his masturbating in front of unwilling women scuttled the launch of his movie I Love You, Daddy, crushed legions of his fans (including this one), and evoked a promise from the comedian to “step back and listen.”

So it’s unsurprising that new Louis C.K. material would spark another exhausted cycle of … I was going to say debate, but it’s hardly even that anymore. Whether cancel culture exists and how it has afflicted C.K. specifically has all been too thoroughly chewed over, and I refuse to masticate on it. We’re in the domain of dunks now, with bitter jokes (again, since the same joke circulated with his 2019 special, Sincerely Louis C.K.*) that it’s on brand for the comic to release something without consent, while defenders like Ben Shapiro mock those who care about the allegations: “Louis CK is hilarious. Thus he will continue to survive and thrive. Your whining will change none of this.” (Some pointed out that his tweet actually concedes that “cancel culture” isn’t a real threat.) In short, this all feels like shadow boxing, and these reprises of an old controversy aren’t getting us anywhere new or interesting.

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But then there’s the comedy itself. It turns out that C.K.’s stand-up is stuck in a weird way that reflects some of the exhausted discourse around him. Until Sorry, I hadn’t watched any new Louis C.K. material since “canceling” him in my own life four years ago. I finally watched his recent work at my editor’s insistence. And here’s my verdict: The special isn’t bad; it’s maybe a B minus/C plus if you’re grading the comic against himself. It’s also not aiming for much more than that. It’s not ambitious. Louis C.K. doesn’t grapple with the allegations with anything like the candor and sincerity he’s capable of at his best (I’m thinking of some of the greatest episodes of Louie, among other things). But the comedic aspirations are lower too: While Louis C.K. remains the undefeated champion of deftly circumnavigating taboos, something has been lost besides his reputation.

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For one, he’s repeating a lot of themes you’ll recognize from other specials. Louis C.K. has long prided himself on putting out a whole new hour of material every year or two, but even when the jokes are new, the moves are familiar. They include things like picking a taboo word like a gay slur or the N-word to recuperate and redefine according to his own peculiar lights, where the game is to say it as many times as possible. Then there’s the sexual taboo stuff: Sometimes it’s necrophilia, sometimes it’s pedophilia, but the point is usually to offer a creatively shocking solution to the problem of sexual compulsives, like offering his dead body for sex or proposing the creation of realistic dolls so pedophiles will spare children. In both cases the point is to mock the audience for piously hypocritical attitudes that prioritize respectability over dirty pragmatism. There’s usually some observational humor about religion—in his last pre-scandal special, 2017, he was talking about how Christianity has “won” (“The Christians won everything a long time ago. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you a question: What year is it? I mean, come on!”), and in Sincerely Louis C.K. he reflected on how completely it has lost (“That shit is over. You go to a church and it’s like going to a roller-skating rink on a Wednesday”). There are always a few bits done in his “Valley girl” voice in which he parodies some urban neurosis or elite double standard. There are also a few bits done in offensive ethnic accents (typically Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Jewish) that he generates elaborate rationales for using—and this too is the game, to keep you on board while he creeps closer and closer to the indefensible, enjoying the audience’s squirming discomfort. (“It’s gonna be OK,” he says midway through a riff about observing a Black woman selecting bananas in the grocery store. It doesn’t quite pay off.) There’s usually an extended section in which he flirts with a homosexual attraction and whether or not it would make him less manly and how he would approach a penis. And there is always, always, masturbation and sex: how bad he looks having it and doing it in which positions, and so on, and so on.

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There’s virtuosic skill involved in all this boundary-skirting, but C.K. is so practiced at it, and we’ve seen him do it so often, that it’s not the revolutionary stuff it once was (it’s not that fun to watch a tightrope walker do the same thing 18 times). Compared with his best work, it’s a pretty simple routine. No big flips. But I realized as I was watching that there was a different sort of risk C.K. was taking in Sorry: Sure, he’s doing riffs on a lot of the same old themes, but he’s doing them this time without a safety net.

Let me explain.

The way C.K.’s flirtations with the offensive and the taboo work, at least historically, is by making himself a temporary stand-in for the bad guy. He ventriloquizes everything a pedophile might be thinking in exceptional detail, for instance. Or take the bit in Sorry about a Black woman picking out bananas. The joke starts off with how creepy he feels being a white man watching a Black woman pick bananas, then gets mad that he feels creepy because he isn’t creepy—he just wants bananas and it’s not his fault that a racist association exists—and finally ends with him giving up and going to the strawberries, where there’s “a Jew.” It’s sort of a typical triple lutz of a Louis C.K. joke, right? The twist being that the persona he’s been playing as not just enlightened about stereotypes but righteously offended at being wrongly suspected of being a racist creep turns out to be kind of a race-obsessed weirdo in this whole other “Jew-in-the-strawberries” way. It’s sort of a brave joke (tactically) in that, like many C.K. bits, it annihilates the C.K. character’s ethical “goodness.” The person whose perspective you thought you were in sympathy with is kind of horrible. I thought this particular example was a little weak, but it’s the kind of joke Louis C.K. is really, really good at.

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It’s also obviously a riskier kind of humor for him to attempt post-scandal. The success of such a joke depends heavily on the audience trusting that the comic beneath the “creep” persona isn’t horrible. That by so precisely articulating such a perspective, it’s implicitly a critique. That meta layer is the safety net I’m talking about: For most of C.K.’s career, the “real” Louis C.K.—a genuinely good guy troubled by demons but with a compassionate and decent core—has functioned as an authorizing alibi of sorts for the special’s boundary-violating experiments. “Louis is a creep” is a leitmotif in C.K.’s comedy, a rich vein he’s mined in special after special, but the subtext has always been that he really isn’t: The Real Louis C.K. was the hapless, kind of dirty, but conscientious guy who bought a Girls Gone Wild DVD after his divorce but couldn’t jack off to it because he kept—as a dad—getting mad at the girls for making stupid choices.

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The revelations have made it harder to believe in that version of him; to a lot of his former fans, one horrifying thing about the allegations was that he turned out to be the very creep we thought he was lampooning. The joke we thought we were laughing at wasn’t a joke at all. The way he’s deployed that hapless-but-harmless version of himself in response to the scandal isn’t helping. In Sincerely Louis C.K., the comic’s way of tackling the allegations was to speak briefly as what I guess I’m calling the Real Louis C.K., by which I mean some comically heightened approximation of the real guy and not the theatrical deviant that C.K.’s jokes often require him to be. “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,” C.K. says in Sincerely. “And then if they say yes, just don’t fuckin’ do it. Just don’t do it.” Having all but asserted that all his accusers consented, he suggests that what he’d failed to understand is that women feign sexual pleasure or “being OK” the way slaves sang spirituals, and it falls to men to somehow distinguish between these performances and expressions of genuine well-being.

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The comparison to slavery is typical C.K. outrage-bait and useful inasmuch as the shock of it partly buries the absurdity of what he’s really saying there: As if any of the women whom he masturbated in front of or on the phone with—sometimes, again, without their consent—were moaning with faked pleasure!

One can admire the rhetorical dexterity of this (and its complexity as a strategic maneuver!) while recognizing it as a real waste of the comedic machinery that then lets us safely laugh at … the pedophilia content. It tarnishes the self-deprecating and uncompromising Real Louis C.K. persona by putting him to the ignoble service of downplaying and distorting the allegations to make himself look better—instead of telling difficult truths. It also wastes an opportunity for that guy—and I’d argue that that guy has always been Louis C.K.’s real superweapon—to actually tackle a genuine problem a lot of men struggle with. Louis C.K. is our foremost lyricist on sexual compulsions! He has, in the past, been willing to confront difficult issues and his own mistakes with revelatory candor! He could have gotten real about whatever psychosexual hang-ups led him to sexually harass industry colleagues (and I’d love to hear him of all people talk about that, because it’s obviously a serious problem that we could all stand to better comprehend). But instead of reckoning with power or shame, he compares his kink to wanting to show off that one is good at juggling. He’s good at masturbating, he says in Sincerely Louis C.K. You want to show off what you’re good at.

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That whole section in 2019’s Sincerely has been correctly characterized as a non-apology or worse. I’d argue, on a more mundane but critical front, that it’s bad for his comedy too. By using the Real Louis C.K. to awkwardly (and counterfactually) defend himself, he’s fudging the baseline we really need to trust in order for his riskier I’m-a-creep jokes to pop. The meat of C.K.’s earlier specials wasn’t the sex stuff or the recuperation of taboo words or the pedo- and necrophilia; it was the grouchy but compassionate social philosophizing underneath. The strangely sincere discussions of divorce or the weirdness of fatherhood or homosocial desire or of his own flaws and his efforts to overcome them.

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That stuff basically comes from the Real Louis C.K. (working in tandem with the grinning, acrobatic taboo-buster, who usually made the stuff funny), and there just isn’t much of that guy left in Sorry. Hell, it seems like there wasn’t much left in earlier iterations of Sincerely Louis C.K., based on leaked audio in which C.K. mocked the Parkland survivors, lamented losing $35 million, objected to using transgender people’s chosen pronouns, and ranked the penis sizes of various races. C.K. didn’t seem transcendent or subversive so much as kind of hacky and reactionary. And while he’s modulated much of that message in Sorry—he praises young people for having a wider spectrum than male and female and speculates about what that might have meant for him—the final message of the special is a tad retrograde too. If most of Louis C.K.’s oeuvre has been about mocking masculine desire as base and embarrassing and gross, Sorry concludes by calling contemporary gay men “real men” because they’re athletic, and calls contemporary straight men the slur once reserved for gay men because they’re now sensitive and intelligent and therefore unlikely to arouse women.

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Over the past several years I’ve thought a lot about 2017, Louis C.K.’s last pre-scandal special. I still uncomplicatedly admired him when I watched it, and I remember being surprised at his choice to wear a suit for the first time. It made a certain kind of sense. Up until then, C.K. had reliably been the schlub in a black T-shirt, the sort of confident and wry and obviously brilliant blue-collar genius who could somehow convince you he was also a hangdog pathetic loser. But as he got more and more successful, it got harder for him to play up the “loser” part. By the time of 2017, Louis was hailed by pretty much everybody as the ultimate winner—about to be a celebrated film auteur in addition to being the most admired stand-up in the world and the creator of a revolutionary TV series he edited himself. His wealth and fame were starting to clash with the comedic persona he used in his act. 2017 in some ways represented his effort to address his class shift: He included some throwaway lines, like how his family listens to NPR “because we’re better than you.” It’s a good special—better than I remember, honestly—but I remember feeling that by no longer being an underdog, he’d lost something he needed to really make his act work. Well, he has again what he was missing then. Abjection is Louis C.K.’s medium; it suits him, and he thrives in it. But what he’s missing now is much harder to recover.

Correction, Dec. 24, 2021: This article originally misstated the title of Louis C.K.’s special Sincerely Louis C.K.

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