The following essay is adapted from an episode of The Gist, a daily podcast about news, culture, and whatever else you’ll be discussing with your family and friends.
This week, readers of the Chicago Tribune encountered the headline, “Louis C.K. Stirs Outrage With Jokes About Parkland Shooting Survivors, Gender Identity Issues,” while visitors to CNN.com saw the story, “Comedian Louis C.K. Mocks Parkland Shooting Survivors in Leaked Audio.” Those headlines make it sound like the 51-year-old disgraced comic was ranting on a crowded elevator or talking loudly at a BLT steakhouse in Washington, D.C. Perhaps it would have been less disorienting to note that Louis’ comments came during a comedy performance, but even commentators armed with the knowledge that these were jokes from a set at a comedy club weren’t forgiving, and with good reason. The jokes weren’t all that good, and, we learned a little over a year ago, neither is Louis C.K.
Maybe Louis never was truly “good,” but Louis’ appeal rested on a notion of decency—that he was the kind of well-intentioned if somewhat angry schlub who calls into public radio stations to stick up for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
To Louis, the interesting challenge was this: A lot of his comedy rested on publicly airing observations that are on their face abhorrent, verboten, or simply not uttered in polite company. Concepts that George Carlin described as “the kind of thoughts that kept me out of the really ‘good’ schools.” All comedians have these thoughts—I’d argue all people do—but comedians are an approved (heretofore more than presently) class that, through craft and technique, has been able to publicly air and examine such thoughts without too much opprobrium.
Some methods for engaging in the ugly percolations of the id include the Don Rickles approach, where you craft an entire persona of “equal opportunity offender” and sing a sincere-sounding song complete with lyrics about universally loving your fellow man at the end.
In the 1980s, the comedian Barry Sobel did a routine about the impossibility of arguing with liberals, because you can disprove every single ethnic and religious stereotype in existence. This of course allowed him to list every ethnic and racial stereotype in existence. Around the same time, comedian Dom Irrera invented a faux sophisticate character who swore to the audience that he would not engage in filthy gutter talk.
“I am not one of these vile and vulgar comedians. I say only cute words,” Irrera promised. Then of course he’d revel in giving examples of the exact phrases he eschewed saying: “I have to poop. Not ‘I have to pinch a load or to cop a squat, to roll some logs, to heave a Havana.’ … What kind of talk is this? I don’t talk like that. Do you?”
C.K. has also always wanted to be seen as a person who didn’t talk or think like that, but since he let us know what the “that” is, he clearly does think horrible things. But the old C.K. found a way to deftly position his horribleness as horrible, and as human.
In his brilliant 2013 special, Oh My God, C.K. does a bit called “of course … but maybe?” He says there are moral stances, or just opinions, that we should all hold for intellectual and ethical reasons. But there is always a demon that whispers to him. That’s the “but maybe?” part. His first example is of children who have nut allergies and need to be protected. He says during the bit:
Of course children who have nut allergies need to be protected. Of course. We need to segregate their food from nuts, have their medication available at all times, and anybody who manufactures or serves food needs to be aware of deadly nut allergies. Of course … but maybe, maybe if touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die?
When Matt Zoller Seitz of New York magazine reviewed that routine in 2013, he said it ranked with the best of George Carlin and wrote that “C.K. is a humanist comic who goes Too Far with good reason—to see what he’s capable of thinking and saying, then wonder if it’s just him or if there’s some universal fear or longing or mania there.” To Zoller Seitz, it was the grappling with the badness of the thought that made for an exquisite tension. The humanity was born of thinking a bad thing, knowing it was bad, and then not knowing what to do with it. It should be noted that this week Zoller Seitz vowed to no longer write of Louis C.K. until he’s dead or sentenced in a court of law.
A less high-minded interpretation would be that Louis excelled at creating permission for us to laugh at some horrible thoughts. His brilliance lay not in pointing to a universal fear, longing, or mania, but in establishing a conceit which allowed him to get not just a laugh, but some moral approval by making the fairly rote “these kids and their peanut allergy” jokes.
Notably, the tone of Louis C.K.’s leaked set had nothing of the moral pleading that characterized “of course … but maybe?” The latest set was straight-ahead assault comic. He asked the audience to take, on its face, his observations about preferred pronouns and penis size among various ethnic groups. Those were the jokes; laugh or don’t. He showed no concern imposing a higher-order structure on them. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of engaging in contemplation of a shared humanity of, say, a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: “You didn’t get shot, you pushed some fat kid in the way, and now I gotta listen to you talking?”
Now, it’s quite unfair to take a comic’s routine, transcribe it, and then point to the words laying inertly on a screen as proof that the bit didn’t work. That said, in most cases, the bits didn’t work. Some of the stuff, however, had promise, provided you don’t have an abiding hatred for Louis or have chosen not to forgive him. And I don’t criticize anyone who’s taken that stance—I think Louis hasn’t done much to earn or even ask for forgiveness.
His promise to “now step back and take a long time to listen” lasted 10 months. He hasn’t submitted to any probing interviews or talked about them in any honest way. He’s not addressed his misdeeds on stage, though he bemoaned their consequences: “I’ll tell you I lost $35 million. You don’t tell people you have $35 million, but you can tell them you lost $35 million because that shit is hilarious.” But he’s also quite consciously not structuring his act in any way to allow for forgiveness or to win over anyone who needs even a dollop of convincing. If the act that he lands on, as opposed to a work in progress that is a comedy club set, has the amount of straight-ahead vitriol that we heard on the leaked tape, it will be clear that C.K. is satisfied to connect only with that part of the audience who laughs at a finger jab in the eye and calls that commentary.
Perhaps Louis has calculated that his good-person-trying-to-make-sense-of-a-bad-world schtick will never again appeal to a wider audience, but I doubt that’s what’s going on. Either Louis believes he is a good person who is the victim, in which case he will want to use his skills to prove this to us anew, or he always believed he was an irredeemable wretch, and the framing devices like “of course … but maybe?” were just a lie.
If that’s the case, he’ll be eager to pull the trick once more. If all we get from C.K. from here on out is more of the angry, self-pitying guy we heard on the leaked set, then Louis will have ceased to become the comic he was, and it won’t be because of externalities or the impossibility of the circumstance. An angry and self-pitying Louis C.K. can tell himself that he’s been unduly punished for his misdeeds and there’s no coming back from them. But his material indicates that he’s not really trying.