Louis C.K. was always right on the edge, which his now-scandalized former fans forget
WARNING: This column contains graphic language that might be offensive to some readers
Comedian Louis C.K. has a new set, and it's going down much worse in the polite media than it seems to have at Governor's Comedy Club in Levittown, N.Y., where it was recorded last month and, judging by the yuks, was well received.
The headline items concern C.K.'s critique of modern youth: instead of smoking, drinking and screwing around like they're supposed to, he complains, they're busy telling grown adults what they can and can't say, demanding to be addressed by non-standard pronouns and appearing before Congress to discuss gun violence.
He suggests users of irregular pronouns should address him as "'there,' because I identify as a location, and the location is your mother's c--t."
"You're not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot," he said, addressing survivors of the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre. "Why does that mean I have to listen to you? How does that make you interesting? You didn't get shot."
Failing to 'grow'
A comedian said something outrageous, and people are offended. Not especially huge news, one mightn't think. Wading into the think pieces, though, we find various degrees of dismay that C.K. isn't the comic he used to be, or that he has failed to "learn" or "grow" from the experience of being exposed as a creep who enjoys masturbating in front of women without their consent.
"Not only does it reveal him as entirely unchastened by the experience of being outed as a literal wanker, it also suggests he believes his self-inflicted downfall now allows him to do and say exactly what he likes," Fiona Sturges complains at The Guardian.
"With a large margin of his former audience at least expecting some sort of serious penance before any attempt at a return to comedy like nothing had happened, C.K. has instead decided to target low hanging fruit," Kyle Munzenrieder argues at W Magazine— "those who think simply laughing at things that will offend marginalized communities and those on the other end of the socio-political spectrum is somehow ground-breaking comedy."
At Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz concludes that the previously "'woke' C.K. was just an amazing simulation."
Now, it's certainly possible C.K. is deliberately pivoting toward a more shock-oriented act. ("My life is over, I don't give a s--t," C.K. tells the crowd at one point.) It's certainly conceivable he could find a whole new fan base in doing so.
But if you played C.K.'s new set to an audience that knew nothing of his fall from grace, I don't think they would come to such sweeping, incensed conclusions. I heard a somewhat more angry, bitter and simplistic collection of jokes than I'm used to. The jokes at the Parkland students' and trans kids' expense were exactly that, whereas C.K.'s comedy typically invites the audience to laugh at intolerance itself. But that was roughly 60 seconds out of a 45-minute set — presumably a work in progress, certainly not intended for prime time. To my ear, the vast majority of the set is nearly indistinguishable in tone and content from his pre-meltdown material.
Indeed, I'm not entirely sure who all these scandalized former fans were watching back before the fall. I was watching the guy who described his disintegrating relationship with the female anatomy after watching his four-year-old daughter "pulling it open like a Hustler mag" and having to "literally scrape s--t" out of her genitalia.
The guy who went on Saturday Night Live and marvelled at child molesters' tenacity: "You could only surmise that it must be really good," he said. "It must be amazing for them to risk so much."
The guy who defended Tracy Morgan when he told an audience he'd shoot his son if he turned out to be gay, making reference to one of his own infamous jokes: "I've said to many audiences that I think you shouldn't rape someone unless you have a good reason, like you want to f--k them and they won't let you," C.K. told Slate. "That's worse than what he said! And I didn't wink and say, just kidding. I just said it."
The guy who admonished us to say "n----r," instead of "hid[ing] behind the first letter like a fa--ot."
He wasn't actually calling people who say the N-word fa--ots, obviously. It was part of a bit about how the word never connoted homosexuality when he was a kid, but rather annoying, prissy people of all orientations. Yet had he debuted that material in Levittown last month, I suspect it would now form part of the outrage.
C.K. was always right on the edge. His ashen-faced former fans don't just get to un-laugh at those jokes. If he had gone walkabout in the wilderness of his own inadequacies and emerged as the Changed Man some seem to want, those same people might now be asking why he's not funny anymore.
The fact is, much as some want to deny it, a great many people enjoy laughing at things they know they shouldn't laugh at, expressed in ways that would be totally unacceptable in any context other than comedy. They find it cathartic, exhilarating, liberating. You are free to deplore that element of human nature, but nothing proves its existence better than Louis C.K.'s career arc.