Yeah, it’s just comedy.
Unfunny comedy. Sour grapes comedy, bitter and self-pitying. Banal routines about visiting the doctor and rude teenage daughters mixed up with shock-jock tactics like harshing on the Parkland kids and punching down on trans people.
Yes, Louis C.K. is back on the comedy-club hustings, and we’re supposed to let him know all is forgiven. Is it out of line to point out that his routines are getting meaner, angrier, more shrill? That “speaking the unspeakable” sometimes translates into catering to the worst impulses and most reactionary portions of your audience?
Some can forgive C.K. — some already have. In the 48-minute audiotape of an unannounced Dec. 16 gig at a club in Levittown, N.Y., that surfaced on YouTube on Sunday. The audience roars with laughter at the disgraced comedian’s observations and one-liners, some of which land and a lot of which don’t. You had to be there, I guess. You certainly can’t hear the people who aren’t laughing. You can definitely hear the guy sitting in the audience near the microphone who howls in delight at most of the jokes, especially the ones that dump on women. It’s not a good look.
It’s been a little over a year since the career of Louis C.K. seemingly vanished overnight after revelations that he had habitually masturbated in front of unwilling or clearly uncomfortable women. Stories about this misbehavior had been circulating in and outside comedy circles for years, but a New York Times story made it fully public. Networks like FX and HBO and Netflix dropped him in response; the release of C.K.’s film, “I Love You, Daddy,” was scrapped.
Louis C.K. remains toxic in the larger entertainment industry and culture, but the male-oriented world of stand-up has never really left him. After less than a year in exile, C.K. resurfaced in comedy clubs in August, doing spot gigs, always unannounced — hoping, I guess, that by continuing to Not Go Away, audiences would let him back in. And, truth to tell, it’s working. To a point.
Whenever a fresh C.K. appearance is reported, the public conversation turns heated. Say many: How dare he show himself onstage as if he hadn’t done something seamy and despicable — as if, given enough time, pleasuring himself as a kind of weird date move was something we could just forget about? His supporters respond, well, don’t pay to see him, then — just don’t listen. Which is a moot point when you’ve gone to a comedy club expecting not to see Louis C.K., and there he is. When maybe you used to think the guy was funny, maybe even a genius, but now all that fellow feeling has been wiped out by the image of a powerful entertainer getting off by showing his penis to women with less clout than he has.
And, right, it’s comedy, say the fans — meaning it’s only comedy, so don’t take it so seriously, or it’s sacrosanct-free-speech comedy, so back off, man. And it’s true: Louis C.K. has the right to climb onstage and say whatever he wants. And people have a right to laugh at his jokes without thinking too much about the matter, while other people have the right to say, no, you’re not funny, Louis, you’re disgusting or sad. You’re not as sympathetic as you think when you complain about losing money or about a bad year that’s “like having diarrhea that keeps going.” You’re not being truthful enough about what you did and who it affected and why you might feel compelled in the first place to whip out your junk in front of various and sundry women. I supposed that’s a discussion for you and your therapist, which I hope for your sake is happening.
The fans of Louis C.K. — I admit, I used to be one — want to position him as some brave defender of the unspeakable, a pushback against the hypocrisy of prudish society. Like he’s Lenny Bruce. But Louis C.K. isn’t Lenny Bruce. Honestly, Lenny Bruce wasn’t Lenny Bruce, which you probably know if you’ve taken the time to listen to his routines.
You know who was Lenny Bruce? George Carlin. In the sense that Carlin knocked down boundaries, took heat for it, and was profoundly funny in the bargain. Good lord, I miss that man, not least for what he’d have to say to some of the people offended by Louis C.K., to some of the people defending Louis C.K., and to Louis C.K. himself. Carlin was an equal-opportunity excoriator, and his rants were grounded by a moralism that had nothing to do with conventional morality. Above all, I think Carlin understood that it was possible to be politically incorrect without being intolerant — that “political correctness” is in fact what people call empathy who are too scared, ignorant, or angry to practice it.
Another person Louis C.K. doesn’t sound much like is Richard Pryor, who looked deep into his screwed-up actions and addictions and took full responsibility for them on a stand-up stage. Who made you ache with laughter and sorrow at the ways in which a man can blind himself. No, what Louis C.K. really sounds like on that Dec. 16 club tape is an old man, one who can’t understand why he lost his perch at the top and who blames everybody but himself. Whose comedy once walked a fascinating line between seeming to practice intolerance and simultaneously calling attention to it and who now just finds solace in the first part of the equation.
There are a lot of get-off-my-lawn moments on that recent club appearance that say more about Louis C.K. than he may realize. The routine about the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., is the one, about halfway in, that finally made me bail: “They testify in front of Congress, these kids. What are you doing? You’re young, you should be crazy, you should be unhinged! Not sitting there in a suit saying, ‘I’m here to tell you. . .’ [Expletive] you. You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot. You didn’t get shot! You pushed some fat kid in the way and now I’ve got to listen to you talking?”
Yep, Louis C.K. has the right to say such things. And you have the right to think he’s a hopeless jackass and to pity an audience who thinks he’s some kind of hero.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.