I’ve got some problems with the reacceptance of Louis CK into (not so) civilized society.
Oddly, very few of my reservations have to do with the reasons why he was canceled in the first place a few years back. His personal problems with respecting people’s space and doing what he did (masturbating in front of colleagues, sans RSVP) are for another day, another unpacking.
I guess what bothers me is not that the standup comic is seeking to recover some professional foothold, which could be a useful learning journey for any comic going through life; no, it’s his seeming indifference to the world around him these past few years.
His new standup special, “Sincerely Louis CK,” tries to tackle a period that was majorly difficult for, well, the entire planet. I’m referring to the pandemic, of course. But also the pain that still festers in everyone, and Americans in particular, every single day. Not just medically, but emotionally, and politically, and personally, and every which way.
None of this seemingly even matters to Louis CK, judging from his act. “Anybody else get into global trouble these past couple years?” he snickers before his Washington, DC, audience. He means the nosedive his career took. A round of pent-up laughter, then applause from the audience. We are invited to feel Louis’ pain. He was cancelled, for God’s sake! How can anyone’s personal suffering during a hellish pandemic match up to that?
It’s not just that CK fails to address any of the other terrible things that have happened in the world during his prolonged absence (just for starters: COVID, a very contentious US election, debates about vaccines and whether to wear masks, an uptick in collective rage); it’s that he believes we are only interested in what’s new with Louis CK.
And okay, I know: that is what he’s there for. To tell us what’s up with his life. To fill us in on his latest insights about the human condition.
So, we get racist routines on Japanese accents, how the French take thermometer temperature readings anally, how annoying small towns and cute little craft shops are.
The audience, to be fair, laps it up. From the opening “Lou-ee! Lou-ee! Lou-ee!” chants, like we’re at a Yankees game, to the comedian sharing how much he hates New York City and Florida (“Get ‘em all, Melissa!” he jokes, encouraging a hurricane to claim more victims), CK is clearly lapping it up, too. He’s not had this much fun in years.
But arguably, after a lousy two or three years experienced by the whole planet (and, I suppose, him as well), it does feel a little sad to hear this once-brilliant comedian, who honed his rants and insults into fine obsidian blades, inviting us to question human history and its results in monologue after monologue, simply vent his spleen in an unpleasant manner for 60 minutes.
"Cancellation is a hot topic among comics these days, and I can’t help comparing the outrage against Dave Chappelle with the warm bath of re-acceptance that Louis CK is now experiencing."
The world has gone through hell, and Louis CK is viewing it all through his personal bubble of inconvenience.
But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that CK is pandering to a certain residual rage many still harbor. He’s not really sorry; he’s leaning in to his defiance. He’s playing to an audience that wants to revel in it. My wife pointed out he seems to be pandering to MAGA voters, and though he never addresses a single political issue in this “comeback” special, it’s that sheer embrace of “eff you” defiance — in the face of cancellation in his case, but for others in the face of government restrictions or recommendations or even advice — on full display. It’s a bitter kind of rage that says, “Screw you, we’re done listening! We want our freedoms!”
But… freedom to do what? To think about what? How angry Louis CK is? To question why we’re not allowed to say “retarded” anymore?
Admittedly, from a distance, his timing and delivery are still excellent. He relishes having the audience in the palm of his hand. He’ll tell a story about spotting a wheelchair in a store window, then go down a slippery path in which a paraplegic character mock-thinks it might be a good “impulse” item to buy: “Then I wouldn’t have to drag myself everywhere I go… (Slight chuckle from audience) like I’ve been doing for the past 10 years… (Slight chuckle…) since my legs got blown off… (Pause…) at the marathon.”
The audience responds with gasps, recalling the Boston Marathon bombing. And that’s where CK has them: “Okay. Bunch of hypocrites, apparently. You were, seconds ago, laughing at this guy crawling around with no legs. But seconds later you’re like, ‘Oh, but not those particular legless people!’”
And he’s right. But the humor now seems sour, pointless. It doesn’t elevate. It doesn’t reflect on the human condition in any kind of cosmic humoristic way; it simply says that we’re fools for falling into his trap.
Cancellation is a hot topic among comics these days, and I can’t help comparing the outrage against Dave Chappelle (over admittedly trans-phobic material) with the warm bath of re-acceptance that Louis CK is now experiencing. (His album of this show, after all, just won a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording. It’s the Grammy equivalent of Will Smith lofting an Oscar after that public slap.)
Now, both Chappelle and CK love to whine a lot about the whole “cancel culture,” but there is a difference. In Chappelle I still see someone trying to grapple with the way the world is, and how it turns towards division. I still see, in his routines, a kind of humanistic approach, trying to find a way to make sense of things.
Take his recent sit-down on David Letterman’s Netflix show. Chappelle talks about the cultural divide in America. “People do not trust each other in our country. It does not speak well to our national character that people hoarded toilet paper and bullets at the start of the pandemic.” That’s just honest reflection.
But in CK’s special? I mostly hear an angry white male, mad that he had to suffer so much personal discomfort. There’s a world of difference there.
Maybe Louis CK is still processing all that has happened to him. Fine. There are a few moments near the end where he says he regrets doing what he did, and his main takeaway is “if, after all the checking in, someone does say it’s still okay to masturbate in front of them? Just don’t do it.”
This is the pinnacle of learning in “Sincerely Louis CK.” Seems more like common sense to me.