RICHMOND, Va. — On Saturday, under a candy-colored proscenium arch, Louis C.K. told a story about the day he learned “all the bad words.” He was 7 when an elderly stranger with one dark tooth approached him and listed obscenities like a fairy-tale version of George Carlin.
Louis C.K. described vibrating with excitement. Then he went to school and put this information to work, cursing at his teacher. She cried and the students laughed. “I liked both,” he said, with a half-embarrassed shrug.
In the context of the return of Louis C.K., this anecdote has the feel of a twisted origin story. And this defiantly perverse new set, whose jokes come with so much baggage they threaten to obscure the performer, will inspire heated, divisive reactions.
It’s been two years since The New York Times published an article about the sexual misconduct of Louis C.K., which he subsequently confirmed. He said he would “step back and take a long time to listen,” then returned to clubs nine months later, performing intermittently. Last weekend, he began a new phase in his comeback, a theater tour starting with two shows in Richmond, Va., on Saturday and taking him across the world.
Returning to his old uniform of blue jeans and black shirt, he began both shows with oblique jokes about his pariah status. He didn’t so much play the sad sack as the guy strenuously trying to put a happy face on what a sad sack he is. “It’s good to start over at 52,” he said with a strained smile. “So much energy.”
Those looking for any apologetic notes or reckoning with the damage he has done will be disappointed. He is not aiming for redemption onstage. If anything, he’s doubling down on the comedic value of saying the wrong thing. “That’s the point of this,” he said, motioning to himself onstage. He didn’t repeat the now cliché comedian complaints about generational sensitivities or snowflakes, but the central theme of the night was the cathartic release of transgression.
His subjects (Sept. 11, slavery, pedophilia, the Holocaust) made the case. He turned his new reputation in the #MeToo era into a springboard for jokes. “Wait until they find those pictures of me in blackface,” he said. The audience, which gave him standing ovations, roared. Then he pushed further, saying he has done blackface for years. “I didn’t do it to be funny,” he added. “I liked it. Felt good. I do it for bedtime.”
Comedy criticism is never objective, but there is nothing more subjective than how funny you find Louis C.K. in 2019. That’s what makes writing this review difficult, and being transparent about my point of view necessary. Over the past decade, no comic had a greater impact on me than Louis C.K. While my relationship with his old work has changed — I can’t laugh at his rape jokes anymore, and the story lines on his FX show that touched on assault now seem like obscene rationalizations — I still regularly think about Louis C.K. punch lines and chuckle.
His jokes about technology and parenting are so lodged in my subconscious that no amount of cultural shame can remove them. And while I agree with the critics who have rejected the idea that we must separate the art from the artist, I have a high tolerance for enjoying art from morally suspect places.
Given that, Louis C.K.’s new show made me laugh very hard. It’s also uncomfortable in ways he seems in control of and ways he does not. It has a few characteristically ingenious riffs, particularly about religion: one imagining if God gave a quick, explanatory news conference (“Mormons, no.”) and another picturing the God of jihadis on his way to gather the 72 virgins for a suicide bomber, rubbing his head in confusion at how he got here. And Louis C.K. remains exceptionally skilled at body-horror comedy (likening his chest to the ceiling of a cave) and herky-jerky pivots that blend the sexual and the profane.
In the most jarring part of the show, he discussed the death of his mother in June in a remarkably unsentimental aside. Interrupting a mundane story about visiting a cemetery with his French girlfriend, he detoured into the details of his mother’s cremation (mixing in a few sex jokes for good measure).
“She was a practical woman who didn’t care about the pageantry of death,” he said, before describing her body being taken away in a gray van, a half-filled Gatorade bottle rattling around with her. In the past, Louis C.K. has questioned the value of life, mocking its sanctity and downplaying its importance, but this grim image goes just as far in undercutting the solemnity of death.
Last December, one of his early post-return club sets leaked online and several of the jokes, including a particularly nasty one about the Parkland students, earned widespread condemnation. He has cut that joke and a few other controversial ones — though he has a dopey new punch line comparing vegans to gay people that seems intended to bait. His stage show is leaner than that December set, more deliberate, with fewer attempts at ingratiation. (There’s no talk of the millions of dollars he lost when his show-business deals were canceled.)
After hearing that rough draft of a set, many concluded that Louis C.K. had rebranded himself a cranky right-wing comic. And there was (and is) a new edge to his comedy that bristles at offense taken easily. There’s a lame joke about cultural appropriation. But the truth is that the comedy of Louis C.K. hasn’t changed as much as the context surrounding it.
Louis C.K. has long found humor in following the logic of immoral thoughts, while somehow not just keeping the audience on his side, but convincing them of an enlightened intent. It’s partly why people were not just disturbed by his behavior, they felt betrayed. He did sharp, empathetic material about the hurt of gay slurs. He told jokes about rape and violence against women that were considered feminist. It’s hard to remember, but there was a time not long ago when no comic got the benefit of the doubt more than Louis C.K.
That is ancient history now. And context, as people always say when defending an offensive joke, matters. We know too much about his transgressions to see jokes that transgress in the same way.
Instead of adjusting, or offering a more reflective, soul-searching show, as some had hoped, Louis C.K. has stuck to his old tactics. And as such, some of his jokes will fall flat with a huge part of his former audience and will strike others as blows against political correctness.
His premise about how women have the skill to seem O.K. when they aren’t won’t play the same way as it did two years ago. He clearly knows this.
Toward the end of each show on Saturday, he returned to the subject of his mother as he wondered about her sex life, concluding, “You never really know your mom.” You got the distinct sense he was jealous of her on that count.
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