When Louis CK’s seminal comedy show on FX “Louie” dropped in 2010, it set itself apart from just about any other sitcom on TV. It was about a half hour-long and frequently funny, but that’s where the similarities to the form pretty much ended. Louie was comedic, sure. Many scenes took place at comedy clubs. But Louie was a fictionalized version of the star’s own life.
There were flights of fantasy, self-deprecation, awkwardness, and more than anything, a just beneath the surface simmering desperation. A divorced man with two young children trying to navigate through the world when he could barely get out of his own way.
I could relate to that.
During the show’s run, I got divorced too. I made my share of mistakes leading up to that outcome, so I could empathize with much of CK’s blundering. More than anything though, Louie’s story of a lonely guy’s misadventures in dating and simply trying to get through days often paralleled my own.
Some people enjoy things that make them forget where they are in life— but I enjoyed Louie because I saw my own life in his. It made me feel less alone. There was someone else out there, like me, just stumbling through, hoping to one day luck into something worthwhile.
Hell— I’m bald, pasty, and even have graying red hair (where I have it). Unlike Louie, I didn’t have two young children, but I did have two dogs (sometimes I’m not so sure the difference is all that significant). People tell me I’m funny from time to time. I’m pretty good with words. Obviously, I’m not a famous stand-up comedian, but the overlap I felt between my own life and his character was genuine.
For five seasons, that show gave me a sad sack version of comfort. I was – and still am – enormously grateful for it. There were times when it absolutely made life more bearable. No small thing, that.
As you might guess, it was with no minor amount of disappointment that I discovered with the rest of the world that Louis CK took advantage of his fame by jerking off in front of women would have rather been any other place in the world. Clearly what he did was wrong. It was vile. Short of Weinstein, sure. But still gross and humiliating for those who suffered through it. The revelation effectively (and I think rightly) stopped his career in its tracks. FX ended its relationship with the show and its creator, and his feature directorial debut “I Love You, Daddy” went unreleased.
Sorting out how to feel about this was not as simple for me as I would have liked. Of course, I was horrified by his behavior. Even if he never touched a single one of those woman, putting them in that position was a cruel misuse of his power. It’s horrible that these women felt compelled to allow it so their own careers would not be affected by a disappointed Louis CK.
At the same time, my experience with his work, and the help that it provided me at a true low in my life, was real. I still feel indebted to his artistic breakthrough. I can’t erase that or pretend that it did not help me. Quietly, maybe selfishly, I had hoped Louis CK would redeem himself on some level. His initial apology – clearly handcrafted without the aid of a publicist – was raw, apologetic and confessional. It may have been unpolished, but he admitted to the acts, took responsibility, and said he was sorry. It was both nowhere near enough and the best he could probably do.
Maybe, I thought. Maybe he was taking those steps to redemption.
Sadly, CK has chosen another route. His initial “comeback” sets proved to have a tin ear to his situation. Were I his publicist I would have recommended an apology tour. Start with 60 Minutes. Take all the slings and arrows you deserve. Be contrite. Own it like you did in your initial response to the charges.
When I listened to his newest set – recorded and briefly placed on YouTube by some industrious comedy club audience member – I heard nothing but the clanging gong of a missed opportunity. CK, an avowed liberal, reeled off a set that Dennis Miller might have been proud of. Red meat for a red state audience. He could take this act to a Trump rally and be the warm up.
It starts out amusingly enough. CK appears to be headed towards pointing the finger of blame upon himself, referencing what a horrible year he’s had. That was the high point. For me, the set takes a dive when he starts talking about how much money he’s lost over the last year. It may be true, but it leaves out the “why,” which in this case is all-important.
For a truly gifted comic whose whole career is based on making humor out of his own fuckups, his new act barely alludes to his biggest fuckup of all— the one that lead to his “misfortune”.
Not only did he paper over his bad behavior, too much of the act is him punching down. I’m a big believer that in comedy no topic should be off-limits— you should be able to make fun of just about anything. George Carlin said that it’s a comic’s job to figure out where the line is and then step over it. I agree. However, in riding up to that line, the comic should know that if you miss, the drop will be from the penthouse to the outhouse.
CK jokes about his doctor telling him to lay off the ice cream. To which CK replies, “Fuck you, you old Jewish fag.” No matter the skill of the delivery, and the offensive slurs aside, isn’t this line just objectively lazy? Is this the best he could come up with? “You old Jewish fag”?
I know people will say “he’s just a comedian. It’s just a joke.” I suppose that’s one way to view it. But to me that view exists on the level of the poverty of low expectations. Richard Pryor was “just a comedian” the way Miles Davis was “just a horn player,” or Rembrandt was “just a painter.” When done well, comedy is an art. It can even be high art. It speaks to, and in rare instances, defines our times. Sadly, I’m not so sure CK’s new act doesn’t do both of those things.
In making jokes about the Parkland school shooting survivors, CK found himself headfirst in the wooden hole that a hillbilly’s ass rests on as he takes a shit. The joke went like this:
“You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot,” C.K. said. “Why does that mean I have to listen to you? Why does that make you interesting? You didn’t get shot. You pushed some fat kid in the way and now I’ve got to listen to you talking?”
This isn’t just a case of missing the boat. This is sailing upon flat earth and falling off the side into the abyss. Is it possible to make fun of a school shooting? I’m sure it is. I don’t know how, but anything is possible. Woody Allen (yes, I know he’s got his own issues) once said “tragedy plus time equals comedy.” Maybe CK’s bit needed more time. A better delivery. Or maybe just a joke that was more creative. Who is this joke funny to, other than people who looks at those brave kids and see “crisis actors”?
For all his prodigious skill – and I reject the notion of many that he was “never funny to begin with,” that’s bullshit – CK’s latest set was rife with a mean spiritedness that one would expect from a right-wing insult comic. It was genuinely depressing on every level. It’s as if he has given up on restoring himself and would rather take the easy way out. Just ignore your own shit and bull forward like an ugly, snarling beast. It’s a shame, I tell you. A damn shame.
Again, I think he’s missed a huge opportunity in his comeback effort. To turn his comedy on himself. Like Richard Pryor. Like George Carlin. Bravely and relentlessly laying their personal foibles bare in front of a full room. Burning themselves in effigy on stage. Not only would it likely have helped save his career, but I think it could have made great comedy. Dark, but when has Louie ever shied away from dark?
I have friends that say CK should be sent away. A strange thing for an American to suggest, I think. CK has been charged with no crime. Nor has he been sued in civil court. He has a right to pursue his profession of choice in this country under those conditions whether we like it or not. And that’s how it should be. It is then our right to accept or reject him as we see fit. On the basis of his most recent material, it is my pained opinion that we should do the latter.
I will say, Louis CK is correct about one thing. The Parkland kids aren’t automatically interesting because they got shot at in school. They’re interesting because of what they did after they got shot at in school. They refused to accept the world as it was made for them.
Whereas Louis CK is responsible for making the world as it is around him, and has seemingly done nothing more than shrug his shoulders and carry on sans repentance.
Learning nothing. Absolutely nothing.