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Louis CK has nothing to lose in his new comedy special, but you do

There are glimmers of the wit, craft, and performance that made him who he was, but there’s also all too much of the other stuff that reminds us who he really is.

Louis CK has nothing to lose in his new comedy special, but you do
[Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage via Getty Images]

Not long after I became a vegetarian about 10 years ago, I got into a discussion about the best wedding hors d’oeuvres, as one does.

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When somebody mentioned pigs in a blanket, I nodded vigorously. Those little hot dogs wrapped in crescent rolls were my favorite no-frills party appetizer. The best.

“I love those,” I said, instinctively. Then I thought about it for a second and realized, oh yeah. I guess I don’t love those any more. Now that I’m a vegetarian, I kinda . . . hate those now?

Over the past two and a half years, I’ve had to do a similar intellectual correction when it comes to #MeToo entertainers whose work I once adored. Jeffrey Tambor will pop up in an old movie, and my autopilot brain says, “Now, we’re talking!” Then I think about it for two seconds and remember, “Oh yeah. Maybe not!”

This kind of emotional calculus is why it feels impossible to objectively review Louis CK’s first official comedy special since a 2017 New York Times exposé revealed his habit of masturbating in front of women he worked with, nonconsensually.

Sincerely Louis CK, which the comedian released on his website over the weekend, finds him trodding onstage in his former uniform of jeans and a black t-shirt. By the time he’d hit his peak, with the 2017 Netflix special, 2017, he’d taken to wearing an actual suit onstage because, hey, that’s how you dress when you’re selling out multiple nights at Madison Square Garden. The relaxed dress code here telegraphs that this special will be old school Louis. Vintage Louis. Back-to-basics Louis.

Then he starts talking.

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“How was your last couple of years?” he asks right up top. “Anyone else get into global amounts of trouble?”

It’s a cute poking of the elephant in the room, or at least it would be if ardent comedy fans weren’t keenly aware of how Louis CK spent the past two years. That period started with the comic noting in a public quasi-apology, “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”

Less than a year later, Louis resurfaced at the Comedy Cellar and began mounting his comeback. As he performed more and more shows, more jokes leaked online. He had a bit about what it’s like to lose $35m in one day, which made it seem as though he spent most of his big listening sabbatical reflecting on his own woes.

Now that his first official post-MeToo special has arrived, fans have some insight on the stand-up curation process. For instance, a leaked joke about finding out who your real friends are after getting in trouble is still in the act, but the punchline, “It’s black people, it turns out,” has been excised. Also gone is the, I don’t know, edgy Parkland material, which didn’t seem to go over too well in leaked form, whether it was ready or not.

The Parkland bit, which is about how sensitive the gender-fluid youth of today have become, signified that the new, battle-hardened Louis CK would be an even more extreme Tell It Like It Is taboo-shatterer than ever. If Dave Chappelle and Bill Burr are already in a similar grievance mode, based on the idea that they technically could be “cancelled,” imagine what Louis CK might say, now that he has nothing left to lose!

Turns out, his new button-pressing, ain’t-I-a-stinker type material is about the same as before. (Well, not way before, in the mid-aughts, when Louis would brazenly throw around the N-word.) In Sincerely, he mentions wanting to punch a woman in the face within the first three minutes. He does an offensive accent while imitating a waitress, but not without a setup that plainly states he’s aware he’s not supposed to do the accent. He’s mad that he can’t say the word “retarded” in the exact way he wants to, whenever he wants to, so he proceeds to say it a bunch for the rest of the bit. It’s almost as though the Free Speech Warrior-ing you can get away with after being canceled sounds an awful lot like what Chappelle, Burr, and other comics are currently getting away with, at supposedly grave cancellation peril. So what is anyone even afraid of?

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Just as a reminder, Louis CK didn’t crater his career by telling it too much like it is; he did it by masturbating in front of women comics and other colleagues he had power over, and then lying about it for years whenever rumors leaked out, damaging those women’s careers and reputations. This is something it is impossible not to think about during his new special. When he talks about how much trouble he got in at the top of the show, he jokes, “Wait until they see all those pictures of me in blackface.” It’s not worth reiterating how this playful exaggeration is nullified by the fact that there is indeed copious footage of Louis gleefully saying the N-word, so let’s instead look at his tag to the joke. Speaking of his supposed blackface compulsion, he says, “I can’t stop doing it, I like the way that it feels.”

Every time he uses language like this in the special, I cannot not think about what other things he couldn’t seem to stop doing in the past, because he liked the way it feels.

Elsewhere, he mentions the idea of going into a crafts store and shit-talking all the crafts to the poor person behind the counter. Then he makes an odd confession: “I fuckin’ wish I was that mean. I really do. All my fantasies are about being that mean.”

If that’s the case, I have some awesome news about what counts as being mean!

Louis CK once was the patron saint of people who kind of hate themselves but were trying their best. He made relatable comedy for anyone with a similar self-deprecating streak and good intentions. But when he makes jokes that rely on that kind of identification now, viewers are forced to consider what relating to Louis CK actually means. The very definition of relatability, after all, is when something makes you think, “Me too.”

Near the end of the special, the comic finally addresses what he has done, in more than a glancing way.

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“Should we talk about it?” he says to the crowd, who boisterously respond in the affirmative.

What follows is a crash course on consent that is both far more evolved than where we know Louis CK used to be, and riddled with grievance.

The comedian has learned, as he states in frank language, “If you ever ask somebody ‘Can I jerk off in front of you?’ . . . and they say ‘Yes,’ just ask ‘Are you sure?'” He even goes further in a positive direction, stating that “women know how to seem like they’re okay when they’re not okay,” which indicates an awareness that it’s not okay to make women feel not okay. However, all of this consent talk is in service of presenting Louis CK as a blameless perv who learned the hard way that nonverbal cues are important. He elides the multitude of other factors at play that makes what he did unequivocally wrong, with no gray area; the uneven power dynamic, for instance, or the years of lying and behind-the-scenes machinations.

He comes close enough to admitting that what he did was not just the usual, relatable, casually transgressive kind of Bad, but a form of sexual assault, that it might be enough for some people to see it as growth. It might have been possible for me to see it that way too if I hadn’t lived through the comic’s last two years of public martyrdom. Since I have, I react to his apology the same way I do to his many new jokes that have that old sparkle of wit and craft: like a vegetarian staring at an all-you-can-eat pigs-in-a-blanket buffet.

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