Talk of whether or not [Louis C.K. could ever make some sort of return to comedy had generally hinged on the idea that he’d attempt to do so in relatively the same form he had inhabited before: generally beloved by both those on the liberal-leaning coasts and comedy’s elite. Well, in audio recently leaked from a full length show at Governor’s Comedy Club in Long Island, New York earlier this month, C.K. has apparently decided to salvage his career by targeting another audience: cranky old people and the right wing-leaning set. In a series of jokes that seems at best (and we don’t mean this as a compliment) like Andrew “Dice” Clay’s ’80s heyday and at worst like lines that may have been written and then rejected for Bobby Moynihan’s popular Saturday Night Live character “Drunk Uncle”, C.K. targeted the survivors-turned-activists of the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the preferred pronouns of trans and gender non-conforming individuals, and the general idea that the “r-word” is no longer welcome in polite society. In other words, he essentially drew from the same well as every Trump true believer on Twitter or the real drunk uncle you may have just had to endure over the Holidays.
A veteran of numerous noted TV writer’s rooms and long considered a comedy insider’s comic, C.K. had found new levels of fame over the past decade by positioning himself as both willing to explore male insecurities and as a middle-aged who didn’t quite “get” changing social mores but was trying to do his best to do so. The image came crashing down after The New York Times verified longstanding rumors that he had coerced women, often those he had professional power over, to watch or listen to him masturbate. Without ever fully publicly apologizing, C.K. admitted to having made transgressions and hinted that he would retreat from the spotlight and try to learn from his misdeeds. That era of public silence lasted less than a year when he began making a series of surprise appearances at some of his favored NYC comedy haunts, decisions that lead to further controversy.
Which leads us all to the set recorded on audio of a man making hack jokes and basically admitting he has nothing else to lose. “What are you going to do, take away my birthday?,” he told the crowd at one point. “My life is over. I don’t give a shit.”
That may have been one of the least controversial things he said that night, as excerpts highlighted on Twitter prove:
It’s safe to assume we’re at the point in culture where no one really needs to be slowly walked through the finer points of why such material is offensive or why such “I don’t get these young kids of today” reactionary humor is hack (again, you’d think even the embarrassment of basically doing “Drunk Uncle” schtick with a stone cold face would have at least turned off even unwoke comedians from going that route — and, for the mater, plenty of “woke” kids still do Jell-o shots and “finger f*ck”).
Yet, it’s strikingly sad, but perhaps not unpredictable, how quickly C.K. has taken this route. With a large margin of his former audience at least expecting some sort of serious penance before any attempt at a return to comedy like nothing had happened, C.K. has instead decided to target low hanging fruit: those who think simply laughing at things that will offend marginalized communities and those on the other end of the socio-political spectrum is somehow groundbreaking comedy. C.K. could likely carve out a niche amongst those supposed “free speech” defenders on the alt-right and their ilk. C.K. has been a professional comedian since he was 18. He knows little else. That he’d so quickly flush out his old principals and trade them in for something else simply to feel the high of a laugh again isn’t surprising, it’s just pathetic.
Though it also leaves little doubt that any attempts C.K. made at self-introspection and penance during his hiatus couldn’t have been serious. Are the narcissistic compulsions that once lead him to making women watch him masturbate, really all that different from the ones that have lead him to retreat to a suburban comedy club to debase himself in jokes about teenage shooting survivors for the quick high of a laughing audience really all that different? Does C.K. care who he’s hurting just as long as he’s getting a rush out of it?