The first time I ever heard a Louis C.K. joke, I shat my pants. Sorry… to be more politically correct, I “sharted” my pants—you know, that rare hybrid. In my defense, it was about seven years ago. I had food poisoning and was resting in bed, trying to pass the gruesomely stomach-contorting time by hauling though an endless series of recommended YouTube clips. The joke was from one of his early half-hour HBO gigs, where a sweaty, infuriated and somehow altogether charming Louis C.K. delivered a bit about how he and his wife have to pretend that their daughter doesn’t suck at hide and seek when she decides to hide in plain sight.
To entertain his daughter’s terrible hiding skills, Louis C.K. playfully suggests alternative places she could be hiding: “Maybe she’s in the linen closet?” What begins as cute game turns into a fight with wife about the fact that linens aren’t kept in that closet and that it would be ridiculous for a child to hide in a closet with shelves. Meanwhile, their awful hider of a daughter still stands right in front of them. Trust me, it’s way funnier when Louis C.K. says it. I mean, I laughed so hard, I sharted in approval.
So when I watched Louis C.K. perform in Greensboro, N.C., last summer, a stop on the tour that formed the material for his latest Netflix special "Louis C.K.: 2017," it was a given that his set would be funny. Even the last special he released, 2015's “Live at the Comedy Store,” was hilarious, but the hour lacked the idiosyncratic element of provocation and offense that I’d grown to love in the comedian.
In “Live at the Comedy Store,” C.K. was getting big laughs not because he was saying anything visceral or challenging but because he was skilled enough to know what permutations of words, ideas and timing to string together to make people laugh. That was fine and entertaining, but it was deviation from the Louis C.K. brand. My main concern that night in Greensboro was whether C.K.’s latest iteration would evolve into something edgier and more thought-provoking or follow the trend set up by his last special.
There are about five or six good reviews out there about C.K.’s latest Netflix special “Louis C.K.: 2017” that come to a common consensus in answering my question. Here’s the SparkNotes version of all of them: the special tackles controversial and morbid topics with hilarious finesse, Louis C.K delivers wisdom-filled punchlines like he’s Carlin reincarnated, he’s wearing a suit (Letterman would be proud.)
C.K.’s reigning title as comedy’s resident provocateur comes as no surprise. With Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle on hiatus for so long, Louis C.K. (closely followed by Bill Burr) unknowingly took advantage of the vacuum left by their absences to become among the voices pushing comedy further over the bounds of what is politically correct. It's a feat even more remarkable in this current renaissance of comedy, when it seems like everyone and their mom is getting a Netflix special and some veteran comics have lost the essence of themselves that made them so great and relatable to begin with—*cough, cough…looking at you A. Schu.*
Where I find C.K. triumphs the most in this latest special is not just shying away from being vulnerable but fully embracing it as a part of the bit. To be fair, any time a performer walks onstage, they make themselves vulnerable. But to open your performance with a bit on the polarizing issue of abortion automatically drags C.K. to a deeper level of judgment and vulnerability, where the odds of audience approval are already stacked against him.
The way C.K. maneuvers the audience, especially in the abortion bit, is by playing both sides: the pro-life and pro-choice. By devising clever and funny rationales for both perspectives, he puts on display a repartee where we can openly judge him. Question him. Laugh with or even at him—not because what he’s saying is simply shocking, but because he’s tapped into that forgiving nature of humans to excuse off-color things, if they’re funny. Plus, if you laugh at something, you probably acknowledge it’s true.
What these types of bits depend on isn’t the humorous analogies that rule much of current comedy but instead the ability to create jokes that use witty logic and evident truths to reach a killer punchline. C.K. has transitioned from bits on family life and hypotheticals—for example, what if we closed our eyes to saving everyone with a peanut allergy to rid the world of the disease?—to comments on problems in society that no one really talks about—like how being a public school teacher is awful or how bald people must be unsatisfying ISIS beheading victims. His current material is everything but preachy with these sensitive issues.
One aspect of C.K.’s comedy I do sorely miss is the higher frequency of anecdotes. (Who doesn’t love the tale of Jizanthapus and what C.K. would do with his dad?) The part of stand-up comedy that goes sorely underrated is how comics take ideas, thoughts and situations we all experience and ruminate on them a funny way to make people happy. And if you’re a really good stand-up, you’ll make a brown kid somewhere laugh so hard, he sharts.
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