A few years ago, I, along with most of America, was a big fan of Louis C.K. In the world of comedy, Louis C.K. was unparalleled; he sold out Madison Square Garden on eight separate occasions, won several Emmy’s for his hit TV show Louie, and had the beginnings of becoming an auteur and director. That all changed in October 2017, when Louis C.K. admitted to masturbating in front of women. Since then, although he promised to “…step back and take a long time to listen,” he has done just the opposite of that.
Seeing Louis C.K. live was something I had always wanted to do, of course, at least prior to learning of his sexual misconduct. Since then, I’ve felt ambivalent about liking his shows and specials, although I haven’t watched them since his actions were publicly revealed. In going to see Louis C.K. live, I, along with my mom, my brother, and my fiance, went to a dinky comedy club in Levittown, Long Island to see how we felt about his comeback. Call it a social experiment, or an interesting cultural moment that we wanted to witness, but we had no idea that an excerpt from his disjointed set would go viral when we saw him live on December 16th.
The set was opened by two women, as though the club management knew they needed to apologize for Louis C.K.’s antics before he even started performing. But the moment Louis C.K. took the stage, the crowd was uproarious. These people, mostly middle aged Long Islanders, had bought these heavily discounted tickets, and they were going to enjoy Louis C.K. live, whether it was politically correct to or not.
Surprisingly, Louis C.K. did address his #MeToo moment, just not in the way you’d expect. He refused to be self-deprecating or even acknowledge what he had done directly. Although he talked about the effects on his life and career, he wasn’t exactly apologetic. Louis C.K. live wasn’t someone who was going to openly talk about his actions, only the consequences of them.
He opened with the aside that he lost over thirty million dollars in a single day, the bulk of his net worth. Whether this was in lost revenue, or personal funds, we can’t really know, but Louis C.K. acted as though that was the great tragedy at play here. He then went on to discuss how he can’t go out in New York anymore, and had to take a trip to France because the entire nation hated him. This was likely the most honest bit in his entire set, if only because it explained why Louis C.K. tickets were $20 as opposed to $200.
Louis C.K. then went on to discuss how her mother sent him articles from The New York Times, like the one that broke the story about him masturbating in front of women. Thinking his son did something positive, Louis C.K. explained in a joking but exacerbated way about how he knew these stories weren’t portraying him well at all, at one point remarking that this shitty club on Long Island is the only one that will book him now. The situation only escalated when Louis C.K. thought that a mic wasn’t working properly. This is a comedian used to selling out Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden, courting tens of millions of dollars for his annual comedy specials. Brought low by a crappy mic and an even crappier situation, Louis C.K. looked at it as just that — a bad thing that happened to him, as though he had no agency in the decisions he made.
“Fuck it, what are you going to take away, my birthday? My life is over, I don’t give a shit.”
This was Louis C.K.’s attitude throughout the set — he just seemed defeated. It’s not as though he didn’t have any funny jokes, an extended bit on how mentally challenged kids are confused that we don’t use the word ‘retarded’ anymore, and that we only changed our use of language to assuage our own guilt, was a return to form for Louis C.K. It subverted this type of logic in a way that he did in his prime, and could have been among any of the great bits in his previous stand-up specials. He also had an aside on taking a prank way too far in a surrealistic and grossly exaggerated way, which ended with him killing his father just to mess with his sister. If that’s not classic Louis C.K., I don’t know what is.
The truth is, his Parkland/gender bashing, a two minute sojourn in the middle of his disjointed act, didn’t even register to me at all as being offensive in context. In fact, I was surprised that that’s what the media latched on to. That being said, I personally didn’t like that bit when he did it. My fiance and I glanced sideways at each other when it happened, and I thought it was a bit uninspired and sort of ‘punched down.’ But it wasn’t really any more or less offensive than anything else Louis C.K. has ever done. This is the guy that had a whole routine about using the world ‘faggot,’ and he had much more offensive jokes even within his fragmented post #MeToo routine.
I suppose it’s easier to label Louis C.K. as an alt right provocateur than acknowledge that he just hasn’t changed. Louis C.K. isn’t courting the alt-right; he probably doesn’t even know what that is, and I don’t think anyone in the room did either. Instead, his routine consisted of the same kind of humor we were lauding him for in the past, which is now offensive to us. And that’s okay, we have and should change as a society. But what I found most offensive was his refusal to even acknowledge any wrongdoing on his behalf
As millennials, we were the generation that grew up using the words ‘gay’ and ‘retarded’ as insults. We might not like to acknowledge it now, but it’s something we did collectively. As such, we also used to like Louis C.K., and like the things he was saying. A few years ago, we were hailing him as a progressive hero. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t do these things though — he always had been doing them, even if we didn’t know or care about it. But it’s his refusal to really acknowledge them in his recent stand-up act at a shitty club on Long Island that is much more offensive than any specific joke that he made.
On the way home, my mom, my brother, my fiance and I all discussed seeing Louis C.K. live. We all agreed he was still a brilliant comedian, even if his bitterness suggested otherwise. But it was his total lack of regard for how his own actions ruined his career that was most striking. Instead of handling the situation with care, Louis C.K. made it so that his comeback would be all about him, and not the situation that he caused. Everybody will view his attempted comeback in this way, as a casualty of the #MeToo era desperately striving for relevance, refusing to go quietly into that good night.
Although there’s no playbook for coming back from this type of behavior, Louis C.K. made it so that nobody should even try.