Sincerely Louis CK | Review of the stand-up special he unexpectedly released last night
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Sincerely Louis CK

Review of the stand-up special he unexpectedly released last night

Last night, while much of America’s comedy industry was staging a marathon virtual fundraiser for colleagues left high and dry by the lockdown, its pariah, Louis CK, released his own stand-up special, the first since he was outed for masturbating in front of junior female comics.

His behaviour casts a long shadow over Sincerely Louis CK, which he can’t quite shake, echoing in stories where he didn’t intend it. Not only is there’s an elephant in the room, it’s jerking off while you watch.

That his sordid reputation preceded him did not concern the audience of the Warner Theatre in Washington DC, who enthusiastically chanted ‘Lou-is’ before he arrived on stage and gave him a standing ovation when he did, wearing his trademark black T-shirt but looking a bit greyer than you probably remember.

He acknowledges the story everyone knows about him, but if you were hoping for a mea culpa, you have another think coming.

‘How was your last couple of years? Anybody else get into global amounts of trouble?' he jokes, followed by a short routine about being spurned and learning who his real friends are. 

The material is all about him and the scandal's consequences for his life, not those whom he wronged. In this briefest of segments, the air is nor cleared, unlike when Aziz Ansari tackled similar, if less conclusive, #MeToo accusations about him in his stand-up.

CK’s tone is of a naughty kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, a cheeky smile that says: ‘You caught me, but c’mon, we’ve all done it’ which doesn’t strike the right note.

Across the show, he makes little attempt to be liked by those who have turned their back on him. There’s a bit where he mimics a Japanese waitress which is only funny because he mimics her voice, however much he garnishes it by insisting, unconvincingly, that he’s not being racist. And there’s a long segment in which he relishes using the word ‘retard’ as much as possible just because it is now taboo. It used to be commonplace in the old days, is his argument – as if that were any justification.

It adds to the feeling the world, and comedy, is moving on, and that, at 52, CK is being left behind. Saying edgy, contentious things, however tongue-in-cheek, just for its own sake seems old hat.

At the heart of that ‘retard’ section is, actually, a decent point about how disability is almost fetishised into inspirational stories of triumph over adversity, giving an unattainable ideal for those who don’t want to be heroic. Only problem is, that notion forms part of many disabled comedians’ sets, informed by their own experience, so do we really need an able-bodied rich guy to hijack those stories?

Similarly, he talks about the generational shift that has made society welcoming of homosexuality, and how it means gay people have been brought into the same world of tedious domesticity as the straights. Wasn’t there a frisson when the love was forbidden, that some are now missing? Again a decent point; again an idea gay comics have conveyed with more authenticity than him.

CK has always liked being on the edge of acceptability, even before the scandal, and here he speaks of how he loves the tingle of making people angry by his words – a feeling he first experienced as a child, recalled in a routine that brings to mind George Carlin’s most famous bit.

CK says he ‘fantasises about having the balls to be mean’ to people in real-life… but stand-up is an outlet that allows him to do that from the relative safety of the stage, and it’s an opportunity he grasps with both hands.

That transgressive streak informs that section on ‘retards’ especially, but also has him discussing the bestiality, paedophilia and letting babies die. These routines are underpinned by a grotesquely warped logic, and if you can get over the moral vacuum at their core, they are very funny, there’s no denying that.

The problem is that to get over that amorality, you have to believe the comic is basically a decent guy being provocative – and that’s a greyer area since the stories of his misconduct got out. In stand-up, you can never completely dissociate the art from the artist.

More explicitly, his behaviour is at the back of your mind when he talks about such things as God getting off to Adam and Eve having sex – or even a crematorium worker having his way with his ‘clients’.

For all that is problematical about CK, there are some great bits here that remind an impartial observer, if there is such a thing, of what made him such a great comic before his downfall. These include the amusingly resigned analysis of his own physical decay, a comment about Auschwitz that’s laugh-through-your gasps hilarious, and a sharp takedown of Christians who can’t believe Jesus was a Jew.

The ’72 virgins’ bit teeters on the hack, however, even though he’s got a slightly different take on the jokes that have been going around for the best part of 20 years.

Though CK appears not to be seeking rehabilitation, in the 52nd minute of his hour-long special he returns to the accusations against him. There’s a great line about how his peccadillos are now public property, and he at least tries to explain with a gag why he liked to masturbate in front of women. 

Then, finally, he turns to the topic of consent, which he lands via a strong analogy. It’s funny, even if falling short of the apology many would want, and plays up to the old image of him as something of a sad-sack dolt getting the wrong end of the stick. But the stakes seem too high for the flippancy.

CK might not have changed all that much, but the world – and especially our image of him – has. And that’s what he’s got to overcome.

• Sincerely Louis CK is available for $7.99 (about £6.50) from his website.

Review date: 5 Apr 2020
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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