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Louis, Louis, Louis ..

Louis CK is edging back into his standup routine amid much cultural blowback. A bootlegged recording of his new year show caused substantial outrage when he targeted teenage spokespeople of high school shootings and did bits on the relative endowment of black and asian men. I’m not sure that I follow the thinking here. I’ve never put him at the top of the comedic pantheon but there was little doubt he’d be back doing comedy after getting caught up in the Me-too movement and admitting that he had a predilection for masturbating in front of women. His offenses were odd and worthy of rebuke, but somewhere below those of Harvey Weinstein. What he did seemed in line with much of his comedy, which is often centered on things like masturbation, dicks, and layered sexual fantasy. It isn’t my cup of tea but tea connoisseurs come in wide variety. He was the most revered comic in the country, raking in millions with Netflix specials, a top-rated cable show, and whatever else caught his imagination. He self-produced an unadvertised drama, ‘Horace and Pete,’ about two middle-aged bar owners in Brooklyn. Its centerpiece was an intense monologue by Laurie Metcalf on her shut-eyed, exhibitionist self-pleasuring in front of her 84 year-old father in law. This performance drew rave reviews with words like “daring” and “brilliant.” This is what Louis CK did before his more questionable tendencies were confronted; it was his bread and butter.

So now he’s back doing essentially the same thing. He’s still worth millions but sacrificed thirty-five of them in confessing to his transgressions and going away for a year. It wasn’t enough for many, including moral arbitrator Judd Apatow who took to Twitter gavel in hand and skewered CK for lacking sufficient empathic tendencies. He was accused of picking on ‘soft targets’ and toeing the line for angry white males with anti-PC agendas. It was suggested that he’d switched gears to jibe with red-state psyches and appeal to rogue instincts. Not sure what the ‘political’ in ‘PC’ refers to here, but CK is on record saying that Hillary Clinton was the only sensible choice in the last election and that our current president was a sucker’s vote. His stage patter rarely trended toward political and was more psycho-sexual and self-loathing. He fixated on his own awkwardness, disgusting middle-aged body, and sick fantasies. I never found the bulk of this appealing but many did. At other times I did find him funny, as when he’d riff on modern era minds, content to bitch about air travel when one can sit in a seat and be transported from coast to coast in a matter of hours. Whatever the consensus, the man was not an early-90’s Andrew Dice Clay incarnation or an edgier, more intellectually inclined Larry the Cable Guy. Yet this was the sense one got reading the comments and blurbs about his most recent stand-up material; those who had once lauded him as ‘brave’ were turning on him with ‘indignant,’ and ‘self-pitying,’ and ‘fear-mongering.’

So I gave the recording a listen. What it sounded like was Louis CK; like someone who had gone away for a year and picked up about where he left off. The stuff I didn’t like about him remained unchanged. Scattered among it were some genuinely funny bits. The Apatow calls of ‘insufficiently contrite’ or ‘un-empathic’ are curious. Yes, he begins the routine with “how was your year?” and talks about 365 consecutively sucking days, mentioning the huge pile of money that he lost. But the unstated vibe doesn’t feel self-pitying or indignant. It’s in line with his usual shtick of what an awkward loser he is despite his career and success. He references buying a gold watch prior to his downfall then basking in self-loathing looking at it. The question the criticism begs is “what is he supposed to do?” Putting large portions of self-examination in the routine would feel forced and shallow. Trying to beg forgiveness or push the “I’m not that guy anymore” narrative (whether he is or not) would lack any trace of sincerity he once had. Whether he deserves to be back or not is a matter for public vote. Trying to excuse, explain, justify, apologize, analyze or contextualize isn’t exactly nightclub material. The image of him fervently preoccupied, Little CK in hand, will be forever burned into his audiences’ subconscious retina. Those who think he’s a creep or pervert will likely stay away and those more inclined to offer the ‘genius’ label will take their seats.

Central to the outrage was his brief bit referencing the kids involved in the aftermath of the Parkland School shooting. Reading accounts of this caused me to track down the recording at five in the morning. There was no mention of context. Even when failing to make me laugh the one thing Louis CK could not be accused of is a lack of thought. As it turned out, this stuff was funniest to me. I too (pun notwithstanding) won’t apologize for this. Funny is reflexive and my inclination is usually opposite. I’m not an easy laugh though I appreciate those who are. The brief segment begins with him noting how his own teenage daughters loathe him, which puts them right in line with most teenagers. His younger tells him “no offense” then goes on to explain how she’s not into what he does for a living, the whole ‘stand up thing.’ She doesn’t get it, despite its having put food on her plate for years. Only then does he begin his transition toward the Parkland School “spokeskids” with the premise that almost no teenager has done anything with his or her life to be worthy of the tag “interesting.” The overriding premise is that teenagers are supposed to be fuck-ups; not pillars of reverential wisdom.

The observations that follow, that having your fellow students get shot up does not make you interesting or worthy of respect, are definitely ‘edgy’ material, but the idea that it is unacceptable or a reflection of CK’s selfish dissatisfaction with his own circumstances is ridiculous. Becoming a young spokesperson on the heels of such an event could be seen as exploitive. Many will disagree and have a good argument in doing so, but it isn’t outside the realm of reasonable debate, particularly considering the comedic context. What the bit quite clearly isn’t is some newly-found NRA sensibility that Louis CK has suddenly decided is his go-to pitch. Whatever the take on this stuff, a moment’s pause is in order before calling it ‘unacceptable.’ A fine argument could also be made concerning the reaction one might have if they were a parent of one of these kids, or the kid himself. This gets into a broader area about free speech, comedy, censorship, satire, absurdist humor, etc. And any discussion of that area could easily include names like Don Rickles and Lenny Bruce.

Norm MacDonald did a bit shortly after the death of the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ some years back and, hilarious as it was, it probably wasn’t being played at gatherings of the man’s remaining family. Norm has since said that he’s curbed his instincts with some material. Whether this is a good or a bad thing isn’t for me to decide. Family members deserve respect following a tragedy. Then again, the guy was a public figure who made his money interacting with dangerous animals. Laughter is a good, strong and rare commodity. Should we be regulating its sources with concern for the few in light of this good for the many? Maybe Louis will cover this in his next routine.

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