Louis C.K. walks onto stage for his latest Netflix special, Louis C.K. 2017, substituting his George Carlin-inspired plain t-shirt (usually black, save for the blue one he wore in 2013’s Oh My God) with a suit. But the set up for his first bit, “So I think abortion…”, is eerily reminiscent of Carlin’s opening from Back in Town (1996). The very same bit that I personally believe inspired Heath Ledger’s Joker’s voice from The Dark Knight (2008). Just listen to Carlin deliver the lines “Light yourself on fire! Come on, you moral crusader—let’s see a little smoke to match that fire in your belly” and tell me you can’t hear The Clown Prince of Crime in there. In an instant, Louis C.K. dispels any worry you had about him losing the soul in his craft.
Louis C.K. has credited Carlin for a lot of his creative success, citing Carlin’s strategy of producing new comedic material every year as having saved his comedy career. Louie has recorded specials at the Beacon Theatre and Carnegie Hall, and has gone on the record as stating that those venues have special significance due to Carlin’s performances there (as well as many other artists, surely). If there was ever a performance that tipped its cap not only to Carlin, but to the assured confidence that Carlin’s influence has instilled on Louie’s career, it is his suited turn in 2017.
Like Chewed Up (2008) and Hilarious (2010), the title of 2017 is more than just an arbitrary nod to location or sequence. “2017” itself is a finely crafted piece of satire, targeting our tendency to sacrifice realism in place of self-serving liberal benevolence. Better than any other comedian, Louie is able to plug into those nice things we do for others to make ourselves feel good. This is exemplified in his “Soldier on a Plane” bit from Live at the Beacon Theatre (2011), where he lampoons that suspicious pleasure we take in even entertaining doing a nice thing for someone, even if we never follow through with it, and just jack off instead.
After watching 2017, I recommend (re)visiting Chewed Up. One of the most rewarding jokes from 2017 is a call-back to 2008—almost a joke “sequel”, which highlights both just how much Louie has grown, and just how much he’s stayed the same. It’s a comedic masterpiece, and a damn good dick joke too. If you haven’t seen Chewed Up first, you are left in a predicament similar to what I refer to as the “Star Wars Cardinal Conundrum”. If you are a new viewer born into a world where introductions have not yet been made, due to either age or ignorance, do you start with the original classics, or do you start chronologically? Does the correct order need to be order of output? Why do I get the feeling that the most hate-mail I will ever receive will come simply because I posed that legitimate quandary?
There seems to be a thread of teased retirement throughout the promotion I’ve seen around 2017. In the trailer, he looks at a paper saying “This is it”, with the “it” circled for emphasis. I thought this was just a charming way of humanising his processes, or something reminiscent of the aforementioned “Soldier on a Plane” bit from Live at the Beacon Theatre, where he rubs in flying first-class by saying, “All those things you do? I do a better version of those things.” Most comedians would be afraid of taunting the proletariat like that. Louie releases the tension by adding, “It’s only for another year at the most, believe me—it’s not going to last”, that humble self-doubt not yet proving prophetic.
These days, Louis C.K. is a very busy man, serving as executive producer for One Mississippi, Better Things, and Baskets—the latter of which stars Zach Galifianakis as at least one depressed clown. (This deeply haunts me, because it decreases the chances that a character a friend and I created will ever be realised: Peter Pennovsky—the sad but well-meaning son of a dock worker, aspiring to be a clown.) Louie—seasons two and three of which are borderline essential viewing—is simply on extended hiatus whilst its creator does a million other things. And who knows when Horace and Pete—a play-like black comedy that was just dropped into the internet by C.K. one day—will next spring up? Currently, Louis C.K. is spinning more plates than Dick Wolf was at the turn of the millennium. But let’s all get together and pray to god (the main one) that he’s not too busy for another stand-up special before too long.
Louis C.K. stated in an interview with Jimmy Fallon that he likes wearing suits now. This is the simple explanation for the change in attire mentioned earlier. He has said that wearing suits is just something that he imagined grown-ups doing. Between the conceptual greatness of his comedy, and the philosophy that his television productions reach for, it’s not hard to make the case that Louis C.K. has ‘grown up’, and is re-entertaining the ‘serious artist’ phase of his career. This is a benefit to all who seek that nourishment. It is reassuring that the grown up can still crack a low-brow joke occasionally, and relish in it. It is this tightrope that Louis C.K. walks that makes him the best working comedian in the world today. Plus, he’s got some great fingering tips for those who use that technique to barter social capital.
Normally, I would find it hard to write about stand-up comedy in a structured sense. In conversation, I’d throw some adjectives out, and tell you that I thought this person was really, really, really funny. Louis C.K. makes it easy, however. He is really, really, really funny. All I really have left to do is wish god-speed to an unrealised friend; rest in peace, Penno the Clown.