Separating the art from the artist is a smart and often misunderstood idea, but I admit its limits are being stretched when it comes Louis CK. The comedian, who admitted to a number of incidents of sexual misconduct in 2017 (including masturbating in front of female comics in his hotel room), has built his brand—including the semi-autobiographical FX series Louie—on the premise of no-holds-barred, brutally honest grossness. This was a kind of progressive crudity, the man’s boorishness tempered by self-awareness, his willingness to make himself the clumsy, disgusting, ignorant Neanderthal at the butt of every joke. In Louie’s masturbation episode, called ‘Come on God’, CK’s alter-ego protagonist even says, “I’m a good father, I recycle and I masturbate”, as though driving home the intersection of wholesomeness and crudity.
When gross-out humour is the artist’s calling card, separating that art from the artist’s recently uncovered improprieties is a singularly uncomfortable experience. I should add, however, that with CK the grossness was never marred by self-pity or vicarious meanness, until recently. That only began with his 2020 Grammy-nominated special Sincerely Louis CK, wherein he made feeble or wildly misinformed jokes about cancel culture and gender identity. His latest special (shot in August and released on 18 December via pay-per-view on his website) is ironically called Sorry—he never addresses his crimes at any point, choosing instead to perform against a giant, lit-up ‘SORRY’ sign behind him.
It’s not nearly as bad as Sincerely Louis CK and for the first 20 minutes or so (Sorry runs to about 61 minutes), even reminds you of CK at his Louie peak. But the second half is disappointing, to put it mildly, with the comic devolving into open-mic-level material about imitating pets and so on. And it’s topped off by a shock-jock finale where CK is alternately condescending and downright offensive. The ‘offense’ isn’t even in the service of topical jokes: it’s diffuse rage coming through the sarcasm, the passive-aggressive language. “How’d you guys enjoy living my life for a couple of years,” he jokes about the pandemic and his own ‘exile’ (short-lived, it must be said) in the same breath, “Can’t work, can’t go outside, can’t show your face.”
And then, of course, there’s the trans material: CK’s riffs on gender identity come from a far more progressive place than, say, Chappelle’s. Here, too, he starts by criticising his own generation for reinforcing rigid ideas of gender in young people. But he ends up making the same old, rehashed jokes filled with biological essentialism: even trans and non-binary people, CK reminds us with a smirk, came to be when “two boring straight people” had sex. He then helpfully mimes said act of conception. Now, there are two ways of looking at this routine: the kinder one is that CK is using body humour to nudge the less evolved among his fans into rethinking gender.
The ‘offense’ isn’t even in the service of topical jokes: it’s diffuse rage coming through the sarcasm, the passive-aggressive language.
But if that were truly the case, why would CK also, earlier in the show, make a transgender vs fat people joke (as though the two categories can never overlap, as though their respective rights are in a zero-sum equation)? Nobody cares about how fat people are oppressed every day, jokes CK, despite the fact that there are so many all around us. “There are a billion trillion fat people out there. How many trans people, like, 38?” Now that’s unfunny and dangerous to boot; this non-joke feeds into an obviously harmful lie and ignores the same oppressor/oppressed dynamic it claims to critique. Sorry has too many of these cringe-worthy moments, especially in the second half, and that’s why it doesn’t quite work despite some promising bits.
These promising sections included an extended joke about his mother’s deathbed (I mean, this is a Louis CK joke, it’s going to be at least this dark). It utilises CK’s gifts as an actor/filmmaker to great effect. The way he tells this story—the expertly-timed pauses, the facial expressions, the voice modulation—everything clicks satisfactorily into place, showing off the comedian’s range. His late mom, CK tells us, scolded him on her deathbed for being morose—she puts a simple question to him. Would you rather that I never died?
And then CK pauses, because it’s in this pause that human beings process the ugliness that we know resides in every last one of us. Do we really want parents living forever? Are we really signing-up-in-perpetuity for a lifetime of those strange, stress-filled relationships marked by cycles of mutual validation and less-than-mutual critique?
It’s beautiful, this routine really is. It’s dark and deathly and god forgive me, it’s hilarious. All too briefly, it’s reminiscent of a great artist, one who’s now reduced to the petty squabbling that feels like the refuge of middling minds. If only Sorry felt more like this and less like a contrived ‘gotcha’ moment for Louis CK.