In his new Netflix special, 2017, Louis C.K. does something he rarely does: wear a suit. The nicer duds don’t accompany more presentable material—he’s still talking about jizz, abortion and suicide. But the formal wear befits C.K.’s status as an indisputable member of the modern humor pantheon. As Chris Rock tackles race and Jerry Seinfeld deconstructs mundanity, C.K. slaughters and grills our most sacred cows.
In his set that debuts today, C.K. characterizes suicidal thoughts as a universal human trait—our entire population is just those who woke up said, “Ugh, fine. More, I guess.” He talks about Jeff, a dude who stole his eighth grade dance date then later became a transgender woman, transforming “from an asshole to a cunt.” He recounts “really liking” Matthew McConaughey's Magic Mike monologue where he coos, “the law says you cannot touch, but I see a lot of lawbreakers...” Then, he admits that he might suck the world’s most perfect dick.
He deploys stereotypical voices, justifying the offensive cliché by saying that stereotypes aren’t funny, but the voices still are. And he proves it by doing a hacky impression of a black dude, then saying he’s “Chineser than a muthafucka,” flipping our sensitivity against us and removing the offensive meaning behind a triggering impression.
He filmed the special in Washington D.C. a few days before Donald Trump was inaugurated. But he doesn’t delve into any partisan bits, save from speculating about survivors stumbling upon his special in a rubble-laden wasteland. Rather, in his distinctly crass fashion, he rolls out observations that strive to be universally understandable. For example, he guides viewers to process that abortion clinic protestors sincerely believe that doctors are “killing babies.” After sitting with that for a moment, their sputtering zeal makes more sense, even if their strategy and worldview still seem cruel and naive.
So although there’s never been a time when awful shit wasn’t going down, comedy seems particularly valuable now, especially comedy that taps into touchy subjects, because nothing neutralizes divisiveness like looking over and seeing someone laughing at the same thing you are. It’s C.K.’s specialty—extracting laughs from that which we’ve suppressed, from that which divides and scares us, from that which we’ve always taken very seriously.
C.K. transcends his individual works. He riffs on familiar themes, but he doesn’t have anything like Jim Gaffigan’s “Hot Pocket” bit. He junks his material every year—a practice that’s produced 10 specials over 11 years, a prolific consistency not matched by any of his contemporaries and exceeded only by George Carlin and Richard Pryor. So like a jam band, his aura and execution comprise his main appeal. We come not for any individual joke, but for his perspective. We look to him to sort out the reason and humor within subjects that usually result in senseless screaming matches. He’s very good at his job and especially necessary now.
59 percent of Americans believe people are too easily offended. The buzzword for these people is “snowflakes,” usually uttered dismissively by older, whiter people towards younger, darker people who most times have legitimate concerns over our nation’s living history of what results from hateful language. But C.K. takes another path, going after the dominant groups that don’t really have the justification for ruffled feathers—like the Christians who believe there’s a War on Christmas.
In his special, to prove that “Christians have won,” C.K. asks what year it is? 2017. Counting from what? Exactly. He presents a wide-lens view of a seemingly contentious debate that’s already been decided. It’s a much-needed check against bluster that guides the discussion to a far saner starting point. Because ISIS’s evil aside, they won’t ever dominate so thoroughly that we restart over at zero. So chill, Christians.
Similarly, his infatuation with McConaughey’s monologue demystifies homosexuality. For the straight people that can’t even bear to imagine those urges, hearing a father of two make this confession might make that sexual orientation seem a bit more natural. Even if it’s not what they’re into, he guides listeners to see how someone else might be. So chill, straight people.
Or in Chewed Up, where he talks about being white, aiming at the significant percentage of white people who do not believe white privilege exists. In fact, 43 percent of Americans, and 64 percent of Republicans, believe “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”
C.K. calmly dismantles this absurdity. He reframes the idea of race, imagining it’s an option that you could “re-up” every year, encouraging a moment of reflection for white people. So sure, occasionally being suspected of racism isn’t fun, but it’s a lot better than getting asked for papers, or delayed at airports or killed by the police for trivial matters—especially when, on average, white people have fared better by just about every metric since this country’s founding. So chill, white people.
Allow me to be the millionth person to say: America is divided. Yet, gentle cajoles to ideological foes seem to have the impact of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high. If bigots ever hatch from their nativist cocoon, the catalyst probably sounds a lot like C.K. He’s politically incorrect, but with compassion. He bluntly reframes discussions, dropping our guard to help us think the things we have knee-jerk reactions against. In an era where we mostly talk past each other, C.K. has found a way to talk to both sides without adopting a neutered, feel-good, “everyone’s right” stance.
Rightfully or not, we now trust comedians as we used to trust news anchors. C.K. earned his credibility by copping that he’s a shitty person—a man who thinks dark thoughts, but would never act on them. And perhaps he’s not so harmless. There have been allegations that he sexually harrasses female comedians. This hasn’t gained enough momentum to dislodge the majority of this trust, but there’s no reason to think these women are lying. The closest he came to addressing this was in his Vulture interview, when he said, “if you need your public profile to be all positive, you’re sick in the head. I do the work I do, and what happens next I can’t look after.”
That’s a dodge. C.K.’s a flawed moral authority, but he excavates our nation’s common denominators, linking disparate Americans together by the threads that we’ve hidden out of defensiveness or embarrassment. And most times, he finds something filthy.
As truth fractures into a kaleidoscope, C.K. acts as a clear putty that fills in the gaps between perspectives and reveals common ground. And he teaches us a lesson that he struggles to follow: that you can talk like an asshole without being one.