“So you know, I think abortion…” begins Louis C.K.’s new stand-up special, 2017. It’s an uncomfortable start to a resoundingly uncomfortable bit, and one that tellingly earns more laughs for sheer audacity than actual content. “I think you should not get an abortion,” he continues, after pausing to let the audience squirm for a few moments, “Unless you need one. In which case, you better get one.”
The bit drones on mercilessly for about five minutes, in which the 49 year-old alternately trivializes the subject matter and — more effectively — mocks the debate surrounding it. Of anti-abortion activists, he insists, “They think babies are being murdered!” Normally, C.K. thrives in these moments, jumping squarely over the line before convincing his audience to question why it was there in the first place. It’s an extraordinary talent, which the comedian has used in the past to generate empathy in unexpected places (a 2015 SNL monologue on pedophiles comes to mind) or to upend the parameters of social discourse. That version of Louis C.K. fails to show up for most of 2017. Instead, he relies increasingly on physicality, facial expressions and a few lowbrow vocal impressions, each of which would be more offensive than the last were they more easily discernable as existing stereotypes.
But not all is lost! C.K. imbues the Netflix special (the first of a two-show contract) with its fair share of ingenuity. Without dropping any spoilers, I can safely attest to the wit behind jokes on such topics as soup, 9/11 deniers, erections and religion. His hallmark unpredictability remains intact: a bit on suicide becomes an ode to love, while the tale of Achilles morphs into a metaphor on kids’ unrealistic expectations of their parents. In his ability to ground morbid comedy in a humanist brand of optimism, C.K. remains unmatched. Still, whether because of the opening bit’s toxicity or the current political climate, 2017 leaves much to be desired.
Since Election Day, Stephen Colbert has upended late night’s perennial ratings war, mostly by providing a nightly skewering of our Commander-in-Chief’s supremely diplomatic behavior (Jimmy Fallon regrets that hair tousle about now). Trump has proven to be late night gold, and one can imagine the furious pace that the writing staffs for Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee have to maintain, in order to keep up with the White House’s latest tweets. As John Oliver told the New York Times, “It’s a lot of people feeding on the same carcass.” It comes as a relief that Trump doesn’t receive more than a brief mention in 2017. As with Dave Chappelle’s recent specials, C.K. seems determined to operate on his own political plane.
A few ill-conceived jokes hardly spell doom for those dependent on C.K.’s political insights. Comedians from Amy Schumer to Dave Chappelle have regularly recovered from worse. The latter may have received a bit of blowback for his recent remarks on America’s transgender population, but it certainly hasn’t diminished his cultural standing. Indeed, C.K. does not have to serve as the unimpeachable “philosopher-king” that Charlie Rose once (absurdly) labeled him as. The escapist humor of 2017 proves refreshing, at times, and the more daring bits feel excitingly risky in the context of today’s polarized politics. Unfortunately, these highlights do little to disprove that C.K. has lost touch with his persona as the comedic “everyman,” whose insights once provided a certain comfort absent from pop culture at the moment.
A year ago, C.K. independently funded and released his experimental, melodramatic miniseries Horace & Pete. It remains a desperately underrated, albeit messy, amalgam of American theatre and television that makes way for some of C.K.’s sharpest commentary as a writer. Its decidedly bleak exploration of patrimonies and the American Dream have grown more vital in the past year. More importantly, though, the show serves as reassurance that C.K.’s potent brand of insightfulness hasn’t left us just yet.
Chris Stanton is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Really Terrible, and Such Small Portions! runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.