It’s been two years since Louis C.K. released his last live comedy special, and in that period, he’s gone on to become an even more influential name in the entertainment industry than he even was before. He’s added two new, critically-acclaimed hit series to his FX lineup, as a creator for both “Better Things” and “Baskets” — and just last year self-produced, cast, and released one of the most unexpected hits of the year with “Horace & Pete.”
To say that Louis C.K. is at the top of his game is an understatement — he’s firing on all cylinders, creatively, like no other comedian right now. Not too bad, considering 2017 also marks a full decade since the release of “Shameless,” the first in the long line of beloved stand-up specials that has carefully built him into the most lauded stand-up comic in the world today. “Louis C.K. 2017,” the first of two stand-up hours released through Netflix, shows us once again how he earned that title in the first place.
From the opening moments of “2017,” it becomes immediately clear that this is a C.K. we’ve never really seen before. Exchanging his well-known black t and jeans for a full suit this time around, the special (which he directed, as well) opens backstage, just moments before his set begins. With a small smile across his face, he turns to one of the stage managers and tells them it’s time to bring up the lights, the announcer to introduce — giving us, and himself, a moment to experience the joy of that crowd, his gratitude for this success — before walking out onto the stage.
Louis C.K. is no longer just the anxious, self-deprecating and provocative comedian that he was when “Shameless” was released, not entirely. This is an experienced and professional comedian, one who knows what he’s doing every second he’s on that stage — and when he takes hold of the mic, is still practically unmatched. It’s in his transparency that we connect with him — still acting abashed about this phase of his life would read false, ruining the whole thing. Doubling down on the reality, even when it doesn’t match up with the audience’s immediate needs, is precisely his brand.
All of that, the overall sleek nature of “2017,” makes up for the fact that much of the material in the act is, of course, familiar. Raising his two daughters, his long and often humiliating experiences with romance and love, they’re all still there, and that’s alright. The subjects of C.K.’s material has never been revolutionary — it’s the way he approaches them that has made C.K. such an obvious genius at his craft. Shocking and discomfiting us with his blunt honesty — and often ridiculous, weirdly true observations about society — are what have always made his specials so unique in the first place. The professional vibe of “2017” just further accentuates the technical precision at work in his comedy.
Fellow comedians have often praised C.K. for his ability to make the most out of every word and beat in his stand-up sets — here, hearing C.K. immediately start the special off with “So I think abortion is…” is enough to set up everything to follow. That he then acutely demonstrates why abortion is such a tricky topic in classic form, using more and more unrealistic or bonkers metaphors, to come at his subject from every angle. And because if there were easy answers it wouldn’t be a question, he knows just how to land at the end of a discussion, keeping that ambiguity while providing a thoughtful finish.
One highlight: C.K. finding out one of his 8th grade classmates was transgender, and finally living as a woman. “She has a blog on Facebook about becoming a woman — I was up all night reading it, crying,” C.K. says, before pointing out that the blog also states that she knew from when 6 years of age… Which only makes C.K. even madder that she stole his date at the 8th grade dance.
Sometimes when comedians find peace, their comedy shifts or suffers. C.K.’s trademark, pointing out the absurdity and hypocrisy of everyday life, remains as pointed and incisive as ever. Perhaps the most memorable is when he expresses his rage that a pro football player said he knew his mother was watching his game from Heaven, which C.K. thinks is profoundly selfish. “Even after you’re dead, you still have to go to their games? Let her enjoy Heaven!” Or when he compares the procedure for asking out a girl in middle school to some kind of Elizabethan courting ritual, “Please inquire after her maiden friend… Were I to request her presence, what might be her answer?”
C.K. does it all with the same childish smile on his face, his face redder and redder throughout the night as he performs the anxiety or over-exaggerated anger he’s describing — so when he finishes up the night with a 10-minute long tangent about how he’s afraid to finish “Magic Mike” in case the ending turns out to be that he himself is gay, it’s peak C.K.: Inclusively traversing the territory that other comics often find too difficult to pull off, or target toward some members of the audience at the expense of others.
C.K. is a brilliant rejoinder to the often-spoken, never-realized fear that approaching the world this way might undercut or censor the comedy: If he can do it and stay funny — just one week after our beloved Dave Chappelle’s exciting return to stand-up brought him under heavy scrutiny for going, let’s say, another way with it — C.K. proves once again why he’s still the king of comedy.
It’s nothing new or revolutionary, but “Louis C.K. 2017” is the best possible snapshot of where he’s at right now in his career — which is to say, the very top.
“Louis C.K. 2017” is available to stream on Netflix now.