Louis CK returns in full-form for his latest comedy special, ‘Sincerely’
Louis C.K. is a writer and comedian who seems to take perverse enjoyment in broaching uncomfortable topics. Despite this, he has somehow managed to avoid the public’s ire and establish himself as a household name in comedy over the past few decades.
Controversy would finally come, as it so often does these days, in the wake of sexual misconduct. In 2017, allegations surfaced that Louis had masturbated in front of several female coworkers. Whether these women had given their consent was in some sense irrelevant: either way, given his status as a prominent figure in show-businessnes, the behavior was widely perceived as an abuse of power.
The revelations put Louis on a growing list of sexual offenders who were exposed in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, creating a definite if unwarrented equivalence that further worsened his reputation and led to his ostracism. He lost his affiliation with multiple ongoing projects, one of his movie premiers was cancelled, and HBO and Netflix severed ties with him. When he appeared at several smaller venues for shows, the media harshly criticized him.
As a result, Louis has been largely absent to American audiences over the past two years. His return came with the release of a surprise comedy special, the first since his fall from grace, on his website. Titled Sincerely, it’s a telling exhibition of a man who has returned from the outskirts of society, and clearly has a lot to say about it.
If you thought that public scrutiny would in any way stifle Louis’s characteristically twisted sense of humor, you would be wrong. In this hour-long special the comedian takes aim at the victims of hurricanes, the Boston Marathon bombing, and 9/11, bad-mouthes dead babies, and even slips a slight-handed jab at the Jewish occupants of Auschwitz. In other words, Louis was at his full-form in Sincerely, eliciting uneasy groans and uproarious laughter within the span of several minutes.
It’s no surprise, then, that the comedy special’s title indicates that Louis has brought his genuine feelings on stage. But as always, Louis walks gracefully on the tight-rope between shock value and poor taste: that delicate and precarious act which characterizes the best of comedians. A good indication of this comes from the fact that he passes the litmus test of a joke taken too far: to my mind, there were no palpably cringe-inducing moments.
What is it that gives Louis the ability to navigate this treacherous territory? Simply put, he constantly reminds us how difficult the role of a comedian has become. Although he stands alone on the stage, his routines make us feel like the public eye is right there with him. Take, for example, a bit where he faithfully reproduces a Japanese waitress’s grammatically-improper and highly inflected question: you no finish? He pauses uncomfortably, as if he was being stared down by hawks of political correctness, before taking a stumbling and hilarious detour into why the accent isn’t the least bit offensive.
In moments like this, Louis elicits a good deal of sympathy from his audience. In an era when our lives are subject to more scrutiny than ever before, we can relate to the image of a cautious comedian trying his best to be funny and subversive without shooting himself in the foot. Anyone who’s ever tweeted something for comedic effect has, in a small way, faced the same problem.
Of course, that technique has its limits. It wouldn’t have sufficed, for example, to discuss the accusations which caused his two-year hiatus. This takes us into the next major theme of the special: Louis’s sexual misconduct.
It isn’t until the very end of his special that Louis brings up the 2017 accusations directly. But even before he does, we can see its effects on the subject-matter.
The most obvious one is that, in no uncertain terms, sexuality pervades his material. He touches on bestiality (“Why would you eat a perfectly fuckable pig?”) and pedophilia (“It was the 1970s, you could just walk up to kids and talk to them. Nowadays you can’t even fuck them — it’s crazy”). In one anecdote, after running through a list of newly-acquired swear words to his kindergarten teacher, he tells us that he gets a boner.
Clearly, sex was on the comedian’s mind, and we can’t help but notice the transgressive nature of the examples listed so far. The idea of transgressive sexuality would provide the jumping-off point for bringing up the accusations. Speaking about the popular acceptence of homosexuality, he wonders whether gay sex was more fun when it was wrong: “I could lose my job”, says one pre-liberation man excitedly to his partner. After all, some people like when sex feels wrong. At this point, Louis points at himself and dives into his own sexuality.
Louis assumes that his audience knows about the details of the accusations, and begins by offering us some advice:
“Check in often — I guess that’s what I would say. Check in. Because it’s not always clear how people feel. Men are taught to make sure the woman is OK — but the thing is women know how to seem OK when they’re not OK.”
Undoubtedly, this prescription for better communication is a good one. Louis is right to say that a positive sexual encounter involves more than just listening for the woman’s ‘yes’: it requires a person to be in touch with what the woman is feeling. Louis reminds us that this is sometimes hard, but that men have a responsibility to learn how to read woman, especially when their comfort and well-being is at stake.
Of course, these remarks are somewhat reductionist in scope, hardly going into as much detail as we would have liked. Did Louis suppress the news when it first broke, as many sources claimed? Was the women’s consent as clear as he made it out to be? These oversights notwithstanding, Louis manages to use his mistakes as an opportunity to relate a positive message to his fans, and for that he should be commended.
Discussing his sexual misconduct wasn’t quite the last word of his series, but the second-to-last. Why leave one more bit for the end? The most obvious answer is that he wanted to close with something less serious. Fair enough. But I’m convinced that, if we interpret his last bit carefully, we find that it’s actually a continuation of his previous comments about the misconduct. It says something more about them, something that — for whatever reason — he couldn’t manage to say directly.
Ostensibly, his last bit explores the possibility of a Freaky Friday situation with a twist: a mother and her son are the family members who wake up to find their bodies switches. He describes the resulting story as a drama, not a comedy, as the two horrified characters are left to deal with the reality of their situations. He pantomimes the disturbed mother, hunched over with a dick in her hand, dismally confused. Then he pantomimes her son, thoroughly traumatized by the occupation of his mother’s body, whose situation is only made only worse when his dad comes home and proceeds to fucks him.
How can we read this bit as an elaboration on Louis’s previous remarks, and not just a shocking scene? To recognize the contiguity between this final bit and the one before it, all we need to do is hit mute. The mother in the son’s body is clearly a pantomimed version of himself: there is something pathetic about the way he holds his dick in his hands, sad and unsure. As for the son in the mother’s body, this can only be understood as a representation of his victims. When the dad begins the sexual encounter, Louis says “I don’t like this … but I don’t wanna say no to my dad.”
I don’t wanna say no to my dad. Here is the clearest indication that this last bit is a coded reference to Louis’s misconduct. The predatory nature of his acts consisted not in their physical dimension — after all, he didn’t even touch the women — but rather, in the power differential that was involved. Louis’s behavior was sexually trangressive because his victims weren’t really in a position to say no: the coordinates of their decision, which were ostensibly free, were distorted by their expectations and desires for a positive relationship with the comedian, factors that complicated the question of their consent.
This, it seems, was a dimension of his misconduct that Louis was unable or unwilling to reference directly. It could only find its expression obliquely, in a displaced form that can be gleaned from his last bit. And yet, it remains an important aspect of the story, and one which we ought to keep in mind.
In a message to his fans announcing the release of the special, Louis comments that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who handle difficult situations with comedy, and those who handle them with solemnity. It’s to the former, he says, that he dedicates his newest work.
Ostensibly, this statement was about the ongoing public health crisis that has left millions of people in uncertain and stressful circumstances. But we can also read it as a kind of self-reference. Louis is definitely not the kind of comedian to mope around about the sudden turn that his career took. The subversive nature of this special is a testament to that fact: it is no less controversial, no less sexual, no less potentially offensive, and it discusses the accusations directly.
In other words, he has handled being disgraced by the mainstream media in an elegant way. Then again, we should expect as much from a comedian who somehow manages to make us laugh about dead babies.