The first thing I noticed Thursday night when Louis C.K. walked out in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden was that he was wearing a suit. It's a thing he's been doing on his most recent live dates. What's the big deal? you might be thinking. Well, C.K. is a person who famously dressed down for everything, from an opening of his friend's play to all his stand-up special tapings to even appearances on the Late Show With David Letterman, despite the fact that Letterman, a person he greatly respected, asked guests to wear ties (C.K. wore a full suit for his last appearance and Letterman thanked him). Seeing him in a suit, then, is at a minimum surprising.
More important, C.K. is a person who defined himself in the public spotlight as a disgusting, shlubby everyman, so a change in attire signifies a shift in what he's trying to convey to the audience. And as I learned over the course of his tremendous, marathon-length set last night, the suit indeed reflected a new direction for his act.
In my estimation, there are two types of male comedian who wear full suits (as opposed to men who wear just a sport coat, which is typical for a stand-up trying to look presentable): comedians trying to present professionalism and comedians trying to undercut the perception of professionalism with silliness.
For the first type, think of old-school showbiz professionals like Jerry Seinfeld, John Mulaney, and Aziz Ansari. Comedians proud to call stand-up their job. Before the 1960s, comedians traditionally wore suits onstage, so much so that Mort Sahl wearing sweaters in the 1950s became iconic. As a result, a male comedian wearing a suit always feels classic. As looseness in manner and appearance onstage has become de rigueur, a suit still indicates, I worked very hard on this.
And that much was clear with C.K. Considering his set ran over 90 minutes, it seemed like the comedian felt he had something to prove. He confirmed as much recently to New York's David Marchese: "The best I ever was as a stand-up was 2006 to 2011," C.K. said. "I was dedicated and obsessed with stand-up. I was so good then. Ever since then I’ve been damned good but not as good, because I’ve been making my TV show and doing stand-up in the off-season." But without Louie in his way, it's clear he was able to really work on the act.
It paid off. There is material in his current show that is downright masterful. There is one chunk about how he's a dick to people when he's not with his kids that I just marveled at. The centerpiece is a story about calling down at a fancy hotel to complain that the laundry he dropped off wasn't ready when it was supposed to be, only for housekeeping to respond incredibly rudely. The phone call escalates to become almost like a three-person short play, with each character having completely realized perspectives and voices. And it all ends up deftly taking on the idea of white privilege from a unique and human angle. "It's wrong that white people get preferential treatment," he starts the joke. "But as long as they do, what the fuck is going on right here!? This isn't just about me. If you're treating white people this way, how the fuck are you treating everybody else?" The fact that the story takes place at a fancy hotel is also noteworthy, as this is the first act of C.K.'s were it felt he totally embraced the fact that when you're rich and successful, it's hard to tell a joke from the everyman's perspective. Overall, the material was much less confessional than he is often known for and much more observational and absurdist.
Which brings me to the other type of male comedian who wear suits onstage: stand-ups trying to counter all of the expectations above, contrasting smart attire with stupidity. The most classic example is Steve Martin, but the Stella guys also did it (though they were obviously influenced by Martin). Steve Martin's act was a send-up of classic show-business schlock, so a suit was necessary. But beyond that, mixing his revolutionary brand of silliness with the image of a man in a perfect suit created something really special. On a technical level, a suit conveys that the person is going to do something important, so when they do something very not important, like dance stupidly, it's more surprising and thus funny.
And last night, C.K. embodied a bit of that second type of comedian, too: He was the silliest I've seen him ever be. There was a good deal of absurdism in his early work that got cleared out when he shifted to doing more deeply personal material. But his current act adds in an appreciated lightness. Near the top of the show, he talks about how much he loves naps. Midway through he goes, "Yeah, I'm still talking about naps." Or there was the fun little bit about how when his daughter heard about "9/11 deniers" on the radio, she thought they were talking about nine people who deny the number 11 exists. Far from my 4-year-old is an asshole, he got a few minutes out of just how tickled he was by this. Or there is his chunk about the trailer for Magic Mike that led to him joyfully acting out Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey's shirtless antics. In total, all of it gave off the impression that he was having fun.
Before you start thinking C.K. is ready to transition into a tuxedo-wearing Vegas act, there were still glimpses of the classic, gross Louis throughout. Maybe the most vivid example of this was his story about watching his Mexican father go to the bathroom, which he described as watching someone try to urinate out of a pillowcase. It was a nice reminder that though Louis C.K. is dressing sharper and might be smiling more, he's still a worthless piece of shit underneath. He might've been wearing a suit, but the top button of his shirt was still undone.