“You know how much I like life?” asks Louis C.K. in his Netflix special, Louis C.K. 2017. “I have never killed myself.”
“Wooo!” shouts a woman in the back.
As the title of an old Steve Martin album put it, comedy is not pretty, and it’s definitely not pretty here. C.K.’s mix of personal confession and social satire has never trended toward the upbeat, but this new special runs the gamut between melancholy and grim. He starts with a routine about abortion, moves on to depression and suicidal thoughts, then takes us through a characteristically ragged routine about what it means to adopt a rescue dog into your home (you have to discover its personality, but what if it’s an unpleasant one?). This segues into a routine about treating dogs with mood-altering drugs, then to an impression of a dog on heroin. (“Boy, your dog is really chill!” “Yeah, it only costs us $400 a day to keep her like that.”) He closes with a routine about feeling aroused while watching Magic Mike, which he does more often than anyone could have imagined, then says that he might be gay but has decided he’s too old to do anything about it because he doesn’t want to enter the dating scene looking the way he does right now.
A lot of this material is hilarious, but it’s hard not to be struck by how dire much of it is. Early on in the special, C.K. jokes about life being comprised of “separate moments of shit-misery,” then assumes that everyone feels this way some of the time, or most of the time, including ISIS soldiers who practice beheadings. Then, as he often does, C.K. speculates on whether ISIS beheaders prefer decapitating men with lush heads of hair because it’s “much cooler” to hoist a severed head aloft by a fistful of hair than to present it like a bowling ball, as you would the head of a bald man. He mimes the difference. The soldier holding the bald man’s head is sheepish and obviously bummed out. Cutting people’s heads off is not fun for him anymore.
One of C.K.’s signature techniques is to think out loud, or seem to, going right to the edge of the unacceptable or unforgivable thought, and then excoriating himself for saying it — though of course by that point he’s already said it, and it’s out there, and his impish grin confirms that he knows exactly what he’s doing.
He never goes entirely over the line here, though there are moments where he pushes it, with a nonchalance that suggests that he thinks he can get away with anything. At this point in his career, several years after a mini-scandal involving rumors that he had exposed himself to women, C.K. should probably not do any more jokes about masturbation, compulsive sexual exhibitionism, and men needing to mark women with their semen — much less celebratory ones about how ejaculate is a way for men to put “more of me” out into the world, and how “men don’t really have judgment, they have intent. They just want to spray the world with their cum, with their mist.”
Elsewhere, there’s sharp material about the afterlife that echoes a classic George Carlin routine about the dead “looking down on us,” and he leads this back into the terrain of the depressed, resentful, and put-upon misanthrope, a category I guess he thinks includes everyone who isn’t delusional. Hatred of the institution of marriage, a frequent C.K. touchstone, gets mixed into the narcissism of the living, who believe that the dead are constantly checking in on them, or even have an opinion on them.
The two words don’t seem as if they should go together, but C.K. comes off here like a grandiose schlemiel. Dressed in a sharp suit and tie, he radiates confidence and authority even as he makes himself out to be a sad sack who can’t do anything right and can barely figure out what he thinks of anything. His jacket and shirt get more wrinkled and recognizably Louie-like as he goes on. The more mortifying his disclosures become, the redder his face gets, like he’s simultaneously ashamed of himself and delighted that he gets to rip himself open and let us see what’s in there.