A week ago, Louis C.K. released his newest stand-up special, 2017, on Netflix. I have spent a good portion of the time since wondering why I didn’t like it that much. Specifically, I wondered why did I not like it as much as when I saw C.K. perform a lot of the same material at Madison Square Garden back in September. Then, Saturday night, I watched him host Saturday Night Live, and it was pretty clear. The two bits he did in the monologue — one, a silly meditation about animals and their sounds, the other about complaining at a fancy hotel — were my two favorites from his MSG set, and C.K. cut them from 2017.
I cannot believe that housekeeping bit didn’t make the special. It was the joke that I spent the most time talking about in my review of C.K.’s MSG show. And watching it back, it makes sense. It is an impressive piece of comedy: The joke functions like a sketch, with C.K. playing three distinct characters (four if you include the narrator). With it, he is able to address privilege from a unique angle, but not in a heavy-handed or didactic way. Maybe the bit was too subtle for 2017. Here, the point is made in the subtext, where 2017 is a very pointed special. (“This is a joke about teachers.” “This is a joke on the subject of abortion.”)
On the subject of the subject of abortion: C.K.’s joke on the topic kicks off 2017. When I saw him at MSG he started off with — you guessed it — the chicken crossed the road joke (which opens the animal section of his SNL monologue). Those are two very different ways to open a set of comedy. C.K.’s abortion joke is about escalating and finally arriving at a small point, whereas the chicken joke is about de-escalating from the small shock it introduces with the punch line: “cause there was a black guy walking behind him.” The big difference is just how silly this animal chunk of C.K.’s is. Filled with animal sounds and cartoonish observations, it’s hard to remember a time where C.K.’s comedy has felt more childlike. When used as an opener, it suggests, this is what you can expect from the rest of the show tonally. It framed the rest of the set as a silly, fun time. The abortion joke does the exact opposite, essentially creating the expectation for a taboo-pushing, cynical set, as Matt Zoller Seitz captured in his review. For example, jokes from 2017 that he also did at MSG — like the one where C.K.’s daughter heard “Nine 11 Deniers” when they said “9-11 deniers” on NPR, or the one about how stereotypical accents are harmful but also funny — come off very differently with a different frame. Maybe the animal chunk was removed because it seemed trivial, but I contest that its triviality would’ve been a great asset in a special that at times felt like C.K. was taking himself too seriously. When I say that C.K.’s SNL jokes are better than anything in his Netflix special, I’m not saying they are classic, great Louis C.K., but they are a refreshing change of pace.
This is not the first time my absolute favorite part of a Louis C.K. live set was not included in a special. In 2013, this was a joke that aired in C.K.’s HBO special Oh My God:
Here is the joke unedited, which is how I had seen him tell it live:
The joke’s reveal — that the whole story was made up — is hilarious and brilliant, but it was cut out of the special. I have to imagine it was a time-saving measure. Traditionally, stand-ups film two of the same set in the same outfit, in the same venue, and edit together an hour set out of it due to the time constraints of network TV. But why? With all this talk about how Netflix is disrupting the comedy-special game, why are comedians still making the same concessions? Why are specials still an hour long? It’s not like no one will sit through more — C.K. was touring with 90 minutes for a reason. Maybe C.K. felt the 90-minute version would be too loose, that it would’ve dulled the sharpness of some of the points he was trying to make. I’d agree with him, but maybe that’s exactly what the show needed.