The latest installment of Louis C.K.’s “Here I Come, Ready or Not” tour was a 48-minute set performed at a Levittown, New York, comedy club. It seemed to announce a new persona for the comedian and filmmaker, one that could be summed up as “reactionary blowhard uncle, but with comic timing.” The recording became public via YouTube on December 30, a mere six days after accused sexual predator Kevin Spacey released a bizarre video in character as former House of Cards protagonist Frank Underwood, alternately pleading with the audience not to rush to judgment, bragging about unspecified offenses he’d secretly already gotten away with, and insisting “you want me back.” Wags speculated on whether Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer would manage to get something in before midnight; as of this writing, there appear to be no challengers in the race to display mind-boggling hubris in the face of scandal and disgrace.
But no matter: The C.K. and Spacey recordings complement each other so eerily that the second feels like the campy cartoon subtext of the first. Frank Underwood is a fictional character whose defining trait is bottomless duplicity. So, apparently, was Louis C.K.’s “woke” brand, back in the days before the New York Times published multiple, corroborated accounts of his tendency to masturbate in situations where such behavior is frowned upon (i.e., in public spaces and workplaces, and in the presence of women whose consent was largely hypothetical). In the spirit of comedy forefathers like Richard Pryor and George Carlin, C.K.’s previous comedy specials indulged in “thought experiments,” describing or imagining unacceptable, even vile behavior by himself, other people, and the human race generally. Anxious laughter erupted from the tension between the person that C.K. had portrayed himself as being (thoughtful, sensitive, self-interrogating) and the worst-case-scenario person he envisioned in his stand-up bits (narcissistic, lazy, vicious). There was no frame in this latest set, and we were left with a smeary self-portrait of an asshole being an asshole. There were a few moments where the old contradictions and complexities bubbled up, but most of the set looked like what professional wrestling fans call a “heel turn” — as if he’d made a business decision to unironically embrace the persona that disappointed fans had ascribed to him, and peddle it to Fox News Channel/Breitbart types who embrace the idea that calling people racist turns them into racists.
The specifics of the routine have been picked over elsewhere already and needn’t be rehashed at length here, though a few lowlights are sure to follow him around for years: all of the material having to do with the word “retarded” (an excuse to use it about a dozen times and complain that people don’t want it used anymore); C.K’s very adolescent “edgelord” routine mocking the survivors of the Parkland massacre (“You didn’t get shot — you pushed some fat kid in the way, and now I gotta listen to you talking”); the hacky material about the sexuality of African-Americans (“Why do black guys have big dicks?”) and Asians (“Asians have small dicks … because they’re women”); and the bits complaining about certain trans and non-gender-conforming people asking to be defined as “they” (C.K. seemed bewildered by the very concept, just like Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais in their Netflix specials). The sour umbrella over the whole thing was his aggrieved entitlement, manifest in gripes about the millions he lost as a result of the Times investigation, and how he can’t be in New York anymore, and how he went to France to get away from his countrymen’s disapproval and wasn’t happy there, either, because they all made him feel self-conscious about being monolingual and also stuck thermometers up their butts. Plus, he couldn’t get a good price on a gold watch that he impulse-bought.
It strikes me as a mistake to look at this routine, then ask what happened to the Louis C.K. who responded to the scandal with a semi-apology that at least seemed somewhat chastened, and that ended with a pledge to listen and learn going forward. I doubt we’re ever going to see that guy, if in fact there was ever a chance of him existing — and why would there be, considering that everything we’ve learned since the indecency investigation broke leads to the inevitable conclusion that “woke” C.K. was just an amazing simulation? This latest routine was a doubling down, recasting the comedian as a casualty of political correctness whose true crime was speaking his mind, yada yada yada. It’s a gimmick that doesn’t fly in mainstream entertainment anymore, but that can prove lucrative in the right-wing entertainment biosphere, which subsists on gripes that America has gotten too durn politically correct, to the point where a fella can’t even say “retarded” anymore. There’s no cross too small that a participant in this culture can’t find a way to nail himself to it.
Which brings us back to Spacey as Frank Underwood, or Spaceywood, or whatever you call that dead-eyed hybrid in the apron. Summoning House of Cards’ cornpone Richard III, it insisted that this spectacle is what we all truly wanted and that we were secretly happy to get it, no matter what we’re required to say by so-called polite society. The video also turned the viewer’s affection for Spacey the actor, and for Frank Underwood the character, into the linchpin of a pretzel-logic victim-blaming strategy aimed at the audience, wherein we’re the ones who are ultimately responsible for the artist’s failures, by dint of being dumb enough to be fooled by him as both fictional character and public figure. “I shocked you with my honesty,” Spaceywood insisted, “but most of all, I challenged you and made you think. And you trusted me even though you knew you shouldn’t.”
Couching this wannabe seduction inside the persona of a character whose façades have façades seems a tactic whose effectiveness is questionable at best. But maybe not. Whether the speaker is a drawling Spacey in character as a secretly homicidal sociopath or a comedian who styled himself as a postmillennial cross between John Cassavetes and Alan Alda while he was whipping it out every chance he got, a horrible truth still emerges. These types of guys thrive on attention, and if they can’t get the positive kind, they’ll settle for the negative. “Oh, sure, they’ve tried to separate us,” Spaceywood said, inadvertently speaking for Louis C.K. as he emerged from his alt-right chrysalis and flapped his moth wings in Levittown. “But what we have is too strong. It’s too powerful.”
Unless it isn’t.
This concludes the last thing I’ll ever write about Kevin Spacey or Louis C.K., until they’re sentenced in courts of law, or I have to write their obituaries.