Louis C.K. knows his place in the comedy universe. That’s why, for the first time, he wore a shiny tailored suit when he filmed his latest standup special. It’s why the closing credits are soundtracked by the surely expensive to license Led Zeppelin tune “Good Times Bad Times.” And why he has the gumption to put Muhammad Ali and Jerome Bettis in the long list of thank yous in those credits.
That level of confidence feels earned. Louis C.K. 2017 is, after all, filmed in front of a capacity crowd in the biggest theater in Washington D.C., the DAR Constitution Hall, which seats just over 3,700 people. It’s no football stadium, but the message is clear: He’s at or near the top of the comedy heap right now.
It’s how that certainty manifests in his material that really matters. In 2017, C.K. uses it in ways both hilarious and slightly problematic. He knows the sweet spot, the perfect ground to cover to keep the audience with him. That includes a joke inspired by his daughter mishearing an NPR commentator’s mention of 9/11 deniers as “nine ‘11’ deniers,” as if there were a gaggle of folks against the number 11; and an extended, fantastic bit about longtime married couples shuffling toward death together.
Surrounding those moments is some of C.K.’s edgiest material yet. Not for nothing is his opening salvo in this special a discussion of abortion that manages to defend both sides of the debate while also saying that the act is either “shitting or killing a baby.” It is almost like a challenge to the audience: You may be in your seat because he’s famous, but if so, you’re going to have to ride through every disquieting turn of phrase. Or every one of his broadly stereotypical impressions of African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics that he slips into for brief moments.
Where things get a little more dicey is with his array of dick jokes. C.K. has a long standing love of dick jokes and he doesn’t disappoint on that front either. Men, in his view, hold nothing but the desire to spread their seed around like mist in the air. If he was presented with the best, most beautiful dick in the world, he would consider sucking it. But most other dicks don’t interest him after seeing his dad’s apparently ugly dick as a child. Standard fare for a male comic, really, but coming from C.K.’s mouth, it proves him either indifferent or oblivious to the rumors of his sexual impropriety.
That’s what confidence and fame affords comedians: the ability to push buttons and broach complicated subject matter, secure in the knowledge that you’re going to sell out the theater no matter what, that people will laugh at you no matter what. If there was anyone at the DAR Constitution Hall when this was filmed that was off put by what C.K. had to say, they were in the minority. The added wrinkle in that equation is that standup is supposed to be a safe place to talk about otherwise taboo topics. It’s why Laurie Kilmartin and Patton Oswalt can both get onstage after losing a loved one and find the joy in the tragedy. Or why Tig Notaro dared to work through her cancer diagnosis in front of a room full of strangers.
In C.K.’s case, the water’s a little murkier. While he openly admires comics who can get that personal, his ego won’t allow that to happen. At best you get him, as he does in 2017, discussing his love of falling in love or the arousal that stirs in him when he watches Magic Mike. Other than that, when he has a microphone in his hand, he’s an imp that wants to stir up a little bit of mischief without going the route of Jim Norton or Anthony Jeselnik.
That’s where this special prevails. C.K. skirts closer to the edge without tumbling over and losing everyone’s trust in the process. While he’s there, he enjoys the weird ironies of loud party girl cheers in response to his defense of legal abortion, the palpable flutters of unease that he sets loose by jokingly calling his mom a whore. He’s been doing this long enough to know when to push the audience and when to pull them gently along with him. He’s smart enough to not risk the goodwill and cultural currency he’s earned over the past decade. God knows how long he’ll be able to do that.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.