Just this week, Louis C.K. had to cancel what was surely the biggest gig of his long career doing stand-up: a performance at Madison Square Garden. It’s the kind of show that in the ‘70s or ‘80s would get filmed on 35mm and turned into a theatrical release. A big ticket event for a comic that has earned his way up the ladder one slippery rung at a time.
The weight of that must have been on C.K.’s shoulders a bit (not to mention the frustration at having to call off the show due to the blizzard) but to read the long email he sent out today, soon after the announcement that he was going to be releasing Live At The Comedy Store for sale on his website, it almost felt like it was just another gig for him.
This is a guy who cherishes every single night he has spent behind a microphone trying to coax laughs from people. Even the bad performances were learning experiences for him, and during the year that he was making the most recent season of Louie and doing other acting gigs, he says he missed doing it all—small rooms, big theaters, warm audiences, dead fish.
And it is disappointing that the MSG concert was likely going to be done without much of a record of the experience outside of reviews, blog posts and tweets. Because after watching Live At The Comedy Store, I wonder whether he would have adapted his performance to the room or if the cavernous stadium would shrink in size to line up with his intimate stand-up.
I say that because I’m assuming the material he was going to do was likely going to be the same stuff that we now have available for download via his website. He has said in the past that he took a page from George Carlin’s book by getting together an hour’s worth of good material, spending time on the road honing it in front of audiences, then filming it and starting the process all over again. The little lag time he had between the show he filmed in L.A. for the new standup special and its release, though, must have allowed him a few more gigs to toss out a well-polished set and get people excited for this new special.
For as bold and brash as the material that makes up this hour is, it’s also very personal stuff that gets sold with subtle touches: his facial expressions, a weird turn of phrase, and the little moments from his life that he could turn into extended bits. Such as the day he was vacationing with his kids and found a bat in his kitchen. The story is pretty straightforward: he got spooked, called the police, they helped him get in touch with a bat handler who came over and plucked the bat up and left. In C.K.’s hands it turns into this epic of fear and recrimination at his own stupidity and fear, and then marveling at how this strange gent came in and handled it without blinking an eye. He compared it to someone freaking out about a box of tissues on a table, and another person coming up and picking it up. Problem solved.
From there, he somehow turns himself into a bored Southern housewife who offers the hero some sweet tea and then her body. C.K.’s genius is that he pushes the bit just to the point where people are starting to get uncomfortable before breaking character and laughing at himself, “What if I did that for 40 minutes instead?” He loves riding that thin line between hilarity and discomfort, especially with sexual matters. When he tells a story about watching two rats fuck in the subway, he acts out a small scene as an anthropomorphized female mouse riding her partner. Again, he plays it out just a little too long, just to where the laughter starts to die away and people in the Comedy Store crowd start to shift in their seats.
If you needed more reason to admire C.K.’s understanding of stand-up, especially for someone at the level of success that he remains at, it’s that he almost completely avoids talking about his work on a TV show or in films. Throughout this full hour, there’s a stray reference to his work writing for Cedric The Entertainer Presents and a mention of his buddy Dino (who is likely Dino Stamatopolous, the former Mr. Show writer best known as Starburns on Community), but they are in service of his small bit about how he and his friend Mike could not find people to share in their offense at Mike’s racist family.
Beyond that, the comedy remains focused on himself and his wily view of the world: his failings as a father and a human being (“I’m 47 now…which you don’t get anything for that. When you’re 18, you get to drive. When you’re 21, you get to drink. 47? You get to keep being out of breath.”), his small and large frustrations with people, and a wonderful bit at the end about the overacting of Ray Bolger, Jr. in The Wizard of Oz.
Live At The Comedy Store feels like a great return to form for C.K., as his last special for HBO, Oh My God, somehow didn’t have the same punch and power to it that his previous hours and this one has. The material in that 2013 showcase felt good but also felt like he could have honed it more with a little more time on the road, time that he probably didn’t have because of his busy schedule with other projects. With Live At The Comedy Store, he appears to have had the extra hours, and it helped in making this stand-up special more polished and much more deadly.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.