CHICAGO — Anyone expecting an apology or remorse from comedian Louis C.K. regarding his widely reported sexual misconduct — first reported in the New York Times in November 2017 — will have to keep looking. He avoided apologizing in the statement he issued in the wake of the original story two years ago. And in his late set Thursday night at Zanies in Rosemont — the second of six shows over three days that were quietly announced and quickly sold out earlier in the week — he seemed to be working to reframe himself as the victim.
At times during his show, he almost reveled in the shame, claiming everyone in the audience has a “thing” that they do sexually that would be embarrassing if anyone found out, and how privileged we are that — unlike for him — no one knows what it is. His own culpability in the reports of him masturbating in front of women went unmentioned. Instead he put the focus squarely on how he has been affected by the fallout; he used to play arenas, he noted at one point with a cynical laugh, reminding the audience how lucky they were to see him in such an intimate space.
But he doesn’t want anyone quoting him on that. On top of the use of a Yondr case to keep everyone’s phones locked up throughout the course of the show — which is something a number of comics have begun doing over the last few years to avoid leaked recordings of their sets getting out — this show came with an additional disclaimer that I’ve never seen before: “Recording of any kind, including note taking, is not permitting (sic) in the show room. You will be asked to leave.”
I tested the waters during one of the opening acts by using a pencil to write down the comic’s name — Mike Earley, by the way — on a comment card at the table and someone quickly approached me, pointed and said, “There’s no writing during the show.”
At one point, C.K. talked about how we expect “cripples” to be happy with their situation, but notes that if he lost his legs he’d never be happy. Ten years after losing his legs he wouldn’t move on, he asserted. He’d still be complaining about how he wished he still had legs. It’s not a huge jump to make a connection to how C.K. sees himself as the victim in all of this, claiming he “lost $35 million in an hour” when the story came out, and that he’s still upset about that loss.
Later he spent a good amount of time breaking down the R-word, noting that when he was growing up in the 1970s it was the correct word to use. He claims no mentally disabled people have ever been offended by it. His central conceit here seems to be the increasingly common refrain of many comedians: that people are ready to be outraged about things that don’t affect them personally.
And finally, towards the end of his set, he said that while he is glad that homosexuality has become more acceptable in society overall, he wonders if there are any gay people who are actually upset by this acceptance, positing that part of the enjoyment they felt was in engaging in behavior others saw as “bad” or wrong, and considering whether they could even enjoy being gay anymore if it’s not a secret. This bit of pondering felt like his biggest confession of the night, even without a direct mention of his own predilections, serving as a direct rebuke to the claim that he didn’t know what he was doing was wrong as he was doing it. The wrongness of it was the point.
Mixed in with some jokes that seem vulgar just for vulgarity’s sake, he had plenty of what could be considered “classic” Louis C.K. material — stuff that pushes past what’s generally acceptable to joke about while attempting to make a point in the process, including a few jokes about his mom dying. These jokes are still rough, he made clear, because his mom just died in June.
But can Louis C.K. on an unpublicized, downright furtive tour of the country work with the same level of nuanced material as the theater-packing comedian of pre-2017? And, more importantly, does he have an audience that wants him to? Many in the audience Thursday night seemed happy just to clap any time he said something off-color.
He lost his train of thought at one point, wondering out loud what he had been trying to get at, when an audience member yelled, “Baby rape!” (This was, in fact, a technically accurate response in regards to what C.K. had been talking about.) But for a moment C.K. looked surprised and a bit chagrined by the interjection. It reminded me of Dave Chappelle telling Maya Angelou on the show “Iconoclasts” that he quit “Chappelle’s Show” because he didn’t like the way someone laughed at a particular sketch. In that moment C.K. seemed to be faced with the awkward fervor of someone clearly too ecstatic about the surface-level horror of his subject matter and — if only for a blink — he seemed completely turned off by it. But then he took a drink from his cup. And pushed on.
“We live in this world where everyone wants their feelings heard,” the guy next to me told me adamantly before the show, when I asked if he thought C.K. would address his sexual misconduct. “I hope he doesn’t apologize.” That guy — and other audience members like him — are certainly getting what they’re looking for out of Louis C.K.’s current tour. I wonder if Louis is.