Louis C.K. has been at the top of his game (and everyone else’s) for a full decade now, since his first hourlong special came out in 2007 and Louie turned him into a multihyphenate just a few years later. But his onstage presence makes it easy to forget that well-cemented status. Few comedians have managed to dodge the dog-caught-the-car problem of successful stand-ups as smoothly as C.K. has. Look no further than his latest special, Netflix’s 2017, for proof.
A comic’s craft lies in delivering insight through a hard-won camaraderie with their audience. Isolating oneself in the bubble of wealth and celebrity can hamper that ability. Each of our contemporary superstars, all of whom seem to be releasing hourlong specials on Netflix this year, have taken their own approach to convincing audiences their worldview hasn’t been too stilted by money and fame: Dave Chappelle made his grand re-entrance to the culture by joking about ditching a celebrity fundraiser for the Oscars; Amy Schumer opened last month’s Leather Special by cracking that she’s become “rich, famous, and humble.” C.K.’s gone down that road before: “I’m not like you,” goes a characteristically blunt joke from his 2011 Live at the Beacon Theater. “All the things you do, I do better versions of those things.” Mostly, though, he’s simply demonstrated that his success hasn’t made the slightest dent in his bone-deep cynicism. If anything, it’s deepened it. Louis C.K. will always be a scowling mope, even when he’s flying first class.
2017, the straightforwardly titled hour that hit the internet Tuesday, comes more than a year after the release of the most naked expression of his cynicism yet. Horace and Pete, a depressive 10-part drama sent out to his email listserv with little fanfare in January, was written, directed, and in a landmark move for scripted television, distributed by C.K. himself, with lo-fi production values and an uncompromisingly bleak sensibility to match. 2017 is a return to both an established platform (Netflix) and a decidedly more accessible format (jokes). “Accessible,” however, is a relative term. This is a special that opens with C.K. proclaiming abortion is “either like taking a shit or it’s killing a baby. It’s only one of those two things!” The line is almost impressive in its ability to immediately alienate both sides of a contentious debate. The mind that wrote it is unmistakably the mind that gave us Horace and Pete. He’s just deploying his preternatural misery from a slightly different angle.
C.K.’s take on abortion expands from a single, twisted joke into a 13-minute opener that blends the many flavors of his enduring nihilism into what’s ostensibly his argument for a woman’s right to choose. This isn’t really about life, choice, or the Fourth Amendment. It’s about C.K.’s life philosophy. First off, he says, “I don’t think life is that important,” segueing into a riff about suicide. Secondly, it’s women’s job to decide who deserves to pass on their genes and veto whoever doesn’t. “MORE OF ME!” he roars, imitating men’s desperation with customary gusto. “It’s her job to go, ‘That’s enough of you, I think.’” Female revulsion at pathetic men (specifically, C.K.) and their animal needs (specifically, his needs), paired with a more general bemusement at the human condition and our inexplicable willingness to roll with it: Both are vintage C.K. hobby-horses, united by the conviction that people, men especially, are deluded for believing in their own importance, even if that belief is the only thing that keeps us going. Welcome to your Tuesday-night entertainment! For Louis C.K., getting older and wiser only means becoming more painfully aware of his own shortcomings, and ours too.
This sets the tone for the remainder of 2017, which has some of the self-effacing parenting material that defines C.K.’s late period, now updated for his daughters’ middle school years, but mostly aims for a broader pall of despair. He fast-forwards past the ultimate everyman bona fide — both his children attend New York City public schools — to dismiss their teachers as “losers.” He clutches the live wire of transgender issues with both hands, then frames it as a matter of personal jealousy: “They figured out what’s going on with them and they fixed it. What an amazing gift to know what the fuck is wrong with you!” Even a rare note of optimism, a nod to love’s redemptive power, instantly darkens into a reflection on its fleeting nature, because C.K.’s glass is always inching closer to empty: “Of course [your relationship’s] gonna get shitty. That’s part of it! It’s like going to a horror movie. They’re all gonna die … and you’re gonna hate the person you love right now.” C.K. may have cleaned up his look for 2017, donning a late-night-ready suit for the first time in more than half a dozen filmed appearances, but his outlook on life remains as messy as ever. He’s funnier than us, and probably smarter, and we’re the ones giving our time (and in some cases, money) to him rather than the other way around. But he’s also speaking to us from the bottom of an existential pit.
C.K. is a sad clown of the old school, before comedy made room for happy-go-luckier types like Crashing’s Pete Holmes or John Mulaney. Paradoxically, his inability to change also keeps his point of view fresh. C.K.’s pessimism is a knife no level of affluence is going to dull. 2017 is more of the same from our most consistent comic A-lister, who famously challenged himself to generate an hour of new material each year and has largely succeeded. (The mere quantity of this output is impressive; the dependable quality is pantheon-qualifying.) When “the same” is a bar as high as C.K.’s, that’s never going to be a bad thing — even when it’s about all the worst stuff in the world.