Netflix

Louis C.K.’s new special 2017 begins with the closest thing the stripped-down comedian can get to visual spectacle: the sight of him in a suit. Throughout his stratospheric rise as a stand-up, C.K. has always taken the stage in a black T-shirt and jeans, a workmanlike uniform for someone who thrives on a universal (if profane and often bleak) approach to his mostly observational comedy. In 2017, C.K. wants to make clear that he’s changed in some way. He takes the stage dressed formally, looking more like a funeral-home director than a blue-collar worker. Then, in another departure, he launches into some very prepared material.

C.K. has never been particularly interested in properly opening or closing his comedy sets. At the beginning of 2010’s Hilarious, arguably the apex of his stand-up career, he takes the stage unceremoniously and opens with, “hello, everybody,” then spends two minutes deconstructing the pointlessness of the term “everybody.” In 2011’s Live at the Beacon Theater, he demands that the cheering audience sit down and says, “There’s no opening act, fuck it. Let’s just start.” But in 2017, C.K. begins as uncomfortably as he possibly can. “So I think abortion is, um, here’s what I think,” he says to an awkward laugh from the audience. “I think you should not get an abortion unless you need one. In which case, you better get one!”

For years, C.K. has delved into tough topics, but in ways that are designed to bring the audience along with him. He’s underrated as an avuncular, friendly comic, a grump who still has the kind of charisma that can command an audience no matter how taboo the subject. But in 2017, C.K. wants to start things off by making people shift in their seats nervously. “I think that women should be allowed to kill babies,” he says, immediately mocking the automatic cheer this gets from the audience. “I don’t think life is that important. It’s just not. People get too excited,” he grouses. “Make a list of every shitty thing ever. That’s in life.”

This leads C.K. quickly to the crux of the special, the grand question he wants to ask: What’s the value of being alive? What’s the argument against ending it all right now? “You’re not supposed to talk about suicide,” he says. “You should be able to talk about it! The whole world is made of people who didn’t kill themselves today ... life can get very difficult, very sad, very upsetting, but you don’t have to do it. You really don’t have to do it ... because you can kill yourself.” The audience might be laughing, but I watched the first 10 minutes without even a nervous chuckle, amazed at the sheer discomfort C.K. was obviously trying to provoke right at the top.

It’s genuinely surprising stuff that will probably get largely overlooked, because it’s delivered in C.K.’s usual style (with a rueful grin and plenty of half-hearted chuckles to indicate that he’s mostly kidding), and him running headlong at a tricky subject is hardly out of the ordinary. But the opener is unusual in that it serves as a sort of mission statement for the rest of the special. C.K. has spent years wondering about the sad minutiae of life: why we do what we do, why we say what we say, why relationships function the way they do, and why children (particularly his children) think so differently. With 2017, and after so many years, he’s trying to figure out the larger mystery of human existence.

Perhaps that sounds loftier than the show ends up being, but there’s a very clear throughline to 2017, something that’s never been very present in his stand-up. C.K. wonders why we invoke our dead relatives as “looking down on us” from heaven, joking that they should be liberated from such petty concerns having departed the mortal coil. He offers rhapsodic praise of love in a way only he can—warning, “Don’t be greedy and expect it to last.” He dissects the myth of Achilles, reframing it as a story of the impossible task every parent faces in trying to satisfy and protect their children.

This thematic shift has been years in the making. After his incredible run of five great specials from 2007 to 2011 (Shameless, Chewed Up, Hilarious, Word, Live at the Beacon Theater), C.K. finally took his foot off the gas. He directed his artistic energies into his show Louie, which grew more dramatic and serialized as it went on, and his follow-up Horace & Pete, a straight melodrama that harkened back to television’s earliest days as an artistic medium. He still released specials at a rate that most comedians would consider rapid (2013’s Oh My God and 2015’s Live at the Comedy Store), but they had a looser, more improvised feel.

In 2017, the first of two planned specials for Netflix, C.K. seems to be taking more of a focused approach. Horace & Pete has wrapped for good, and Louie hasn’t aired a new episode since 2015 (it remains on “hiatus”), but in the last couple of years, the landscape for comedians has dramatically changed. When C.K. tried releasing his specials online rather than going through established channels like HBO or Comedy Central, he explained that he was bypassing a system that no longer seemed very interested in airing stand-up anymore.

But Netflix has now begun sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into the rights to specials from big names like Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, John Mulaney, and others. That investment, coupled with a lack of other distractions, seems to have emboldened C.K.’s comedy. 2017 is full of funny digressions, silly voices, and the kind of dark observational material about his life and family that C.K. has always reveled in. But it’s also drilling down to deeper, more conceptual questions about life. C.K. frames his jokes as an actual inquisition into the human condition, a way to understand why people keep soldiering on in the face of hardships, big and small. It’s an impressive return—and a further indication that the hour-long comedy special is an art form with plenty of life left in it.

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