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.