In the set—one of many unscheduled appearances he has made as part of a quiet comeback—C.K. makes jokes about the word retarded. (He bemoans being unable to use the word as an apparent compromise on his freedom of self-expression.) He mocks the activist students of Parkland, Florida, who have been trying to convert a personal tragedy into social good. (“You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot. Why does that mean I have to listen to you? How does that make you interesting? You didn’t get shot, you pushed some fat kid in the way, and now I gotta listen to you talking?”) C.K. also mocks Asian men, and black men, and nonbinary people. (“‘You should address me as they/them, because I identify as gender neutral,’” C.K. says, dripping with sarcasm. “Oh, okay. Okay. You should address me as there, because I identify as a location. And the location is your mother’s cunt.”)
It’s the kind of comedy that is so lacking in depth or insight that it’s not worth examining, on its own, in any more detail. What’s notable, though, is the broader implication the new jokes represent for C.K.’s alleged efforts at redemption. Over the years, C.K.’s comedy evolved, as any comic’s will, but at their best and most well known, his jokes were about interrogating himself as a means of interrogating American culture. As C.K. shuffled uncomfortably on stages and sets, clad in rumpled T-shirts and slouchy dad jeans, he served as his own act’s useful idiot: C.K., author and character at once, played the privileged guy who—he’d be the first to admit it—didn’t fully deserve his privilege. It was classic observational humor, bending its lens to examine the warped terrain of C.K.’s own psyche, and while it was winking and postmodern and self-hating and self-elevating, it also contained an implied transaction: Hearing C.K.’s confession would offer, for his audience, its own kind of reconciliation. His performed selfishness could seem, in its twisted way, generous.
But while offense, in that sense, has always been an element of C.K.’s comedy—offense as a means of inflicting discomfort, and thus, the promise went, of illuminating awkward realities—offense, now, is all there is. The layer of alleged truth-telling is entirely missing from the new material. C.K.’s new set, according to its leaked version, doesn’t merely punch down; it stomps, pettily, to the bottom. None of it is smart or brave; it is simply cruel. And yet it tries to justify itself by suggesting that C.K. himself has been the recipient of cruelty. One of the key moments of the leaked set comes when someone, either by walking out or by shooting him a look, seems to question C.K. as he complains about being unable to use the word retarded. C.K. responds with a rant:
What’re you gonna take away my birthday? My life is over; I don’t give a shit. You can, you can be offended—it’s okay. You can get mad at me. Anyway.
It’s an old story: The guy who abused others, claiming his own victimhood. The man who has so much, still, complaining about what he has lost, with no seeming interest in or regard for the people he has hurt along the way. It’s not merely a violation of Poe’s law; it’s a much more basic affront. It suggests that empathy itself is a fair-weather attitude, fragile and tenuous and, in the end, inconvenient. Then: I will now step back and take a long time to listen. Now: You can get mad at me. Anyway.