The Leaked Louis C.K. Set Is Tragedy Masked as Comedy

A year ago, the comic promised to reflect on his behavior after admitting to sexual misconduct. Now he’s making jokes about the inconvenience of empathy.

Louis C.K. participates in a panel for the FX Networks series "Baskets" during the Television Critics Association Cable Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, California, on January 16, 2016.
Louis C.K. in 2016 (Kevork Djansezian / Reuters)

A little over a year ago, Louis C.K. published a statement in The New York Times, after several women had come forward to confirm the rumors that had, for years, been swirling around him. “These stories are true,” he wrote, expressing regret for several instances of sexual misconduct and suggesting that the acts being made public would be a turning point for him. His confession concluded with contrition: “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want,” C.K. wrote. “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”

The statement was, for all its labored hand-wringing—a literary critic might think of it as foreshadowing—not an apology. It was instead, like so much of C.K.’s comedy, notably self-centered. In its nods toward introspection, though, the statement was marginally better than the half-hearted defenses offered by many other men of #MeToo, and so it was accommodated, in many quarters, with relief and a great deal of patience: Maybe he could learn. Maybe he could do better. Maybe he could find a way to make amends to the women whose persons he had disrespected and whose careers he had compromised. C.K., with more TK: Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

But 2018 has been a year of hard truths, and here, just before the calendar turns its page to whatever fresh hell might lie in wait, is one more: C.K.’s promise to listen and learn, it seems, was itself a lie. On Sunday evening, instead, an audio recording of a recent appearance C.K. made, reportedly, at Governor’s comedy club on Long Island, New York, leaked on YouTube. The set suggests that while C.K. may have been up to a lot of activities over the past year, listening and learning have not been among them.

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.

It all makes for an especially petulant form of nihilism—and what’s especially tragic about the transformation is that it’s not at all isolated to Louis C.K. This period last year found many other people implicated in #MeToo expressing their regrets, seeming to take responsibility, and promising to do better. Harvey Weinstein said he would try to be better (“That is my commitment”). Kevin Spacey said he would be “examining my own behavior.” Charlie Rose said something similar. Mario Batali said. John Hockenberry said. Matt Lauer said.

A year later, however, the he saids that followed the she saids have been revealing themselves, again and again, to have been little more than empty performances. Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer and Mario Batali have been rumored to be staging comebacks. John Hockenberry wrote an essay in which he framed himself as a tragic hero, one deserving to play a key role in crafting a new cultural concept of romance. Kevin Spacey recently released a video in which, in character as Frank Underwood, he uttered the teasing line, “We’re not done, no matter what anyone says—and besides, I know what you want: You want me back.” Bill Shine, ousted from Fox News for his alleged efforts to cover up patterns of sexual abuse at the network, has been promoted to a job at the White House.

Earlier this month, another former Fox News executive, Ken LaCorte, announced that he would be establishing a new network. It will be helmed by Mike Oreskes, who was ousted from NPR last year after an investigation into repeated incidents of sexual harassment, and by John Moody, who left Fox in 2018 after writing a column that referred to the U.S. Olympic team as “darker, gayer, different.” As LaCorte put it to Politico, “I couldn’t have afforded either one of these guys had we not been in this crazy type of atmosphere … In a weird way, I’m actually a beneficiary of companies being hypersensitive.”

It’s all part of another old story: semi-apologies that, in time, nullify themselves. The status quo, reassembling to its familiar, fusty order. Louis C.K., who has been treating cruelty as a game since long before this year, seems to be hoping that he can benefit from “hypersensitivity” in a similarly warped way—and in his new brand of comedy are the contours of tragedy: lessons unlearned, abuses unaccounted for, the people who truly deserve their anger written, once again, out of the story. You could read C.K.’s evolution as a gradual loss of control, as a wayward id winning out over everything else. You could read it, as well, as something more strategic: a calculation that his core audience, now, is the red-pill crowd, with humor that is marketed accordingly. Either way, C.K. has reason to have confidence in his new brand of comedy: In person, his jokes about the inconveniences of empathy have been commonly met with laughter. And with enthusiastic applause.