Louis C.K. Keeps Finding Ways To Get Better On Stage

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Seeing Louis C.K. live, as I did in Scranton, Pa. on Wednesday night, offers an hour of jokes about life and death, aging, marriage, children, and other familiar things done in a way that isn’t at all familiar. Put simply, it’s easy to be shocked by the things C.K. says, but also shocked by how much you relate to them, how much he can get away with within our current hyper-sensitive society, and by how much you ache to have thought of the things he expresses first. Louis C.K. finds a road where you thought there were trees.

C.K. is personable and energetic on stage, though there is a slight distance as he zips through his set. With few exceptions, it’s easy to imagine that this is the same show people have seen in every city along this tour. Call it a side effect of something that has been painstakingly engineered with steel-cut precision over years spent on a stage finding new ways to do the same thing better. It’s also something that you grow to appreciate by the time the lights come back up. Something you want to see again because it’s fun and good.

C.K.’s appearance — slightly slimmed down and in a suit — can be momentarily jarring due to the seeming abandonment of his slob in jeans and a t-shirt default. The aura of that “character” still exists, though. Despite his successes, C.K. is still happy to keep things relatable and human by fixating on the absurd and the frustrating, only separating himself occasionally to remind us that he’s living a much better life than us, specifically while pointing out the insanity of his successes when contrasted to the hard life of a public school teacher. That kind of meta moment occurs occasionally as he pulls back the curtain and purposely undercuts his setups, like when he admits that he juiced the stats on his gay wedding attendance record a half-moment earlier. All of this serves as yet another reminder that he is dedicated to sidestepping tropes and that while he’s tightly scripted, he’s not robotic.

There’s a moment, near the end of the show, where C.K. pantomimes the act of investigating a penis that has been presented to him and it is balletic with impeccably timed movements and grace. C.K. is such a masterful (and underrated) physical comedian and actor — someone who uses the whole stage and the whole range of emotions to illuminate a joke or a story. It’s comedic performance art that pairs so nicely with his appetite for unpredictability.

There’s another moment around the same time when C.K. drops a string of exquisitely strung together words (which I won’t spoil because I don’t want to give anything away) to describe his feelings about his sexuality and personal growth where you are reminded that this man is one of our most gifted writers — someone who can pivot from comedy to drama as he did with Louie and Horace and Pete, someone both Chris Rock and Conan O’Brien entrusted to put words in their mouth. I had to pause, mid-laugh, to admire the brushstrokes. And then, a few moments later, C.K. launched into a coarsely worded bit to drive the point home, and the contrast further impressed.

Unsurprisingly, C.K.’s material is fresh, clever, and honest, but I didn’t expect it to register with me as much as it did. Though past specials like Live At The Beacon Theater and Oh My God have been reliably entertaining, a C.K. act hasn’t garnered as much laughter from me as this one did since 2010’s Hilarious, which debuted just as C.K. was coming into mainstream success. Did the creative grind of producing Louie and feeding those stories take a toll on C.K.’s stand-up? Who knows. The point is, this act is timeless and of the moment at the same time. Go wherever it’s happening and gain a greater appreciation for what Louis C.K. does in the wild when he’s away from your TV set.