By now you’ve likely heard or read about a recent comedy set performed by Louis C.K. in which he mocked survivors of the Parkland shooting, language used to describe transgender non-gender conforming people, and the sexual proclivities of Asian and African-American men. Since the news broke last weekend, C.K. has been roundly condemned for his insensitivity and wanton hackiness, as well as (inevitably) defended by self-appointed First Amendment watchdogs on the far-right who somehow equate calling out unfunny, bigoted jokes with government infringement on free speech.
Even for a former fan, it’s difficult at this point to be shocked by anything Louis C.K. says or does. He has thoroughly disgraced himself in the past year and a half, and done nothing to make amends. However, this latest controversy is different in that it concerns C.K.’s comedic sins. Ridiculing those who deserve it the least, with zero wit or insight, seemingly for no reason other than to play to the ignorance of the audience, is the very essence of bad comedy. And C.K., no matter what you thought of him as a person before last weekend, is supposed to signify the opposite of bad comedy. C.K.’s latest material is a stunning abdication of his previous role — as appointed by an adoring media and many of his peers — as the Pope of stand-up, the living embodiment of comedy’s conscience.
If that sounds like hyperbole, I encourage you to revisit the seventh installment of Louie‘s second season, the famous Dane Cook episode. Or, if you understandably recoil at paying to see anything with Louis C.K.’s name on it, you could just watch the YouTube clip below, which captures much of the episode’s most memorable scene.
The episode, like many episodes of Louie, generated a lot of conversation back in 2011. If you remember, Louis visits Dane at the arena he’s headlining that night in order to ask for Lady Gaga tickets, which he intends to give to his young daughter as a birthday gift. But Louis knows those tickets will be a hard get, because the two have history: Years earlier, Louis accused Dane of stealing three jokes, a capital crime (at least in terms of credibility) in the comedy world.
Of course, this wasn’t just a sitcom contrivance: C.K. and Cook really did have bad blood stemming from supposedly pilfered bits that appeared on Cook’s hit 2005 album Retaliation. (The jokes, which include the self-explanatory “Itchy Asshole,” were said to have originated on C.K.’s 2001 album Live In Houston.) At the time, people focused on Cook and his apparent acknowledgment of these transgressions. In the Louie episode, Cook defiantly argues against the joke-thief accusations, and angrily calls out C.K.’s role in perpetuating them. But the mere act of appearing on Louie was interpreted as an act of contrition, betraying Cook’s eagerness to ingratiate himself with his former tormenter and, perhaps, gain some favor with his hip, discerning audience.