During last weekend’s broadcast of Saturday Night Live, some viewers received an unpleasant surprise as the words “LOUIS C.K. IS BACK” appeared in giant font across their screens. It was both an ad for his latest stand-up special, Sorry, and an odd declaration considering that the disgraced comedian has hardly vanished from public view since admitting to a string of sexual misconduct allegations made against him in 2017. Not to mention that this sort of announcement set to upbeat music implies the return of someone or something good, like ABBA or The Matrix. To make things creepier, the promo ran right before a re-airing of the famous Lonely Island and Justin Timberlake sketch, “Dick In A Box.”
Despite some of the disgust this ad garnered on social media, there isn’t a better time for C.K. to reassert himself into people’s homes. Since The New York Times reported on his predatory behavior toward up-and-coming female comics, most notably masturbating in front of them, the comedian’s #MeToo backlash has mostly manifested in a loss of television gigs while still being embraced at comedy venues and festivals like the legendary Comedy Cellar, Skankfest and Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater, where his new special was taped in August, and using those profits to distribute exclusive content on his website, which earns him more money. Last month, he also received a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Album for a recording of his 2020 standup special at Warner Theater, Sincerely, Louis C.K., proving, much like his industry comrade and fellow transphobe Dave Chappelle, there isn’t a better time to be “canceled.”
Likewise, C.K.’s latest project relishes in the myth of “cancellation” that has become one of the most widely and incorrectly appropriated terms in the public lexicon in the Trump age. Sorry, currently available on his website, carries an overt smugness and unapologetic-ness throughout its hour-long runtime, from the ironic use of a giant “SORRY” marquee sign in the background to a 15-minute opening bit on pedophilia to a closing rant on the feminization of straight men, in which he says the F-word several times with gleeful abandon. Like most of C.K.’s goading comedy, he attempts to humorlessly rationalize and empathize with the most repulsive behavior, like suggesting pedophiles have access to child sex dolls to prevent them from abusing actual children, and balks at reasonable human tendencies, like our collective shock over the massive amount of COVID-19 deaths.
This special is a noticeably less bitter and resentful performance than the mean-spirited soundbites from his comedy shows over the past two years, including hackneyed digs at Asian men, non-binary people and Parkland shooting survivors. At his most acute, C.K. still manages to underscore the ridiculousness of our collective flaws as a species in a casually hilarious way that unfortunately made me chuckle a few times, including when he lampoons our apathy toward isolated tragedies that’s recently been upended by a global pandemic or society’s cruel treatment of fat people. However, like most straight, male comics who think queer people have too many rights, he has to pit fat people against trans people, suggesting we’re kinder to the latter group (as if those two groups can’t overlap). Additionally, he can never seem to flip this critical lens onto himself, only mentioning his past transgressions for a moment of pity by comparing his short-lived exile to being in quarantine.
At this point, even C.K.’s biggest critics, like myself, don’t expect him to rehash his wrongdoings every time he gets on stage, as that wouldn’t be much help to women whose livelihoods he’s impacted. But as Slate’s Matthew Dessem wrote about Sincerely, in which C.K. downplays his workplace harassment and suggests he had consent from his victims, “the smart move would have been preceding it with actual apologies—but addressing his misconduct while framing it so disingenuously (for starters, the New York Times’ reporting suggests many of C.K.’s victims never offered anything approaching their consent) is worse than not bringing it up at all.” (His writing staff who realized C.K. was masturbating as he spoke to them over the phone could not possibly have consented.)
Musician Fiona Apple summed up the comedian’s artistic shortcomings in this regard best in a revelatory New Yorker profile last year. In a text to culture critic Emily Nussbaum, she described C.K., who she once dated, as “useless” if he can’t reckon with his personal demons in his work. “I SHAKE when I have to think and write about myself, “ she wrote. “It’s scary to go there but I go there. He is so WEAK.”
Truly, C.K. has never been about self-reflection as much as self-deprecation, which are easy to conflate in the context of comedy. The multi-hyphenate has always been open about being a pathetic sleazeball in his standup and his semi-biographical FX show, and his fans adore him for being so unabashedly gross. Likewise, the mere implication of C.K.’s misdeeds earned him the biggest laughs and applause throughout the special, second to him imitating a Black woman shopping for bananas (yes, you read that correctly).
The most unsettling aspect of Sorry is hearing the overwhelmingly positive feedback from the packed rows of ardent fans who have made his transition back into public life so effortless and, as Apple also mentioned in another profile for Vulture, have probably made his accusers’ lives hell. This sort of cultish behavior and prioritization of individual gratification over women’s safety has allowed other comedians like Chris D’Elia and Jeff Ross to book gigs in spite of alleged predatory behavior being public knowledge. Not to mention the support these comedians receive from their influential peers.
In sum, Sorry is an indirect missive for those of us who care deeply about these issues and hope for a culture of accountability within the comedy space. C.K. takes shots at a lot of people over the course of an hour, but the joke is first and foremost on us.