thoughts on craft and guts in louis c.k.'s 2017

Let me start by saying that Louis C.K. is one of the people who has taught me the most about how to be an artist. If you haven’t seen his speech about George Carlin, I recommend you check it out:

I watch it at least yearly. He talks about how he’d been doing the same tired stand-up routine for years, it wasn’t getting him anywhere, and then he listened to George Carlin talk about the craft of comedy and how George would chuck out his material yearly to write something new from scratch.

All of the best artists say this very same thing—Bob Dylan says it, in No Direction Home. He says, “An artist has to be careful never to really arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming, and as long as you’re in that realm, you’ll sort of be all right.” Nietzsche also pushes the concept of continual growth, and even uses the same word: becoming. The most important thing about being an artist is continuing to move forward, to push the form as far as it will go, to chuck out your material every year and start from scratch.

So Louis C.K., after listening to George talk about this method, decided to try it. And he got up at his next gig and said something he’d been feeling: “My baby is an asshole.” And everybody gasped. And C.K. explains how he’d rather have that reaction than the canned, stale laughter he had been getting. He’d rather say something true and horrible than something polite and sorta funny. Louis C.K. has, for the last ten years, been one of the touchstones for America’s culture; he’s been both the guy who told my generation, “You only look into someone else’s bowl to see if they have enough,” and that "White people aren't better, but being white is clearly better." He’s the one who, on a five-minute talk show appearance, was the first to really point out how the instantaneous nature of technology has made us unappreciative of the miracle that is life. He's the guy who regularly stepped so far over the everyday-society line that he’s practically lapping everyone else.

Because of his artistry, his fucking guts, I’d been looking forward to his newest special for some time. Louis tries to put a new special out yearly and he’s been oddly silent on the events of the last (very tumultuous) year. So the title of the special promised me what I’d been waiting for. It’s called 2017. What else could it be about than this last fucking year? I expected to hear some unique, surprising take on my role as viewer, as observer in the events of the last year. I had expected to hear ideas about freedom of speech, about global conflict, about fake news, all from Louis C.K.’s amazing, line-crossing viewpoint.

But, as it turns out, 2017 was about pretty much nothing.

He tried some new things, sort of. He changed up his style quite a bit and added impressions and other craft changes, but it came off like a cross between Bill Burr and Jim Gaffigan rather than the Louis C.K. we know and desperately need. And worst of all: he took almost no risks with his material. He crossed some (old) boundaries talking about sexuality and racial stereotypes and Christianity, but at this point that is old hat for Louis C.K. We've heard that before. And for fuck's sake, he was wearing a fucking suit. Louis g-ddamn C.K. was on stage in a suit. I got the feeling that perhaps he had tried to write jokes about the state of the world and that his real opinions were so gloomy that he couldn’t find a way to make them funny. Or else that he was trying to be careful. Or that he had had some kind of intense crisis over the last year and for whatever reason he just had to phone it in this time around. And that's okay, really, because we have all been there as artists, but I'm not going to pretend that it didn't happen.

Because I would rather have heard an hour of his gloomy, jaded opinions on the impending apocalypse and never laughed once than the hour of careful, derivative, perfectly adequate PR messaging that 2017 delivered. Some of George Carlin's later stand-ups aren't funny at all--but they're terribly insightful and valuable. I laughed a few times during the special, sure. But I don’t know what happened to Louis C.K., the artist. I don’t know where the truth-teller went.

Hopefully I’ll see him again next year.

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