About 31 minutes into Louis CK’s latest stand-up special, the crowd bursts into applause after he makes an offhand comment about how hard it is to be a public school teacher in the United States. Normally, this the type of thing a comic says when they want a round of applause, but CK is quick to rebuff the crowd: “Don’t do that,” he says. “You’re not gonna like it.” And sure enough, he’s only bringing this up to go into a point about how public school teachers are losers for agreeing to do such a thankless job for such little pay in the first place. Sure, as the bit goes on, he makes it clear that they have his sympathy (as he points out, it’s hard to teach math to those who have little interest in learning it), but it’s still not the type of sentiment that a bleeding-heart liberal would be likely to greet with a round of applause.
That’s been a staple of CK’s act for a long time: saying things that the average liberal would find perfectly agreeable in a vacuum, but reaching that opinion in the most warped way possible. He doesn’t wait too long to veer into the uncomfortable; within 30 seconds of taking the stage, he begins talking about abortion. He adopts a pro-choice stance with the reasoning that “not getting an abortion that you need is like not taking a shit,” before also noting that if you disagree with this statement, you likely consider it to be tantamount to killing a child. As vulgar as this comparison is, CK does a concise job of explaining why abortion is one of the most difficult topics to reach a consensus on, as it’s either viewed as an uncomfortable, but ultimately not objectionable, procedure that women have an inalienable right to or nothing short of infanticide. The conclusion he reaches is unlikely to win CK any fans among the holders of either opinion, but it’s the type of absurdist “wait, what?” perspective that has made him so essential to modern comedy.
Despite that rather direct start, this is not a special full of explicitly political material. No references are made to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, as the show tends to focus on Louis CK’s philosophy more than his concrete views. And it’s a decidedly bleak philosophy. He discusses suicide with remarkable candor, noting that when he tells his therapist that he hasn’t had suicidal thoughts, it’s only because of how they might react if he had responded in the affirmative, a point that could resonate with anyone unsure about exactly how much to reveal in a therapy session. Furthermore, he mentions that he’s felt depressed just from looking inside people’s cars, wondering how much worse it must be for the people actually stuck driving them.
The special isn’t all doom and gloom—there’s respite in the form of a few absurdist tangents that the audience can just laugh at without any creeping existential dread. One such bit comes when he talks about listening to NPR with his daughters (“because we’re better than you”) and how one of his kids heard the phrase “9/11 deniers” as “nine 11 deniers”—a fringe group with fewer than 10 members that denies the existence of the number 11. About halfway through acting out a rant from a hypothetical “11 truther,” he realizes he’s speaking in a stereotypical black voice. Catching himself, he apologizes to the crowd for doing a caricature of a Chinese person. None of this quite makes sense, but it doesn’t matter, as it delivers the biggest laughs of the special. CK’s more depressing observations can be hard to handle at times, but his absurdity acts as the perfect chaser.
Equally amusing (also sharing a trace of dreariness) is his routine about the story of Achilles. After his daughter asks why Achilles’ mother couldn’t have fixed his weak heel by simply putting him in the fountain one more time, CK has a different perspective, framing it as one more example of how parents can never do enough for their kids. Sure, he was immortal everywhere else, but he has to complain about her one mistake. He goes further, mocking an athlete for saying his dead mother was watching from heaven, arguing that if your mother is dead, she shouldn’t still have to go to your football games. When CK first became a father, he memorably called his youngest child a “piece of shit” for doing all the weird, irritating things that kids do. The material in 2017 shows that he hasn’t softened much with time. CK clearly loves his children, but that won’t stop him from making them a constant presence in his act, and not always cast in a positive light.
2017 comes on the heels of Dave Chappelle’s two new Netflix specials, which were largely praised, but faced some criticism for Chappelle’s somewhat ill-informed opinions on transgender people. This is a topic that many otherwise adroit comics have tripped over lately, but CK’s thoughts on it are fairly complex and thoughtful. He approaches the subject in a story about the first girl to ever say yes when he asked her out. Early in the school dance they went to, she asked if she could dance with another boy—who later came out as a trans woman. In classic CK form, he initially discusses how moved he was be reading her Facebook posts about her transition, but quickly veers into wondering, “If you knew you were a woman, why the fuck did you steal my date?” It’s the clear separation between supporting her decision to be publicly trans but nonetheless clinging to middle school bitterness that makes the bit work so well.
This is Louis CK’s seventh hour-long special, going back to Shameless, which started him on his journey from “respected but somewhat obscure comic” to “one of the most important comedians in the world.” In the 10 years since that special, he’s gone through a lot, becoming one of the most admired auteurs on television with Louie while also continuing to produce new stand-up material at a blistering pace. As 2017 shows, he’s as skilled as ever at approaching dark, uncomfortable subjects, and producing remarkably hilarious material about them.