Louis C.K. doesn’t seem to have much to say. He hints at this at the very opening of his new Netflix special, which after thanking the crowd for their applause he begins by saying, “So, you know, I think abortion…” The special soon mutates into a meditation on the stranglehold that Christianity has on the world, two topics so vast and well-covered that there’s basically no revelations left to offer.
At this very moment there is, of course, an emphasis on people of note having something to say. C.K. nods at this by simply naming the special 2017. But there is no focus on our country’s current predicament, let alone a single mention of Donald Trump. Instead, the title seems to be borne out of laziness, if anything. Unlike most stand-up specials, 2017 does not open with an extended intro. Instead, we see C.K. being announced from backstage before strolling out to meet his adoring fans, where he then immediately launches into the abortion bit. But 2017 being divorced from 2017 is its strength, not its flaw.
It feels impossible to not compare C.K.’s special to the two recently released by Dave Chappelle, also on Netflix. The first of those, The Age of Spin, was overly obsessed with the perceived problem of political correctness in America, a lighting rod issue in contemporary culture, especially among comedians of a certain age like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, legacy acts and peers of both Chappelle and C.K. The Age of Spin has an acidity that feels like the defense mechanism of cornered prey. In that special, Chappelle embarks on a long bit about a gay superhero that culminates in a punchline about rape, which seems to careen in that direction simply so that Chappelle can say the word “rape” a bunch of times, and a bit more loudly than how he says things across the rest of the set. He also speaks at length about transgender issues, drawing a dividing line between trans people and black people, without acknowledging, or recognizing, that the most vulnerable of trans people are black.
Watching Chappelle, the most incisive comic of a generation, reveling in his own ignorance, and without even being funny about it, was sad. There are moments in C.K.’s special where you can detect his own recognizance, if not weariness, of our new cultural reality, where straight men, and especially straight white men, are being made to reckon with their traditional hegemonic dominance. C.K. makes offhand references to his status as one of those straight white men, but it does not appear to be a fixation of his. His set is not animated by the shifting norms of society, and when he does inevitably broach the topic of trans issues (almost as if it’s an obligation to getting a comedy special aired nowadays) his approach breaks from Chappelle’s. Where Chappelle lectured trans people, C.K. jokes that he supports the trans struggle, except in the case of someone he calls Jeff, who, as a young boy, stole C.K.’s date at a school dance. “I was looking up on Facebook people from my past, and he’s a woman,” C.K. says. “And she has a whole blog on Facebook, about becoming a woman. I was up all night reading it. I was crying. It was amazing. I was like, this is incredible.”
He continues to say that at the end of the Facebook post, the woman stated, “I knew I was a girl since I was 6 years old.” To which C.K. says he thought, “Why did you take my fucking date then?” The butt of the joke here is C.K., specifically, and aging straight men who are struggling with losing their grip on society, more generally. This departs from Chappelle, who told jokes about queer people in order to make fun of them and minimize their strife. When C.K. embarks on a long bit about Magic Mike, the punchline is not about gay panic, but again about his own inadequacy. He’s not scared of being gay or of gay people, but instead of being undesirable. Anyone who gets off on white men buckling under the weight of their own deficiencies may find this special enjoyable.
As is typical with C.K.’s stand-up sets, 2017 is at its best when C.K. is non-political, and instead joking about more universal themes like parenting, marriage, and death. The funniest slice of the whole 75 minutes is when C.K. picks apart the notion of the afterlife as a place where families reunite and watch over each other. There is a nihilism that courses both through this bit—C.K. argues that dead moms shouldn’t be forced to spend time in heaven watching their sons’ baseball games—and also the special in general, which feels applicable to the times in a way that is far easier to connect with than if it was more explicitly applied to political or cultural arguments.
There is an expectation, certainly among liberals, that comedians will be our voices of reason now that the country has once again gone to shit. Such is the burden we carry from the Bush years. But 2017, with its bait and switch, makes the opposite case, that the jokes might be funnier, and the onslaught of stand-up specials easier to swallow, if comedians leave politics to the professionals, and the broad proclamations about identity to the people whose lives are actually affected.