It’s just a guy in jeans and a T-shirt, walking onto a stage, nearly empty except for a stool and a microphone. You wouldn’t know who the guy who walks into the frame is at first — or rather, you wouldn’t know had you not just downloaded it from his personal website, or heard the aggressively bro-ish chanting of his name. He seems a little trimmer. The reddish hair seems a little grayer at the temples. But yeah, that’s Louis C.K. For the next hour, he’s going to tell some jokes. He’s done this a million times before.
That’s right: Louis C.K. has a new special out. It’s called Sincerely, and it was taped at Washington, D.C.’s Warner Theater as part of a tour he started last year. As of April 4th, you could download it directly from his website for a price, just like a lot of us did back in 2011, when he put his Live at the Beacon set up the exact same way. Sincerely was unannounced, dropped out of left field during a period in which people are confined and thirsty for content, but really, we all knew this was coming eventually. It’s Louis, doing stand-up again.
Only now … well, let’s just say it all feels a little different. The rhythms are the same, the cadence is the same, the conspiratorial smiles between punchlines — Guys, we all know that when I make these uncomfortable jokes about rape and pedophilia, I’m totally kidding, ha-ha — they’re the same too. Except this does not feel like before. This feels kind of weird, to be honest. It’s not like Louis C.K. is brushing what can only be called a spectacular fall from grace under the rug — he opens by asking a packed crowd, “How was your last couple of years? Anybody else get in global amounts of trouble?”
But then it’s on to whether Jesus was Jewish, and swear words, and the pros and cons of dating a French woman, and the days when someone being a vegan was a genuine novelty. That whole other thing, the career-killing thing, the sexual-harassment-by-any-other-name thing? It will get touched on a little more. Really, though, this is business as usual, tweaked observational humor with time-outs for detours on taboos. Vintage 2016 Louis. As if those global-amounts-of-trouble years never really happened.
Except they did happen. C.K. did actually expose himself and masturbate in front of numerous women, many of whom suffered personal trauma and/or professional setbacks because of it. He admitted it. Damage was done, and to observe Louis doing his act in 2020, after everything’s that’s been said and several key things regrettably left unsaid, is to be reminded that you can’t turn back the clock. The comedian has claimed that he released it now for all of those who needed a laugh in our trying times. But there are really two potential types of viewers for Sincerely: the die-hard fans, the ones who showed up to those tour stops, gave him standing ovations, and can compartmentalize enough (or simply don’t care) that they can separate the man from his misdeeds; and the morbidly curious. To be fair, that last category does cover a lot of ground, from those wondering if the slings and arrows of social pariah-hood have changed C.K.’s outlook overall to whether he’d demonstrate some sense of post-admission penance in his work. Those folks won’t like what they find here.
So yes, after a couple of wink-nudge mentions in other bits, after one momentary jolt of inspiration (specifically, a joke that involves testing the limits of how far an audience will go regarding complicity in mockery), after 50 minutes of hitting well-honed beats and some bits involving mimed humping, we get to: “All right, you wanna talk about it? Should we talk about it? I don’t mind talking about it.” There are cheers, then Louis offers some advice. “If you ever ask somebody, ‘May I jerk off in front of you?’ and they say yes, just say, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Laughter. “And then if they say yes … just don’t fucking do it.” He talks about how people have their particular kink, and now everyone knows his — “Obama knows what my thing is. Do you know how that feels?” — and then starts talking about consent, and how “checking in” is a necessity, except women know how to seem OK even if they’re not. That segues into how females sometimes fake pleasure during sex, since they just want a lousy lay to be over with (although sex wasn’t, er, what Louis was doing in those situations), and then how he’s supergood at masturbating, so why not have an audience?
We’re simplifying all of it, but honestly, not by that much. You’d assume this would be his closer, but then he goes on about his late mom, and how we never really know anybody. It’s all over but for the thanks and the credits.
All of which raises a few questions: What do we want from Louis C.K.? An actual public apology seems out of the question at this point, and even if he did eventually express genuine regret, would we be ready to welcome him back? Would more time have helped? The word “betrayal” was uttered a lot when, after years of denying a deafening chorus of rumors, he finally confessed that the stories were true — because his entire persona was based on an elaborate Rube Goldberg-like construction of honesty, irony, and empathy. Given that that’s no longer valid, what do we think he should do now if not the same ol’ shtick? Or maybe, as many have suggested, just disappear and give up on comedy altogether? No one wants his equivalent of the late Lenny Bruce years, when the comedian would go onstage and spend an hour ranting about being persecuted, while reading court transcripts. (Granted, Bruce’s free-speech martyrdom was righteous, and C.K.’s reasons for being forced out of the spotlight were wretched.) But watching Sincerely, you get the sense that this “let’s pretend this is water under the bridge” notion isn’t working either. The man who’s onstage no longer seems like one of the defining stand-ups of his generation. He just seems like a sleight-of-hand artist, all shock and no awe.
It was a complete coincidence that, at the very moment that Louis C.K. furthered his unsolicited comeback, another artist also gifted the world with something that wasn’t necessarily asked for. By now, you’ve heard that Woody Allen has written his autobiography, titled Apropos of Nothing; that Hatchette had been scheduled to release it before internal protests prompted them to drop the project; and that Arcade, an imprint of the indie outfit Skyhorse Publishing, then picked it up. By the first week of April, you could find copies and an e-book edition for purchase online. Like Sincerely, it’s something that looks and sounds oddly familiar: the white-on-black cover, the Windsor Light Condensed font, a tone that filters high-culture references through a lowbrow borscht-belt voice. And like the Louis special, it might have attracted a massive audience once upon a time, but now seems aimed mostly at car-wreck rubberneckers. Its currency is no longer one man’s career but his side of a scandal and its aftermath. It’s less a memoir than a mood, and an extremely unpleasant, Silkwood-shower-inspiring one at that.
“I don’t like living in the past,” Allen writes. “I don’t save memorabilia, photos from my films, posters, call sheets, nothing. To me, when it’s over it’s over. Don’t dine out on it, move on.” This declaration comes at the book’s midway point, long after the 84-year-old has made his disinterest in talking about anything prior to this morning’s constitutional more than apparent. He recounts his early years and his dad’s involvement with unsavory underworld types like it was a Runyonesque romp, full of swells and dames and people with nicknames like “Kid Dropper.” The early interest in comic books, and magic, and girls, and writing gets pored over, then a certain listlessness kicks in. He got married, and then divorced, and yeah, well, whatever. He started to become famous, but so what? He started making movies. He’s not an intellectual. Louise Lasser was gorgeous, and crazy. Diane Keaton was wonderful, and a hoot. Manhattan was overrated. “For students of cinema, I have nothing to offer.” He spends as much time talking about a disastrous cooking lesson as he does about making Annie Hall.
Why is he writing this? Why are we reading this? Oh, yeah, right — that stuff.
Go back to that Lenny Bruce clip up above and, if you haven’t already, watch five minutes or so of the comic onstage, railing about the case against him. Again, two different cases, but concentrate on the tone of that footage. Now imagine Woody’s version of that going on for 80 pages, pausing for a break to talk uninformatively about the movies he made — it feels like he’s simply reading through his IMDb page aloud — and then back to more literary shit-posting for an anti-#MeToo Round Two. (“Once smeared, always vulnerable.”) Before we get to the Mia/Soon-Yi years and the accusations of Allen molesting his daughter Dylan, we’re treated to bored recountings of events, which he claims to have little memory of, and pile-ups of repetitive self-deprecating remarks. When his full focus turns to score-settling, things go from ho-hum to horrendously ugly. He methodically digs into the mental instability of his former partner’s family, her vindictive nature, what he believes is her penchant for collecting adopted children like pets, how she has allegedly coached the kids to treat him like an enemy, and how the Dory Previn song “Daddy in the Attic” became the basis for an elaborate revenge plot after Allen took up with Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. It’s the only time the book comes alive. You’d wish it had remained dead.
It’s impossible to look into the details of the allegations (which Allen steadfastly denies), to examine the two investigations (which both found Allen innocent of said charges), and to read Dylan Farrow’s accounts (which she and her brother Ronan Farrow to this day continue to insist are true), and come away with a definitive answer. It’s also impossible to pore through these sections of Apropos of Nothing and not feel like something is a little unsavory about the sound and fury on display — especially the snide comment about living in an era characterized by “these new scientific discoveries in physics that [prove] the woman is always right.” His reputation has suffered, but you did not need an autobiography to know that. Allen apologizes that he had to devote so much space in his memoir to such toxic events, but they “added a fascinating element of drama to a life otherwise pretty routine.” This is the moment when Allen’s rage subsides and the reader’s rage takes over.
And should you somehow not have thrown the book into a furnace or an ocean at this point, you’ll be treated to an elderly man offering little about his creative process, but a whole lot of creepy comments about the younger women he’s cast. Some samples: “A ten-plus”; “Not just gifted and beautiful, but sexually radioactive”; “The sexiest two front teeth in the business”; “She played the obscure object of desire … and she was plenty desirable.” You can practically hear the panting. Or rather, you would if it wasn’t drowned out by the sound of nails being pounded into a legacy’s coffin once and for all. It’s a memoir in which the author proclaims he does not care whether he’s remembered as an artist or a pedophile in the end. You put the tome down hating its creator either way.