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Did Me Too Exile Make Louis C.K. Worse?

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It’s hard to say when he walks on stage whether Louis C.K. looks better or worse. He’s tan and seems trimmer, but he’s definitely aged and the scraggly neckbeard does him no favors.

“SORRY,” the name of the special, is lit up in towering red lights that frame the entire backdrop. It’s a good aesthetic. He doesn’t make much of it, though, moving steadily through a set that seems to be flailing to find a new normal.

For C.K., “Sorry” is maybe a B minus. It’s lazier than it is clever. Before his Me Too-era fall from grace, C.K.’s comedy was reliably brilliant. It was cutting, well-crafted, and surprising. He was never my favorite—his self-deprecation seemed oddly smug—but Louis C.K. was a master of his craft.

“Sorry” has its moments. Like his peers in stand-up’s figurative hall of fame, C.K. picks up on unspoken social absurdities and makes them into great jokes. But in “Sorry,” which the comedian self-published on his own website, too often it feels like he just stops at the first part. I guess that’s something, especially now that a generation of comics thinks jokes about pronouns are violent. But it’s not C.K.’s best work.

The expectation that C.K. would emerge from exile with all the brilliance of Dave Chappelle, comedic steel forged in the fires of cancel culture, is not why “Sorry” coasts to mediocrity. None of his post-Me Too work is genius. Some of it is funny, but it’s mostly bland and surprisingly lazy for the man behind “I Love You, Daddy.”

That film, a preeminent contribution to the extended conversation on “Manhattan,” was set for a theatrical debut four years ago this month. Nobody has seen it, save for some early reviewers and those of us lucky enough to get our hands on the contraband.

The film was quite literally canceled over the revelations of C.K.’s habit of masturbating in front of women in professional settings. “I Love You, Daddy” isn’t Allen-style perfection, but it’s very deep, very provocative, and very smart. It’s also brave in a way “Sorry” is not.

Unlike Chappelle, C.K. should actually feel sorry. Of course, in the words of Camille Paglia, “Expecting the artist to be a good person was a sentimental canard of Victorian moralism.”

It’s true that broken people make some of the most compelling art. In C.K.’s case, you get the sense he’s not fully interested in plumbing the depths of his own depravity because it would mark something of a concession. But that’s okay in his case.

So starting with a sex joke is shocking and fine—you could even call it clever—but it’s not quite enough for a man who subjected working women to his perversions and then paid the price with a long cycle of extreme public shame. When C.K. compares COVID isolation to Me Too jail, he’s still just hinting at his nightmare. He’s not really grappling with himself, he’s pointing outward—and that’s unsatisfying and lazy for a self-aware comedian who did something seriously wrong.

It’s also entirely possible the mediocrity of “Sorry” is just the outcome of C.K. losing all motivation to please wide audiences. Having nothing to lose affects some people differently than others.