The first thing Louis C.K. does in his new Netflix special, Louis C.K.: 2017, is talk about abortion—or rather, he announces that he’s about to talk about it. The first words out of his mouth are “You know, abortion …” and then he lingers over the pause as the audience laughs and holds its breath.
Although C.K. takes the stage in a suit and tie, and the critical response to last year’s TV series Horace and Pete certified his ability to create outside the boundaries of comedy, he’s here to shed respectability, not cement it. He starts off reasonably enough: “You should not get an abortion,” he says, “unless you need one.” But within minutes he’s comparing getting an abortion to using the bathroom, taking on vocal fry to adopt the persona of a woman so into getting abortions that she has three or four in a night. Along the way, a funny thing happens: As he unspools the polarized rhetoric of the abortion debate, he manages to find a middle ground—or at least a place where it’s possible to be uncompromisingly pro-choice and yet acknowledge that the belief that abortion is murder carries a moral imperative along with it. His conclusion: Abortion ends a life, but life is overrated. “The whole world,” he says, “is just full of people who didn’t kill themselves today.”
Although 2017 makes only the most tangential of references to last year’s presidential election, there’s a certain gleeful morbidity to C.K.’s 75-minute set. He muses about suicide being the answer to all of life’s problems and suggests the best way to protect yourself from being beheaded by ISIS is to go bald, since they won’t be able to use your hair to pull back your head before they slit your throat. He takes on 9/11 deniers, although only via a malapropism from one of his daughters that renders the primary object of their ire as the number 11.
For C.K., ideas are playthings more than building blocks, to be kicked down the road and followed whichever way they may skitter. The ends of his disquisitions tend to be far less interesting than the meandering path by which he arrives at them. In one inspired riff—I suppose you’d call it the title track—he plays with time itself, offering an off-kilter (and, it must be said, under-researched) account of how the entire world ended up observing the Roman calendar. He flies around the globe as different countries to ring in the new year, knowing the grab bag of Asian and Arabic accents will offend some and not much caring. “Stereotypes are harmful,” he admits, “but the voices are funny.” He still favors a pronounced lisp when acting out gay men but also applies it to women and sometimes his own inner monologue.
Louis C.K.’s stand-up and his career as a prestige TV auteur have been diverging for years and now seem definitively split. It’s not that you long for some of Horace and Pete’s full-throated nihilism while watching him spin the myth of Achilles into a story of how modern parents just can’t win, but it makes 2017 feel more like a retrenchment than a step forward. That’s true even in terms of its release, which abandons C.K.’s foray into self-distribution for a multimillion-dollar Netflix payday, undoubtedly intended in part to pay off some Horace and Pete’s costly experimentation. Much of the special focuses on C.K.’s attempt to find “a cruising altitude for my identity”; he knows transgender people have it tough, but at least they’ve figured out who they really are, while he’s still afraid to watch Magic Mike in its entirety because of the strange feelings generated by Channing Tatum in a G-string. But as smoothly professional as the transitions between bits can be—and sometimes they’re so deft you don’t even notice he’s moved on to another subject—they don’t really cohere into a larger whole. Maybe it’s unfair to feel let down because a stand-up comedy special is just a collection of jokes, but C.K. has set a higher bar for himself.