Cotton candy seems an odd snack to accompany a Louis C.K. stand-up set — it's too whimsical, too artificial, too saccharine. Yet vendors are peddling the pastel blobs of spun sugar in every direction; the crowd may be anticipating the dark and primal utterances of a master misanthrope, but this is still Madison Square Garden, after all. As the banners immortalizing Rangers' and Knicks' achievements remind us, the place exists so modern-day gladiators can slap pucks and kiss rims. An arena means spectacle, and entertainers who want their deeds dangling from the rafters alongside legends such as Elton John (64 total shows) and Billy Joel (13 consecutive nights) had better be ready to dazzle. It's fair to wonder whether this sad, angry clown can manage the necessary jazz hands while indicating the current droop of his balls.
Before the lights even go down, however, C.K. has already succeeded: Tonight marks a record-breaking streak of three sell-out shows in the arena this month. Interestingly, of all eight comics who have sold out the Garden, C.K.'s persona, delivery and eclectic fan base might pose the most problems for an arena setting. He's not a charming, tireless motormouth like Kevin Hart; he doesn't belt out his premises and stalk the stage like Chris Rock; and he won't ramp up his twenty-something horde with a superfinger like Dane Cook. Beyond the shocking verbiage, C.K. shows succeed in their ability to shed light on uncomfortable, often unacknowledged corners of an audience's psyche. This requires listening and a certain degree of self-awareness — not necessarily what a crowd wants from an arena show. But the man is arguably the best stand-up of his generation; if his fourth MSG show on January 27th sells all 20,000 seats, C.K.'s achievement may deserve a banner of its own.
The trajectory that led the redheaded comic to the Garden began in the early 2000s, when the 15-year vet set an incredibly high bar for himself. With George Carlin's work ethic to inspire him, C.K. was determined to produce an hour of new material every year (once the tour was over, he'd discard the bits and start fresh). Since then, he's soared over the bar, generating a series of blisteringly funny specials at venues from the Berklee Performance Center to Carnegie Hall, many of which are already legendary among comedy nerds. He's also matched this output with writing, directing, editing and acting in four seasons of the FX series Louie. Add in his film appearances and assistance in crafting other shows like the upcoming Zach Galifianakis vehicle Baskets on FX, and his productivity is astounding.
If C.K. feels the weight of expectation when he takes the stage, however, he doesn't show it. Sporting a full beard as well as his traditional black t-shirt and jeans, the comedian works the crowd as he opens with jokes about CVS ("That's what motto should be, 'CVS: Sometimes You Gotta Come In Here.'") and the "regionally agreed-upon stupidity" that is the Boston accent. This leads into the inevitable evaluation of his physical health — he likens his belly to a hardened prosciutto and confesses that he'd like to be in shape just enough that "if I die, you wonder what happened."
The hour that follows is predictably well observed, sharply written and dynamically performed. Whether talking about airplanes, his daughters or their time in the country, C.K. plays to his strengths. He paints vivid images — e.g. a woman's fate in life is to be confronted by "a blizzard of bad dicks"— and then illustrates them with beautifully grotesque mime work. In telling a story about adults learning to tap dance and performing alongside his youngest kid, he points out the delusions of others and his own selfish inability to play along. ("Your parents are dead, no one is here to see you! No one from work!")
It's unfair to expect more of the highmark MVP Louis than what's on display here, but his consistent excellence has made it difficult to want less. After seeing a few C.K. shows, it seems entirely reasonable to witness our darkest impulses rendered harmless, to catch our breath after hearing the worst thing we can imagine said aloud. In short, as life pushes C.K.'s buttons, he pushes us and we laugh harder.
This time around, there's a bit of that push missing. Perhaps C.K.'s life has sidestepped some of the angst and depression that fueled earlier years' work. Maybe his commitments to producing Louie have caught up to him a bit. It's also possible that, as the comic himself confesses, he's less mad than he used to be. In any case, there's an urgency that's lacking in some of the material. To use an example from his special Hilarious, two mush-mouthed dopes in a Starbucks force C.K. to investigate the American penchant for lazy hyperbole. Here, a self-possessed young girl practicing vocal exercises on the train is just that. A story about a bar that serves its performers shots is silly and not much more. At one point, C.K. recounts that his mother served him unappetizing crackers as a child. He makes a point that it might have skewed his thinking, but that's it. It feels as though there might be more to explore. He's never held out on us before.
If these sound at all like the gripes of a spoiled child, they are. Each of C.K.'s bits earn big laughs that ring through the arena, nothing falters and the audience gives him a standing ovation when he's done. The man is still incorrigible, antisocial and analytical: He mimes strangling a baby onstage, hates kids that aren't his own and turns a conversation in which one 20-year-old calls another one "amazing" into a point about excessive self-love. Taken separately, the jokes are high-caliber. As an overall set, he's done stronger, more impressive work.
Before C.K. leaves the stage, he gives a wily smile as he simulates masturbating a female rat to ejaculation. It's not exactly jazz hands, no, but for a third sellout show at the Garden, jizz hands will do fine.