Around noon on Monday, word began spreading that Louis C.K. would give three standup performances that very night at Brooklyn’s Bell House. The set-up: C.K., the comedian whom Chris Rock calls “the funniest man in America,” would be auditioning new bits in various stages of undress, trotting them out semi-formally for three audiences of roughly 350 people each. We’d get a peek behind the curtain of his upcoming fall tour as he refined it in real time, and he’d get some eager guinea pigs to experiment on. The punchline: In a move seemingly designed to curb scalping, there would be no online ticketing, so in order to get in, fans had to hoof it to the box office, in the industrial Gowanus section of Brooklyn, with cash in hand, where a two-ticket-per-person cap awaited them. And, oh yeah, they had to make this journey in the pouring rain.
The second of the three sets – which all sold out by the early afternoon – began at a quarter to 10. Taking the tiny stage to enraptured hoots and hollers, wearing a familiar uniform of dark polo shirt, dark jeans, and dark New Balance, C.K. began by lowering the room’s expectations: What quality of entertainment did we really expect, he asked, for the cut-rate price of $10 a head, and staged, to boot, “in Brooklyn?” (C.K. lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.)
What followed was a masterful hour and 15 minutes in which the line distinguishing shaggy from sculpted could be hard to pinpoint – even in his finished bits, after all, C.K. is great at making fine-hewn bits seem haphazard. He built one extended riff around the centrality of smartphones in our daily lives, introducing the topic with the familiar observation that we can’t “just live” an experience, “we need to get it in our phones.” This is by now a commonplace, bordering on cliché, but C.K. managed to wring unlikely laughs and fresh insights from the subject, incorporating unlikely details like a furious sea lion and inept elementary-school dancers. The bit culminated with a dystopian portrait of a near-future in which Siri holds entirely too much power over our lives. You could see the whole smartphone riff being culled and compressed, in future iterations, to a more gemlike hardness, but C.K. didn’t think it was there yet: At the end of the bit, he consulted a yellow notepad covered with scribblings, perched on a stool next to a bottle of water. “There’s a lot of fat on that one,” he said apologetically. “A lot of fat.” But, flab or no, the room hadn’t stopped laughing for the entire run: Louis C.K.’s fat is a lesser comedian’s gold.
Another joke seemed to pick up, in spirit, where C.K.’s famous “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy” joke left off. In that old bit, C.K. attacks those jaded types who grouse about things like spotty inflight WiFi while taking for granted the godlike improbability of human flight itself. C.K. can have an aspect of the foulmouthed motivational speaker about him, and this was the case in a rant last night delivered against aging people who want to look “like they’re 23”: The deal, he said, sputtering with scorn, is that you get to experience a raft of worldly pleasures over a lifetime, and in exchange, your body looks and functions, increasingly, like crap. His marvelous catalogue of life’s pleasures included things both high-minded and profane. But, C.K. allowed, life’s wonders aren’t free. He talked about how, at 44, his body no longer behaves like it should, detouring into an amazing tale of wet farts that produced one of the night’s finest lines: Suffice it to say, C.K.’s rare gift when it comes to scatalogical metaphors is alive and well.
One of C.K.’s defining traits is the ethical-philosophical rigor of his bits, in which he refuses pat answers and constantly switches perspectives, playing the devil’s advocate, the empathizer-with-the-other, the Hegelian synthesizer and the Socratic interrogator. His closing joke consisted of a series of “Of course” statements, in which he’d cite a widely held ethical stance, upended by niggling, more coldly rational “But maybe” statements. The final of these pairings had to do with slavery and its counterintuitive upside. The bit – and the entire set – ended with a soft-spoken, somber line about human ambition and human goodness: It was an understated, exceedingly earnest way to close out a raucous, over-the-top performance stocked with wet farts, brutal infanticide, and Orwellian smartphones. Perhaps C.K. will decide it’s too understated of a closer as he continues to hone his new hour. But, last night, at least, it was a sobering, quietly stunning coda to send us shuffling back into the world.