Louis C.K. has been a popular underdog for long enough, now, that it should be cool to not like him. By this point in one’s success, reviews should be saying things like “it’s just not as good as his older stuff,” and praise of the work in hip environments should be met with eye rolls.
The thing about Louis, though, is that a lot of his effort goes into his work’s evolution. He spends a year, for each special, molding his act at comedy clubs and chiseling away what doesn’t work. It’s a process that could be a problem for somebody with his level of fame—each of his shows is packed with die-hard fans that would probably laugh at anything he says—but he has an unusual level of self-awareness, for somebody as critically acclaimed as he is, that allows him to account for this bias and sort the belly laughs from the ones born of adoration. His career is a constant flight from the concept of “Yes Men,” and the question asked during each show isn’t “am I making this audience laugh?” but “is this material funny?”
A lot of comedians are stunned by Louis’s strategy of throwing his entire act into the trash once a year, but it’s this approach that makes Live at the Comedy Store, his sixth hour-long special, such exciting news. Getting your hands on new Louis C.K. material is the comedy equivalent of listening to a new Beatles release in the 1960s—he’s a mad scientist in the medium he works in, constantly striving to tweak formulas and redefine his format, and it’s always awesome to see what he’s been cooking up in his lab. He seems to always keep one step ahead of his audience—he’s the first person to get bored.
Live at the Comedy Store is the straight-up goofiest that Louis has been in years. He describes the special, on his website, as something resembling his earlier days when he “used to just make noises and be funny for no particular reason,” and this is accurate (there are a lot more goofy voices than we’ve seen since his popularity started exploding with 2006’s Shameless) but this particular goofiness probably couldn’t have been done in his early days. Since Shameless, he’s been continually pushing his comedy farther into metaphysical realms, utilizing brutal self-deprecation as a means to explore what makes humanity tick, and Comedy Store is the pinnacle of this work bathed in absurdity. Yes, it’s goofy, but it’s not stupid—there’s a sturdy foundation of intellectual study, decades in the making, that goes under his impression of two rats fucking in the cowgirl position.
This special is probably just as random as it is goofy. In the past, Louis’ specials have been crafted like finely tuned essays, with discernible lines dividing each subject and callbacks to earlier jokes. Here, some bits feel only half-performed: When you think Louis is just getting started on a subject, suddenly he’s on to the next one. But it requires close attention to notice that, because, by the time you’re realizing the subject has changed, you’re already cracking up at what’s followed it.
Like free jazz, it’s a style that only artists that are absolute masters of their craft can pull off. To be this random, you need a hell of a toolbox to pull from, and Louis’s toolbox is, at this point, ridiculously expansive. And it’s not that he’s just telling random pieces of larger bits—it’s that he’s only telling the funniest parts of them. Like a Subaru that’s had its radio removed to make it lighter for rally racing, he’s boiled each joke down to the bare minimum, strictly essential pieces required to make them work, and he jumps from joke to joke like a comedic DJ. He makes it look easy, but his ability to pull back from one bit and go into a completely different one—because he suddenly realizes it’d make a better transition—is insanely impressive.
Louis has released Live at the Comedy Store in the same manner that he first pioneered with Live at the Beacon Theater: As downloaded files on his website that cost $5 to access. It’s a sweet deal, and it’s the fist time that a 1080p option has been offered (you can also stream the show, download it in lower-quality HD or SD formats, and download strictly audio versions in MP3 and FLAC versions). It’s also a release strategy that’s allowed him to do something else revolutionary: He shows a portion of his opening act, Jay London, who’s a club comic that he’s admired since the ’80s. We only see a bit of London’s opening performance, but it’s very funny, and it’s pretty amazing to see any comic give a few minutes to somebody else on one of their specials.
You can download Live at the Comedy Store here, and it will be airing on the FX network sometime this spring.
Screengrab via Louis C.K./YouTube