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Louis C.K. Used to Have Empathy, and That’s the Only Thing to Miss About Him

The comedian's new material goes against what was so striking about his Emmy-winning series.

Co-creator/executive producer Louis C.K. participates in the "Baskets" panel at the FX Networks Winter TCA, in Pasadena, Calif2016 Winter TCA - FX Networks, Pasadena, USA

Louis C.K.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Those who might have wished otherwise are out of luck: Louis C.K. is just going to keep talking. And the comedian’s newest material has aroused more anger than laughs, thanks to leaked audio from a recent performance which reveals C.K. thinks that cruel jokes about gender pronouns, school shooting survivors, and the genitalia of Asian men are now funny. When Andy Richter takes the time to explain why your jokes are hacky, you know you’ve crossed a line.

It’s true that like many comedians, C.K. is likely still developing his material on stage — the leaked set isn’t the final product the way his televised specials are. But it still represents what’s been really depressing for those who used to admire his work: Specifically, the way in which he seems to have completely lost the ability for empathy.

It was C.K.’s empathy which was more often than not the saving grace of “Louie,” which often pushed into uncomfortable territory, but found its moments of grace in the moments of humanity that C.K. depicted on screen. In the context of the show, Louie was a guy who was open to new experiences, to understanding voices and viewpoints beyond his own.

One clear-cut example of this comes courtesy of a gay slur. In the 2008 C.K. special “Chewed Up,” C.K. literally opens the hour with a rant about how he misses using the word “f—–t.” While C.K. has a longstanding tradition of loving to use offensive words in his act, as seen in a recently surfaced 2011 clip, the F-word is clearly one of his favorites. But he also acknowledged that it was a problem in 2010, just a couple of years later, with a scene in Season 1, Episode 2 of “Louie.”

The episode opens with Louie playing poker with a bunch of his comedy buddies, including Rick (Rick Crom), who Louie acknowledges as the only gay comedian he knows. After several minutes of the straight comedians at the table making jokes about Rick’s orientation, the question of using the word “f—–t” on stage comes up, and Louie asks Rick directly if it’s okay for him to use the word.

However, in the show, Rick responds by explaining the historical roots of the expression. Then he quietly delivers the following little monologue:

“You might want to know that every gay man in America has probably had that word shouted at them while they’re being beaten up, sometimes many times, sometimes by a lot of people all at once. So when you say it, it kind of brings that all back up. By all means use it, get your laughs, but now you know what it means.”

It is a profoundly affecting moment, a beat of sincere honesty about this brutal world of ours, the ways in which people get hurt by it. It’s of course immediately followed by a joke, because that’s how comedians react to that sort of thing, but it still represents just one of many times C.K. used “Louie” not just to further his own outlook on the world, but acknowledge the existence of other points of view. Louis C.K., in short, used to know how to listen.

Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

Louis C.K. performing in 2016.

Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

As many on Twitter noted this week, listening was what C.K. said he was going to do in 2017, following his admission that he committed the acts he was accused of. He forgot to mention how he planned to help the women whose careers he impeded with his actions, and also forgot entirely how to spell the word “sorry,” but at least he said that he was going to try to be better in the future.

According to both reports from audience members and audio recordings of his sets, C.K. has made a big deal about how, over the last year, he’s lost “everything” — “$35 million in one hour,” as he put it last October. But perhaps the biggest blow to his legacy was the way in which, post-allegations, his work became a lot harder to find.

C.K.’s work hasn’t been completely wiped off the map — some of his stand-up specials are still streaming on Amazon Prime and Netlix, and the self-financed dramedy series “Horace and Pete” is available now on Hulu. But for many, it’s the FX series “Louie” which established him as an auteur, and when FX cut ties with C.K., it also pulled the show offline. You can still buy the series on DVD/Blu-ray, not to mention Apple TV and elsewhere. But it’s no longer streaming anywhere.

Those five seasons of television (which during their run received 22 Emmy nominations and three wins) perhaps represent the most intimate look possible at C.K. as a creator, given how closely the series was tied to his own identity. There was a lot of stuff in “Louie” that hasn’t aged well (including a notorious Season 4 sequence that bordered on Louie sexually assaulting Pamela). But it was also a show that tried to be more than just one older white guy’s perspective on things.

There is no real path to redemption for C.K., as IndieWire has previously written, but by doubling down on his anger and turning it out at the world, he’s somehow managed to make things worse: for the people who used to like his work, and for comedy at large.

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