LOUIS CK as part of JFL42, at the Sony Centre (1 Front East). Final shows today (Friday, September 28), 7:30 and 10:30 pm. $99-$149 (passes). jfl42.com. Rating: NNNN
At the start of Louis CK's JFL42 early set last night, I was afraid he had become one of those comics who's now so popular he can coast on audience goodwill.
After all, Just For Laughs was banking on his popularity to sell their passes to the eight-day festival: for $99 or $149 you got a guaranteed ticket to his show, plus credits to see other shows. (If you checked into these other shows with your smart phone, you received the credits back. I know: confusing, right? At least Todd Barry got a sarcastic bit out of it, which he reprised as one of the opening acts.)
Sitting in the 3,000-seat Sony Centre, it felt like all CK had to do was fart and the audience would applaud. His first few jokes seemed like clearing his throat.
"What do you call black guys in Canada?" (pause, uncomfortable silence, a few laughs) "Whatever his name is." Fine, but not exactly up to his standards.
The next joke about sharks being embarrassed that their fins gave them away was mildly better, but mostly because it segued into his joke about what life would be like if there were a food chain among humans.
This brought us to the kind of material Louis CK excels at: rants about our daily problems that, in the grand scheme of things, turn out to be pretty trivial.
Maybe working on his Emmy Award-winning series Louie has made him think in terms of dramatic narratives. Some of the most memorable bits were shaped like stories you might find on that show: in one, he moves into his new NYC apartment (he says he's renting - as if!) and hangs out in the fancy building's courtyard, which is accessible to people on the street. Dressed shabbily, he has an encounter with a snobby neighbour who thinks he doesn't belong there.
The bit is promising - it still needs shaping - but what makes it novel is how the comic plays with truth to achieve comic effects. When he reveals things didn't happen the way he said they did - that in fact, people turned out to be much nicer than he imagined - it makes him and us reconsider our preconceptions.
CK may have a reputation as a misanthrope, but he's open to being surprised by humanity. In some ways, he's the nebbishy, straight white male equivalent of Oprah: ready to make people feel better about their lives.
That same spirit is there in another long anecdote about helping an old woman who falls down in an airport. What begins as a rant about how rude people can be turns into an experience that, as he puts it, changed his life.
He goes a little overboard in the life-affirming department when he delivers a rhapsodic paean to how great our bodies are. "We can eat, touch, read To Kill A Mockingbird!" The problem is, Louis CK-as-motivational-guru isn't as funny as Louis CK-the-bullshit-detector.
He's much more effective when he's saying the un-sayable. His bit about how we'd commit a lot more murder - especially of bratty kids - if it weren't illegal taps into our darkest, deepest feelings.
And his final series of jokes proves that even phenomenal success hasn't dulled his edge. He riffs on playing devil's advocate, presenting a number of things we all consider to be givens - that soldiers dying in war is bad, or that the Make-A-Wish Foundation is good - and turns them around.
This is the nasty and truthful Louis CK we all came for. May he continue to reign.