Louis C.K. read from a Bible at San Francisco live show


For a brief moment when Louis C.K. first walked onto the stage at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium on Wednesday night, he looked to me like a man who knew he did something wrong. 

After a split second, in which he seemed to nervously brace himself for a heckler, his face curled into a smile. Then the sold-out crowd rose into a standing ovation, as if to say they forgave him for his history of masturbating in front of young female comedians without their consent.

In 2017, C.K. issued a written statement expressing regret for those actions, which date back to the early 2000s and are just one of many examples of his disgusting behavior. The statement didn’t stop him from losing his television and movie deals, but he returned to stand-up comedy within a year, albeit in smaller venues. He was greeted with protests at his last Bay Area show in San Jose in 2019. Before the sexual misconduct allegations came to light, he played at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Oakland Arena in 2016; the combined capacity of those two venues is four times that of this tour, which also stopped at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre on Thursday.

Most cancellation-averse comics these days employ a service called Yondr to confiscate people’s cellphones before shows, but C.K. rolled the dice, relying on hawkish ushers to enforce the “no recording” signs posted throughout the venue.

C.K. opened his set with an extended bit about “moral confidence.” The general idea was that most people think they wouldn’t be complicit in something terrible, even if they lived in an era when that behavior was commonplace. For instance, his logic goes, a person looking back on the Civil War era today might think they would have known better than to own enslaved people. 

For a contrite comic, this could be a perfect setup to address the elephant in the room: his offenses, which in his written statement from six years ago, he claimed he could not forgive himself for. It was such an easy setup for a self-deprecating apology that a bootleg AI chatbot app that I played around with actually came up with a pretty good one (OpenAI’s official Chat GPT site doesn’t allow vulgar content, but this copyright-infringing knockoff does).

An apology in the style of comedian Louis C.K., generated by an AI chatbot app.

Dan Gentile

But for the real-life Louis C.K., the “moral confidence” bit was a setup for a pedophilia punch line and joke about getting a summer job as Auschwitz’s social media manager. The last time he did address his prior transgressions on record was a brief aside on his 2021 Grammy-winning album “Sincerely,” essentially walking back the statements of contrition he made when the allegations first came to light:

“People are like, ‘Why do you want to do it anyway?’ I like jerking off, I don’t like being alone. That’s all I can tell you. I get lonely! ‘Where is everyone?’ It’s just sad. I like company. I like to share. I’m good at it, too. If you’re good at juggling, you wouldn’t do it alone in the dark. You would gather folks and amaze them. Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say about that s—t.”



C.K. kept talking about morality and punishment throughout the set, but never connected the dots to his own behavior. He belittled the idea that parents should teach their kids the difference between right and wrong. He tells his kids there are no bad words, you just have to think hard about who you’re saying them to. He talked about convicted murderers and how admission of guilt plays into sentencing. He observed how everyone in hell is equally miserable, and Hitler shares real estate with people who committed minor sins. He doesn’t believe in God (according to “Sincerely”), but mentioned his Catholic upbringing and ended the set by literally reading from a Bible. The obscure verse was about Jesus making a fig tree wither and die out of spite because it wouldn’t bear fruit.

“You want fruit out of season? Go to Whole Foods, you f—king Jew,” he said.

If you’re like me, that line probably made you laugh, but it didn’t make you smile. There’s always been a feeling of guilt that comes from watching C.K.’s brand of pitch-dark comedy, but it’s hard to enjoy anymore, given he’s personally done so many things that he should feel very guilty for. Like most controversial comics, C,K. has always scored the biggest reactions when he crosses the line, giggling to himself as he guides audiences through ethically dubious territory. There’s probably no comic in the past few decades as skilled at crafting mazes of language in defense of jokes that would cancel lesser comedians. His humor has always come from a place of defeat, of embarrassment, of anger.

But what kept him from incel territory was his everyman self-deprecation and gee-whiz optimism (his most famous viral clip is about how “everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy”). The jokes on Wednesday were colder, missing the silver linings than I remembered from shows I saw in the early 2010s. Borderline antisemitic and racist tropes have always been a part of his sets, but in 2023, they’re much harder to excuse.

Stand-up comedy is an art form that requires buy-in from an audience. If the crowd isn’t rooting for the comic to succeed, even the best jokes will fail. One of the things that made C.K. so endearing early in his career was his underdog identity. He was easy to root for, but that’s no longer the case. When underdogs come out on top, they show their true colors. Louis C.K. has shown himself to be a dirtbag, but he’s a dirtbag who is good enough at telling jokes that plenty of people are willing to listen. Every fan has to decide for themselves whether they can still enjoy his darkest comedic impulses. Just don’t expect self-reflection to be part of the act.





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