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The first of two New York City shows for Louis C.K.’s 2021 national tour was a sold-out evening unmarred by any crowd or protest controversy — drastically different from the response to the disgraced comedian’s stage presence at one of his last major shows in the city several years ago.
The Aug. 13 show was a noticeably standard affair, with thousands of energized attendees buzzing as they made their way through various COVID, security and ticket lines at Madison Square Garden on their way to the Hulu Theater. Security on Friday also seemed relatively typical for MSG events, despite protests against the comedian during an October 2018 performance at the Comedy Cellar. One extra security element was the Yonder pouches, in which attendees were asked to place their phones and other electronic devices, to prevent recordings of the performance.
The set featured three openers — Lynne Koplitz, Jaye McBride and Greer Barnes — whose brief sets covered everything from gaining weight during the pandemic to anti-trans family members to the subtle racism in the scientific naming of bees. The comedians took the stage around 30 minutes before C.K. appeared, walking on after a blackout to a standing ovation — which he was also given at the end of the show, though that one featured a smattering of guffaws from some attendees and definitive silence from others.
Though he never directly addressed his sexual misconduct allegations in the hourlong set — a pivot from his last set of Comedy Cellar appearances, in which he opened one show with a joke asking the audience “How was your year?” — elements of his show did seem to speak to the scandal, both appropriately and inappropriately.
At one point, C.K. mused about the responsibility of recognizing with grace when it’s your time to die, and at another he discussed having a plan for life, making choices and finding things “going to shit” or, in the case where you get what you want, still not liking it. “So when life comes along and just goes ‘Fuck you’ … that’s when life gets interesting.”
Despite never quite saying anything outright — beyond the brightly towering “SORRY” sign that served as his backdrop for the entire show — the set seemingly featured moments of total self-awareness about the cloud hanging over him and a complete lack thereof. The latter characterized the set’s sexualized jokes, which kicked off with the announcement of his favorite sex position before evolving into a semi-lengthy bit about pedophiles — including “every man’s fear” of being seen as a “kid fucker.” Other bits focused on young girl’s panties, having sex with younger women, the desirability of his penis, and hopping in a male stranger’s van to perform sexual acts.
Beyond that, the set covered a number of more timely topics with varying degrees of empathy and maturity. Among a wide range of subjects that included the Boy Scouts, grocery shopping in the pandemic, and 9/11, were jokes about last year’s social justice protests and efforts to defund the police, pandemic deaths and mask-wearing, fatphobia in medicine, as well a host of LGBTQ issues — including a bit toward the end in which he conflated (or confused) fluid gender identity with fluid sexuality before dropping a slur. Stuffed between all this was material around what his dog is thinking, growing gray hair, and his least favorite scene in Good Will Hunting — which doubled as a meta conversation about the act of stand-up.
C.K.’s return to the stage could best be summed up by one attendee’s comment as they exited the theater: “That’s going to piss off half of his fan base.” It also marks one in a series of attempted comebacks after numerous sexual misconduct allegations from at least five women that emerged in 2017, during the early days of the #MeToo movement. The allegations, which included chargesthat C.K. masturbated in front of several women and fellow comedians, resulted in his loss of multiple TV and film deals after studios and networks, including FX Networks, Netflix and Universal Pictures, cut ties with him. C.K. admitted to the allegations, which were first published in The New York Times, in a statement, writing, “These stories are true.”
During the 53-year-old actor and comedian’s October 2018 attempt at a comeback in New York, at least one among a handful of performances at the Comedy Cellar was met with protesters, who held signs that referenced C.K.’s behavior and shamed him, brandishing statements like “Does this sign make you uncomfortable, Louie?” That set followed a surprise appearance in August at the same venue, which C.K. frequented and even featured in Louie, his former FX show. That performance was met with social media backlash.
While no protesters or hecklers appeared during the first night of C.K.’s two-day New York City leg, there have been rumblings of planned or potential protests in other cities, including Madison, Wisconsin, where the comedian performed across five nights toward the end of July. Those performances were not part of his national tour, which C.K. announced Aug. 4.
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