C.K. walked out in his familiar black T-shirt and jeans. He gently said hello and greeted the crowd. “How are ya? How was your … last couple of years?” he said, to laughs. “How was 2018 and 2019 for you guys? Anyone else get in global amounts of trouble?”
The last time C.K. performed in a D.C. theater, he confidently strutted on the stage in a suit and tie and immediately launched into an abortion joke. He was filming his 2017 Netflix special and had been at the top of the comedy world, winning Emmys, doing interviews with Terry Gross and hosting “Saturday Night Live.” He had an audience that trusted him to draw humor from the darkest corners of human existence.
Then the #MeToo movement took off and the New York Times published allegations about C.K. He admitted that the rumors about him, the ones he’d denied for years, were true: He’d masturbated in front of female colleagues. His longtime manager dropped him, his movie release was scrapped, and his broad FX deal evaporated. For many fans, suddenly his jokes about consent and power dynamics completely changed. No longer did they see C.K. as a man they could offer the benefit of the doubt.
But not for everybody. C.K. may no longer be a celebrated auteur, but he still has an audience. He sold out two theater nights in D.C., and people went to great lengths to see him. They paid for tickets and babysitters. They drove from Delaware. They, despite the coronavirus, willingly crammed into a room with a bunch of strangers with unknown hand-washing habits. Then they laughed at the new material delivered by C.K., who appears to be preparing for a future special; cameras positioned around the theater filmed for a project called “Louis C.K. Live.”
He told outrageous and shocking jokes, the kind that made him famous, “but look around: everybody’s happy,” audience member Josh Kline said after the show. “Because we know how to take a joke.”
The comedian’s return to stand-up has been intensely scrutinized; nine months after he promised to stop talking and listen, he did a surprise drop-in set at his old haunt, the Comedy Cellar, sparking a larger conversation about disgraced men quietly returning to their professions. He went abroad — though he wished he could have left the planet, he joked on Sunday — and eventually performed in U.S. clubs, honing a new act. Some of those sets leaked and jokes about Parkland shooting survivors, Asian men and gender identity caused outrage. Headlines declared C.K. wasn’t atoning, but taking a turn to right-wing comedy.
He has since scrapped those jokes, and what remains in his theater act is the standard C.K. fare. The meaninglessness of life, death, pedophilia, saying the r-word a bunch — it’s not new terrain for him. He still delights in saying things that seem unmentionable. The audience expected him to push their limits, and he did; they tensed up at a line about the Boston Marathon bombing, but then he won them back.
Performing on Sunday, he didn’t come off as bombastic, nor as apologetic. He talked briefly about “it,” referring to his misconduct; he had a bit that acknowledged the power dynamic that sometimes women will say they’re okay even when they aren’t, because of survival. (He was working out a version of this joke years ago.) Mostly his jokes about the scandal came from the point of view of someone ostracized — he mimes eating alone in a restaurant while getting flipped off from someone across the room — and the crowd cheered.
It was a crowd that included plenty of men, women, and young and old people. And they weren’t all die-hard fans, buying tickets to prove some point: The Post spoke with a dozen who attended Sunday’s show, and only one of them had seen him live before. Unprompted, they noted they liked how C.K. addressed the elephant in the room, but they mostly talked about how he delivered on their expectations.
“He carried himself well,” said Sarah Burr. “It was the quintessential Louis C.K.” The outlandish material? “Ha, yes, that’s his go-to, and pretty standard for a comedian, period.”
“He’s kind of at the top of his game,” said Will Hickman. “I think his ordeal that he went through may be good for him.”
Unlike actors or other entertainers whose projects involve a lot of other people, a stand-up comic’s work is more solitary, and performers can cultivate a direct relationship with their audience. C.K. spent years growing his email list, and pioneered self-releasing specials, which fans could purchase directly from him.
Now he’s using that email list, or what remains of it, to announce tour dates. Some are in far-flung places (Slovakia) or smaller venues (Houston’s Improv) than he used to play, others in major theaters (Boston’s Orpheum).
“I’m excited to get back on the road,” he wrote in a recent email. “I really enjoy performing standup comedy very much.”
And there are still people who really enjoy listening to him, too.