Article by Brendan Krick
Since his first hour-long special, “Shameless,” premiered on HBO in 2007, Louis C.K.’s fame and fanbase have steadily increased. He has released several excellent specials, including a concert film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. His newest special, “Live at the Beacon Theater,” continues his record of consistent excellence. Though his honesty is not quite as shocking as it was in “Chewed Up,” “Live at the Beacon Theater” easily meets its unreasonably high expectations.
C.K.’s career can be compared to the struggles other comedians have endured. Rodney Dangerfield struggled for years to find an audience as a comedian, never truly making it as a performer until he was well into his 40’s. Exasperated by failure, Dangerfield decided to reinvent himself as a performer to be more relatable and sympathetic, becoming an unlucky clown who gets “no respect.” After a 1967 Ed Sullivan performance, his career exploded, and his popularity continued to grow until peaking in the 1980’s.
Louis C.K. is in the midst of a similar late-career wave of critical and commercial success. Though both men revel in self-deprecation, C.K. differentiates himself from most other comedians by presenting himself in a shockingly honest and vulnerable manner. C.K.’s earlier work found humor in surrealism and fantasy, but since his 2008 HBO special “Chewed Up,” much of his comedy springs from a dark, almost painful self-awareness. His strength lies in his willingness to explore the most frightening extensions of his thought process. He says not what we’re all thinking, but what we’re afraid to think, or are embarrassed to think.
At a 2010 event held at the New York Public Library to honor George Carlin, C.K. explained how fifteen years into doing stand up comedy, he had a revelation that began his transformation into the comedian he is today. Inspired by Carlin’s example, C.K. began his now annual tradition of abandoning all of his comedic material from the previous year and starting fresh, each time attempting to dig deeper and become more honest and profound. C.K. said, “When you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs, and you throw those away, what do you got left? You can only dig deeper, you know, start talking about your feelings.” This willingness to present a vulnerable, at times embarrassing version of himself, is C.K.’s greatest strength.
C.K.’s general no-nonsense philosophy even extends to how he starts the show. The special opens on him walking to the venue, scored with the kind of jazz music often heard on his FX show, “Louie.” He arrives at the same time as the bulk of the audience, then passes through the crowd, works his way backstage, and collapses wearily onto a couch. Perhaps restless, he almost immediately emerges onstage before the audience has even finished finding their seats. “There’s no opening act, f— it, let’s just start.” The house lights soon dim.
The rest of the special is Louis C.K. operating at top form. C.K. riffs on a variety of topics, including dead bodies thrown down a chute, whether or not everyone in the audience will live through the holiday season, not giving up his seat on an airplane to a soldier on his way to Iraq, and, as always, fatherhood. The material is mind-bendingly entertaining and extremely funny. Louis C.K. proves once again that he is without a doubt the greatest contemporary stand-up comedian.
Rather than sell it to HBO or Comedy Central, C.K. has chosen to independently release the special on his website, louisck.net, for five dollars. It can be streamed online, or downloaded as a high quality .mp4 file which can be burned to a DVD. C.K. paid for production of the special himself, and admirably chose to make it easy for people to watch rather than difficult to pirate. Not involving a large entertainment company allowed him to price the special much lower than it otherwise would have been. With the widespread social acceptance of piracy, it can unfortunately be difficult to rationalize paying for digital media, but Louis C.K. has earned your money. The special is well worth at least double what it costs, and so far most of his personal profit has been donated to charity and his employees. Go buy it. You won’t regret it.