Review: Louis C.K. is back at the Chicago Theatre — but seems tentative, tired and halfway there

Who goes to a Louis C.K. show in 2023?

In Chicago, about 7,200 people. His two appearances at the Chicago Theatre this weekend were not his first in the city since being publicly disgraced in 2017 — he quietly played Zanies in Rosemont in 2019, The Vic in 2021 — but his State Street concerts were his most high profile here in six years, and nearly a snapshot of the admiration once shown for the pre-canceled, lovable slob Louis. The 12,000 bulbs on the theater’s fabled marquee screamed: “Louis C.K. Tonight SOLD OUT.” Beneath, on the sidewalk, the crush of fans to get in were not rushing past, huddled under their coats, perp-walk style, for fear of being recognized.

There was no shame. So I had to ask: Did they have qualms about coming? One man smiled tightly, nodded yes but said no. A woman said she got over it. A man said the ugliness was blown out of proportion. A woman said she was sick of “all the woke idiots in the world.” A common refrain was to let Louis C.K. do his job, just move on — enough.

If only it were so easy.

About a dozen years ago, when he headlined the now-defunct Just for Laughs Chicago festival, he was seen widely as the complete stand-up package. He called to mind, I wrote then, “the deconstruction of a Carlin, the eye of a Seinfeld and the provocation of a Pryor.” His FX series was ambitious and excellent. His vibe offered sheepish decency.

Now when he walks out on stage there’s a standing ovation, then the room grows unsettled, more awkward than expectant. He tries to get in front of this — Friday night, from behind a curtain, he announced the show was “partially canceled” and would now only be his two openers. A joke. Except “partially canceled” also seems right. In 2017, when every week seemed to bare another rancid crop of creeps, Louis C.K. was accused by five women — including two Chicago comedians — of sexual misconduct. He lost his management team and TV deals; movies he completed were shelved. He went from the most admired practitioner of his profession to practically scrubbed from it. When he did get on a stage, he described strangers flipping him off, and eating alone in restaurants.

Six years later, in a couple of weeks, he’s playing Madison Square Garden again.

Also, comic Chris D’Elia — who faced his own sexual misconduct accusations — is playing the Chicago Theatre next month. Singer Ryan Adams — more sexual misconduct accusations — played there last fall. Even Bill Cosby is trying to book a tour.

Cancel culture, predictably, carries a sell-by date.

But it leaves the residue of a freak show. At least for Louis C.K. Regardless of how you feel about him, you don’t look at him the same way — and he knows you don’t look at him the same way. He doesn’t know how to get around that yet. He sounds more tired now. He began his Friday set speaking slowly. And more surprisingly, launching into embarrassingly hacky material — jokes about farts, diarrhea, the TSA, sticking his arm inside of a cow. He never did get to the disgraced elephant in the room — to be fair, he has on a couple of comedy albums — but rather, more interestingly, he brought up the idea of “moral confidence,” the certainty that if faced with a historical atrocity (slavery, for instance) you would know better. This seemed promising, a backdoor approach to addressing what some feel is the rise of a sanctimonious choir of culture critics, eager to be offended and punish bad behavior. I sat higher in my seat. Indeed, much of his material touched on smart questions of guilt, hypocrisy, punishment, right and wrong.

But unlike Chris Rock or John Mulaney these days — whose own material lately has addressed similarly queasy feelings with self-lacerating honesty — Louis C.K. meandered and veered away from anything revealing, rarely gathering any steam.

There were flashes of the old C.K. — he brought out a Bible and did an inspired stretch on Catholicism and language and how the guy who was running the wedding where Christ turned water into wine was probably annoyed because he needed to serve some water.

The theater convulsed.

But rarely rocked.

The old joy is missing now. Once C.K. could move you through the rough terrain of your ugliest thoughts, creating knots of scary reasoning so tightly wound, the subsequent unraveling and arrival at some horrifyingly audacious destination left you breathless with laughs. You felt rewired. That momentum is gone now; he seems uninspired — oddly.

There is six years of the knottiest material just waiting.

He could ask hard questions about his persona and himself. He could be as real about what happened to him as he once was about divorce and parenting. Mulaney, Rock — their new material is more confessional than funny, but you don’t feel them stagnating. You feel them changing. Louis C.K. was once the pragmatic scold of double standards and piety, the guy who joked about being a creep because you bet, deep down, he was decent. Recognizing the moral high ground in his shows counted, otherwise the jokes — and his stage persona — wouldn’t work.

What does it mean to lose that high ground?

Fart jokes, apparently.

I guess I’m waiting for Louis C.K. to transcend himself now, to take this opportunity to be as edgy as he once seemed, to truly own his ugliness and in the process, reveal something new about ourselves. The audience is there. Before the show, I was taking notes and a guy leaned over and asked if I was judging this audience for being here.

“Should I?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he laughed. “Stones and glass houses and all that, right?”

7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.; no cellphones, cameras or other devices allowed,