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Near the beginning of Louis C.K.'s latest stand-up routine, he states what amounts to the philosophy that's made him one of comedy's most cutting cynics of recent years.
"Hell," he notes, "starts at 40."
The comic's glass-is-half-full (with bile) approach fuels his anti-sitcom sitcom "Louie," a show that’s expanded his longtime devoted following, helping him fill big joints like Manhattan's Beacon Theatre, where he uttered those words last month.
Those who weren't able to make the show will get a chance to laugh along Saturday when the comic takes a chance of his own by offering the program via the Internet for $5. The streaming of his stream-of-consciousness stand-up act marks a refreshingly forward-looking move by one of comedy's biggest pessimists.
For a guy who constantly moans that he's over the hill at 44, C.K. may be on the cutting edge in terms of comedy delivery – at least for acts whose brand of humor straddles cult and the mainstream. His gambit follows the news that the great "Arrested Development," a ratings flop for Fox, is returning on Netflix, whose CEO Reed Hastings this week reportedly predicted that half of all TV programming will be delivered via the Internet in a decade.
C.K. told The New York Times last month he decided to try a new route after HBO rejected his previous stand-up special, “Hilarious,” noting his first stab at an unconventional sitcom (the bawdy "Lucky Louie") no longer graced its airwaves.
"Why should I go through a cable network when I can just give it directly to the people who want to see it?" C.K. told The Times. "It’s so much easier, and it’s an interesting experiment.”
C.K. ruled out Comedy Central because “they show too many commercials and they cut all the cursing out,” he told the paper.
There's no doubt the censor would get a bleeping workout with C.K.’s latest effort. Those of us who gladly paid far more than $5 to see one of his three shows at the Beacon last month were treated to 90 or so hilariously profane minutes of C.K. expounding on death, evolution and a pornupcopia of perversions – including a cringe-while-you-laugh routine about necrophilia.
But perhaps his best bit was a PG-rated tirade against Clifford the Big Red dog (in short, C.K. doesn't understand Clifford's purpose or appeal).
That speaks somewhat to C.K. himself, whose often-bitter comedy – an acquired taste to be sure – is tempered by moments of near-sweetness via his persona as the kind of divorced father who grudgingly reads Clifford’s non-adventures to his two young daughters.
The dichotomy played out in the second season of his FX show, which was marked by wild shifts in tone as he bounded between semi-depressive and doting dad. We saw the TV version of his life go from dark (dealing with a suicidal comic pal) to surreal (watching a homeless man get pulled into a car only to be replaced by another drifter) to touching (an uncharacteristic Kumbaya/we're-really-all-the-same ending to an episode about entertaining troops in Afghanistan). But the season’s theme, if there was one, came in him striving to protect his daughters from a nasty world whose inhabitants include thugs who threatened the family on Halloween and a once-beloved elderly aunt who revealed herself as a racist in her dying breaths.
The show, thankfully, is due back for a third season, but likely won’t air until at least summer. C.K., meanwhile, reportedly is headed back for a guest stint on NBC's "Park and Recreation," reviving his role as Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) former love interest, sensitive, semi-sad sack cop Dave Sanderson.
C.K. seems to pay for his comedy by baring his soul. Five bucks seems a reasonable price to get a C.K. fix and support a test in comedy delivery while watching one man's achingly funny post-40 decent into hell.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.