Louis C.K. Returns
His comeback illustrates how the business of comedy is changing
His path to a comeback was made possible not just by his stature as a member of most comedians’ Mount Rushmore of comics, but also by his innovative approach to connecting with his fans — an approach that was ahead of the curve at the time, and signals the path comedians may increasingly take in an era where their jokes can cause headaches for streaming services.
C.K. was canceled for ancient bad acts so early in the #MeToo timeline that people barely even knew to call it that, on the eve of the release of his film I Love You, Daddy. A direct response to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, the black and white film — which starred Chloë Grace Moretz, John Malkovich, Rose Byrne, Edie Falco and Charlie Day — reads today as one of the best commentaries on #MeToo’s vagaries and the messy motivations of men and women on both sides of it. But you’ll have to get a bootleg copy to see it, as the movie was yanked a week prior to release. As C.K. would joke on a small stage more than a year later, he “lost $35 million in an hour… I lost $35 million. You don’t tell people you have $35 million, but you can tell them you lost $35 million, because that shit is hilarious.”
While the comedian has been touring and performing in the time since, the moment he won the Grammy for Best Comedy Album for 2021’s Sincerely at the beginning of April seems like the point where the broader industry was ready to admit him back into the mainstream. Perhaps it’s allowed now because of the passage of time, or because Donald Trump lost, but the likelier reason is that C.K.’s talent is just too great to leave him banished from the conversation. After all, at this point, is he really more controversial than Dave Chappelle?
The podcast tour has been enlightening, with C.K. sitting down with Yannis Pappas, Ari Shaffir and Are You Garbage? and speaking openly about both his own experience and his views on the world in the intervening period since viewers have had a chance to hear from him. A four-hour multi-episode podcast on the US presidents with Shane Gillis a few months back served as a teaser as to how much commentary C.K. had pent up from his time away from the spotlight. It’s not just that he’s back — it’s that he has a lot to say.
The appearance most worth your time is with another comedian, Andrew Schulz, who recently experienced enormous success for releasing his special himself after being told to cut or alter jokes. Right off the bat, Schulz credits C.K. for being the reason this direct to consumer approach was even possible.
C.K. responds by detailing his approach — realizing early in his career that he wanted to own the connection with his fans, collect their emails and be able to directly market to them. He would play crappy venues and cut deals, and even split the cost of Ticketmaster fees at one point to ensure a low price for his fans at Madison Square Garden. His specials are now not released on platforms, but on his own website. With his brilliant FX show pulled from streamers, C.K. bought it back and made it available to fans on his own site.
This message of comedy innovation is similar to developments we’ve seen in other aspects of media: if Amazon, Netflix, or anyone else tells you to cut a joke, and your audience is large and loyal enough, you can get around them. C.K.’s penchant for direct to consumer appeals is so broadly known that it’s used for a snarky line in the latest season of HBO’s Hacks.
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A Surprising Boost To Jobs
The jobs recovery took nearly 2½ years and included a stretch in the first half of the year during which payrolls grew faster than during any other post-World War II period when the economy began contracting.
The unemployment rate dropped to 3.5%, a half-century low also seen just before the pandemic in early 2020, the Labor Department said Friday.
The labor-force participation rate—or the share of adults working or seeking a job—ticked down to 62.1% in July from 62.2% a month earlier. While the economy has recovered all the jobs it lost since February 2020, there are still 623,000 fewer people in the workforce, a factor that has pushed up wages due to a demand for workers that is well above the number of available workers.
Wage growth was stronger than economists anticipated in July, with average hourly earnings rising 0.5% from June and 5.2% from a year ago. Wage growth in June was also revised higher, indicating that earlier data overstated the magnitude of a recent deceleration in the brisk pace of wage growth.
Job gains were widespread last month. Employers in leisure and hospitality added jobs at a solid clip, as restaurants and bars continued to recover. Payrolls also grew in healthcare and professional and business services, which includes many white-collar jobs.
Industries vulnerable to the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate increases also performed well in July. Construction firms, manufacturers and finance companies all added to payrolls.
By defying expectations of an economic slowdown, the report will make it harder for the Federal Reserve to dial back the pace of rate increases at its meeting next month. The behavior of wages is particularly important to the Fed right now because of concerns that companies are raising wages because they can pass higher labor costs on to consumers as a result of the current inflationary environment.
The Most Surveilled Place In America
President Joe Biden promised that “not another foot of wall” would be built if he was elected president. Instead, his administration would use “high-tech capacity” to secure the border. Drones, cameras, and sensors would be more effective and more humane than a physical barrier, he claimed. What Biden’s promises ignored, however, is that the federal government has spent billions on border surveillance technology for the past three decades — and that despite these efforts and aside from a brief lull in crossings early in the pandemic, the number of unauthorized border crossings has gone up year after year. Since the ’90s, the question hasn’t been whether to fund border technology but how to get more of it. The fact that some migrants still make it across the border undetected — or that they attempt the journey at all — isn’t seen as a failure of technology or policy. Instead, it is used to justify more surveillance, more spending, and more manpower.
I first traveled to Arizona to meet with groups that wanted Biden to not only reverse Trump’s policies and halt construction but also to tear the wall down. The wall, they said, was an ecological and humanitarian catastrophe; leaving it up wasn’t an option. Early on in Biden’s presidency, it seemed like such things were possible: in his first few months in office, he had sent a comprehensive immigration reform bill to Congress and ended Trump-era policies like the Muslim ban and Remain in Mexico. His administration had created an exemption process to Title 42, a public health policy implemented in March 2020 that lets Border Patrol agents quickly send migrants back to Mexico without a hearing. It seemed like the Biden administration would end the policy altogether last summer.
When I first started reporting this story in the spring of 2021, there was a feeling of cautious optimism in the air — a feeling that, with the right prodding, Biden would usher in a more welcoming immigration system. By the time I first visited Arizona last summer, that feeling was mostly gone. Migrant deaths in the desert were on the rise for the second consecutive year, and no one in the federal government seemed to be doing anything about it. The previous summer had been the hottest and driest in the state’s history — and the deadliest for migrants in a decade. The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office recovered remains of 227 suspected border crossers in the desert in 2020, and the summer of 2021 was on track to be just as fatal. By the time I arrived in Tucson, there were 137 known migrant deaths that year. Another 10 sets of human remains were recovered in the nine days I spent in Arizona.
There were a few theories as to why migrant deaths in Arizona had reached the highest rate since 2010. Some speculated that the border wall had pushed border crossers into more isolated, dangerous terrain. Advocates suggested that Title 42 was encouraging repeat attempts across the border, often through more remote paths. Greg Hess, the chief medical examiner for Pima County, said two consecutive years of record-breaking summer heat was likely a contributing factor. Triple-digit temperatures made the difficult, often fatal journey through the Sonoran Desert that much more so. Maybe it was policy. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe it was both. The common denominator in all these explanations was the inhospitality of the desert, the ruggedness of the landscape.
So You Want To Run Against Trump?
Be Kind to Be Cruel: Contenders should also praise him as a latter-day Ronald Reagan who restored Republican virtues to the country, created the Trump economy and packed the Supreme Court with conservatives. After delivering these messages with a smiling face, the contenders should drop a qualifying “but.” Pence has been doing this over the summer, extolling the “Trump-Pence administration” on the stump, but framing it as part of our “past.” He is “threading the political needle by championing the policies of Trump, absent the abrasiveness,” as Bloomberg put it. The downside of the “kind to be cruel” strategy is that praising Trump out of one side of your mouth makes it sound like an endorsement of his reelection. Another kind-to-be-cruel option would be to find ways to say he’s served us well, but now he’s too old and beaten down for the job. Virgil Sollozzo expressed this thought in The Godfather after attempting the assassination of Vito Corleone. “With all due respect,” Sollozzo said, “The Don, was slippin.’” Mr. Manners from Indiana is the only candidate who could politely convey the message that Don has slipped without sounding like an ageist.
Items of Interest
“It's easier to pick off a fast runner than to pick off a lazy runner.”
— Vin Scully