Last week five women accused comedian Louis CK of sexual harassment, charges he admits are true. Sam Brooks writes about why Louis CK has always been a problematic comedian – and not just for this.
These are the facts.
He admitted that he had done so, in a strange and poorly worded apology.
His career – at least for the time being, because history has taught us that men do bounce back from this stuff (hello Mel Gibson, star of Daddy’s Home 2) – is over. HBO has ended production deals, FX has removed him from shows that he had in production, Netflix released a statement saying they will not release his next special (but they still carry three of his old ones).
Louis CK is also someone who has been hugely influential in the world of stand-up comedy, whether you’re a comedian, a casual comedy fan or a comedy die-hard. You’ve probably heard of Louis CK. His show Louie won lots of awards. People love his comedy, for whatever reason; he’s talking truth to power, he’s saying what we’re all thinking, or he’s ‘very relatable’ (where relatable means that dudes can relate to you).
I’ve never been a fan of Louis CK. I say this not to jump on the post-sexual assault hatewagon, as if that was a thing that actually exists, but because his comedy makes me uncomfortable, and the praise around it makes me even more uncomfortable. I’ll get into that later.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece where I listed my five favourite comedy specials, which all happened to be by women (who I believed, still believe, and will ever believe, are funnier than men). I got a lot of impolite comments saying I was wrong for not including Louis CK. People, mostly dudes, mostly white dudes, loved him.
I later wrote a piece, a little bit tongue-in-cheek, headlined “Is Louis CK only good because white dudes told you so?”. It was less about CK, and more about what art is perceived as universal and great and what art isn’t. (Spoilers: It’s art by white dudes that is the former, everybody else take the bus thanks.) When the New York Times shit hit the internet fan last week, there was a whole lot of silence from those dudes, those mostly white dudes. And it’s a pretty telling silence.
Here’s another uncomfortable fact: Louis CK has been doing homophobic, racist and sexist material for years. Louis CK’s joke about the word ‘faggot’ has over a million hits on YouTube. Another one, ‘Offended by the N word’ has three million hits on YouTube. Countless jokes rely on the objectification or otherness of women. (All this is before you get to the amount of jokes that revolve around masturbation or people watching him masturbate, which is… an uncomfortable amount.)
Many of his jokes use minorities as targets and punchline, and CK has hidden behind a thin sheen of relatability and everymanness to make that acceptable – not just acceptable, but successful. For the past ten years he’s been one of the most successful and popular stand-up comedians in the world. Homophobic jokes haven’t stopped that, racist jokes haven’t stopped that, and sexist jokes sure as shit haven’t stopped that.
So why has it taken a New York Times article confirming his sexual harassment for people to get properly and fully offside with him, even quietly? Why is the other stuff okay for his fans and this isn’t?
This is not to say that this shouldn’t have been the sexual harassment straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m incredibly thankful that in 2017 we’re in a social media landscape where these stories are starting to come out in major news outlets with actual consequences for harassers, predators and abusers from all levels of society, not just the entertainment industry.
Just like it’s easy to be friends with a mean person who is nice to you but makes jokes at everybody else’s expense, it’s easy to like a comedian who makes jokes at other people’s expense but isn’t lobbing jokes at you. It’s fun to splash somebody with water, it might be fun to get splashed sometimes, but it’s not at all fun to get splashed so much that you feel like you’re drowning. If you’re encountering homophobia, racism or sexism in your daily life, the last thing you want to do is encounter it in comedy.
I’m not gonna go watch Eddie Murphy’s homophobic comedy set, sorry. I’m gonna go watch Maria Bamford talking about her depression in frank and honest ways. I’m also not going to watch Dave Chapelle’s latest special (I have watched it, but in this hypothetical world I haven’t yet watched it) which has a lengthy riff about homosexuality. I’m going to watch Cristela Alonzo talk about getting catcalled.
And not all of Louis CK’s material is homophobic, racist or sexist. A lot of his material relies on him doing that thing where you address a character flaw in a way that is safe for you, gently make light of it, and then hope it excuses you from actually working on that character flaw. It’s a feint at vulnerability without the follow-through. Which is about as appealing as it sounds, once you realise that’s what it is.
The truth is I’ve never liked Louis CK because I’ve never found him funny. I like intelligence in my comedy, I like truth, I like punching up (or punching inwards), I like all the things that people seem to like about Louis CK, but I never got those things from Louis CK. I got someone who was speaking from a place of incredible, unquestioned privilege and consistently punching down at easy targets because it was safer and easier to do so. I never liked his show for the same reason, it felt like a show about the problems of a man who considers his problems to be the most important, with no awareness of the problems of those around him.
And again, if you’re encountering men in your life who consider their problems to be the most important problems in the world, with no awareness of the problems of those around them, the literal last fucking thing you want to do is encounter them in comedy.
It’s difficult to re-examine something you’ve loved all these years and realise that it’s problematic and the thing that you loved makes somebody else feel shitty and unsafe. I had the misfortune of watching the Absolutely Fabulous film on a plane a few days ago. There’s a lot of transphobic jokes in there that made me really uncomfortable not just because of the targets of those jokes, but because I’ve been watching Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley since I was a small child, and I’ve turned to that show for comfort in times both good and bad. It’s shitty and difficult to see them make jokes that make another group feel smaller, feel less than, or feel othered.
We all want to feel safe, we all want to feel seen, we all want to feel heard. Maybe, to Louis CK’s fans, there’s some part of them that feels safe and heard when they hear those jokes. Maybe hearing him saying “I gotta cut around you faggots every Sunday” makes them feel better. Maybe “That’s just white people getting away with saying nigger. Don’t hide behind the first letter like a faggot” makes them feel better. Whatever it is about watching Louis CK that made them feel better, feel safe or feel heard, it’s something they need to examine.
And it needed to happen way before it became widely known that he was a sexual predator.