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Image and design: Getty/Archi Banal
Image and design: Getty/Archi Banal

Pop CultureAugust 31, 2022

We should have had a problem with Louis CK long before now

Image and design: Getty/Archi Banal
Image and design: Getty/Archi Banal

Yesterday, it was announced that Louis CK will be performing three shows in Aotearoa in November. In this piece, originally published in 2017 after a raft of sexual harassment allegations against the comedian, Sam Brooks explains how he has always been problematic.

These are the facts.

Louis CK sexually harassed a bunch of women. The women came forward to the New York Times (although rumours had been floating about for years beforehand).

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 bounce back from this stuff all the time (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 harassment 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. CK’s joke about the f-word (the one I can say but you can’t) had over a million hits on YouTube. Another one, “Offended by the N word”, had 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.)

Louis CK, always problematic.

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 10 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 the sexual harassment straw shouldn’t have broken 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.

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 CK, but that I never got from him. 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.

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 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 f****** every Sunday” makes them feel better. Maybe “That’s just white people getting away with saying n*****. Don’t hide behind the first letter like a f*****” makes them feel better. Whatever it is about watching Louis CK that makes his fans feel better, feel safe or feel heard, it’s something they need to examine.

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