Louis C.K. and the Nature of Post-Scandal Jokes
Louis C.K. hasn't had a great year.
In late 2017, he was one of several high-profile men to be accused of sexual harassment or assault as part of the #metoo movement, specifically that he masturbated and ejaculated in front of women after asking their permission, but failing to get their consent to do so. Such allegations were brought forward by people like Roseanne Barr and Tig Notaro, and resulted in the termination of every C.K. project in development (a planned Netflix special, a movie that was about to premiere, the next season of his FX show, his appearance on an HBO charity special, his voice acting role in a movie, and more). C.K. subsequently returned to perform in August 2018 in a surprise appearance at the Comedy Cellar, and had shows sporadically throughout the rest of the year. At some point, someone dug up an old video where he uses the n-word, a use which is promptly cosigned by Chris Rock. And just a few weeks ago, a two-minute recording was released (presumably from a cell phone video) of C.K. latest performance where he discusses his disdain for the younger generations and their sensitivity, mockingly saying, "you shouldn't say that…it's not appropriate". He goes on to compare his childhood of "finger-fucking and jello shots" to the "boring" kids who testify in Congress, specifically pointing at the teenage survivors of the Parkland shooting. His edgiest (to some, the most offensive) joke in the set bashed the survivors' public attention, saying "you're not interesting, because you went to a high school where kids got shot, why does that mean I have to listen to you? … You just pushed some fat kid in the way, and now I have to listen to you talking?"
These latest comments beg the question of whether C.K. is *allowed* to make these jokes – not in the legal, First Amendment sense, but rather in the societal 'should he really say that?' sense, especially in context of everything that's happened to him as of late.
A conversation for another day: This is markedly different than the conversation about what punishment that society can and should inflict on C.K. as penance for his transgressions. We can argue about how long he should stay out of the public spotlight, how much and how frequently he has to continue to apologize, and how sincere he appears to be when he does so. Because of the temporal proximity of the #metoo reveals to those of other big-name entertainment figures like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, C.K.'s transgressions were often mentioned alongside and equated to theirs, not that he deserves too much sympathy for that. C.K. is something of a B-list sexual offender, someone who probably doesn't deserve to be thrown into a hole and left to die, but still someone who deserves to be thrown in a hole for a non-negligible amount of time. And surely it's a tactical error by C.K. to begin his comeback by mocking both survivors of a mass shooting and the transgender community, but again, that's not what this is about. Back to the point.
This latest set received widespread condemnation (and as you'd expect, some love) from news outlets, Twitter, and many of the survivors of the Parkland shooting. But much of the media coverage seems like it's fails to adequately address the point. There was a Huffington Post piece titled "Louis C.K.’s Sexually Explicit Stand-Up Rant Proves He’s Learned Nothing In 2018" (one which ignores the fact that almost everything he has done has been sexually explicit and rant-y in nature) which implies that whatever he's learned from his life experiences should impact his comedy. Vox ran an article titled "Louis C.K.'s post-#metoo comeback jokes are a loss for us all", heavily implying that the #metoo incident had some role to play in how the jokes were perceived. So it seems like it does matter, right? We should look at his jokes differently now… right? Well, let's look at his jokes and find out.
First: was it funny? Whether what he said was funny entirely depends on your point of view – comedy, especially abrasive comedy, is inherently subjective. Personally, I didn’t find it funny – the bashing-the-young bit isn't particularly novel, it's something that every old stand-up comic has done, especially this decade when it's become low-hanging fruit to trash millennials (There's a set from a few years ago by a dude named Doug Stanhope that has some similar lines to C.K.'s set, notably the part about "finger-fucking"). The reason that C.K. was such a dynamic comedic force was his ability to pick out and comment on societal trends, but doing the Clint Eastwood 'get off my lawn' routine isn't on par with his usual observations. But this isn't dependent on who he is, and certainly would have been just as unoriginal if he did it a few years ago. Surely some people will see the opposite side of this, including the people in the audience that night who howled with laughter at every punchline in the recording. And I don't begrudge them for doing so, because I'm sure that some of the jokes I laugh have humor that is unfathomable to other people.
Sometimes, (say it with me) a joke might just not be for me. And it's not like C.K.'s acts have been squeaky-clean in the past. "Alright faggot how you doin'" was literally the first thing he said when he walked out onstage in his set Chewed Up, which was followed by a two-minute riff where he reminisced nostalgically about the frequency with which he'd use the word, and the contexts in which he prefers using it today. Naturally, he followed that up with a dissection of the word 'cunt' and, you guessed it, the n-word (where he says the full word a few times). He's talked about pleasuring female rats to the point of orgasm, even going as far as to visually demonstrate how to do it.
Second: is it accurate? It's not altogether productive to 'fact-check' comedy, because comedy is composed of funny opinions, and opinions aren't usually fact-checked. You can point out (as many have done) that having young people testify in front of Congress may not be 'wild' in the traditional sense of drugs and sex, but it's certainly rebellious to attempt to overturn centuries-old norms and decades-old legislation. And that's fine, but it's not entirely relevant. Very little of what C.K. has said in any of his sets have been unequivocally factual, and you can always find ways to poke holes in the logic that he uses. The comedy set as an art form wasn't designed to stand up to a rigorous test of fallacies and objective analysis, and that includes this set. So perhaps we can reframe the question – does it matter that he may not truly believe the things that he says onstage? Probably. He had a long bit on his show Horace & Pete where he spoke about the acceptance of trans people. It seems like it would be extremely hard to write that kind of a scene (which was well-executed) if you don't genuinely share those thoughts.
Third: Is it offensive? Glad you asked.
A caveat that I probably don't need to say, but I'll say anyway: I was a fan of Louis C.K. I watched all of his specials, every episode of Louie and Horace & Pete, and all of his talk show appearances. At an earlier point in my life, I would have stayed willfully blind to all of the shitty things that he's admitted to doing ('well he never actually laid a finger on anyone'), pointing out the fact that he had admitted to it ('doesn't honesty count for something?') and all of the redeeming things about him ('he brought joy to so many people!') in a classic Kevin Spacey-style defense ('but man he was a great actor though'). I wouldn't call myself a fan of Louis anymore, perhaps a fan of the material, but not the person. And normally, this wouldn't be a problem, because we're just looking at the jokes. But when you're looking at whether something is offensive, it matters who the person is too.
Comedy has an interesting answer to the debate about whether you can separate an artist from his art. That question normally addresses whether you can still in good conscience listen to the music of Chris Brown, or watch Kareem Hunt break through the defense for a touchdown, and possibly even support them financially in support of their music and athletic careers, respectively. In such a debate, the entire body of work is treated similarly. C.K.'s case, however, is about whether the post-scandal work takes on a different meaning or significance because of the scandal itself. In judging someone like Brown, it's not like his post-Rihanna music is less palatable than his pre-Rihanna music because of the domestic abuse incident with Rihanna. The entire catalog is either enjoyed or condemned. Brown will continue to sing about the same things, Hunt will run the same routes (upon his eventual reinstatement to the NFL), but comedy is different because it's personal.
Levying criticism of 'being offensive' is frowned upon when it comes to comedy, because the stand-up stage is supposedly the comedian's domain. They get to say whatever they want as they have been given the power of the microphone, and the audience has to give them the benefit to listen to everything the comedian says because that's how comedy supposedly works. Any feedback is supposed to be binary: cheers and laughs for good comedy and silence for a bombed joke. Further nuance is unwelcome. If you say that the comedy is unfunny or offensive, you're granted to the undesirable title of the "thought police" (which is not a real thing, but whatever) and called a snowflake, someone who hates "free speech" and people who "call it like they see it" etc etc. You're told that you might as well stay at home if you're going to go to a comedy club and be offended. Because surely if you're going to see a comedian at their own show, you are familiar with their work and consequently prepared for the level of edginess they'll bring. After all, you probably don't understand how deep and impactful the jokes are if you just put your better sensibilities aside for a second. You just don't *get* them.
But you can feel that no one should make light of a situation in which innocent teenagers were murdered en masse and talk about the insensitivity that is likely felt by the families of the victims, or you could point out that these are jokes intended to entertain and shouldn't have any weight placed on them, and you'd be equally justified in both cases. You can see it as commiseration to lighten the load, or as kicking someone while they're down. That much should be understood.
Tying back to the idea of how comedy is 'personal', jokes can be personal too. While C.K.'s catalog of jokes deals with controversial topics, they tend to be generalizations, rather than focus on a specific person or incident. Even though he didn't outright mention 'Parkland' or the name of the high school, the situation he described was so specific that it could only apply to that incident and those people. Contrast that to his jokes about trans people, which haven't received relatively as much attention, perhaps because they deal with the topic in the abstract. So regardless of which side you take, it's not difficult to rationalize where the outrage takes root.
But would you take a more forgiving stance to a comedian without a track record of sexual assault? What if the joke was about rape or sexual assault? It's a C.K. tradition to have a portion of any of his sets devoted to masturbation, rape, or abortion in some form. His latest full-length special, 2017, literally opened with the line "so you know, I think abortion is…" where he went on to do a full ten minutes centered around his thoughts on abortion. His commentary was (as it usually is) insightful and interesting, but does it remain as such because he is now a known serial sexual harasser?
It's parallels the argument over whether a black person wearing whiteface is offensive – after all, wouldn't it be hypocritical to hate on those who just want to dress up as a Denzel character for Halloween, but applaud a brother who enjoys Jeffrey Dahmer cosplay? Can you enjoy when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler imitate Bill Cosby in the process of drugging and assaulting women, and simultaneously hate when Daniel Tosh pulls out a rape joke out of his rolodex of rape jokes?
Specifically with respect to someone like Tosh – he responded to an audience member calling out that "rape jokes are never funny" during a show by saying "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…" Most people would probably answer his rhetorical question in the negative, but it's a true test of where you stand on this issue when you determine whether the fact that he said that in the context he said it was offensive. You could argue that the audience member was in the wrong for heckling, and that it wasn't the appropriate forum to advocate for anti-rape jokes, but if Tosh had a history of sexual assault or rape? That might shift the consensus on just how offensive it was.
Alternatively, take the "dark prince" Anthony Jeselnik, who lives in the realm of 'political incorrectness' (as much as that term is misused, it can certainly apply to him). One of the first jokes in his Caligula set is a rape joke, and he points out afterwards that he will be telling exactly three rape jokes over the course of the show. In Thoughts and Prayers, he reveals that he found fifteen child molesters that live near his residence, and complains that they always end up meeting at his place. In that set, he also jokes about those who died on the space shuttle Challenger, decapitating newborn babies, starving his puppy to death, drowning his niece in the washing machine, Hitler, his grandmother using the n-word, kids at summer camp getting molested, and then ties Hitler jokes into the dead baby jokes – all in under an hour! For what it's worth, he also jokes about transgender people, even pointing out the sensitivities surrounding that topic. But it's cool when he does it, right? He addresses the comic immunity he possesses, positing that what he says is accepted because people expect him to say these things.
It's also worth considering that societally, we tend to be more forgiving of something that is more classically offensive when it is said in pursuit of a larger point. C.K.'s bit on abortions was to illustrate that if you subscribe to the ideology of one side of the abortion debate, the other side appears to be doing something truly horrible, which is a fairly salient point. That's not to say it must have a point – you can appreciate a Michael Bay movie for the explosions without lamenting the lack of character development and intricacy, as long as you knew that's what you were getting yourself into. But with C.K., we always expect something larger.
Obviously, all of this comes from 2 minutes of what was probably an hour-long show, and perhaps there may be some context that can surround this. There is a 'point' that could have been made that meant the setup would have been worth it. On its own, it seems like a dickish thing to say. Which is somewhat in character – C.K. has called himself a "professional asshole" and made many references to how he is a shitty person, but it was previously in a self-deprecating, endearing (and almost relatable) kind of way.
Now it's the exact opposite – sober commentary meshed with a painful self-awareness.