There are not many bald, schlubby single dads in their 40s who can make jokes about their ex-wife’s sad handjobs, their daughter’s vaginal rashes or their passionate enthusiasm for masturbation, and get away with it. Louis CK did. Until Thursday, 10 November 2017 — the day that laughter died.
A New York Times story detailed the accounts of five women who accused the comedian of forcing them to watch him masturbate. Following years of rumours about his sexually inappropriate behavior, these allegations hardly come as a surprise. Louis now joins Weinstein and Co as Hollywood plunges deep into a vortex of shame, disgust and gross misogyny.
Meanwhile, we are left to reexamine our perceptions of a man we considered as one of the most subversive and treasured comedians of our time. Will the new-found context contaminate our experience of watching his stand-up specials or comedies?
This question is a matter of personal relativism and can only be answered when we understand why we fell in love with Louis in the first place and how much or little their misdeeds affect the way you see their body of work.
Louis learnt his craft through trial and error in the 80s and 90s. Unlike contemporaries like Jerry Seinfeld who recycled old material (despite promising they were telling us for the last time), Louis restocked every year constructing fresh material bit-by-bit much like his hero, George Carlin. This compelled him to explore new topics and poke fresh holes in the fabric of society. Carlin once said “it was the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” Hung entranced upon these words, Louis set out to do exactly that. With material designed intricately to horrify and provoke, he constantly pulled the audience out of their comfort zones taking them on a journey of self-discovery and cheerful nihilism. He was ready to do a show for a lot less money if it gave him complete creative control.
However, if you revisit Louis’ old material — keeping in mind the allegations — it is hard to ignore the inappropriate and suggestive nature of his bits and dialogue. They seem like comedic iterations of Louis’ real-life behaviour.
For example, in a Season 2 episode of the FX comedy Louie, he has a debate about the morality of masturbation with a spokeswoman for a group named Christians Against Masturbation.
Louis reasons: “It keeps me sane. I’m a good citizen, I’m a good father, I recycle and I masturbate. And I’m proud of it. And God’s happy. And later I’m going to masturbate and I’m going to think about you! And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
In another episode on Season 4, the notorious chronic masturbator tries to force himself on his best friend Pamela, attempting to kiss her and lift up her shirt. The caustic Pamela jokes: “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid. God! You can’t even rape well!”
His upcoming film I Love You, Daddy is a supposed homage to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The film is set in New York and shot in lustrous black and white. Oh but the testimonial parallels don’t end there. Louis plays a divorced TV producer who has a relationship with a much-younger actress and Chloë Grace Moretz plays a teenage girl who has a fling with a 60-something director. And it only gets worse as Louis CK adds a personal touch to it. The film also reportedly features a scene where a character pantomimes masturbation in front of others.
So, no, the allegations do not look half as shocking when you scrutinise his material.
In fact, prior to the New York Times’ expose on Thursday, the blog Gawker in 2012, Roseanne Barr in 2016 and Tig Notaro earlier this year reported similar allegations against Louis CK. Notaro even referenced it in Season 2 of her show, One Mississippi, when a female character discovers her boss masturbating as she tries to pitch him an idea for a new show.
Fame and privilege allowed Louis and Co to do as they please with a clear apathy to the suffering of defenceless victims around them. A culture of systemic misogyny has made it possible for them to harass and assault without fear of punishment. The recent scandals have brought to light the magnitude and ubiquity of sexual harassment. So, it is vital to continue this conversation in order to weed out the Harveys and Louies.
Meanwhile, there’s no reason for us to feel guilty if we continue to enjoy their work. Our laughter does not implicate us in their crimes. We should not let their misdeeds interfere with our ability to gain our own meaning from their art.
Instead, we need to continue laughing at the comedic genius of Louis CK without experiencing any sort of moral dissonance. And to do that, we must separate the comedy from the comedian.