In the #metoo landscape, Louis C.K.’s behavior has been something of a Rorschach test.
The comedian was outed for having masturbated in the presence of 5 women colleagues in the comedy world. By their accounts and his account, C.K. asked for permission first. He denied the behavior for years despite rumors, but eventually fessed up after the release of a NY Times investigative report verifying the women’s stories.
C.K. instantly lost a slew of TV and movie deals. Many fans were quick to forgive him, however. After all, they reasoned, he’d asked for consent. And in many ways people’s tolerance of C.K.’s behavior seemed to boil down to their capacity for accepting the weirdness of his fetish: People accustomed to high amounts of inappropriateness and perversity amongst friends and colleagues seemed to absorb it all and move on faster than those with stricter boundaries, stronger impulse control, and higher standards of basic decency.
It’s not that simple, however. Putting aside how extreme or not extreme one finds C.K.’s fetish, you have the impact of his years of denial on his accusers’ comedy careers. Essentially, he got them blacklisted. Their careers often stalled out or ended. It was a bleak example of men’s workplace power advantage, and it also shed much-needed light on the true nature of consent…
For one thing, although the comedian asked for permission, his ingrained power advantage made it hard for the women to say no without fearing repercussions (which, based on C.K.’s subsequent behavior, were certainly reasonable for them to fear). For another thing, C.K.’s mere presence as a large, heavy man also contraindicated his request for permission, as the women didn’t know if refusing his already shocking and random request would spur even more shocking and random (i.e., dangerous) behavior.
In other words, C.K’s pursuit of consent was as paper-thin and lazy as such pursuits can get. Not only was he blind and/or indifferent to his professional and physical advantages, he sought gratification on a one-way street; all for him, none for them. It was horrific at worst, juvenile at best. And moral relativism aside, I can’t really respect any argument framing his behavior’s negative impact on his victims’ careers as anything but reprehensible.
Now he’s back, though. After a year in the wilderness, C.K.’s returned to the stage with fresh material. More Rorschach tests abound: Is it too soon?…Hasn’t he suffered enough?…Shouldn’t he be banished forever?…Shouldn’t he be forgiven?…What can we forgive?
I wanted him back. I think he’s hilarious. I also thought (the combined worth of all these statements: 2 cents) he came back way too soon. Comedian Sarah Lazarus joked on Twitter that, upon C.K.’s return to the stage, she was still on the same shampoo bottle that she’d been on when he got banished. To me, that sounded about right.
He could have kept it quiet for another year or two.
But now he’s back, and doubling down on the controversy. In a recent leaked stand-up set, he joked about the Parkland shooting survivors, and how annoyed he gets when seeing and hearing their attempts to provide moral leadership around gun control. Here are the key lines from the set:
They testify in front of Congress, these kids?! Like, what the f–k? What are you doing? You’re young, you should be crazy. You should be unhinged. Not in a suit saying, ‘I’m here to tell you…’ F–k you. That’s not interesting. Because you went to a high school where kids got shot? Why does that mean I gotta listen to you? Why does that make you interesting? You didn’t get shot. You pushed some fat kid in the way and now I gotta listen to you talk?
I’ll be honest: I thought it was kind of funny. Not remotely up there with his best material, which has literally thrown me to the floor. But I didn’t think it fell flat due to its amoral nature. It fell flat, I think, because I sensed he was pushing the shock factor too overtly, almost as though his recent outing and accompanying trauma have pushed him into revolt.
It’s still classic Louis C.K., though.
And by “classic”, I don’t mean “good”, necessarily. I just mean it fits the C.K. brand — the same brand that left many people unsurprised by his masturbation habit in the first place.
Here’s how it works: Louis C.K.’s a clown. Lest we forget, that’s what comedians are. As such, if they’re good, their first targets are always, always themselves. He never once mocked the Parkland students. He mocked himself, as the clueless, boundary-deficient, insensitive man-child who’s actually coarse and crazy enough to say such outrageous things.
That’s the whole point. That’s why those who laugh aren’t evil or emotionally arrested. They’re laughing at the spectacle of a grown man expressing, filter-free, the most antisocial, uncivil, childish, self-centered, and inhumane aspects of himself, and doing so in a tone of uninhibited self-righteousness, as though what he has to say is actually more important than the words of somebody who’s trying to save lives. C.K.’s material is human material — which is to say the dark and troubling shadow that dwells inside us all. The liberation thereof, in the context of a comedy club, where the objective is to abandon all politeness and decorum in pursuit of uncomfortable truths, can lead to laughter. Those who don’t laugh have every right to be offended, but they needn’t cower at the darkness of those who do (much less the clown).
It’s there in us all: the darkness; the capacity to be abhorrent. As civilization advances, we’re (hopefully) less ruled by it. But the question remains: Should our dark materials be expressed or repressed? What’s more healthy, for both comedian and crowd: shadow matter pumped out through the microphone, or a civil and sensitive silence?
For me, the silence would be scary. I’d rather see human darkness acknowledged through words (which in and of themselves can kill no one), than repressed to fester. Sure, a Disney-Hallmark surface could conceal the shadow, but it couldn’t ever make it go away.
Louis C.K. is the shadow. That’s the brand. That is the truth he sells. Many wish he would just disappear. But perhaps it’s good to shine a light on dark truths. For absent that light, everything goes dark.
And then we have ourselves a world of lies.