Louis C.K. was my hero, but in light of the sexual misconduct allegations against the comedian, how do you reconcile with one of your hero's fucking up so badly?
Louis C.K. was my hero.
As a self-identified class clown I refer to jokes any time life gets too serious (or any time life gets too boring. Or anytime I want out of a conversation. Or anytime a girl asks "what are we?" You get the point). So naturally, comedy has always been really important to me. And to me, C.K. was far and away the best comedian of my generation. I looked up to the 50-year-old and his ability to execute jokes so simple yet so real and honest that they not only made you die of laughter, but also question the foundations of the society we live in. His stand up comedy was the pinnacle of his work, but his numerous TV shows including Louis and Horace and Pete (along with several acting appearances) left nothing to be desired. C.K. was a genius in my eyes; I caught myself using that word time and time again to describe his content. So when a New York Times report came out describing allegations by five women accusing C.K. of sexual misconduct, which mostly involved him masturbating in front of said women, I had to confront a disturbing question: Can you separate the art from the artist? And if not, how do you reconcile with one of your hero's fucking up so badly?
For C.K., it's impossible to separate the art from the artist precisely because, as it turns out, the art was really about the artist. C.K. hid in plain site, inviting viewers to laugh at his comedy centered around masturbation and gender politics (including power and consent dynamics) without disclosing that the content truthfully connected to harmful actions he committed. As Jesse David Fox puts it, C.K. joked about his bad thoughts and made the audience "laugh because they’ve also had negative thoughts that aren’t tied to how they live or act as people. But Louis C.K. acted on his. That’s the truth he didn’t share with us." Just look at his new film, I Love You, Daddy, which is about a 17-year-old girl falling for a 68-year-old filmmaker (and features a chronic masturbator). Or look at the famous bit from C.K's 2013 HBO comedy special, “Oh My God,” where he asks: “How do women still go out with guys when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women!” Looking back on bits like this, we realize that the men C.K. is talking are not some third party evil, but himself, and that knowledge gives the comedy a whole new, and much more disturbing meaning. As Amanda Hess puts it in her New York Times piece titled, "How the Myth of Artistic Genius Excuses the Abuse of Women," "If a piece of art is truly spoiled by an understanding of the conditions under which it is made, then perhaps the artist was not quite as exceptional as we had thought."
So is that it? Are we done with Louis CK, the artist and the art? For many, including FX, HBO, Netflix, The Orchard (the distributer of his new film, I Love you Daddy), and most women I know, the answer is simply yes, and understandably so. Any man that uses their power to put women in uncomfortable situations through sexual misconduct is blacklisted — not worthy of their time or attention. For myself, as hard as it is to write this sentence, the answer is more complicated.
I'm not here to justify C.K.'s actions, because as he describes in this response to the accusations, he knows just as well as I do that he was wrong and has no excuses. But am I done with C.K. for good? The truth is, I don't know.
I don't know because C.K.'s art had always been more important than him, even if the content often drew from real life experiences. C.K. has a unique ability to make people question society's foundations through laughter, and although he clearly wasn't the progressive we desperately wanted him to be, his art spoke truths. And hints of his genius can be found everywhere you look.
Comedy is an underrated art form regarding its ability to challenge the status quo and bring about real change in society. Just look at the current cultural landscape and it's obvious that instead of news writers or traditional activists garnering attention it's progressive comedians like Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Sarah Silverman, and Jimmy Kimmel pushing the culture. The comedians are the ones wielding their power to confront Trump and other important issues, and they are being recognized for their hard work. Additionally, as Matt Zoller Seitz points out, "Some of the most fascinating current half-hour series, including Atlanta, High Maintenance, Insecure, You’re the Worst, and [more]... might not have existed if the FX series Louie hadn’t done for the half-hour comedy what Lenny Bruce’s routines did for stand-up 60 years ago." Regardless of your opinion on the allegations, C.K. has been an important tastemaker and auteur since his career took off at the beginning of this decade. He is, for many important comedians today, a role model who's work shaped the political nature of comedy today. Which is not to say that C.K. did it first, because he was inspired by past political comedians like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, but his impact on this generation can not be minimized.
On the flip side, though, C.K. helped create and navigate through an entertainment industry that has allowed men in power to get away with too much for too long (often under the gaze of comedy). It's what allowed C.K. to continue to thrive and even sell distribution rights to his film I Love You, Daddy for $5 million long after the first sexual misconduct accusation came out against him. As Kate Knibbs put it, "The reason Hollywood is in this predicament in the first place is because it has so frequently harbored, tacitly permitted, and easily forgiven harmful behavior, casting abusive men as off-kilter savants and gimlet-eyed rebels while casting the people brave and resilient enough to speak out as “crazy” and “difficult.'" The abusive nature of the industry has already diminished so many voices, male and female, which is why Knibbs argues that "In the long run, it is far more important to stigmatize abusive behavior than it is to protect an abuser’s art... If Hollywood refuses to support the work of men who hurt women, it will undoubtedly lose good work. But it has already lost so much by allowing abusive behavior."
So where do we go from here? "For fans, there’s a particular betrayal to an entertainer being revealed as the opposite of what drew them to C.K., and how he sold himself: socially conscious; self-aware; literally, a father of daughters," writes Alison Herman. That is why it's so hard to come to terms with C.K.'s actions. It is also perhaps what makes C.K. such a polarizing figure in the current landscape of sexual assault allegations in entertainment. It will be interesting to see how C.K.'s fan base reacts to the allegations and how dramatically his career and legacy will be tarnished. More importantly, though, is how Hollywood and the general public respond to C.K. that will say a lot about gender politics and the future of the entertainment industry.