Well, here’s a topic I’ve been avoiding for a while now. Louis C.K.. It’s not that I think what the Internet needs is another straight white man to weigh in or anything, but I’ve spent years writing about Louis and his TV ventures. And it’s been uniformly positive. I think every season of Louie plus Horace and Pete made it on to my year-end best of list, in some cases right near the top. I’ve never written a bad word about him, largely because I stopped writing about him at a certain point.
As far as the misconduct that kicked all this off, without putting too fine a point on it, it was bad. Not Cosby bad, but bad. But the thing is, well, Louis was the guy who admitted to it. Yes, I know. It took years and he only owned up once accusations went public in a big way. But still. We’re grading on a curve here because virtually nobody else credibly accused of high-profile sexual misconduct or assault has done that much. To his credit, and it’s the last credit I’m giving him, Louis owned up to it, acknowledged it was wrong, admitted the women were telling the truth, and offered to step back and work on himself. Sure, he didn’t technically apologize and it came off as a little self-serving. But when you compare it to, say, Chris Hardwick’s response (which was basically “She’s lying! GET HER!”), at least it was something.
And I’ll admit, I thought maybe there was a way to make things right. Get help, sure. Reach out to the women he hurt and make sincere amends. Maybe a big donation to RAINN or establish a fund to help women starting out in comedy. Refuse to perform at any venue that didn’t have female headliners fifty percent of the time. He could have made a tremendous positive impact. And the guy I thought he was, based on his work, would maybe have done that.
Putting aside his stand-up for now, I still think Louie is a stunning achievement. It’s funny and weird and experimental, sure. But it also exhibited a real sense of empathy. As often as it was about Louis’ own shortcomings, it could also be about the beauty that existed in the world and giving voice to other perspectives. Admittedly, since Louis wrote every episode, it was his voice but he was still willing to challenge his own assumptions and those of his viewers by showing arguments where Louis himself was in the wrong. It’s a big-hearted piece of work.
I can’t remember if I’ve talked about it on this site before, but there’s an episode in Season Four that’s set when Louis was a dirtbag kid in high school. It’s great, but there’s this moment where his estranged father shows up at his house. The specifics don’t matter, but as his dad leaves, he lays a hand on Louis’ chest. That moment hit me so hard because I had a similar conversation with my father and he did exactly that move. It reminded me of how that moment felt and how that looks like tenderness but feels like a threat, and the only person who would even know to show that is somebody who felt that same push. It was tremendously meaningful to me and that’s likely a big part of why I was willing to give him so much credit as a person who could change and amend for his past.
I should note that this is also coming from me, a dummy who didn’t know that there was anything going on. I’m certain that his victims found a lot less to admire in his work than I did, and if I’d know at the time he was a guy who made women watch him masturbate, I wouldn’t have followed his work in the first place.
Anyway, I really believed he was going to seek genuine penitence and so it was a bummer when he just started showing up at comedy shows and testing out new material. Putting aside that just putting a known harasser on stage as a surprise could be upsetting for the audience, it just felt like he decided he’s been in time out for long enough. There was no sign of remorse or any indication of change and his new material, well, I think it was Paul F. Tompkins who said that when Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing, he knew that he was going to have to get up on stage and talk about that. Louis C.K. could have 100% performed an amazing and insightful set about his experiences and what he learned. And since the Louis C.K. we used to know was a guy who put the target in the right place, it could have been a searing self-exploration. That’s not what happened.
That was disappointing, but it got worse with his most recent public appearance when he tried out his new material attacking transgender people, survivors of school shootings, and Asian men. First off, it wasn’t good material. His riffs on pronouns would have been embarrassing fifteen years ago. This is stuff that Owen Benjamin would have rejected for being too hacky. But more important, it was compassionless and went for the easy laughs of punching down. Like I said, Louis was a guy who put the target in the right place. Usually it was on him, and when it was on somebody with less power than a rich and successful man with a near infinite platform, he would call himself out and it would become an extra joke about Louis being a privileged jerk. It’s hard to explain, but when he’d do it, it was an impressive move.
But what he’s doing now, with mean-spirited hacky material, seems like he’s pivoting and trying to capture a fanbase that doesn’t care what he did to women. It’s the easiest possible out, and it’s gross. It’s the sort of material he used to make fun of, delivered by somebody who would have been played as a terrible comedian on an episode of Louie. I mean, there are episodes where he specifically addressed the importance of not punching down. And that makes it all the more confusing. If his earlier material was a reflection of his heart, he’s casting aside that empathy in order to get the kind of fans he never wanted before. And if Louie was all a grift and he’s always been a bully at heart, he put a lot of time and effort into creating art that displayed a level of sympathy he was only pretending to understand. That’s not for me to work out, and either way, he has to live with either what he is or what he’s become.
You know what? It sucks when somebody whose work has affected you so much turns out to be the bad guy. I never made excuses or tried to justify his behavior the way some people did (and do), but I still kept looking for a path to redemption that Louis himself isn’t interest in seeking. It’s a betrayal, and it hurts. That puts me on the very bottom of his list of victims, but it still feels bad. And people are defending him. From the initial assaults to his apparent attempt to create a new alt-right persona. His work spoke to you and now you wonder what that says about you. There’s no shame in falling for it. He made an amazing television show that sometimes made me cry. (“Wave to me” will never not tear my heart out.) But there are also a lot of women who saw in Louie only the man who abused them and they have infinitely more to be upset about than I do.
I don’t like thinking about Louis C.K. anymore. I don’t like thinking about the huge gap in empathy that exists between his work and his life. I don’t like that somebody who inspired me hurt people and covered it up in a way that hurt them further. And not only is his work tainted, but we never got to see what the women he drove out of comedy could have made. That’s always going to make me sad. My guy turned out to be the bad guy. I wish I had insight beyond that, but I don’t. It just started to feel bad that I had spent so much time praising my once favorite without acknowledging this new reality. I don’t feel better for having done it, but I needed to anyway.