In his 2013 HBO special Oh My God, Louis C.K. does a bit about how courageous straight people have to be to go on dates. “The male courage, traditionally speaking, is that he decided to ask,” he says. “Everything in your body is telling you, ‘Go the fuck home and jerk off, don’t do this.’” But a woman’s courage, he says, is in merely accepting. “How do women still go out with guys when you consider the fact that there’s no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women, globally and historically — we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them.”
The set is emblematic of a lot of C.K.’s comedy, and it’s thanks to his comedy that he is not only famous but often, especially in the last five years, referred to with phrases like “the Great American Comedian.” His standup, his shows Louie and Horace and Pete, and the projects he produces (Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi) or helped create (Pamela Adlon’s Better Things) all add to his public image as not just a funny guy, but a guy who gets it. Louis C.K. has never settled for just making jokes about other people; he has built a career on being a chronicler of his own privilege, his own comfort, his own excess, his own perversion and poor behavior. This self-awareness was comforting, for a while: He knows he’s terrible, we thought, so he must somehow be one of the good ones.
It’s not especially comforting now. In a New York Times investigation published today, five women allege that C.K. either asked to masturbate in front of them or did masturbate in front of them — or on the phone with them — without their consent. ("These stories are true," C.K. said in a written statement; in the past, he has referred to rumors of similar incidents as “not real.”) And the fact that C.K. spent years making jokes that showed he knew exactly how threatening and how damaging men’s sexual aggression could be to women only makes the revelation of his own behavior feel more like a personal betrayal.
C.K. is just the latest in a depressingly long line of famous men who have recently been accused of sexual assault or harassment: Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Brett Ratner, Woody Allen (though this is hardly new), James Toback, Terry Richardson, George H.W. Bush, R. Kelly, Nelly, Mark Halperin, Oliver Stone, Roy Price, Ben Affleck, Elie Wiesel, Kevin Spacey, and far, far more. These stories, while disturbing, aren’t always surprising. There were longstanding whispers around Harvey Weinstein from others in the industry, plenty of stories about R. Kelly including child pornography charges, and details about Terry Richardson’s allegedly abusive behavior have been circulating for years.
Many of these were not well-liked men, or men who expressed an advanced awareness of sexual and gender politics, and so it was at least easier to believe that they are controlling, or sexually inappropriate, or outright abusive. But the allegations against C.K., at least for people who have been his fans or defenders, feel more disappointing than the litany of other allegations now coming out against other famous men.
C.K. was supposed to be one of the good ones. He was self-aware, routinely talking about how easy it is for men to indulge (or at least fantasize about) their worst instincts around women. “I just look at women like they’re cakes in windows,” he said in one set. He recounts following two attractive women in order to hear what they’re saying. “Like that’s going to help me in any way. Don’t you wish the guy walking in front of of us would squeeze our tits for like one second?” C.K. pantomimes grabbing breasts and tipping his hat. “It’s rare to touch one tit. It’s like a four-leaf clover. The only time you touch one tit is when it was an accident or you didn’t have permission.”
In hindsight, C.K.’s work seems grotesque, a performance drawing on his own ventures into inappropriate behavior in order to create comedy that really felt sincere. But at the time, his fans were laughing, because C.K. was so convincing as a guy who was already so disappointed in himself that there was no need for us to be disappointed in him too.
The New York Times investigation isn’t exactly a bombshell. There have been rumors about C.K. for years. Gawker had tried to report on his behavior in the past, women had tried to come forward, and even Tig Notaro had tried to tell us with his name still tied to her television show. And in hindsight, there’s a kind of kicking-yourself inevitability to it: Who would’ve imagined that a comedian who talks almost ceaselessly about masturbation, and about how men are inherently threatening, could’ve been using the act as a sexual threat in his real life?
But the news about C.K. still hits hard, not only because C.K. has incredible power (he owns a production company, shares management with comedians like Aziz Ansari and Kevin Hart, and has had significant influence on the careers of other comedians), not only because he might have used that power to keep women from feeling safe, and not only because he is incredibly talented and it’s a shame to lose respect for someone you once admired. This one is so hard because much of C.K.’s work is specifically about the intersections of men and women, how men are predatory and why women, justifiably, fear them.
C.K. let us feel comfortable watching him and talking about him and making him rich, let us feel like we were socially aware and had good taste. We were rooting for him. We wanted him to do well. In some ways this is the greatest nightmare for a lot of women: A man who does the right things, who acts the right way, who gives every impression that he’s one of the good ones, but turns out to be one of the bad ones anyway.
Another facet of the disillusionment here is that C.K.’s career and reputation have never really waned or faltered. As an audience, turning your back on a talented, successful man is always harder than one whose star is steadily fading. And for a decade, C.K. has been consistently on the rise, with no serious pitfalls, no bad movies, no crummy stand-up specials. Louie was often hailed as a masterpiece, Horace and Pete was an acquired taste but still an interesting show to get on the air, and even though there has been (and there is now more urgent) controversy around his new movie I Love You Daddy, the reviews coming out of TIFF were generally positive. The funding, professional support, and attention were all there for the film: That it reads as a clear professional misstep now is largely a matter of timing.
All of this is further complicated by the women who surround C.K. and protect him, willingly or not. Pamela Adlon, the creator and producer and star of Better Things, has consistently been asked or expected to act as a conscience of sorts for C.K. On Louie, she often played the voice of reason, tearing him down and telling him to act responsibly. (She does something similar in I Love You Daddy, which will no longer be released next week.) Adlon has defended C.K., saying, “He is the best, most generous, collaborative, brilliant writer in the world. And you can ask anybody who works with him that he’s just the best guy.” C.K. also produces Notaro’s One Mississippi, a show about a uniquely female, queer experience. Notaro, unlike Adlon, has been vocal about her frustration with C.K., and said in the Times article that she has concerns he released her 2012 comedy album because “he knew it was going to make him look like a good guy.”
Much of the humanity in C.K.’s work has come from his experience as the father of daughters. A lot of his stand-up and his show are about them, how they challenge him to be a better father. The most tender moments of Louie are predictably ones where he’s interacting with his daughters, digging into the duality of loving someone so completely but hating them in the same breath.
How could C.K. be abusive to women when he’s raising two himself? How could C.K. be bad when he surrounds himself with so many good, smart, able women? How could it be so simple, even though C.K., in nearly every creative project he worked on, told us over and over again who he was? When he grabs Adlon in an episode of Louie and tries to force her into a kiss (while she screams no) and refuses to let her leave the apartment and says, “You said you wanted to do something with me,” is that actually who he is?
It’s a different kind of work, holding men like C.K. to account, because we so desperately don’t want the truth about them to be true. Years ago, I made a comment to my boyfriend that we should stop watching Woody Allen movies because of the rape allegations against him. “So, should we stop watching Louis C.K., too?” he asked. I bristled, instinctively, thinking, Can’t I have this? Can’t I just have this one thing? I was mad at him for reminding me that C.K.’s work wasn’t something pure I could enjoy without acknowledging the allegations around him, too.
Regardless, I saw C.K. live at the beginning of the year. It was the most depressing stand-up set I’ve ever seen, not because it was bad (it wasn’t) or because he’s lost his touch (he hasn’t), but rather because, even then, even before I knew for sure, there was no way for me to ignore the mental asterisk that followed every joke. I didn’t want to deal with the possibility that C.K. wasn’t any different from the other rich, powerful, famous men who use women as toys or spectators to their own grotesquerie. I didn’t want to have one more person be a disappointment to me, personally.
C.K.’s work now takes the same tone that Blue Jasmine does, that House of Cards does, that The Birds does, that Manchester by the Sea does. Now he joins the ranks of countless creative geniuses who we thought were on our side, who we were sure were both artistically generous and self-aware. But C.K. isn’t merely another disappointment; he’s a reminder that you can’t trust even the men who say the right thing in public, who align themselves with the right people, who present as allies. He’s another reminder that being aware of the ways humans fail and hurt each other doesn’t mean you aren’t also doing it yourself.
Watching C.K. live was joyless because I already knew then what we know now: He isn’t an exception. You can’t separate him from his work. And so it seems somehow appropriate that C.K.’s greatest strength in his work turned out to be his downfall. He was always very good at telling the truth. ●