The revelations about Louis CK are made worse by the fact that his fans ignored the rumours for so long, and in fact were made to laugh at them during his sets.
Louis CK has been my favourite comedian since the very first time I watched his stand up. No other comedian came remotely close. Not Pryor. Not Carlin. Not Chappelle. No one.
His mastery of timing, delivery, and storytelling, as well as his propensity for self deprecation, made him the Tarantino of comedy. No matter what he was involved in, I would watch it without fail. Like George Carlin before him, he diligently came out with a new stand-up show almost every year, and every year I would wait for it eagerly.
I saw him live once. I was sat at the far end of the O2 Arena and I couldn’t even make out his face on the stage. The only way to see him properly was via two massive screens on either side of the stage, a fact which didn’t escape his notice. “You people at the back must be pissed. You paid all this money just to watch me on TV.” I laughed, and I didn’t care. It was Louis.
The revelations published in the New York Times were a real gut punch. Here’s a man whose work I have spent countless hours watching and re-watching, whose comedy bits I have memorised, who I’ve placed on pedestal, and who, like a parody of his own parody of himself, had a habit of exposing himself and masturbating in front of women.
The post-Weinstein watershed has been dizzying. The curtain has been pulled back and men are being forced to look in the mirror. They’ve finally caught a previously elusive glimpse of the world women have to navigate, and they’ve had to realise that too often they are the obstacles that must be avoided.
The fact that Hollywood has been a focal point of this moment means that many of the people we admire most and who we welcome into our homes via our screens, are the ones we are having to have a reckoning with. The things which we used to be able to dismiss as sensationalist tabloid fodder can no longer be ignored as such. It tests the strength of the pedestals we put these people on, and begs us to question whether we can keep enjoying their work.
You can watch The Pianist and separate the art from the artist for two and a half hours because at no point during the film are you confronted by what Roman Polanski is infamous for, and you can admire Adrien Brody’s performance completely removed from the spectre of Polanski. The same is not always true for C.K. A vast chunk of his material is now inaccessible to even the most ardent fan who would want to ignore what he’s done.
“That’s not a homeless guy, that’s a married man right there,” goes the sketch about a man masturbating on the highway because he can’t get privacy in his own house, “He’s got nowhere to go! ‘Fuck it. Fuck you, go ahead and look, man. I got nothing to hide, what else am I gonna do?’”
What once had me suffocating in laughter now provokes a violent cringe, and a man whose presence on the screen could once produce a Pavlovian smile now reflexively conjures up an image of a man who, like he describes in his own comedy, is “down in the cellar by the boiler like a troll”, masturbating in front of a horrified looking woman.
C.K’s statement of apology leaves little to be desired as far as apologies for something like this go. He doesn’t try to deflect responsibility, he doesn’t try to vilify the women as others have done, he doesn’t try to attract sympathy in a cynical way as Kevin Spacey did, he acknowledges the abuse of his position of influence and the fact that he ran from his actions.
There is little reason to believe that he is any less disgusted with himself than anyone else is, but in a paradox, the sincerity of his apology almost makes his actions worse. A man with the presence of mind and emotional awareness that we know C.K to have should have known better. He isn’t a monster like Weinstein or Cosby, or a megalomaniac like Trump, he is an otherwise decent man who should have known the impact of what he was doing but did it anyway.
He didn’t just make us laugh at ourselves, he made us unwittingly laugh at what he did to those women.
Comedians like C.K are great because they show you your own shames, your own hang-ups, your own dark thoughts, and make you laugh at them. He’s one of us. We recognise him in ourselves, and that makes coming to terms with what he did that much worse. He didn’t just make us laugh at ourselves, he made us unwittingly laugh at what he did to those women.
For the impact on his fans, he is only part responsible. It’s also our fault for the collective pedestal we put him on, which was strong enough to ignore years of rumours, and solid enough to maintain hopes that rumours were all they were. Maybe people will be able to enjoy his comedy again one day, but even the parts entirely unrelated to his behaviour will never be removed of the stain. For Louis C.K the entertainer, this is a fate worse than death. The days when his work could be appreciated without a nagging voice in the back of people’s heads are over.
A lot of the commentary following his downfall – including this piece – has focused on the impact C.K has had on comedy, but as we mourn the loss of a body of work that will never be looked at the same, and as we grapple with a sense of disappointment and disgust so large that they render those words inadequate, it is important to also mourn the lost work of those women whose star was put out because of one pathetic man’s selfish predation.
Feature Image Credit: Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images file