Just over one year ago, Louis CK was a prophet. “It’s a great year for male shittiness,” Louis CK said at the Television Critics Association press tour in August 2017, sitting next to collaborator Pamela Adlon to talk about the second season of “Better Things.” “The market is up… It’s doing great.”
CK was specifically referring to how Adlon used her personal experiences as a woman, especially in regard to how they can be poorly treated by men, to drive the intimate FX comedy. “She goes around and collects it, and it’s valuable to her,” he said as reporters and Adlon laughed. “It’s, like, when men and women see each other on the street, for us, we are collecting a spank bank and she’s collecting ideas for her show. And everybody wins.”
It’s yet another remark that was funny at the time, but following the confirmation in November 2017 that CK was one of the perpetrators of said “male shittiness” is a lot less likely to inspire laughs. Now, knowing what we know, it’s impossible to come to terms with the idea of him returning to his previous place in pop culture.
Pouring over CK’s legacy of work, including five seasons of FX’s “Louie” and 10 comedy specials, there are countless examples of how the rough darkness of his comedy was indicative of private behaviors that included frequently masturbating in front of women — women who never heard an apology.
Twelve months later, CK’s “shittiness” continues, courtesy of a surprise stand-up show the comedian performed at home base comedy club The Comedy Cellar. It marked a long-expected return behind the mic, and according to reports, CK never acknowledged the reason why he’s been offstage for nearly 10 months. He even included a joke about a “rape whistle” in his 15-minute set — queuing up a whole new cycle of outrage on the part of his critics, as well as frustrated cries about what disgraced men can do to reenter the public eye.
It’s aggrevating to once again be writing about a perpetrator of sexual abuse instead of the people whose lives were damaged, even ruined by the man’s actions. It’s frustrating that these are the narratives that dominate our attention, distracting us from creators from underrepresented communities who do great, unheralded work and have also have managed to never sexually assault anyone.
Comedians including Kathy Griffin have made the point that it’s not just CK who’s the problem; that the pervasive misogyny of the comedy world has enabled behavior like this for decades. But it’s a culture that CK thrived in, building up his popularity and personal audience to the point where, after becoming an Emmy-winning TV auteur, he was able to create, produce, and distribute his own TV show with literally no gatekeepers involved whatsoever: the 10-episode series “Horace and Pete,” which he released in the spring of 2016.
A) There's also something we're not talking about…general abuse of/retaliation against women in the workplace that isn't in the sexual misconduct department. I got a message from a famous woman comedian the other night that broke my heart….(cont) https://t.co/PvDo9GdCw5
— Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) August 29, 2018
He made a similar move in 2017, self-financing the production of the indie black-and-white film “I Love You, Daddy.” IndieWire’s Eric Kohn reviewed the film at TIFF 2017, praising it for the quality of the filmmaking while also acknowledging that it was “his most outwardly problematic work for reasons that have less to do with the caliber of the filmmaking than ideas behind it.”
The memory of “I Love You, Daddy,” which I was able to see at a press screening a few weeks prior to the publication of the New York Times piece and the Orchard canceling the film’s release, remains an unpleasant one. CK assembled a talented cast and, by paying for the film himself, had complete creative control: Unfortunately, the script felt like a rambling mess of people saying things at each other about issues that certainly deserved discussion, especially when it comes to men, women, and consent, but ultimately feeling a narcissistic portrait that never really comes to understand any point of view but that of CK’s cypher, one driven towards self-excusing his behavior as well as that of the men around him.
And that attitude seems to persist now, which is a shame, because at his peak CK was a master of finding comedy in our most uncomfortable moments, while also celebrating that same instinct in his peers. The same thing that garnered CK a lot of respect in comedy circles — his interest in partnering with upcoming talents and amplifying their voices — also made him a powerful figure that people, especially women, feared crossing for fear of the damage it would do to their careers.
Louis CK and abusers don't get a comfy re-entry into society until they make this shit right. Period. https://t.co/HsgO7E7HmP
— Nina Bargiel (@slackmistress) August 29, 2018
Never forget this haunting comment from Tig Notaro, in the original Times piece: While CK’s support helped her break into the mainstream as a comedian, “[Notaro’s] fear is that ‘he released my album to cover his tracks,’ she said. ‘He knew it was going to make him look like a good guy, supporting a woman.'”
The logical path to redemption, theoretically, would be to make amends for all the damage done by finding ways to support women in comedy, especially women whose careers and lives he affected. Here’s the catch, the snake eating its own tail: How does a man who sexually assaulted his female co-workers in the past prove he won’t do it again? Answer: He can’t, and no woman should be asked to work with him under any such circumstances.
There is no such thing as “too soon” when it comes to returning to the public eye. If you are someone who wants to be in the public eye, the public deserves to see that you’ve made real change. If CK were capable of real introspection regarding what he did wrong, and chose to use his money and influence to create something — a stand-up special, a short film, whatever — that legitimately reflected a change in attitude, not only would it be a sign that he really did as he said he would and “listen” to what was being said about his behavior… Look, it would not mean he was deserving of real redemption for his past actions. But that would be worth our attention.
However, if he’s not going to say anything of value, then he needs to stay quiet, so that we can hear the women he silenced.