The laughter and applause are the risky things. The National Review wanted everyone to know that Louis C.K. is “iconoclastic” and “transgressive.” This followed Reason announcing that Louis C.K. was “back in bad graces with would-be culture cops,” which followed, in turn, the appearance online of a bootleg recording of him telling bad jokes in a December standup set on Long Island.
The jokes were not bad, the defenders argue. They were outrageous—gags about the Parkland teens, about trans people’s choice of pronouns, about using the word “retarded,” about Asian masculinity—and that made him a target of an inexhaustible, moralizing outrage culture.
People want to have the argument about the jokes. It is a congenial sort of argument to put on, as long as you don’t have to actually defend the Asian-dick gag, because it makes the whole Louis C.K. situation into a struggle over free expression and censoriousness. It offers a way for new people to get on his side.
But as Reason did acknowledge at the top of its item about the culture cops, and as the National Review only glancingly alluded to late in its praise of his transgressions, jokes weren’t Louis C.K.’s downfall. His downfall was his habit of pulling out his penis in front of unwilling women and making them watch him jerk off—a habit he indulged in for years, in the workplace, at the expense of less powerful comedians’ careers and opportunities.
What’s the proper punishment for this? It’s not a rhetorical question—though, again, it makes things easy if it’s treated as one. Should a person have his entire life and career destroyed over a single incident, OK, multiple incidents, a bad habit, but technically without any criminal complaints about it? Is that fair?
Maybe? One answer might be that he should try doing something else, go back behind the scenes, and let other people have the spotlight. That’s not an answer he’s likely to embrace. Once a man has reached a certain level of success or fame, there is no way to make him believe he should have less. This has been the echo of the Me Too moment: the disgraced radio host John Hockenberry, complaining about his own fate in Harper’s, described himself looking at job listings for “disabled senior citizens to be greeters at Walmart stores in Utah and Georgia”—unwilling to imagine that living below the peak could be anything but menial. Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose floating comebacks.
And Louis C.K. getting back up onstage, in unpublicized appearances, starting less than a year after his confession, shunned but not quitting. “[T]he new stuff,” Reason‘s Robbie Soave wrote, in another piece in his defense, “is pretty much exactly in line with Louis C.K.’s previous material, which was equally dedicated to the slaughter of sacred cows.”
The jokes—how do you feel about the jokes? “Those who suddenly find themselves balking at Louis C.K.’s edgy material should admit that the comedian didn’t really change,” Soave wrote. “They did.” If this is true, it’s trivial: what changed about the audience is what it knows about Louis C.K. Before, his appeal was that he sold himself as being, at bottom, one of the good ones, the kind of good one who could be frank about how bad he was in his heart. It’s one thing to admit that men struggle with creepy urges, and another thing to be someone who follows through on those creepy urges. It’s the difference between the standup routine as confession and the standup routine as absolution.
It’s not possible to just go back to the confessional mode. People reacted to the content of the jokes because, in the new context, they seemed to be a new kind of provocation. One easy path forward, in a situation like Louis C.K.’s, is to lean into being a creep, and thereby into being a martyr—a martyr to a person’s right to be a creep, and their right not to feel bad about being a creep. Someone could ride that shtick to a whole new degree of celebrity, or all the way to the presidency. You don’t even have to be funny anymore, as long as you can point to the right people saying you’re not funny.
From the bootleg audio clips of the show, it’s hard to be sure how committed Louis C.K. is to taking that turn. The trans material is repulsive, delivered using a Michael Savage–grade sissy voice; the bit about resenting the Parkland teens’ fame could plausibly just be a comedian testing the boundaries of irreverence. The stuff about race and dick size is—well, there’s a reason the headlines focused on Parkland, because there’s no real frame around it but the idea of Louis C.K. presenting himself as the most loathsome comedian he can.
What comes right before the racist material, though, is the part about the word “retarded.” He set it up as a bit of harsh sympathy, an attack not on people with mental disabilities but on the rest of the population, for first using “retarded” as an insult and then declaring it off limits, because it had been used as an insult, leaving the people with mental disabilities to sort out the results of the decision. “They’re not even in the fucking room,” Louis C.K. says, “because we exclude them from our lives.”
That’s one side of the context. The other side of the context, though, is the audience hooting into the microphone as it records. “We exclude them from our lives,” the comedian says, and the loudest person goes “HahahaHAAAAAA!!” Moments later, as Louis C.K. is making what could, from a forgiving angle, be a complaint about the unfairness of it all, the loud person sees a punchline coming and chimes in to yell it in unison: “‘Cause he’s fucking retarded!”
That’s what the people are laughing at. The comedian can lead them or follow them. So Louis C.K. makes a choice:
Don’t just change the thing you call them. Be nice to them. Do something for them. Go and meet a retarded person—and date, go date a retarded person. Go have a retarded boyfriend, and suck his dick. Then you can fucking get offended.
Listen… Fuck it, what, are you gonna take away my birthday? My life is over, I don’t give a shit. You can be offended. It’s OK. You can get mad at me.
[Audience: Woooo! Loooie!]
Anyway. So, why do black guys have big dicks?