On Thursday, the New York Times published a story about comedian Louis C.K. being accused of sexual misconduct by five women. The women all alleged that C.K. masturbated in front of them or over the phone, or requested to masturbate in front of them.
I first heard rumors of C.K.'s alleged proclivity when I moved to Los Angeles in early 2013. I'd gone to a stand-up show with some female friends and, afterwards, we sat around with the comedians, shooting the shit. When the subject of sleazy male comics came up, the ladies began rattling off the worst offenders. Some of the guys I'd never heard of, some of them were, I thought, predictable. But only one name, C.K.'s, was truly surprising, and, to be quite honest, a real fucking bummer.
At that time, rumors about C.K.'s alleged sexual misconduct were pretty isolated to the comedy world; the average fan saw him as the rare male comedian with a nuanced, compassionate look into the lives of women. Although he purposefully hasn’t call himself a feminist — in a June, 2016 interview with New York Magazine, he said, "I don’t feel strongly enough about anything to give myself a label" — he often infused his comedy with what seemed like an astute, empathetic understanding of the hardships of being a woman, particularly in relation to male hostility and fragility.
In one bit from his April 2013 HBO special, Oh My God, C.K. talks about the courage it takes for women to date men. "How do women still go out with guys, when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men?" he asks the audience. "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." A few seconds later, he says of men, "You know what our number-one threat is? Heart disease."
In an earlier stand-up special from December 2011, Live at the Beacon Theater, he mocks men for wondering why women don't want to have sex with them more. "We think it’s because they don’t have as much desire as we do," he says. "That’s how stupid men are." He explains that, for a man, every time a man has sex with a woman, it's "the greatest thing that ever happened in his life," while, for a woman, "'bout 40 percent of the time, she’s being fucked by a guy, she's thinking … I’ll get over this in a week. It’s not the worst thing. I’m not gonna cry this time." (I used to laugh along with that last part, but it takes on a much more sinister tone in the light of Thursday's allegations.) He goes on to chastise men for calling women "needy" because they want to cuddle after sex. "She’s not needy, you idiot, she’s horny, because you did nothing for her."Performing at the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival in 2014.
For years, C.K. had many women, feminist thinkers included, on his side. In 2012, after comedian Daniel Tosh sparked an intense online debate about whether rape jokes were ever funny, for example, Jezebel writer Lindy West used a C.K. rape joke to illustrate one that "work[s]." His joke: "I'm not condoning rape, obviously — you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won't let you." West wrote:
Here's why this joke doesn't make me feel like shit: Louis CK has spent 20 years making it very publicly clear that he is on the side of making things better. The oppressors never win at the end of his jokes. That's why it's easy to give him the benefit of the doubt that this joke is making fun of rapists—specifically the absurd and horrific sense of entitlement that accompanies taking over someone else's body like you're hungry and it's a delicious hoagie. The point is, only a fucking psychopath would think like that, and the simplicity of the joke lays that bare.Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
(Full disclosure: I worked at Jezebel when this piece was published but was not involved in the editing process.)
C.K. addressed the Tosh backlash in an interview with Jon Stewart, then host of The Daily Show, and spoke of how he listens and learns from women. "I’ve read some blogs during this whole thing that have made me enlightened to things I didn’t know," he said. "This woman said how rape is something that polices women’s lives. They have a narrow corridor. They can’t go out late, they can’t go to certain neighborhoods, they can’t get a certain way, because they might get … that’s part of me now that wasn’t before."
By this time, critical acclaim for C.K.'s FX show Louie, which premiered in 2010, had reached a fever-pitch. Like his stand-up, the show touched on topics like divorce, fatherhood, and dating. New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum wrote in July 2012, "It’s so good I’m afraid to praise it too highly, for fear you’ll be let down," and noted its influence over several other shows, including Lena Dunham's Girls.At the Emmys in 2014, the year he took home the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.
The show’s success allowed him to launch projects for other artists, which in turn allowed him to become known not only as a sympathizer of women, but as their creative champion as well. In 2016, he teamed up with Pamela Adlon, who appeared on Louie, to develop Better Things, an FX series about a single mom. (He's credited as co-writing, co-producing, and directing the pilot.) "Pamela has accomplished all this while simultaneously raising her three kids on her own," C.K. said during a panel following a Tribeca TV Festival screening in September. "I could never do what Pamela does and neither could any of you."
That C.K. ingratiated himself to women over the years while hiding his alleged misconduct is not only disturbing — it raises questions about his authenticity. Comedian Tig Notaro, who saw her star rise when C.K. released her 2012 Largo set about her cancer diagnosis on his web site, spoke to the Times about feeling used by the famous, powerful comedian. She says she fears "he released my album to cover his tracks" and that "he knew it was going to make him look like a good guy, supporting a woman." C.K. is currently credited as a producer on her Amazon series, One Mississippi, as well, although Notaro told Vanity Fair in August 2017 that he "has nothing to do with the show." In the same interview, she called on him to "handle" the allegations against him.
For women, comedy can, ironically, often be heartbreaking. We repeatedly have to deal with something we love not loving us back. Tired male comedians cling to regressive, retrograde routines that hinge on believing all women are bleeding harpies who just want to collect cats. And that's if we're lucky — there are far darker acts out there, with many male comedians crying "First Amendment" the second you object to their dumb, stale, scary rape joke.
It can be a hostile world for the women who love comedy — performers and consumers alike — and that's what makes C.K.'s alleged acts all the more upsetting. Here's a dude who many women believed "got it" and was on our team. I never loved C.K. as a comedian, but I admittedly spent years respecting the ways he positioned himself as an advocate of women; his willingness to engage was inspiring, and at the very least, he seemed like a great role model to other male comics. Except he wasn’t.
In one of many disheartening allegations from the Times story, comedian Abby Schachner spoke of calling C.K. in 2003 to invite him to one of her shows. During the conversation, she says he began telling her his sexual fantasies and that heard him masturbating. Six years later, the Times reports, C.K. sent Schachner an apology via Facebook. And while she accepted, she said their original interaction had discouraged her from pursuing comedy.
Think about that. The loss of career. The loss of dreams. Not for lack of talent, but because you're supposed to be okay with being harassed, humiliated, or worse. The vast unknown potential of so many women (and men) are the casualties of valuing a predatory guy — whether he’s an obvious creep or a wolf in feminist’s clothing — above all else. But with each brave person who comes forward with their story, the hope is, eventually, these men will have nowhere to hide. Not even behind their "good guy" acts.
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