Louis C.K. is done.
A New York Times investigation published today put names and specifics to unsourced stories that had been circulating for years, alleging that the filmmaker-performer pressured five female colleagues to watch or listen to him masturbate. A one-line summary on the Times story strikes at the heart of the charges: “As the powerful comedian found success by talking about his hang-ups, he was also asking female comics and co-workers to watch him masturbate.”
The Times investigation by Melena Ryzik, Cara Buckley, and Jodi Kantor arrived mere hours after the announcement that C.K.’s movie distributor had canceled the premiere of his new film, I Love You, Daddy, a controversy-stoking two-fer in which C.K. plays a C.K.-like television producer who has a sexual relationship with an actress who’s about to star in his new TV show, while his teenage daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz), a legal minor, is having a fling with a much older, Woody Allen–like film director (John Malkovich). The black-and-white photography and orchestral score are both modeled on Allen’s Manhattan, likewise an uneasy comedy about an older man’s relationship with a teenager. The movie includes a long bit in which the C.K. character’s assistant (Charlie Day) loudly mimes masturbating on an office couch with other people present — including a female producer played by Edie Falco, who looks disturbed but still carries on a conversation with C.K.’s character as if this sort of thing happens all the time. The film’s very release now seems to be in jeopardy, and by the time you read this, it may have been shelved or simply written off as a loss.
C.K. is only the latest Hollywood power player who seems finished. The allegations of sexual harassment, indecent exposure, exploitation, pederasty, rape, and other offenses have opened up a vortex of shame and punishment that’s vacuuming up the industry like the black hole that opened up at the end of Poltergeist. Whole bodies of work now have asterisks next to them. A couple of hours after the C.K. story broke, former Mad Men writer Kater Gordon accused series creator Matthew Weiner of telling her at the office one night that she owed it to him “to see her naked.” (A spokesperson for Mr. Weiner said that he “does not remember saying this comment nor does it reflect a comment he would say to any colleague.”) Gordon, who was Weiner’s assistant before joining the writing staff, won an Emmy with Weiner for co-writing one of the show’s best episodes, the season-two finale “Meditations in an Emergency.” Gordon told at least one friend about Weiner’s remark, but never formally complained for fear of losing her job. She said the comment shook her, and within a season, she was gone, and never worked in TV again.
The Times article about C.K. included multiple accounts of indecent behavior, mostly from the mid-aughts. There were also contextualizing quotes from people like writer-producer-performer Tig Notaro, whose Louis C.K.–produced Amazon series, One Mississippi, recently included a subplot about a C.K.-like incident of public masturbation. In August, Notaro urged C.K. to “handle” the allegations by fully addressing them — something he still hasn’t done. (He declined to comment for the Times story, and was evasive during an interview last year with New York Magazine’s David Marchese.) One of the most disquieting parts of the Times piece finds C.K. privately apologizing to a woman for a 2003 incident and getting the details wrong, which suggests he’d done this sort of thing frequently enough that he can’t keep track of the particulars.
Does this mean that Louis C.K.’s art wasn’t significant? Of course not. It was hugely important, not just to viewers, but also to people who went on to make TV shows of their own. Some of the most fascinating current half-hour series, including Atlanta, High Maintenance, Insecure, You’re the Worst, and the C.K.-co-produced One Mississippi and Better Things might not have existed if the FX series Louie hadn’t done for the half-hour comedy what Lenny Bruce’s routines did for stand-up 60 years ago. “Sort of like Louie, but with X” used to be a formulation for TV writers pitching new shows. But some other shows will have to be cited as comparison points for the time being, or going forward.
Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, and Harvey Weinstein’s entire body of work has been retroactively contaminated by multiple accounts accusing them of sexually predatory behavior ranging from sexual harassment to rape. These stories change our perception of their art, whether we would like them to or not. This is not just unavoidable, it’s a necessary part of processing art and coming to terms with it.
When disturbing stories about respected artists come from the distant past, we treat them dispassionately, as just one detail among many. Present-tense or near-present-tense revelations hit us differently because we share the same world as the artist, breathe the same air, feed the same economy. We think of them as contemporaries, even as people we know. This kind of revelation changes the relationship between the artist and the art, in a way that places an unasked-for, unfair burden on the audience. This is what’s happening culturewide. And it’s not the fault of people who didn’t report it, or audiences who aren’t sophisticated enough to separate the art from the artist. It’s the fault of the artists for being secret creeps or criminals, and the fault of the system for making it possible for them to act this way for years without being punished.
The allegations against C.K. also constitute a form of betrayal, against an audience that trusts artists to make edgy, even unlikable work, and gives them the benefit of the doubt when they wade into the deepest, darkest parts of their imagination.
A well-crafted, intelligent story about the impact of rape, domestic violence, pederasty, and so forth is already tough to watch. It becomes a horrendous experience once you add the possibility that the writer or director actually did what they’re depicting, and might be getting off on making the audience squirm by representing it while not fessing up to their relationship with it. It’s a power move, rooted in the thrill of subterfuge and shock: an artist’s version of indecent exposure.
C.K. did this in season four of Louie, when he built an episode around the main character forcing himself on his best friend (played by Pamela Adlon, the show’s co-producer and frequent co-writer). I supported these episodes because, as far as I knew at the time, they were a storytelling gambit that juxtaposed the self-aware, self-questioning public entertainer “Louie,” who was seemingly close to Louis C.K. the comedian (represented in a stand-up sequence in that very same show), against the private version of the character, a sexual-ethics train wreck who put his urges and sense of entitlement ahead of consent. This story struck me at the time as a brave, if potentially foolhardy, attempt to complicate the audience’s reaction to the character, and caution us that artists might not be as good as the public face they show us.
But the conclusion of that story — a happy ending that found Pamela forgiving Louie and entering into a romantic relationship with him — was gross, and in retrospect, it seems a harbinger of allegations that came to light today. As I told former Vulture recapper Danielle Henderson in a conversation about the season, “That scene at the end of ‘Pamela Part 1’ just keeps bobbing up like something nasty that you want to stay at the bottom of the ocean of the show’s subconscious. You want it to stay down there because it complicates what should be a sweet and rather redemptive arc.”
Finding out that C.K. is a sexual predator immediately changes our perception of that two-parter. Now it seems like some kind of cover story, and any art that it contained is overshadowed by the sense that it was all a con job, regardless of whether its grappling with morality was sincere (and I think it probably was). The Times revelations make it seem in retrospect as if C.K. was trying to get away with something in those episodes — convincing people that he was more like the Louie who joked onstage about male hypocrisy and impulse control than the predator blocking a door; or the C.K. who made I Love You, Daddy, a work that seems designed to taunt anyone who ever had a problem with Woody Allen’s sexual politics and behavior, or worried that the rumors about C.K. might be true.
C.K. betrayed the trust of the women he exposed himself to. Their experiences should always be considered first when his name is discussed and his legacy debated, just as we should think about the TV-writing career that Mad Men’s Gordon never had, and the star parts that Rose McGowan, Annabella Sciorra, Mira Sorvino, and others might have had if they’d never been cornered by Weinstein.
But C.K. also betrayed the trust of his audience. So did Spacey and Cosby and the rest.
There’s no reason to feel remorse for disinvesting affection we sank into artists who are later revealed to be criminals or abusers. There’s no reason to have qualms about stamping their work “Of Archival Interest Only” and moving on to something new — not just new work, but a new paradigm for relationships in show business, and all business. The women who came forward opened themselves to being ostracized and re-traumatized. The only reason they spoke up is to make show business, and the world, safer and more humane. Time to listen.