‘He Can’t Just Let His Art Do the Talking": Read This Essay About Louis C.K. and Uncomfortable Rumors

Louis C.K.’s new film I Love You, Daddy premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend, and now that the persistent rumors of his sexual misconduct have resurfaced again thanks to some recent comments by his former friend and collaborator Tig Notaro, there’s the lingering question: Given the free pass Bill Cosby got for years despite all the women who came forward with allegations against him, and given Notaro’s public statements distancing herself from him, how long will C.K. go – and how far will journalists allow him to go – without having to address the rumors directly rather than brush them off like he did in his interview with Vulture last year?

In a new piece for Hazlitt called “Truth in Jest?”, Emma Healey sums up the entire saga surrounding the long-running rumors, which started with a blind item in Gawker in 2012, then another Gawker article naming C.K. in 2012, then a (now-deleted) podcast episode by Jen Kirkman in 2015 where she called out “a very famous comic” many assumed was C.K. for being a “known perv.” “If you think the Gawker posts were unsubstantiated rumors so baseless they’re not even worth addressing, C.K.’s refusal to talk about them is a smart way of handling a potentially explosive issue,” Healey writes. “If you think they might be true, it’s just a dodge. And if you don’t want to think about it at all, then great, because neither does he.”

Using the rape scene in the season 4 Louie episode “Pamela Part 1” as a jumping-off point, Healey makes the case that C.K. – who often tackles themes like misogyny, privilege, and hypocrisy in his work – should respond to the rumors, because if they are true, then it exposes his comedy as a lie. Conversely, if they aren’t true but C.K. continues to dismiss them as things that aren’t important, then why does he consistently put out work that argues they are? (Confusing things further, C.K. said in 2015 that he didn’t consider the scene to be a rape, but he did say that rape is “a real serious and bad thing.”) Here’s an excerpt from the Hazlitt piece:

His insistence that none of this matters has kept the subject from troubling his public image not because this work/life argument is ironclad, but because most of the people who admire his work really don’t want to think about the rumours at all. If you’re a Louis C.K. fan, his reasoning is attractive for the same reason it’s logically dubious—because an essential part of his act is the assumption that it’s scaffolded by a moral conscience. If the structural integrity of the whole thing starts to give way, then suddenly your favourite comedian might not be your favourite comedian anymore. If these rumours were true, they would suck the life out of a lot of his best jokes, because their humour depends on the idea that they don’t end with a crime. A bit about how men are the number one threat to women doesn’t land quite the same way if the man doing it is guilty of sexual assault. It’s both easier for C.K. and better for his brand if he just keeps his mouth shut. But these rumours haven’t gone away. They’ve been floating around publicly for five years now, and regardless of whether or not he wants to address them, they’re past the point where C.K. can comfortably argue they don’t matter, or that they’re not real. Notaro’s right: it’s serious to be harassed, it’s serious to be assaulted. And even though C.K.’s career could continue mostly unaffected if he never addressed these allegations head-on, his refusal to treat the subject as if it deserves to be addressed feels unpleasantly dismissive to the people who think the question does matter. Whenever these rumours slip back into the pop-cultural news cycle, the women I know who like C.K.’s work invariably say the same things: it’s depressing, it’s disappointing, it feels like a betrayal.

There’s also a warning for fans and interviewers who follow C.K.’s lead and dismiss the rumors rather than dealing with the discomfort that they dredge up when it comes to the “art vs. the artist” argument:

This is why C.K.’s failure to address these allegations is not a good enough reason for his fans to avoid the difficult, uncomfortable issues they bring up. If you like this guy’s work because of its ethical spine, and yet you can keep enjoying it exactly the same way once these allegations are introduced—without any traces of concern or creeping dread or cognitive dissonance or confusion or frustration—then maybe it’s worth thinking about why they’re so easy for you to ignore. This is the exact same idea that runs under C.K.’s work like a third rail, makes him seem so insightful: the moments when an issue is small enough for you to register it and then turn away comfortably are the moments when it probably deserves your closest scrutiny.

While she describes herself as a former C.K. fan, Healey sees his unwillingness to treat the allegations seriously – whether they are true or not – not just as a mistake, but as a betrayal. “Now, it makes me feel like I got tricked by another man who’s only willing to engage with this stuff at arms’ length, and only for as long as it makes him look good. If you care about this problem enough to make art about it, it doesn’t magically stop mattering once it touches your real life.” This is a sentiment screenwriter David Misch also expressed in a piece about the relationship between “truth” and “authenticity” in the context of C.K.’s standup:

“Authenticity” doesn’t require truth but it does depend on whether a joke reveals truth or is just there for a cheap laugh. Now I’m all for cheap laughs (my own oeuvre contains the occasional fart joke), but the calculus for every standup is how much a cheap laugh costs for her relationship with the audience. Picasso defined art as “the lie that reveals the truth,” but we all have our own truths. When Louis C.K. asks us to take significant moral leaps, we have the right to expect that his stories, the points he makes, the insights he has, reflect his beliefs.

Read the entire Hazlitt piece here.

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