Truth in Comedy After Louis C.K.

Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Comedy Central

In 2015, while working on the first installment of Vulture’s “100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy,” there was a small debate among the team of comedians, comedy historians, and comedy journalists assembled to work on the project. I say debate, but actually, everyone was pretty much in agreement: A Bill Cosby joke should make the list. We reasoned, it is a list of jokes first, not a list of the comedians who tell them (especially since some jokes on the list were told by multiple people), which detached it slightly from each person. But more so, Bill Cosby is a cancer in the body of history of American comedy that you can’t neatly cut out. He codified a style of long stories, loosely told and filled with jokes that inspired a generation of comedians, who in turn inspired another generation. Although the ink hasn’t dried on how we write about Cosby, his work, and his life, it has on his impact on comedy.

The former is true for Louis C.K., but the latter isn’t. With the New York Times bringing to light C.K’s sexual misconduct against female comedians, and C.K. admitting the allegations are true, it makes you rethink the last 15 years of stand-up comedy, an era that he largely defined.

“Truth in comedy” is an expression out of the improv world, but it generally is held as a tenet for stand-up as well. Louis C.K. was the contemporary hero of that philosophy. There was even a bit of modern comedy legend around it: Not unlike the story of young Richard Pryor disappearing after a show in Las Vegas by saying “What the fuck am I doing here?” and eventually reemerging as the dirty, political, honest comedian who generally is considered the greatest stand-up ever, the tale about Louis C.K. went as follows: He was a struggling absurdist until he decided to (1) create a new hour-long set every year, and (2) make his act more personal. The takeaway from the legend was that Louis C.K. gave the audience something more raw than they’ve experienced before, pushing the boundaries of “truth in comedy.”

Was this true? Kind of. Richard Pryor changed the game, talking about the roughest parts of his life, whether it was growing up in a whorehouse or freebasing cocaine, but it took another couple decades before comedians pushed the level of honesty much further. To quickly sum it up, the ’90s brought what became known as alternative comedy, which was defined by its lack of polish, both in terms of unfiltered material and unprofessional settings. It was best defined by two venues named Luna (New York’s Luna Lounge and L.A.’s Luna Park) and two shows, New York’s Eating It and L.A.’s UnCabaret. The comedians most associated with both spaces, but especially Beth Lapides’s UnCabaret, were women like Kathy Griffin, Julia Sweeney, Margaret Cho, and Janeane Garofalo. There were definitely men in both scenes, but the difference is that the male comics merely liked or preferred those spaces, while the female comedians needed it because of how historically unsupportive comedy clubs were toward them. In that vein, these scenes also had men who deliberately did both alternative rooms and comedy clubs because it made them better comedians. Louis C.K. is the most famous example. Unlike a Marc Maron, who generally stayed true to the ethos of those alternative rooms, C.K. found a way to appropriate the truth-first comedy pioneered by female comics for a more aggressive, more masculine comedy-club audience. His comedy wasn’t just truthful; it was brutally honest. He took the sensitivity of those rooms and used it to tell dick jokes. And that was revolutionary.

Over on the Cut, Anna Silman put together a list of all the times — and there were a lot — that Louis C.K. joked about masturbation, including arguably one of his most famous jokes. From his 2008 special, Chewed Up:

“I need to cum, I need to — cumming is a need, I came the first time when I was 12 and I haven’t skipped a day. I cum every day and I fucked maybe 20 times in my life so. It’s just been me doing most of the work and I really — you know, I jerk off way too much and it upsets me and I don’t know why. Maybe ’cause it’s so selfish, I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s bad, I know I’m hurting somebody somewhere. There’s something wrong with — I was thinking the other day, that you can figure out how bad — how bad a person you are by how soon after September 11th you masturbated, like, how long you waited? And for me it was between the two buildings going down.”

For this, he was considered the greatest living comedian by many critics, comedy fans, and, most importantly, other comedians. So much so, comedians like Jerry Seinfeld were criticized for merely performing well-written jokes they’d been working on for years. Most young comics start out trying to be one of their heroes and for the last 15 years, for many, especially men, that meant doing their version of C.K. Go to an open mic in any city and you’ll see a few dudes talking about how disgusting they are because of this thing about their dick or that thing about their dick. C.K. became a standard-bearer for what good comedy was and, in turn, what it meant to be honest onstage. Honesty itself was fetishized.

The thing is, C.K. wasn’t being honest onstage when he was selling out theaters (and later, arenas). Part of this is structural: C.K. works doggedly on material, manipulating his stories to be as funny as possible. All comedians do this, especially by the time you can buy tickets to see them. What C.K. learned from those alternative spaces, the darker your act seems, the more likely the audience think it really happened. He achieved this by going inside his psyche, or at least appearing to. Where Pryor found comedy in the darkness of his life, C.K. revealed the darkness in his head. He would tell us that he tries to be a good dad, but he still thinks one of his daughters is an asshole, to reference one of his most famous bits. Or take another well-known one: “Of course … but maybe,” where he walks the audience through all of his bad thoughts and they laugh because they’ve also had negative thoughts that aren’t tied to how they live or act as people. But Louis C.K. acted on his. That’s the truth he didn’t share with us. Considering his prominence in comedy and the prominence of honesty in his act, it makes you rethink all supposedly truthful comedy of the last 15 years. It makes it harder to hear a comedian say, “This really happened,” and believe them.

C.K.’s act was lauded for being confessional, but here’s the thing about confessing: It is a selfish act. You are revealing bad things about yourself, in exchange for absolution. As my colleague Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “It’s a power move, rooted in the thrill of subterfuge and shock: an artist’s version of indecent exposure.” It’s hard not to see parallels between C.K.’s offstage behavior and his act, but it’s not just his act. You can also see it in the acts he influenced. I see it in my favorite comedians of the last decade, personally, and the comedians I’ve celebrated professionally. Pete Holmes is gentler and less clubby than C.K., and comes off as extraordinarily nice for a comic, but he has a joke about masturbating while having phone sex with a partner that I loved at the time I heard it, and I now question my own feelings about it as a comedy fan and journalist. I bring this up not to implicate Holmes in any way, but to examine how I viewed comedy for the last decade, and how we will look back on the comedy C.K. influenced.

With the story about this era of comedy unfinished, I do not want to remove C.K. and his influence without offering a replacement — another comedian or two who can reframe and reorient how we’ve thought of truth in comedy in the 21st century. Five years ago, Tig Notaro was not confessing to the audience when she told them she had cancer. She was sharing. She was giving her tragedy to the audience, acting as a surrogate to life’s darkness and telling us that it’s okay to laugh at it. For the last 20 years, Maria Bamford was not confessing her struggles so that an audience would tell her that she’s okay. She was purposefully trying to destigmatize talking about mental illness in polite society. Both Notaro and Bamford use their act and their truth to help their audience, to improve society. Both Notaro and Bamford are tremendously influential to a younger generation of comedians. Both Notaro and Bamford are two of the greatest comedians working today. What if we defined this era around them? You can judge for yourself. Notaro is performing in L.A. tonight. Bamford is in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Go see them.

Louis C.K. Influenced a Generation of Comedians. What Now?