When the New York Times published its explosive investigation about Louis C.K.’s alleged history of sexual harassment on Thursday afternoon, it confirmed rumors that had been swirling around the comedian for years. In light of the first on-the-record interviews with women who described C.K.’s harassment — which, according to the Times, involved C.K. masturbating in front of, or on the phone with, women pursuing careers in comedy — some fans may have looked back at key moments in his work to search for on-camera signs of his off-camera indiscretions.
Certainly one of the first moments that comes to mind is the season-four episode of Louie called “Pamela, Part 1.” That half-hour aired on FX in 2014, two years after Gawker published a blind item about C.K. that matches practically verbatim the story that Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov eventually told Times reporters Melena Ryzik, Cara Buckley, and Jodi Kantor about him masturbating in front of them at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen back in 2002.
At the time the episode was broadcast, plenty of TV critics and recappers zeroed in on its most controversial scene, where C.K.’s Louie corners his friend Pamela (played by Pamela Adlon, his real-life writing partner) and forces himself on her. Although there had been some sexual tension between the two characters in past episodes, Pamela told Louie in a previous scene that she was no longer interested in him. Nevertheless, when Louie returns to his apartment where Pamela has been babysitting his daughters, he tries to pull her into an embrace. (Moments beforehand, she also says something to him when he looks at her while she seems to be napping on his sofa: “Don’t jerk off. I’m awake.” At this point, I’d like to note that C.K. directed this episode, as he did every episode of Louie, and wrote it, as he did most episodes of Louie.)
Pamela repeatedly tries to get away from Louie as he attempts to overpower her. At one point, she grabs onto a desk and pulls it away from the wall. The whole time, she is saying, “No, no, no.” Then she says, “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid. You can’t even rape well.” Eventually, after he blocks her from exiting the door, she relents and lets him kiss her, though she barely puckers her lips. As soon as she’s gone, he pumps his fists and says, Yes, as if he’s Lloyd Dobler and has just won the heart of Diane Court.
It’s an odd, off-kilter scene, and odder still when one considers that after the fact, C.K. told the Wrap that he thought it was more of a “tussle” than an assault, despite the fact that the script itself says, “This would be rape.” The fact that Louie and Pamela’s relationship continues to evolve in subsequent episodes supports his assertion, even if the events in the scene do not.
But looking at “Pamela, Part 1” in light of the Times piece, there are other scenes that also cry out for examination. In the middle of the episode, Louie does a stand-up for a few minutes. In his routine, he makes a lot of great points about misogyny and how America didn’t truly become a democracy until women won the right to vote. It’s the kind of bit that, at the time, made many men and women see Louis C.K. as a progressive and a supporter of women’s rights. In fact, the stand-up part of the episode was characterized as evidence of his feminist bona fides. The Wrap article I mentioned above described it as “decidedly feminist.” Our own Vulture recap praised C.K. for having “smart things to say about the absurdity of women as property,” and noted that Louie’s comments made his subsequent assault of Pamela that much more disappointing.
But listen to that stand-up portion again, today, and you’ll notice some riffs that feel incongruous with the rest of its content. For instance, the part where Louie talks about how women used to be in charge in society, but that that changed because they were “so mean.”
“You had to walk around naked and they’d flick your penis and laugh at you,” he says. “We’re so scared of them. And then finally one guy punched a woman and she was like, ‘Wah.’ And he was like, ‘We can hit them!’ And that was it.”
Later, he says, “A lot of guys still beat their wives. But it used to be totally okay. At least now it’s frowned upon. And really, that’s about it. Just frowning. That’s about it.”
In both of these examples, the brutality of violence against women is diffused by humor and, more important, by the woke stuff that Louie says before and afterward. Of course, Louie the character is not Louis C.K. the person. But considering that C.K. wrote those words, performed them on camera, and directed their presentation, it’s fair to wonder if they emerged from some part of his psyche — a part that perhaps likes to make women uncomfortable, yet feels so much shame about that urge that he tries to wallpaper over it with feminist rhetoric. I do think that C.K. believes what he says about women deserving equal rights, both in this episode and more broadly in the other work he has done. But I also think, based on what the Times story reveals, that his behavior works counter to those beliefs. And if he feels guilty, he has been telling us, in plain sight, for a long time.
Consider two other seemingly minor scenes in this episode. The first happens at a restaurant, when Louie and Pamela overhear a nearby diner who appears to be ordering a hit on somebody. “I don’t give a shit who he is,” the guy says about some unnamed person. “He’s out there and stealing and he’s working for us? I’m not going to tolerate it. He’s fuckin’ dead is what I’m saying. He’s dead.” Later, on a subway, Louis listens to a man complaining to a woman about someone who was dishonest with him. It becomes apparent, once the woman leaves and the guy keeps talking to an empty seat, that he’s a little nuts. “Twenty-five percent of them are liars,” the man mutters. “There’s no reason to believe anything they tell you.”
The language of both of these random New Yorkers, whether Louis C.K. intended it or not, suggests a certain type of behavior that should not be tolerated. On first viewing back in 2014, this all seemed funny, like the typical weird stuff that one routinely hears on a subway or a Manhattan street corner. But now, it plays in telltale-heart fashion, as though C.K. heard whispers about intolerable behavior, including his own, and couldn’t stop hearing it.
In that second scene, Louie even gets up and sits next to the guy complaining about liars, solely to make him look less nuts. It’s the kind of gesture — showing support to a guy who feels he’s been wronged, so that he will look less crazy — that C.K. could never bring himself to make publicly toward the women who were often made to feel insane for warning others about him.
And then there’s the last scene, in which Louie rides the bus with his daughters. The girls ask their father whether he’s dating Pamela now. He doesn’t give them a straight answer, and also tells them to lie to their mom about it. Just as they start to press him on the lying issue, their conversation gets interrupted by a random passenger spitting on the bus.
“Hey, don’t spit on the bus!” Louie yells after the guy lets his mucus loose on the floor. “What’s the matter with you?”
The two get into an argument, at which point, the bus driver asks what the commotion is.
“Yo, some guy spit on the bus,” the spitter says, implicating Louie.
In the final moments of the episode, Louie is taking blame for bad behavior. But he’s also telling us, quite clearly, that it’s not his fault.
It’s funny, though: Nobody else on that bus sticks up for Louie and says he was actually trying to do the right thing. Instead, they engage in behavior that’s quite familiar: They all keep their mouths shut and just act like none of it ever happened.