Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hyde and C.K.

Louis C.K. performing on-stage in 2015. (Photo: Charles Sykes)

The current explosion of allegations of sexual abuse and predatory behavior by powerful men in the entertainment industry is a sign of health. A year after a solid minority of the American electorate chose as our president a man who sees women as accessory items to be bought, used, and judged on their looks – and who has sought to empower and has surrounded himself with misogynists, homophobes, and racists – people with stories to tell are coming forward, in some cases after decades of fearful silence, and exposing rich, influential, deeply entrenched power players as monsters. It's clear by now that a seismic shift in public perception and a redefinition of what's acceptable behavior – and not just the behavior of the predators themselves, but those who become complicit in their actions by keeping their secrets and giving them cover – is necessary if the toxic slime infecting the culture and impacting people's careers is going to be cleared away. Some of the ugliest behavior has been on the part of men who've been shaping the culture for more than a generation, like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. But those two are also past their prime as movers and shakers and had plenty of enemies who were happy to see them fall. When it became general knowledge that Cosby is a serial rapist, the news had a special shock built into it because of the millions of TV viewers who, having first discovered him at the midpoint of his career, thought of him as a dispenser of paternal wisdom and family values, both in real life and as the star of The Cosby Show. And Weinstein worked hard at molding his sham image as a nurturer of talent and the businessman hero who made independent American cinema possible and popular. But did anyone in the year of our lord 2017 actually like them?

But Louis C.K. is a different story. In his Kindle Single King Louie (2014), James Wolcott acknowledged the truth of Andrew Corsello's GQ cover story, headlined "Louis C.K. Is America's Undisputed King of Comedy," and saw in the "loosely autobiographical, picaresque narrative" of his television series Louie "the unlikely consummation of the ideal nursed by French film theorists that the auteur might someday bypass traditional norms and clunky production paraphernalia and individualize his or her vision on the screen with a camera-stylo ('camera pen'), the eye and the execution and image becoming indivisible." (At the show's peak, C.K. wrote, produced, directed, edited, and starred in every episode.) But that wouldn't be enough to account for C.K.'s standing as a culture hero at this moment if he hadn't also been seen as a Good Man – a genius, but a likable, down-to-earth genius who exposed his own foibles as an aging, horny white male and single father to make a statement about himself, his kind, and the world disintegrating around them. (Playing his alter ego on TV, C.K. always came across as a little thicker and less purposefully self-aware than the maker of Louie could plausibly be. This helped make it seem that he wasn't too big for his britches and, for a time, made it possible for him to discuss the male-female questions from all sorts of angles while inoculating himself against charges of mansplaining.) C.K. could be wildly transgressive and confessional without giving real offense to the kind of people who assign letter grades to television shows because he was taken for woke. In discussions of the nature of Louis C.K.'s greatness – Corsello called him "almost James Joycean" – Woody Allen was a constant point of reference, and that's partly because of the special place Allen held in the culture prior to 1992, when, in the less fragmented internet age, a handful of middle-aged white male movie critics on the East Coast persuaded the world that he was not just a comedian and filmmaker of rare talent but the last moral man on the Upper East Side. Turns out that's a double-edged comparison, and maybe a curse.

Since The New York Times's big story breaking open the rumors that C.K. had masturbated in the presence of multiple women and his public statement acknowledging the truth of the report, the think pieces from TV critics who've covered the auteur's career have started rolling in. Thanks to Weinstein, Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Roman Polanski, R. Kelly, and all the other members of their coven, we've all heard plenty by now about the arguments for and against separating "the art from the artist," but the arguments about C.K., especially from the writers who seem to think they're in danger of being accused of complicity in his success, strike a special tone. In a column titled "I Admired Louis C.K. What a Mistake," Variety's Sonia Sarayia scolds herself for her "painfully short-sighted analysis of his perspective" and writes that her rave review of Louie's fifth and (presumably) final season is "embarrassing to look at now. Not just because if I’d known what I know now, I would have written a different review of 'Louie,' a show that hinged both on comedian Louis C.K.’s performed self-awareness and his uncomfortable relationship with sex. Not just because this review is the first one you’ll see on Wikipedia’s entry for 'Louie,' Season 5. But also because it’s clear, reading between the lines of my review, how much faith I had in his comedy."

Sarayia invokes her "trust" in C.K. to explain why she liked his work so much, and his violation of that trust causes her to reconsider the work itself and search it for signs of unwokeness. "I was taken in. I have written numerous laudatory commentaries on Louis C.K.’s shows and appearances, and they are all out there for the public record, and I’m going to have to live with that. It does not escape my notice that a seal of approval from feminist critics or comedians gave him a shield from accusations of misogyny; I have to live with that, too." If the world had never learned of C.K.'s abusive behavior, would all that lauding be a point of pride? Does what we now know about the private cruelties of Louis C.K., mad wanker, automatically transform work that was good into work that is shit? Or was it shit all the time, but we didn't know enough about the man who made it to judge it correctly? Only if art is nothing but a byproduct of someone's life, to be judged by the life itself, on the theory that people are either good or bad and no bad person can create something good because his "perspective" is so tainted. There seem to be pieces of this attitude floating around in a lot of what passes for criticism now: three years ago, Slate's Willa Paskin wrote about an episode of Louie in which the hero has an interaction with an overweight waitress (Vanessa, played by Sarah Baker), who, in a long walk-and-talk, gives him a dose of her "perspective." "Overweight characters," wrote Passkin, "are so infrequently showcased on television – or really in any popular media – that to hear Vanessa lay it all out, telling Louie exactly what it’s like to be a fat girl, initially felt to me like a kind of revelation." That changed when, having assumed that Baker had written the speech herself, she learned that Louis C.K. had written it, just like the credits on the episode said he did. For Paskin, this raises the question of "how representative of overweight women is she? [ . . . ] The first time I watched the episode, I read Vanessa’s entire speech about the difficulty of being a fat girl as a female cri de coeur. The second time I watched it, after interviewing Baker and learning that she had nothing to do with the script, it seemed more like a male mea culpa." The speech was good, but then it turned out that it was written by someone very different from the character delivering it – someone who had to try to imagine the thought and feelings of someone unlike himself – and that means it's just "condescending" and a fantasy. Paskin doesn't believe in art, just autobiographical perspective and authenticity achieved by staying in your own lane. And this perspective is endemic on the internet and in criticism right now. It keeps things simple; if the only art you can trust is someone bitching about his or her personal experience and good people do all the good work and the bad people's worth is contaminated by bad faith, you'll never risk being wrong in your letter grading.

Louis C.K. and Sarah Baker in a scene from Louie.

At Vulture, Jesse David Fox extends the contamination attached to Louis C.K's greatest accomplishments to the entire comedy scene: “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. 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." But what does it mean when the hero of the revolution turned out to be a counter-revolutionary sexist pig wanker? "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." That "appearing to" is the clincher to Fox's accusation that C.K.'s whole career was an act of bad faith: he wasn't really honest, he was only pretending to be, and so he played us.

"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." Having come up with this syllogism, Fox urges his readers to reject comedians like Louis C.K., who "confess" things, and replace him on the pedestal with those comics – he cites Tig Notaro and Maria Bamford as examples – who "share" things. It sounds very kumbaya, but he also compares C.K. invidiously with Richard Pryor, the all-time greatest stand-up comic, who "changed the game [by] talking about the roughest parts of his life." Pryor was a great performer whose work shows how blurry the line between confessing and sharing can be; like C.K. at his best, he talked about things in a way that made audiences feel close to him, and so closer together, because of the wild, raw thoughts they found themselves in on. But he's also a curious choice if your argument is that the true path to comedy greatness is total. literal honesty. One of the most famous examples of Pryor going there onstage is his long routine about his near-fatal freebasing accident. It still feels raw and searching and emotionally felt, but it's also built on a lie, because Pryor later said that he'd actually lit himself on fire in a drug-addled suicidal gesture. It's also an extended riff on another of his greatest bits, his re-enactment of his heart attack, which, it turns out. wasn't actually a heart attack. And like Louis C.K., and like Lenny Bruce before either of them, Richard Pryor appeared as sweeter onstage and more sensitive in his treatment of women than he was in the worst of his private moments with women. I don't think that proves that any of them was always acting in bad faith, onstage or off. I do think that one of the things that defines a great comedian is an understanding of seduction, which may take the form of appearing better than one is even while getting laughs by talking about what a shit you are.

I haven't said much about my own feelings towards the work of Louis C.K. I think a lot of it is sublime, and finding out that the man who made it has behaved like a scumbag hasn't taken any of it down a notch in my eyes. It hasn't done my image of the man himself any favors, and I don't know if he can come back from this, by which I mean I don't know whether he can work again at some point. For the moment, his TV show and stand-up dates and his new movie (which riffs on both people's mixed feelings about Woody Allen and his own masturbation rumors, because of course it does) are in perhaps perpetual limbo, and his special place in the culture as everybody's favorite pudgy ginger truth-teller is history And whether he comes back or not, that may be a good thing: the last couple of seasons of Louie were spottier than the first couple, showing the effects of our hero reaching above his head a bit in a not-always-successful effort to justify his own hype, and the fact that the show was praised more and more extravagantly with every step it took testifies not to how cunningly C.K. snowed the critics but to how happy critics can be to snow themselves once they'd decided someone belongs on Parnassus. (This syndrome is especially prevalent now in TV critics, who feel a responsibility to show that their medium deserves its new central placement in our cultural lives, now that it's "grown up," like comic books and hip-hop musicals.) I think he's a greatly gifted and original creator who made something of the mess of his life by plowing it into his work, while at the same time planting the seeds of a mess so big that it will always color his achievement, as Cosby's achievement will always be colored by his.

There are people so disgusted with Louis C.K. now that they don't ever want to look at him again, and I can understand that. He did things that a less fortunate man would have seen jail time for, and at the very least he deserves to have the shit sued out of him while he's wondering where his next paycheck might be coming from. But to rewrite his history so that the good creative work he's already done was false and bogus and no longer contains anything of value, or to pretend that every non-disgusting gesture he's ever made in his life was part of a scheme to keep his true repulsive self hidden, strikes me as nutty. (Tig Notaro, who used the masturbation rumors and the lasting effect on C.K.'s victims as plot fuel for her Amazon TV series One Mississippi, has said that she suspects that C.K. pushed her career as an act of pre-emptive spin control.) Or to put it in a way that C.K.'s shunners might better appreciate, you're giving this man a measure of power if you see him as a Hannibal Lecter mastermind instead of a fucked-up dude who didn't always think through the ramifications of what he was doing, who was such a mess that he was very capable of caring about women in a way that comes across in his work while remaining oblivious to what he was doing to the hearts and minds of those who found themselves in a closed room with him, his hand, and his dick. He doesn't deserve to be so powerful that our revulsion towards him redefines the shape of comedy itself. Louis C.K. is an artist whose work can be appreciated or rejected or judged inseparably from the man himself. But people, critics included, are talking about him as if he were a politician, an inspirational figure akin to Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, who has been exposed in a way that makes all his grand words suspect and hollow at the core. They were talking about him like that before his fall from grace, in the same way that many still talk about artists like Beyoncé. It's a confusion of realms that can make for a spectacular garbage fire, but not so much in the way of good art, or good criticism.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. Club, HitFlix, Nerve, HiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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