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How Will Comedy—and Its Fans—Reckon With Louis C.K.?

After multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, the comedian’s career is in free fall. But what about the culture that created him?  

Louis C.K. in front of a brick wall Getty Images/Ringer illustration

To those who follow or belong to the comedy world, the New York Times report in which five separate women accused Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct did not come as a complete shock. More than five years ago, the since-shuttered media site Gawker published a blind item that was widely understood to be about C.K. and that detailed an encounter that would go on to open the Times story: C.K. invited a female comedy duo, now self-identified as Julia Wolov and Dana Min Goodman, to his hotel room at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen and exposed himself without the women’s consent.

In the intervening years, rumors about C.K. have continued to circulate to the point that calling them an open secret would stretch the term’s definition. The comedian Tig Notaro, who is quoted in the Times report expressing her ambivalence toward C.K.’s public endorsement of her work, urged C.K. to “handle” the broadly circulated rumors after including a scene closely mirroring the allegations against him in her show, One Mississippi. Last month Vice ran an article titled “I Got Shut Down While Trying to Report on the Louis C.K. Rumors” chronicling a reporter’s attempt to ask fellow comedians for comment at the annual Montreal Just for Laughs festival. C.K. himself has addressed, and dismissed, the charges in the past, telling Vulture, “That’s nothing to me. That’s not real,” in an interview about his self-produced series Horace and Pete.

Yet the Times article — coauthored by reporter Jodi Kantor, who also helped break the sexual harassment and assault allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein last month — escalates the C.K. controversy to an unprecedented level of publicity and material consequences. HBO has dropped C.K. from the upcoming Night of Too Many Stars special and removed their previous collaborations, including the sitcom Lucky Louie, from its website. C.K. is currently under review at FX, which produced Louie and where he has an overall deal. Netflix has canceled a second special from C.K. Film distributor The Orchard has already canceled the release of C.K.’s self-financed film I Love You, Daddy, which itself explicitly takes on the subject of a powerful and acclaimed artist understood by many fans and colleagues to have acted improperly toward young women. Going forward, the report raises questions about C.K.’s success both speculative and retroactive: What does comedy look like in the aftermath of these disclosures about one of its most prominent figures? And what does it mean that C.K. was able to acquire and maintain that prominence despite a knowledge of his alleged misconduct that was so universal within entertainment that it spilled out into the world beyond?

As Kantor and her coauthors, Melena Ryzik and Cara Buckley, write, C.K. centered much of his own comedy on his irrepressible id and the destructive impact of men’s lack of inhibition writ large on women and the power dynamic between genders. “How do women still go out with guys when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men?” C.K. asked in a popular routine from his 2013 HBO special, Oh My God. “Globally and historically, we are the number-one cause of injury and mayhem to women. … You know what our number-one threat is? Heart disease.”

C.K.’s work creates an especially complicated dynamic around this latest reckoning for a powerful man in Hollywood accused of sexual harassment or assault. As the Times piece points out, the rank hypocrisy of a male comic culling from, and profiting off of, a systemic inequality he himself exploited is unavoidable. For fans, there’s a particular betrayal to an entertainer being revealed as the opposite of what drew them to C.K., and how he sold himself: socially conscious; self-aware; literally, a father of daughters. At its best, C.K.’s comedy could make conscientiousness and empathy sound as sharp and subversive as the chauvinism typically associated with the form. The idea that C.K.’s empathy could be just chauvinism in sheep’s clothing holds a specific kind of hurt.

This brings up the queasy possibility that C.K.’s public persona functioned as a kind of cover, one Notaro brings up to the Times: “He knew it was going to make him look like a good guy, supporting a woman,” she said of C.K.’s decision to distribute her 2012 album, Live. Of course, it did — which in turn had the side effect of making whispers seem that much more unbelievable. Suspicions were further deflected by the actual content of his sets, which often described compulsive or repellent behavior, but in a context that carried the assumption of comedic exaggeration or, at the very least, enough acknowledged culpability to make C.K. the punch line. Like his progressivism, C.K.’s self-loathing was a crux of his appeal that also rendered potential accusations incredible: If he knew enough to make a joke at his own expense, he knew enough not to act that way in real life. It is unfortunately possible for art to be both good and serve a less-than-benevolent purpose in the mythos of its creator.

And then there’s the matter of the allegations’ fuzzy timeline, in which C.K. continued to garner praise for his art in general and its feminist themes in particular even as rumors circulated and became gradually more detailed. Mere weeks ago, the Times’ Manohla Dargis deemed I Love You, Daddy one of the best movies she saw at the Toronto International Film Festival. I myself wrote a laudatory review of his Netflix special 2017 earlier this year. At the time, I reasoned that until the allegations became public, it would be irresponsible to include them in my summary of a finite work that itself made no direct reference to the accusations; so, presumably, did many of my colleagues who wrote similarly favorable coverage. But that reasoning also sidestepped a number of conflicts that critics, including myself, now face. What should we have known, and when should we have acted on it? Even if an accused predator is expunged from the industry, do we reckon with the once-beloved material they left behind? Can we ever take a profession of allyship at face value again?

Jokes-as-cover is not a concept unique to C.K.’s fan base, nor did it originate with it; rather, it’s the ethos on which the entire world of comedy, a profession that has never been professionalized, runs. To the average viewer of a C.K. special, his humor blurs the lines between honesty and impropriety, confession and emotional intrusion. To comedians among peers, those lines are often never drawn in the first place — and a lack of boundaries doesn’t eliminate hierarchies; it merely elides them. Wolov and Goodman’s stories illustrate that fact: Late at night, in a hotel room, at a gathering where the professional and personal were one and the same, C.K. exposing himself set off his victims’ alarm bells, but the comment that preceded his actions — that they perceived as a joke — initially didn’t. The culture of comedy is one of informality, obscenity, and norm-defying for its own sake, and it comes with a pressure to uphold those values. Together, they provide the perfect storm for lumping together mock-misogynists with real ones.

It’s highly unlikely that a single revelation, even one as high-profile as the C.K. one, will be enough to upend the standard practices of an entire subculture, one that’s far more resistant to change than its nominal bleeding edginess might imply. The C.K. allegations, however, bring up a more specific set of relationships to scrutinize: Any public figure of C.K.’s stature has spent decades forming relationships in their field — not just ones between a superior and subordinates, but with fellow successors and collaborators who will now themselves face a wave of public scrutiny. The Times specifically mentions manager Dave Becky, whose 3 Arts Entertainment logo is present in the end credits of comedies from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Parks and Recreation and who represents an A-list roster that includes Aziz Ansari and Amy Poehler. C.K. currently executive produces both Baskets and Better Things on FX; even though Better Things is the unmistakable province of creator-star Pamela Adlon, C.K. has a shared script credit on every episode of the most recent season. C.K. is a staple of the late-night talk-show circuit, but last night hosts (who, to be fair, only had a couple of hours to respond prior to their tapings) kept their comments to a handful of sarcastic lines.

No one is more responsible for C.K.’s behavior than C.K. himself. But as much as any recent exposé of a Hollywood predator, the C.K. disclosures have a ripple effect across an intensely interwoven network whose performance of collegiality is often part of the job. Think of all those scenes from Louie of the comedian and his compatriots playing poker upstairs at the Comedy Cellar, or how C.K.’s two-part 2010 interview with Marc Maron burnished the reputation of both comics. For those who, like C.K., built and staked their careers on the appearance of radically candid humanism, there will be pressure to, if not accept culpability, at least engage in some public introspection on how C.K. was able to hide in plain sight. And in the long term, they — and we — must begin to think about how a fiction like C.K.’s status as an avatar of male remorse perpetrated itself in the first place.

We are in only the earliest stages of reckoning with the truth about Louis C.K.; it’s possible more allegations will emerge in the coming weeks, and more fallout along with them. In the meantime, however, it’s time to scrutinize a culture of comedy that C.K. navigated and helped to create and begin to look toward its future. When does “just a joke” stop being a license to experiment and start being a liability? Who has to answer for an injustice when it’s had years to fester in the semi-open? What does comedy look like without C.K. — not just the person, but the model of sacrosanct perspective he came to represent? It’s difficult to think of a figure whose downfall ought to induce more of a crisis of conscience for comedy and those who love it than Louis C.K. Comedy often prides itself on being a moral voice of reason, but now it’s lost its own.